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Right.  I'm still enjoying my quiet period in between episodes of  writing frenzy, so I thought I'd start a series of blogposts which continue my earlier French series.  Today, I'll be taking you to the village of Lagrasse, which is best known for its abbey (more of that to come!!) but which is also worth exploring because it represents a beautifully preserved example of a medieval town, including this rather fetching bridge:-


A number of very early houses (again, medieval in origin) still survive throughout the town:-


There's also a covered market-place, again medieval in origin:-


Also surviving, though in a somewhat reduced form, are the town defences:-


Here's another view of the river, with some more of the town defences visible:-


Also present are the well-preserved remains of the abbey, several churches, and....

Some wonderful painted ceilings which are worth a post in their own right and which I'll be going back to in the next couple of days...
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It's Thursday evening, and because it's pouring with rain outside, my usual Thursday evening walk is postponed until tomorrow. 

So I'll post instead!

I promised you a follow-up post on Lancaster Castle, and here it is. 

I originally intended to include a shot of the ghastly medieval cellar where the poor old Pendle witches were incarcerated, but unfortunately my one decent photo was cluttered with people (including children), so I didn't think it appropriate to include it.

The 19th century prison is a different matter...

Years and years ago, when I first studied Archaeology at Uni, I attended a brilliant series of lectures called The Archaeology of Religion, Magic & Burial, presented by the one and only John Barrett (of Fragments of Antiquity fame - if you haven't read it, and you're interested in British prehistory, then go find a copy. It's just like having a potted version of the lectures to hand!). 

Throughout this course, we were encouraged to read all manner of works by anthropologists (like Levi Strauss), sociologists (like Giddens and Bourdieu) and philosophers (like Barthes and Wittgenstein).  This breadth of reading certainly gave us a fascinating insight into the past which was completely at odds with the Processualist school of archaeology which remained the dominant paradigm at the time and placed the acolytes of 'Barrettism' (I'd happily count myself as one!!) in the realms of the post-Processualist movement.  Scary to think that I'm now talking of post-Processualism in the past tense, though to be honest I'm not sure what's replaced it!

One of these lectures was devoted to the works of Michel Foucault, who wrote an in-depth study of the changing history of punishment.  As an undergraduate I never read this book, which is entitled DIscipline and Punish, if I remember right, but I do remember a contrast being made between 'medieval' modes of punishment, which usually involved the physical destruction of the body (the example quoted was the horrific torture and execution of a fellow who tried to assassinate a French King in the 17th century - We were subjected to a detailed excerpt from the book which detailed the death and it left a deep and lasting impression on Meek Little Student-me...).

Foucault contrasted this means of punishment with the 19th century belief in correction and confinement, with its roots in the post-Enlightenment period, and cited as his example that typically 19th century institution the 'panopticon' style prison.  Here you have your inmates under constant surveillance by a central warder, who is located in a way that they can observe their charges at all times.

The prison block at Lancaster is a good example of the panopticon style. This photo is taken from the central point in the cell bay, where the warder would have been located.  Bear in mind that the solid doors are a very late addition, and that originally you would have been able to observe the inhabitants within a barred door:-


This view shows the interior of a cell - complete with a later addition, a ceramic toilet bowl.  (I'm sure slopping out would have been carried out until quite recently, judging by the modern style of the toilet bowl...)


It looks palatial, but I'm not convinced that this cell would have provided accomodation for just one individual.  Instead, we might have had a few unfortunates crammed in here, though whatever happened to them there would have been a marked improvement on the fate of the poor (and, I believe, slightly deranged) Frenchman.

PS. This is partly a nostalgic photo, because it reminds me of the little Ayrshire police station I surveyed with The Classicist a few months back....  I should probably send a photo of it to the Classicist with one of those 'I saw this and I thought of you....' messages, though these cells have much bigger windows than ours, and the toilets in the provincial police station were tucked tidily away beside the door where you could at least get a bit of privacy....

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Hoorah!  My conference requirements for 2012 are now over, and I can now concentrate on being a writer again!!

I didn't really learn much that was new today, but it was a great refresher course which put various disparate bits of knowledge together that I've accumulated over the past couple of decades (!).  The conference was held in the Burrell Collection, hosted by Glasgow Archaeological Society and dedicated to The Clyde.  It was mainly modern in its subject matter - with much said about the improvement of the river, and the history of the mercantile and industrial centres on its banks - Glasgow, Greenock, Port Glasgow, but there were a couple of papers on earlier aspects, such as crannogs.

I had my writer's hat on for one particular paper dedicated to Dumbarton Castle, which features in Novel #2.  Guess I'll have to do a bit of rewriting now, as it doesn't seem to be laid out the way I'd anticipated.  Ah, well.  These things are sent to try us. 

But after seeing endless views of Dumbarton Castle from land, from sea, and from the air,  there's no excuse for my not returning to those missing pages of MS I've been bewailing over the last couple of weeks, because - you've guessed it!!- they feature none other than Dumbarton Castle!!!

