As we draw near to the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice, I thought I would post some old black and white pictures I took of Stonehenge and other West Country prehistoric monuments during an archaeological field class in Spring 1974.
Those were the days! Such monuments were not the tourist attractions they are today and they were often in isolated spots with no visitor centres nearby.
This weekend the solstice will attract thousands of “festival” goers, who will be given limited access to the stones themselves from around 8.30pm on Sunday June 20 until 8am on Monday June 21. The big attraction will be sunrise over the stones at around 4.45am.
Meanwhile the rather more sedate field class from the Cambridge University Archaeology course in 1974 was led by Disney Professor Glyn Daniel – most famous for his work on Megaliths. His books include The Megalith Builders of Western Europe (1963).
I remember him walking into a lecture one day and announcing that his life’s work had been totally disproved as it was no longer thought that there was such a thing as a single Megalithic culture.
The professor’s name lives on in the Glyn Daniel Laboratory for Archaeogenetics at Cambridge.
Also on the field class was my favourite lecturer of the time, David Clarke, author of Analytical Archaeology (Methuen 1968), which took a new scientific approach to archaeological data. Sadly he died just before my finals in 1976, aged just 39.
We took in all of the “best” prehistoric monuments of Wiltshire and Dorset and these monochrome images have a certain nostalgia for me, partly because I developed and printed them (badly) myself. I used my first “real” camera, a Russian Fed 4.
First here is Stonehenge – there was a good recent summary of the chronology of the area (more or less 3,000 to 2,000 BC) on Mike Pitts’ website.
Another really beautiful and atmospheric prehistoric site nearby is Avebury, where a great ring of standing stones surrounds the village.
As well as stone circles, there were long barrows – Neolithic stone tombs. Most famous is the West Kennet Long Barrow, not far from Avebury and dating from around 3500 BC. It seems to have been in use until around 2200 BC, when it was sealed off and the focus of belief moved to Avebury.
According to folklore, the grave is visited by a white spectral figure accompanied by a white red-eared hound at sunrise on Midsummer’s Day. Perhaps some memory of a ritual?
Another wonderful Neolithic long barrow is Wayland’s Smithy – which was named in Anglo Saxon times after the god of metalworking, also known as Weland, Volund or Volundr and associated with labyrinths.
Wayland’s Smithy is not far from the Ridgeway, a wonderful ancient path along the top of a chalk escarpment running all the way from Dorset to Lincolnshire. It has probably been in use since Neolithic times.
Also close to the Ridgeway is the beautiful Uffington White Horse – cut into the chalk of the hillside and a far cry from the many later naturalistic-looking white horses scattered across the hills of England. This one is wonderfully stylised and probably dates from 1,000 BC, making it the oldest. And what’s amazing is that it has had to be scoured regularly to prevent its disappearance. Until the late 19th century this was done every seven years as part of a celebratory fair.
It is likely the figure represents Epona, a horse goddess connected with the local Belgae tribe of Celts.
A silver brooch of the Uffington white horse is available from the Vale & Downland Museum in Wantage, Oxfordshire.
Silbury Hill is another ancient monument dominating the Wessex landscape near Avebury. At 130 feet (39.6 metres) high, this neat pile of chalk soil is the largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe.
There are of course many legends associated with this great “tump”. My favourite is that it was formed when the devil dropped an apron full of soil on his way to bury the people of Marlborough – he was apparently stopped by the priests of Avebury.
Treasure-hunters have also imagined that it buries King Sil, sitting on a golden horse, or holds a lifesize solid gold statue of King Sil.
Another star attraction we visited was Maiden Castle near Dorchester in Dorset. The name possibly comes from the Celtic mai-dun, meaning great hill.
This is a hilltop inhabited from Neolithic times until the nearby town of Dorchester was developed. At its peak for a few hundred years up to 100AD, it was an Iron Age hill fort of the Durotriges tribe of Celts, defended with great earthen ramparts and ditches.
Walking on the high ridges of Maiden Castle, this was the only time in my life when I heard skylarks singing and that’s my most abiding memory of the whole archaeology field class…