Kingston Russell stone circle

A couple of months back I visited one of English Heritage’s guardianship properties down in Dorset – Kingston Russell stone circle (SY 577 878), a few miles inland from beautiful village of Abbotsbury. This recumbant stone circle doesn’t look very impressive today, but it is one of only four known stone circles in Dorset. According to a local 19th-century vicar, one of these stones was still standing when he visited the site in 1815, so presumably they were all originally standing in prehistory. It’s possible that they were graded in height, but the stones are so fallen and eroded that it’s difficult to tell today.

Kingston Russell stone circle

Kingston Russell stone circle

The stones are an odd type of sarsen conglomerate, which looks a bit like rough old concrete! The stones are thought to have come from the nearby Valley of Stones, which seems to have been used as a source for most of the megalithic monuments in the area. The nearby chambered long barrow Grey Mare and her Colts (SY 583 870) is built of the same stone. Isn’t it a great name? This is a really impressive monument, with a chamber and facade of at least four large upright stones, one of which has now fallen. Apparently it was opened by antiquarians in the 19th century, who found human remains and pottery within.

Grey Mare and her Colts

Grey Mare and her Colts, an early Neolithic chambered long barrow

Interesting the stone circle, positioned on top of the gently rising Tenant’s Hill, is located at the junction of three parish boundaries, and five footpaths also converge here. This south Dorset landscape is packed full of prehistoric archaeology. The chambered long barrows like the Grey Mare must be amongst the earliest of the monuments, probably dating to the earlier part of the Neolithic. There are also huge numbers of Bronze Age round barrows and cairns, the surviving ones scattered on the surrounding hillsides and ridges, but probably once elsewhere too.

I must return to explore this area properly one day!


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Kilmartin Glen Rock Art

Kilmartin Glen is name familiar to many archaeologists; it is described as Scotland’s richest prehistoric landscape. But what is there to see? I spent two days walking and driving about the glen, exploring the prehistory. This will be the first of several posts exploring the different types of archaeology to be found there – let’s start with rock art.

Rock art at Achnabreck

One of the panels of rock art at Achnabreck

There is an incredible concentration of Neolithic and Bronze Age rock carvings in and around Kilmartin Glen. At the southern end of the valley is the site of Achnabreck (more photos here), where there are four large panels of spectacular rock art. Although sited amongst trees today, these were clearly positioned to overlook the valley which today runs down to the town of Lochgilphead. The most common motifs are cups, surrounded by up to seven rings, but there are also zig-zags, lines and an unusual horned spiral.

Close up of rock art rings at Achnabreck

Detail of rock art symbol at Achnabreck

Overview of the rock art outcrop at Achnabreck

Overview of the Achnabreck outcrop

This is perhaps the most spectacular rock art in Kilmartin, but there are other earthfast panels at Baluachraig, Kilmichael and Ormaig, where the relatively recently exposed rock art is clear and unweathered. It is difficult to date this type of rock art carved onto earthfast natural rocks in the landscape, but simple cup marks have been used since at least 4,000 BC in Scotland. We don’t know what the symbols mean, but the carvings often appear to have been located in places overlooking lower ground, marking routeways or special places in the landscape.

Rock art also occurs on several of the standing stones in Kilmartin Glen. Two of the stones at Ballymeanoch are carved with cup marks and some simple rings. The position of this decoration, on opposing sides of the two central stones in a row of four, makes me think it was some kind of entrance facade. The rock carvings would always have been on the left side whichever direction you were walking through the central gap.

One of the standing stones at Ballymeanoch

Rock art on one of the standing stones at Ballymeanoch

Three of the standing stones at Nether Largie also have similar rock art. We don’t know if these rocks were decorated as earthfast boulders or after their erection as standing stones. At Temple Wood, one of the standing stones has an unusual spiral carving, which later appears to have been extended when an outer bank was added to the stone circle.

The spiral carving at Temple wood stone circle

The spiral carving at Temple Wood stone circle

Lastly, rock art is also found within cairns, usually on the inside faces of burial cists.  Again, these carved stones might have previously been earthfast or standing before being incorporated into these Bronze Age monuments. Sometimes it appears that older cup marks were overlain with more elaborate later symbols. This certainly appears to be the case at Nether Largie North cairn, where the cist cover has metal axe carvings, overlain on cup marks. The position of these carvings, facing inwards towards the dead person, perhaps suggests some association with understanding the afterlife at this time.

Bronze Age axe carving at Ri Cruin cairn

Bronze Age axe carving at Ri Cruin cairn

Three of the cairns at Kilmartin (Nether Largie North, Nether Largie South and Ri Cruin), all part of a linear cemetery along the vallery floor, have carvings depicting metal axes. Like the carvings of metal axes at Stonehenge, they show the impact of, and importance attached to, the new technique of metalworking technology. Were the people buried in these cists involved in metal trading? Or were the new metal objects seen as magical? Certainly the metal axes demonstrate the wide ranging connections of Bronze Age people in this area – tin would have been brought from Cornwall and copper from Ireland to make these objects.