Must put nose to grindstone... Must put nose to grindstone....
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I've just returned from the second of my three conference outings for the autumn season.  Today's offering was the autumn meeting of the Finds Research Group, a research body dedicated to small finds of the historic period. The FRG normally has its meetings down south in Englandshire (i.e. well out of the reach of Yours Truly) but today it was having an unusual foray north of the border in Edinburgh.

It was certainly well worth the trip.  The papers were all very interesting, in a day conference devoted entirely to Precious Metals.

My highlights had to be the two papers on Early Historic & Viking silver: Firstly, Martin Goldberg gave a fascinating talk on the Early Historic & Viking Use & Manufacture of Roman to Viking Silver, which demonstrated how metallurgical analysis can establish the relative dates of Early Historic & Viking artefacts by the nature and percentages of impurities in the metal - Roman silver is higher quality, and less debased, and as it gets recycled through the years, more base metal gets added, hence more impurities appear.  Goldberg's presentation was followed by another equally absorbing paper by Alice Blackwell, who presented a paper on New Research on the Norrie's Law Hoard. This identified the presence of three 19th century fakes amongst the original Pictish hoard, again isolating them by using metallurgical analysis.  One of the interesting observation made by Goldberg was how the English warrior elites of this period favour gold & garnet, while the Pictish/Viking elites of the north make more extensive use of silver and enamel.

Honourable mention must also go to David Caldwell for his engaging lecture on that magnificent artefact of medieval Scots origin, the Bute Mazer - here's a link for what can only be described as an over-sized quaich with real attitude!!


Caldwell was somewhat scathing of the abilities of the goldsmith, who's thought to have been based in the West of Scotland.  He pointed out that the lion looked like it was wearing a knitted balaclava, then compared it to the man-in-a-lion-suit that features in that classic comedy sketch, Scott of the Sahara by Monty Python.

Oh dear.  I'll never be able to look at the Bute Mazer in the same way again. Conversely, I'll never look at Scott of the Sahara the same way, either!!!

And now I'm signing off.  Last night's Book Signing was for the launch of The Healing of Luther Grove by Barry Gornell.  Again, it was a fascinating insight into how it;s done - this particular event featured a useful question & answer session, but how I could possibly fit this in to a similar event is a trickier task to accomplish...
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I was originally aiming to attend an author's event in the Mitchell Library tonight, but it was a) chicklit; b) £8 and c) clashing with horse-riding, so I opted for the horse-riding instead. I'm going to an event in  Waterstones tomorrow instead, featuring a debut novel by a local writer which seems to be a dark psychological thriller - which is much more my thing, even if it's not set in the medieval period!!

I was paired with Diva tonight, and we worked extensively on circles and transitions. I really had my money's worth: after a 35 minute lesson, the warm-up was added on as an afterthought which meant I was riding for 45 minutes altogether, and oh boy, didn't Diva know it!

Our weather is irritatingly sprinkled with heavy showers, but this means a lot of nice stuff going on in the sky.  There's rainbows every day when I'm travelling to and from work, and tonight at the stables there was a very fetching sundog.

And The History of Wales is getting really rather interesting now we've got into the medieval period, and I'm about to abandon it for a nice hot Lush-scented bath.  I'll really have to catch up with it on demand - judging by the opening section, with that gorgeous piece of silk, this is going to get rather interesting.

Oh, and I really love those opening titles...
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Because I had a fabulous day at work today, speed-writing captions to accompany an array of pretty slides which summarised almost twelve thousand years of human occupation in Scotland (Mesolithic to World War II - Phew!!!) and appeasing that frustrated part of me which is and will always be a Failed Academic (!).  And because I'm currently enjoying a television history of WALES which is being shown on BBC SCOTLAND (wonders never cease...)...

...I thought I'd indulge in some gratuitous photos of Segbury Hillfort.

Okay, it's not quite an Uffington in its grandeur, because it's a univallate hillfort, as opposed to a more complex multivallate hillfort, but its scale is still quite staggering;


Once upon a time, a helpful person planted trees upon the rampart, which might not do the rampart much good in the long term on account of the resulting root disturbance, but it sure helps get an understanding of the size of its interior.

In one field, we get one half of the monument. Here's a view of the other half, from the road that splits it in two:-

You can just see the rampart as a darker green strip along the horizon above the interior of the field...

My last photo features the rampart. I said earlier that Segsbury's a univallate fort - well it is over most of its extent, except in some places where parts of a second, outer, rampart can be identified:-

Well, Part One of The History of Wales is over.  I've always wanted to see a programme like this on Welsh history, and I knew one was in the pipeline, but I was kind of hoping that it would be a bit more in depth and presented by a Neil Oliver type. Don't get me wrong - I like Huw Edwards a lot, but he ain't no professional historian, if you get my drift... 

Anyway, what struck me in this first episode devoted to Welsh prehistory and extending through to the early medieval period was firstly how much I already knew, and secondly how many of the featured sites I've actually visited in the past: Tre'r Ceri, Pentre Ifan, Caerleon, St David's, Great Orme. And Llanfair PG, too...  In a way this is of course quite reassuring, since Wales is supposedly the Land of My Fathers but I'd hoped I'd learn something new...

Ah well.  One thing's for sure: I really must pencil in another visit to Anglesey some time, just so I can check out the chambered tombs.  A return visit to the one and only Paris Mountain would be on the cards, too (please forgive any spelling mistakes, oh Welsh followers of this blog!!)

Oh, and then there was the one, the only, the magnicent - LLYN FAWR HOARD!!!  Yay!!!!!!

And tomorrow we'll no doubt be progressing onto the medieval period.  Eddy I, Llewellyn & Co. And all the Welsh castles...  Can't wait!!!

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Apologies for the silence.  It's been a busy couple of days...

I've just returned from Edinburgh, where I was attending a fascinating conference devoted to the prehistory of the Tyne-Forth region, details of which are posted in the link below:-


Now, as you can probably imagine, modern archaeological studies have a tendency to focus on areas lying to either side of that illusory little line that divides Scotland from England (and that only got fossilised in its current form when the Scots lost Berwick-upon-Tweed just over 500 years ago...). This conference made a refreshing change in that it comprised a whole bunch of collaborative studies which considered the disputed 'border' territory in its wider, regional context.

Supposedly, they'll be web-mounting video-recordings of the speakers, so those of you who feel inclined will be able to experience the entire proceedings for yourselves.  There was plenty of food for thought, with presentations that included papers on the evolution of the roundhouse and changing settlement patterns within the Tyne-Forth region and beyond, with Rachael Pope and Strat Halliday proposing their views on long term change and questions of occupation versus abandonment in a Bronze Age/pre-Roman Iron Age context.

Highlights of the day were Alison Sheridan's engaging summary of the Neolithic in the Tyne-Forth region, and a fascinating paper by David Metcalfe on the different approaches to creating narrative used by archaeologists on the one hand and storytellers on the other. This latter paper was certainly a departure from the norm and, for someone who more often than not these days feels her allegiance pulled more to the world of creative writing than to archaeology, it was something I could really relate to. 

An honourable mention also goes to Kristian Pederson for his summary of the Palaeolithic (no, I'm not joking...) and Mesolithic in the Tyne-Forth region.  Back in the days when I studied at Uni, it was just assumed that prehistory began in the Mesolithic as far as Scotland was concerned, with any earlier periods of occupation erased by the last advance of the ice-sheets. It turns out, however, that people were hanging around right at the limits of the ice sheets in the immediate post-glacial period and that evidence of their activities can be found if you look hard enough, and deep enough, in the right places. 

A further honourable mention should be awarded to Jan Harding and Mark Lawson for their paper on the orientations of cup-and-ring radials and penannular motifs in Mid-Argyll and Northern Northumberland. Cup-and-ring markings never fail to fascinate, and it's a refreshing change to hear someone trying to actually ascribed meaning and context to the things.  Most of the time, they're just dismissed as 'ritual' and left neglected at the metaphorical back of the shelf...

Next week, I've got ANOTHER conference, so it's busy, busy, busy, I'm afraid!!!  Hope you're all keeping well - I shall catch up when I can!!
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Hot on the heels of Wayland's Smithy comes another chambered tomb now.  This time it's a bit closer to home - yes, at last J and myself managed to track down that elusive beast known as the Haylie Chambered Cairn, which lurks up on the raised beach behind Largs. 

This monument is also known as 'Haco's Tomb' - Haco being a reference to King Hakon, who led a band of Norsemen against the Scots in the Battle of Largs (1263). There are a few prehistoric monuments recorded around Largs: by the nineteenth century they'd earned a place in local folklore as burial markers for dead Vikings, or monuments set up to commemorate key sites in the battle.

They are, of course, several thousand years earlier than the battle itself.  The earliest of these monuments is undoubtedly this chambered cairn, which I've tried and failed to locate on a previous foray into Largs but which today I actually managed to track down!!

It was originally part of a much larger mound called 'Margaret's Law', but this has been largely removed over the past two hundred years leaving just this burial chamber ('Haco's Tomb') behind:-


Fans of Neolithic monuments please note that this particular example is not a representative of the Cotsworld-Severn group.  I cast a critical eye over it today, trying to figure out if it was a prime example of a Clyde-Carlingford, but since I couldn't see any sign of any overlapping side slabs, or any horizontal slabs subdividing the chamber ('septal slabs') I wasn't convinced:-


But according to the experts, the Haylie cairn is indeed an example of a Clyde-Carlingford, though sadly this chamber represents a much diminished remnant of what would originally have been a much bigger and more impressive monument.  Futher information is available, on both the monument itself and the results of the early excavations carried out here, in the RCAHMS' Canmore entry which I have linked to below:-


And because we were walking through Largs enjoying the prehistoric monuments, I just couldn't resist taking another picture of the Bronze Age standing stone that I featured in photos from my last visit to the town. Only this time it doesn't look quite so gloomy!

Oh, and as a postscript, gardeners amongst you will be delighted to hear that my ivy-leaved pelargonium 'Vectis Glitter' has now been dug up and brought in for the winter, so it will hopefully provide us with another year of productive blooming in 2013!