Other more unusual carvings include a strange linear carving interpreted as a boat or some sort of ceremonial mace at Ri Cruin (now destroyed) and a cist slab from Badden, near Lochgilphead, with lozenges similar to Irish passage grave art (now in Kelvingrove Museum).

We can’t leave this brief overview of rock art in Kilmartin within mentioning the famous outcrop at Dunadd (more info on excavations at this site here). Rising out of the flat drained peatland of Moine Mhor at the southern end of the valley, this place has a magical feel to it. Used as a fort between the 6th and 10th centuries AD, there are still some walls remaining, and also enigmatic rock carvings – a bowl, a boar, some ogham writing and a footprint, thought to have been used in early inauguration ceremonies for Scottish kings.

Rock carvings at Dunadd

The famous footprint at Dunadd fort

One can’t help but think that this outcrop must have been important in earlier periods too. Maybe these early Christians, the historic Scotti, were a little bit inspired by their prehistoric surroundings.

Next time: Kilmartin Glen’s standing stones.


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New name… new aims

Hello all.

As you’ll see my blog has not been updated for a long time, something I’m hoping to rectify in the next few weeks. There’s going to much more content focusing on prehistory in the future, hence the new name – prehistorysue! Please check back soon!


Posted by on March 25, 2011 in General updates


Larmer Tree Gardens


Having spent a lovely sunny September weekend at the End of the Road Festival a few weeks back, I thought I’d find out more about the Larmer Tree Gardens, where the festival is held.

The gardens were created in 1880 as pleasure ground for ‘public enlightenment and entertainment’ by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox. He inherited the Rushmore Estate rather unexpectedly from a relative, with the condition being that he added Pitt Rivers to his already long name. After a long and distinguished military career, Pitt Rivers had become a pioneering archaeologist, the first to develop scientific techniques of excavation and the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments, appointed in 1882.

The Rushmore Estate, part of Cranbourne Chase, surrounded Rushmore House, which was built in the early 19th century. It was extended and remodelled for Pitt Rivers by Peter Webb, and is today a school. With his keen interest in archaeology, Pitt Rivers was an ideal custodian of this landscape, which contained many important prehistoric monuments.

The Roman Temple

The Roman Temple

On inheriting Rushmore, Pitt Rivers set about creating the pleasure gardens with typical Victorian vision and extravagance. The gardens were planned as a collection of ornate buildings, majestic trees and intimate arbours. Work began in 1880, and the gardens opened to the public in 1885. One of the first buildings to be built was an octagonal temple, beside a small pool and with an inscription reading ‘Augustus Pitt Rivers/ erexit/ MDCCCLXXX’ (1880). The interior has a marble and mosaic floor.

Next six ‘quarters’ or separate buildings of Indian style were constructed. These were designed for picnics, set around areas of lawn, hedged with laurel. Four of these buildings were pavilions imported from North India for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, held in London in 1886. They were acquired by Pitt Rivers and re-erected.

The Singing Theatre

The Singing Theatre

In 1895, Pitt Rivers had the Singing Theatre built and designed by his estate workers, based on ones he’d seen on his travels. Its backdrop is painted with The Funeral of Phocion, a 1648 painting by Nicholas Poussin and painted by the scenery department at the Welsh National Opera.

By 1899, the gardens were attracting 44,000 visitors a year. Plays and poetry recitals took place, and in the field adjoining the gardens there was a racecourse, lawn tennis courts and a golf course. In the evening the gardens were lit with thousands of lights and there was dancing in the open air. Thomas Hardy, after dancing there in 1895, said it was “quite the prettiest sight I ever saw in my life”.

Following the General’s death in 1900 the gardens closed, opening only for special occasions.  Some of the buildings collapsed and fell into disrepair. In 1991 Michael Pitt Rivers, his great grandson, set about restoring the gardens and in 1995 they were re-opened to the public. Today they are recognised as gardens of national importance and are used for various festivals and events.

And what of the name? What was ‘The Larmer Tree’? Apparently it was an ancient tree, which stood as early as the 10th century and which represented an ancient boundary between Dorset and Wiltshire. Tradition holds that King John hunted in this area and met with his huntsmen under the branches of the Larmer Tree.


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The Gardens of Old Gorhambury

The porch leading into the great hall

The porch leading into the great hall

The ruins of Old Gorhambury, Hertfordshire are intriguing and rather hidden in the countryside near St. Alban’s. The house was once at the centre of Elizabethan society – it was home to the famous and influential Bacon family.

The large windows of the great hall

The large windows of the great hall

Built by Sir Nicholas Bacon between 1563 and 1568, the house was his country retreat from London. Sir Nicholas was Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and one of Queen Elizabeth’s most important officials. The house was arranged around a courtyard, in typical Elizabethan fashion. Today, only the elaborate classical porch, part of the great hall, a small section of the chapel and the foundations of a bell tower remain.

In addition to a luxurious house Sir Nicholas laid out and planted extensive gardens. Unfortunately nothing is left of these today but they are known from a surviving estate map and later descriptions.