And the begonias are still hanging in there, stubborn as always... 
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I heard today that I've had the go-ahead to get my Mr Telford/Mr Watt paper spruced up & polished and sent off to journal, so to celebrate, I thought I'd post some pretty pictures of a Boulton & Watt steam engine.

This is Crofton, which houses not one but two working steam engines, installed here to pump water into the Avon & Kennet Canal to maintain water levels.  A view, first of all, of the engine house:-


Unfortunately, we arrived three days too late to see the engines actually working.  But evidence of their labours was still apparent: the boiler which powered them was still burbling happily to itself during our visit.  Evidently, it has to be fired up a couple of days prior to the 'steaming', and it takes another three days to cool down afterwards...

One of the engines had its 200th anniversary this year.  It's a Boulton & Watt engine, which survives in excellent condition. It's interesting to see it sitting side by side with a younger engine: the B & W one seems quite chunky and clunky when compared with its younger companion:-




Being a Boulton & Watt engine, it of course bears its Boulton & Watt serial number 'B.42':-


So for all you fans of industrial archaeology out there, enjoy!  Unfortunately, it's far too late for me to start wittering on about how steam engines operate, and I'm still trying to get my head round the modus operandi myself...

And besides, Neil Oliver's currently demolishing the cute & cuddly reputation that the Vikings have been enjoying over the past few decades, so I guess I'd better stop typing and pay attention, hadn't I?
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And now, at last, I can present to you some photos of that most curious and enigmatic of prehistoric monuments: The Uffington White Horse!!

Which as monuments go isn't very photogenic, I'm afraid, unless you're in an aeroplace/helicopter/hot air balloon or UFO...

This is a very peculiar monument because, like the Nazca lines in Peru, it just doesn't seem to work on the ground.  I tried very hard to find a spot in the landscape where it looks imposing, emphatic and meaningful, but such a place eluded me.  It really seems to work best when you see it from the air...

Now recent research on the Nazca lines suggests that these figures were designed on such a vast scale so people could process along them, but this logic just doesn't seem to work for the Uffington White Horse. Firstly, it's too small, and secondly, its outline just doesn't seem to work that way.

The horse has been identified as a dog by some, but I'm unconvinced.  I'm going to throw my hat in with the horse theory, perhaps because I'm a horse-lover, and I WANT it to be a horse!  For years it was assumed to be Iron Age, but during recent restoration works, the lowest chalk surface was dated using some state of the art dating technique (I can't for the life of me remember the specifics, but it wasn't anything bog-standard like RC dating...) and it turns out that our equine (or canine?) friend goes right back to the Late Bronze Age.

That still doesn't help explain why it's here. It's been interpreted as a tribal emblem, but perhaps its odd location means that it wasn't primarily intended for the human eye.  Perhaps it was the making of the horse that was important, with the aim being to impress onlookers who 'resided' in the sky.  By this I am NOT referring to visiting aliens - what I envisage instead is that it was created for the eyes of gods, or even ancestors, who resided above as opposed to within the earth.  Perhaps the regular recutting of this horse was an integral part of its function: like other kinds of 'communal' monuments, such as the chambered tombs, henges and causewayed enclosures of the much-earlier Neolthic period, it was the making and the repeated maintenance of the monument which was key to its role in the landscape.

Here's a view of the horse from just above its head:-


It's a jolly-looking thing, which has evidently lost a bit of weight through the millenia. Prior to our visit, I was told by our hostess that if I stood on the eye and made a wish, it would come true.  Now, there's a plaintive notice located near the horse which asks visitors to respect the monument by NOT stepping on it, so being an individual who loves and respects the past in all its varied aspects, I decided that I wouldn't jump ignorantly all over the poor thing and ask it to grant me anything so banal as long life, endless good literary reviews and a best-selling first novel or whatever.

Instead, I just stepped back and wished fervently that it could still be here to enthrall and captivate its visitors for at least another three thousand years... 

Here's another view from the so-called 'Dragon's Mound', an odd little scarped tump in the landscape which has the character of a mini-Silbury Hill.  Now, if I was a Late Bronze Age person carrying out rituals of fertility, horse sacrifice or whatever (your guess is probably as good as mine!) this is the spot where I'd want to be able to stand and look upon an excellent view of the horse, because that way anyone watching me would know that I was the one in cahoots with the gods/ancestors, and therefore running the show.

But it's not a good view.  It's a really hopeless view, in fact:-


So our horse/dog remains an enigma, which is quite appropriate, considering that it bears a smile which in my view outperforms the Mona Lisa's.  It most certainly knows what's going on (though who's to say that its meaning remained constant??) but it sure as hell ain't telling. 

And if you ask me, that's a big part of its appeal: like the hoards of metalwork that litter our landscape, it just serves to remind us that the Late Bronze Age is most definitely a foreign country. They do things very differently there...

P.S.  For those of you who aren't familiar with the real thing, here's a link. Click upon it, and dare to tell me that you're not impressed!!

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Right.  Hot on the heels of Wayland's Smithy....

I was going to go completely off on a tangent and post about Boulton & Watt steam engines, but I thought instead that I'd continue the prehistoric Wessex theme and venture further along the Ridgeway to take in some more of the monuments near Wantage.

First on the list is Uffington Castle, which is of course a stone's throw from the Uffington White Horse (tomorrow!) and virtually impossible to photograph...

Yeah.  How on earth do you photograph a hillfort?  Unless you're in a hot air balloon or a light aircraft...

You can see it on the horizon here. The hilltop is surrounded by not one but two ramparts, and you can get some idea of the scale from here:-


These massive hillforts tend to be of Iron Age date, though they often have their origins in the Late Bronze Age.  Hillforts may be univallate (which means they have one ditch and rampart) or multivallate (they have two or three ditches and ramparts) - in Scotland, our forts tend to have stone ramparts, or timber-laced stone ramparts (we're not even getting onto the subject of vitrified forts yet..), but in this part of England, the ramparts are invariably earthen.  Please note that when it was first excavated, the rampart and ditch (dug in chalk) would have been brilliant, shining white against the landscape.

The ramparts are now much weathered, but they're still impressive:-



They're accessed at various points along their length by gaps in ditch and bank to allow entry:-


But how good were these monuments as defensive sites?  Well, against a gang of marauding young men from the neighbouring tribe, they probably performed quite adequately.  But against an organised military force, they weren't much good, as the evidence from Maiden Castle in Dorset can testify. Here, the Romans managed to annihilate those who took refuge there -  the native spears and slingshots being no match for the ballistas, onagers and other nasty things carried by the Roman army 

Perhaps their main function was as much to impress as to defend. The amount of labour required to build the things was incredible, and they certainly would have made A Grand Statement within the landscape.  You knew who was in charge, and he (or she...) lived here... 

Though in Britain they can't really be called towns as such, hillforts often contain large numbers of circular huts (roundhouses is the correct term, for the best of these circular structures were certainly NOT hovels!).  These monuments have also produced large numbers of 'four-posters' which have been interpreted as granaries.  Excavations have taken place at Danebury, not far from Uffington, and one of the more intriguing features encountered there was the vast quantity of large pits uncovered on the site.  At the time, these were dismissed as rubbish pits, but as one of the leading figures of Iron Age Studies, J D Hill, first pointed out, the contents of these 'rubbish pits' required rethinking.  I wrote an essay on the subject once, and I remember stumbling across several examples from Danebury which were positively weird. One pit had a complete horse skeleton with its head cut off and placed behind its back, while another contained a dismembered human pelvis, complete with cut marks.

Rubbish?  Or ritual??  That was the question J D Hill originally asked, and thirty years later, professional opinion has now veered towards the latter.  Our comfortable, happy Iron Age, peopled by friendly inoffensive farmers who put up a spirited resistance but ultimately got gubbed by those pesky Romans, was anything but comfortable and happy.  What with bog bodies from Cheshire and slave chains from Anglesey, the Iron Age is definitely a foreign country, and it's certainly one that had a dark, unwholesome aspect that we, in our pleasant modern world find difficult to deal with.

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Sorry, everyone.  The last couple of days I actually - gasp! -  had a SOCIAL life!!! 

Right, back to Cotswold-Severn tombs, and to our Tomb of The Day - Wayland's Smithy.

Wayland's Smithy and myself go back a long way. I was first introduced to this monument in 1989 when, as a bright-eyed and busy-tailed undergrad, I was fortunate enough to travel around Wessex on a brilliant field trip led by the inimitable John Barrett (author of Fragments of Antiquity - which is, incidentally, well worth a read...).  It was a whirlwind tour that included Stonehenge, Avebury, Uffington Castle, West Kennet, Danebury and much, much more, and it probably led to my long-standing love affair with prehistory...

Wayland's Smithy has been heavily restored following excavations, and it's an impressive-looking monument. Here's a view along the mound, which is nicely trapezoidal:-


But it's in the forecourt area that this monument is most impressive. There's a row of tall stones standing before the chamber (I'm not sure if there are additional chambers located along the length of the mound. There were none clearly apparent, but since I'm also not sure how much of this monument has actually been excavated, that doesn't mean there aren't more lurking...):-


The traditional view when I was a wee lass ( i.e. an undergraduate) was that these monuments formed communal repositories for the Neolithic dead. The monuments themelves require a cohesive community effort in their construction, and the bones held within were all found jumbled together, with no attempts made to keep individual body parts seperate. The standard interpretation was therefore that in death everyone was treated equally.

Hence, we have an egalitarian society operating in the Neolithic which can be contrasted with that operating in the Bronze Age, where the 'chieftains' are buried in isolated and prominent mounds, accompanied in death by rich objects like bronze daggers, gold earrings and beakers...

This view was being challenged at the time and these days the interpretation has changed. Even though these monuments give the impression that the dead are treated in the same manner, it seems likely that they are not representing the whole community. It's thought that corpses were left outside in excarnation enclosures to be defleshed by natural agents like carrion birds and foxes. Once they'd been reduced to their skeletons, a selected few would be gathered together and returned to the community where they functioned as 'ancestors'. 