In front of the house was a large enclosure, where visitors in their carriages would have disembarked and been greeted by their host. Queen Elizabeth visited the house at least four times – a costly but honorable visit for her subject. The enclosure was turfed, with a gravel drive and with bended trees lining walks around three of the sides. From here, two stone gateways led through the wall and into the house. Immediately surrounding the house were intricate walks, trees, arbours and flower gardens. At the rear was an orchard with a banqueting house and from here a gateway led to the Oakwood, a mature woodland. Beyond this was the ‘desert’, a wilderness with shrubs, fruit trees and windy paths. At each corner of the ‘desert’ was a mount with a summerhouse.

After Sir Nicholas died in 1579, his widow Anne lived at the house for many years. The estate eventually passed to his youngest son, the famous writer, philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon. It was after his political downfall and corruption trial in the later years of his life that Francis found refuge at Gorhambury. Here he wrote his most famous works and conducted scientific experiments. He liked to spend time in the woods and gardens surrounding his house, walking with his secretary, who was ready to jot down his thoughts. His essay ‘Of Gardens’ can be seen to directly relate to the gardens built by his father at Gorhambury. As well as embellishing and upkeeping his father’s gardens, Francis also built an elaborate water garden – the Pondyards – on the edge of his estate, complete with a grand and decorative second house, Verulam House.

After Francis Bacon’s death, Old Gorhambury came into the possession of the

View of the new Gorhambury House

View of the new Gorhambury House

Grimston family who lived in the Tudor house for several generations. By the late 18th century, the old house was in serious need of repairs, and the decision was made to build a new house on the estate. This is the neo-classical Gorhambury House that stands today, still home to the Grimstons.

The ruins of the old house became part of another designed landscape – the elaborate porch became an eyecatcher in the parkland surrounding the new house.

You can visit Old Gorhambury House free of charge. A permissive footpath runs through the estate past the ruins from the Roman theatre at Verulamium. The new house is open to visitors on Thursday afternoons 2-5pm, May-October, for guided tours.

To find out more about the history of Old Gorhambury House, the Victoria County History provides lots of detail. The gardens have been thoroughly researched in two articles by Paula Henderson: 1992 ‘Sir Francis Bacon’s water gardens at Gorhambury’. Garden History 20(2): 116-131 and 2008 ‘Sir Francis Bacon’s essay ‘Of Gardens’ in context’. Garden History, 36(1): 59-84.


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Defences at Waverley Abbey


Distant view of the abbey ruins

Distant view of the abbey ruins

Tucked away off a corner of the busy B3001, just south of Farnham in leafy Surrey, lie the ruins of Waverley Abbey. The fragmentary and rough flint walls may not look very impressive today, but the abbey holds a key place in history. It was the very first Cistercian monastery to be founded in England.

But that’s not what today’s post is about. Maybe I’ll come back to the romantic medieval ruins on another day. Waverley Abbey holds another secret, and it relates to the anti-invasion defences of Britain during World War II. Remarkably, the large open space formed by the curve of the River Wey within which the abbey ruins sit, was prepared to be used as a tank ‘killing ground’ in the event of an invasion of Britain by enemy forces.

In 1940, troops dug an enormous set of anti-tank ditches across these grassy fields. These defence lines, many miles long, were constructed all across England. They were designed to compartmentalise the country and delay the Germans long enough for more mobile forces to launch counter-attacks.

The ditches at Waverley were part of the GHQ (General Headquarters) line, the longest and most important, as it would have protected London and the industrial heart of England. It ran from Somerset to Reading, around the south of London to Essex, and then up to Yorkshire.

The concrete dragon's teeth on the banks of the River Wey
Dragon’s teeth on the banks of the River Wey

Although the ditches themselves are today only obvious on aerial photographs, there are other clues this area saw intense activity during WWII. Close to the abbey ruins, in two groups on either side of the river, are some ‘dragon’s teeth‘.

These odd-looking pyramidal concrete blocks were obstacles to prevent German tanks from crossing the river. Near the abbey car park is a brick anti-tank gun emplacement, where guns would have been located to fire across the river floodplain. Several other gun emplacements and pillboxes can be seen in the nearby fields.

Wandering around the peaceful abbey ruins today, it is hard to imagine the country preparing itself for an imminent invasion. Luckily for us, and for the abbey ruins, these defences were never put to the test.

To find out more about the anti-invasion defences of England, I recommend William Foot’s 2006 book Beaches, fields, streets and hills: the anti-invasion landscapes of England, 1940, published by the Council for British Archaeology.

To find out more about Waverley Abbey, really the only place to look is Harold Brakspear’s excavation report, Waverley Abbey, published in 1905.

Waverley Abbey is in the guardianship of English Heritage and is free to visit.


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Welcome to my spangly new blog! This is a new venture for me, and I’m slightly scared but oooh look, I’ve already managed to upload a photo of one of my favourite archaeological sites ever to the top of the page. It’s the Ring of Brodgar, in Orkney taken last summer.

Hopefully in the near future you’ll find here many illuminating and frequent posts on matters of historical and archaeological interest – well, I’ll give it go anyway. Thanks for visiting!

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Posted by on June 25, 2009 in General updates