Following this thinking, we can see these monuments as a store of ancestral power within the community. The ancestors give their descendants a legitimate claim to the landscape, and being portable relics, their remains can be carried through the landscape. You can, for example, envisage the bones of the ancestors being carried amongst the living in processions carried out at key points in the agricultural cycle, and it may be the case that the avenues at Avebury and Stonehenge have their roots in similar practices.

Though the ancestors became anonymous and equal, it doesn't mean that the living modelled their society in a similar fashion.  A view of the forecourt and chamber area at Wayland's Smithy demonstrates how small the chamber is - you can envisage that during those rituals and ceremonies which involved the ancestors, only a select few would be granted the privilege of interacting with the dead, while the rest of the community looked on:-


At a later point in the history of this monument, the entry to the chamber has been blocked, which means that access to ancestral remains must have been made difficult, if well nigh impossible.  Similarly blocking is seen at West Kennet, and it may well signify that the original role of the monument had ceased, and that the veneration of the ancestors was being replaced by something else (or perhaps the ancestors were being celebrated in a more metaphorical sense, with the standing stones of the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age transition being stone representations of ancestral figures.  Your guess is probably as good as mine (with sufficient evidence to support it, that is!!))


Here's a close-up of the chamber, with its drystone-walled passage (oh, how Cotswold-Severn is that!!).  As a neat way of demonstrating how these ancient Neolithic monuments continue to be appropriated into the present, when we visited the site we saw a) a small shred of cloth tied onto a nearby branch, and b) a couple of strings of beads and a small ceramic cat placed carefully as a votive deposit within the main chamber.


Yes, it's a definite example of that classic line from Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore: 'I don't know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are...'

[And may I recommend as further reading 'Fragments of Antiquity by John Barrett, Bronze Age Britain by Michael Parker Pearson (Batsford) and/or The Tomb Builders by Steve Burrow.]
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I promised you a post on Cotswold-Severn - instead, this is going to be a post in two halves.  Or rather, we'll be having the main course later, with the 'horses-doovers' coming tonight.  Okay, so it's a bit unfair to describe poor old Nympfield Long Barrow as the 'hors-douvres', but when it's up against the one and only Wayland's Smithy, it's facing pretty stiff competition, believe me....


Nympsfield Long Barrow, located just south of Cirencester, is our first example of the so-called 'Cotswold-Severn' tradition, a form of burial mound constructed in the Neolithic period, between 4000 and 3000 BC (i.e. predating the Egyptian pyramids...)

Several regional traditions of long barrow/cairn have been identified within the British Isles (N.B. the term 'barrow' is used when the mound material is predominantly earth, and 'cairn' when it's stone). the Cotswold-Severn tombs are concentrated around Gloucestershire, but similar examples have been identified from Wales to Scotland (according to tonight's source literature, the Scots long-cairn type known as the 'Clyde-Carlingford' is a subdivision of the Cotswold-Severn, which is news to me, but hey ho, I'm just a Bronze Age scholar, so what do I know!).

Cotswold-Severn tombs are identified by their trapezoidal mounds, poorly preserved in this example, and shown as a very slight rise in the ground in the photograph below:-


At the front of the monument, there is a forecourt area, sometimes emphasised by upright stones, and often defined by a stretch of drystone walling. Sometimes this forecourt is defined on either side by the edges of the mound, which extend forward as 'horns':-


Located within the mound there will be one or more stone- built chambers. Often there's one located at the front and accessed through the forecourt, but sometimes there are secondary chambers located further back along the mound:-


Obviously, it's used for burying the Neolithic dead, but the actual nature of the funerary rituals is much more difficult to interpret. And that's what we'll be talking about in my next post.

And acknowledgements for today's post must go to The Tomb Builders in Wales 4000-3000BC by Steve Burrow (National Museum of Wales Books, 2006). Which is a book that should really be on the shelves of anyone who has even a passing interest in matters Neolithic or megalithic.  And which has now been followed up by a lovely companion volume on the Bronze Age, called Shadowlands, which is a book I'm really keen to get hold of...

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I have returned.  Our holiday was excellent, though at times it seriously felt as if The Powers That Be really can't be bothered to promote tourism in England.  Over the last few years, the little tourist information centres that proliferated in the market towns and which were a Godsend for vistors have all been closed, and if it hadn't been for a bit of detective work and dedication on our part, we wouldn't even have picked this destination.

What's even more depressing was the number of people who said to us, "Oh, so you're on holiday in Wantage.  You must be visiting family then."  And when we responded with 'well, no, we're here to SEE the place,' they'd just blink and go, 'Oh! That's interesting. What on earth made you come here?'


Here's a photo.  Sadly, I haven't done the market place in Wantage much justice because it was raining a lot of the time, and on the days when the sun came out, it was full of random people who cluttered up the views as if they owned the place (which they probably did!!).  I'm sorry about the lack of images, because the place, though filled with modern 19th century shopfronts, was very picturesque:-

Anyway, here, listed below, are my Reasons for Picking Wantage as a Holiday Destination (not arranged in any particular order...):-

1) It has connections with King Alfred.

2) It has connections with John Betjemen.

3) It's within easy travelling distance of the Vale of the White Horse. 

4) There's loads of brilliant (and not too strenuous!) walking in and around the town.

5) They have a second hand bookshop that is seriously TO DIE FOR!!  It's not just colossal, it's completely labyrinthine (literally) with a history/archaeology section that's mind-boggingly vast.  The variety is combined with really modest prices. I bought about eighteen books for fifty quid, for heaven's sake, and we're talking big academic tomes here, not pamphlets!

6) A plentiful supply of red kites.  We walked two consecutive days, and spotted kites on both days.  Which was an unexpected bonus...

7) Plenty of hostelries which serve good food and decent beer. Plus a delicatessan called Umami's where the staff are lovely, the food is delicious and there's space to chill out with some tasty grub.

8) Lastly, there is The Shoulder of Mutton.  We were recommended this place as a good option for veggie dining.  We were nonplussed at first, because it just seemed like a regular pub, and it was quite hard to actually get a table (probably a sign of how popular it is!). Turned out the recommendation was the understatement of the century - despite an unappetising inn-sign featuring a butcher hacking up a flayed sheep haunch (well, it is the Shoulder of Mutton!) the menu was veggie heaven!  Not a dead sheep in sight, and oh, boy, I could  have munched my way through the menu for a week and still have been trying different things.  Okay, so things were a little chaotic at times, because the chef is clearly a one-man-band who loves what he's doing and cooks for the sheer pleasure of it, but...  How can I possibly extol the virtues of the spicy red lentil and carrot flan????  Having been 98% veggie for the last twenty four years, I've had my fair share of lentil flans, but...  This has to be the queen of flans.  If I were Rabbie Burns, I'd write a poem extolling its virtues.

Oh, and according to J, its selection of real ales was mighty good, too.  And the prices were really, really modest. 
So yeah, a bit off the beaten track, perhaps, but with much to recommend it.  The monuments were excellent, too: beam engines, Neolithic chambered tombs, hill forts and a certain white horse....

There are photos, of course.  Which I will share with you soon!
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Look!  We have pretty pictures again!!  After days of being uncooperative, Photobucket is behaving again, and after a brief spell of weirdness earlier on this afternoon, LJ is back to normality, too. 
IT works in mysterious ways, I suppose...

I am about to disappear for a couple of days and in this time I will no doubt find myself immersed in matters prehistoric.  This is going to feel very strange, because I've been immersed in a medieval mindset for the past couple of months.  So as a way of taking my leave (temporarily, of course) from the medieval world, here's some nice pictures of some kick-ass medieval architecture from Narbonne.

It all forms part of the larger Cathedral complex, with a pretty intact Bishop's Palace which is now in use as a civic building.  Some of the old town defences may also have been incorporated into the structure - like this u-sectioned tower which is reminiscent of the defences at Carcassone:-


The actual Bishop's Palace is a big square tower which is unmistakably defensive:-


It's been incorporated into a much larger structure which has some later elements inserted. I suspect that the square tower itself has been heavily restored at some point - note the contrasting styles of masonry about 18-20 courses up:-


The walls themselves have used stone robbed out of the much earlier Roman works which proliferated here.  I featured several close-up photos of Roman sculptures in an earlier post (remember the cow and the flower?) - here's how they look in their wider context.  In fact, you should just be able to make out the cow's head here:-

 Have a great week, everyone!  I'll try and catch up with you when I return... 
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I promised you one last post from Narbonne Cathedral, and here it is!

As you know, I consider it my solemn duty to seek out strange and wonderful monuments from far and wide, and if I can make you smile, so much the better!

The skeleton reclining in a hammock in Saint Andrews was a case in point.  But here's another one, a very jolly-looking chap who adorns a burial monument within the cathedral at Narbonne:-


Our skeletal friend actually forms part of a much larger frieze which is pictured below:-


This is one of two imposing monuments which mark the resting places of former bishops:-


And I'm having serious problems not only with LJ but with Photobucket now, which makes me wonder if my dear little computer is about to break down or blow up!

Thankfully, my 2nd novel and MOST of my photos are backed up, though I've let my 3rd novel slip a bit.   Watch this space!!!
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An introduction to the cathedral at Narbonne now.

Narbonne Cathedral is a typical Gothic cathedral, built on a cruciform plan, with nave, transept, choir and crossing.  The only problem is that it never actually got finished.

Building was abandoned on the nave and transepts, but the skeletal remains of the transepts and crossing still survive, giving a tantalising glimpse of what would surely have been a truly magnificent structure.  Even the window tracery is in place, though the masonry looks quite rough in places:-



So what happened?  The sad truth is that the builders ran out of money, part of the way through the project.  There was the medieval equivalent of an economic downturn, and the project got abandoned.  The whole church is now contained within what was meant to be the choir:-



Another slight problem was that the proposed design for the cathedral would have meant the dismantling the city walls to make room for it.  The good people of Narbonne were a bit worried about this, so when the project got stalled, there was some relief on the part of the locals, who far preferred to keep their city walls intact.

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I shall return to the south of France now, and the Church of Notre Dame de Lamourguie in Narbonne.  It appears to have had its origins in the ninth century, though the earliest architectural evidence on the site is the remains of a Romanesque church dating to the thirteenth century.


The main central doorway is Romanesque in style, but the church had a gothic makeover a few centuries later, and it's this gothic structure which dominates the site.

It's in the typical meridional gothic style, which I've illustrated previously in posts devoted to the Cathedral of Saint Michael and the Church of Saint Vincent in Carcassone.  Like these other examples, it has an apsidal-ended chancel, and a turreted tower adjoining the south wall.  The crenellations are not for show: originally, this church formed part of the early town's defence system:-



The church is no longer in use as such.  Instead it has found a secondary function as a museum, and as such, it gained my vote as the weirdest and most outlandish monument of the entire trip.  Why?  Well, we'll find out tomorrow, but in the meantime, here's a close up of the doorway which gives a slight clue as to its new purpose:-


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To Languedoc now, which makes a bit of a change from Largs, at least as far as the weather is concerned...

I'm going to write a series of posts dedicated to the city of Narbonne, and in particular to its medieval buidlings.

The city has its origins much earlier, as is attested by a number of Roman features which can still be identified in various places throughout the city.

A swathe of an old Roman road can still be seen in a square close to the cathedral.  It's been fully excavated and preserved as a feature, giving an idea of what lies beneath the modern city, and the depth at which it can be found.  I must admit - as I wandered around the city, I was poking my nose into every construction trench I could, trying to spot something, but alas, every exposed section I saw was totally FUBAR, archaeologically speaking, at least.


Even more intriguing are the carved stones which can be seen in the wall of the Bishop's Palace.  I'm not much of a Romanist, but when I spotted the moo-cow shown below, I thought, "Eh?  That's a wee bit strange..." So I photographed it, and only discovered later on that it's actually a Roman carved stone.  A large number of very ornate carved stones were removed from their original locations and used for medieval structures and fortifications, and if you look hard enough, they can still be spotted in places.  Though most have been removed to another location which will be divulged in due course....


Lastly, in a more contemporary nod to the city's Roman ancestry, here's a rather nice (and very modern indeed !!) triumphal arch featuring those two archetypal Romans, Romulus & Remus (plus foster-mum!)



Yes, when I spotted that one, I was beginning to think I'd stepped into a freak wormhole and ended up in an alternative - and very Romanised - dimension!!! 

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Today was one of those very rare days when I actually took some time off to enjoy myself! Instead of shackling myself to the word processor and tap-tap-tapping away all day...

It was a bit of a busman's holiday, because a trip to Largs means a trip to a place which features in my second novel.  Though things have changed a good bit in the intervening centuries - in the late medieval period, Largs was a church and a couple of cottages in a rural setting.  Today, it's a bustling holiday resort loved by many west of Scotland day-trippers.

Peeling away the layers of history is fun in Largs. One of the dominant monuments is 'The Pencil', a Vicorian edifice built to commemorate the Battle of Largs, which took place in 1263, and which was fought between the local Scots and a bunch of marauding Norsemen, led by King Hakon.

The Scots won, for once, though they probably had God on their side this time. Or at least, the elements, because the Norse fleet had already taken a battering as a result of bad weather before they made landfall in the bay at Largs.

'The Pencil' is a curious thing.  It's a replica of the circular towers that can be found at monastic sites in Ireland, and to a lesser extent in north-east Scotland.  They were built in the high medieval period as a means of defence for monastic communities threatened by marauding bands of Norsemen who did all those things that modern scholars of Norse archaeology really try to downplay in their attempts to make the Vikings more cute and cuddly and socially acceptable. They rampaged, they killed, and they looted, which is why you usually find, on structures of this kind, that the entrance is on the first floor, and accessed by a ladder rather than a stair.


This nineteenth century replica faithfully follows the original design, with its first floor access, nicely adorned with some faux Romanesque:-


Seen close up, the carvings are rather nice.  I found what appears to be a rather glum griffin, and was rather taken with him.  I'd like to think it's a Very Good Sign, considering that the working title of my book is The Gryphon At Bay, and that a reasonable portion of it is set in and around Largs:-


Largs is also a hot spot for prehistoric monuments, in particular those dating to the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.  This standing stone overlooks the bay near The Pencil, and throughout the centuries it has accumulated additional meanings in local tradition.  It has, of course, been attributed to the Battle of Largs, as have the finds of Bronze Age (aka 'Danish') axes that have been unearthed through the centuries. 


I particularly like this photo because you can see Goat Fell (on Arran) in the background.  Arran was a major focus of activity in the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age, and I think the juxtaposition of this view towards Arran and the standing stone was not entirely co-incidental...

Somewhere else in the town there is a Neolithic chambered tomb called 'Haco's Tomb' after King Hakon.  I didn't get round to sniffing it out today, but I will do so next time I visit. This will of course mean another lunch at Nardini's, with an ice cream sundae!  Oh, what an arduous life I lead, seeking out obscure and interesting places and tales for your enjoyment!

Oh, and in case you're wondering, King Hakon didn't even die here. He was wounded in the battle, but made it as far as Shetland, I think it was, before he finally succumbed to his wounds.

Next week, I shall return to my French posts, and - time permitting - introduce you to the beauties of Narbonne....

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