Exploring new interpretations
of past and place
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Articles on archaeology, folklore and mythology
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NEW from Heart of Albion
Sacred Places: Prehistory and popular imagination
by Bob Trubshaw
This book looks back at the days of At the Edge and other 'Earth Mysteries' 'zines and provides detailed discussions of many of the topics outlined here.
More about Sacred Places
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- summaries of articles in academic journals, newspapers, etc.
- Bob Trubshaw
World-wide it is estimated that there are at least 150 major areas
of rock art - where a major area is defined as having over 10,000
motifs in a area of less than 1,000 sq. km. Examples of rock art can
be dated to different eras spanning at least 40,000 years. Yet this
wealth has been all-but ignored by academics - the apparently healthy
activity in rock art research is almost entirely by ‘avocational’
The decorative motifs and symbols used in rock art are often ambiguous
or abstract. ‘Rock art’ is an unfortunate term and some prefer to
use such terms as ‘petroglyphs’ to avoid any implication that we are
studying something that is primarily aesthetic. Furthermore, the term
‘rock art’ has at least two different meanings. For some people it
means motifs carved or scratched into the rock surface. For others
it also embraces images painted on to rock surfaces (invariably within
caves or ‘rock shelters’ if they are to survive the first rain storm).
Recently in America, motifs associated with the local carved rock
art have been also been found preserved on the mud-covered walls of
remote caves - leading to the neologism ‘mud glyphs’. In this article
I will use the term ‘rock art’ as an all-embracing term - in Europe
this mostly means carved stones, whereas in Africa and the Americas
painted images predominate.
- Stan Beckensall
Recent research has established that rock art appears within the landscape
in marginal areas which would have been of more vital use to pastoralists
and hunters than to agriculturalists. It is almost always on sedimentary
rocks, either outcrop or earthfast. Most is situated at viewpoints
overlooking fertile valleys. Although it can be at the highest point
in the locality, it does not have to be so in order to command wide
Few of the marked rocks can be seen from a distance, and people must
have known where the rocks were in order to view them. In some cases,
such as the Brimham Rocks, Broomridge and Dod Law, there are prominent
natural landscape features such as cliffs or dramatically-eroded outcrops
that create an unusual focal point. Even so, most motifs are on near-horizontal
surfaces and would soon become obscured by vegetation. Many marked
surfaces are less than a metre in size. The motifs make use of the
shape of and irregularities in the rocks, so that motifs and rocks
blend into the landscape of the high moorland sympathetically.
- Bob Trubshaw
Richard Bradley is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading
and is highly respected for his original approach to both the social
prehistory of Britain and, with Altering the Earth, to the study
of megalith monuments as parts of the landscape. His ability to synthesise
the research of other archaeologists into innovative and wide-ranging
interpretations is rare. The ability to do so and present the results
in a readable style is unique.
Does his latest book, Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe,
live up to this reputation? Yes; indeed, and exceeds expectations.
By attempting to integrate rock art studies into wider issues in prehistoric
archaeology, Bradley brings new interpretations to both the rock art
itself and to the wider issues of prehistory and, as a result, reassesses
the fundamentals of approaches to landscape archaeology.
- Jeremy Harte
Imagine the scene. Over the swelling waves a Viking longship lurches
home, heavy with plunder from a raid. Crouched by the tiller, a bearded
warrior spins out the lonely watch telling the crew tales of a yet
more daring journey - the ride of a hero-image through darkness to
the realm of the dead. ‘That’s funny’, pipes up a Celtic monk lying
bound in the corner, ‘a mate of mine saw just the same thing when
he was given up for dead’. ‘Never!’, chorus the Norsemen, ‘do tell
us more about it . . .’
Well, I admit it doesn’t sound very likely. But how else can we explain
how the hell-ride of Scandinavian legend comes to share so many features
with the otherworld visions of mediaeval Christianity? The pagan skalds
had a very clear idea of the road to the land of the dead. Hermodr’s
ride to seek Baldur involves a long journey northward through dark
valleys, the crossing of the golden Gjallar bridge, and a leap over
a great wall separating the world of the dead from the living (Sturluson
1954 [c1223]: 83). Many other stories ring the changes on the journey
through danger and the dark; Hading goes through mist and darkness,
crosses a river full of weapons, and comes to a wall too high to be
leapt over. In the eerie journey of Thorkill through a land of eternal
darkness, we again encounter a river crossed by a bridge of gold,
and the journey ends at the walled stronghold of the demonic dead
and their lord Geirrodr (Ellis 1943: 172).
If you're wondering what this has to do with rock art, Jeremy Harte goes on to question the assumption that the 'tunnel vision' associated with some trance states have a shared 'neurophysiological template'.
- Valtars Grivins
At the end of August 1986, Latvian naturalist Guntis Enins was breaking
through thick bushes and wind-fallen wood, which had made the glacial
valley of the River Brasla almost impassable. He made his way to the
last previously-unobserved rock face in the canyon, hoping to find
a new cave or other interesting natural feature. What he actually
found was something much more exclusive, and opened a new page in
the cultural history of Latvia.
In the newspaper Rigas Balss (9th March 1995) Enins wrote about his
impressions of that time: ‘At one moment I even endeavoured to move
like a monkey through and over bushes. Then I noticed a little lighter
place in front of myself and after just a few minutes I was standing
at a small, almost white, rock. I stared at this like some bewitched
character in our folk-tales. My assistants were all stuck somewhere
back in Brasla’s “jungles”, so quite alone I looked at this rock,
out of which deeply engraved but incomprehensible signs, similar to
old hieroglyphical writing, stared at me.’
- Graeme Chappell
'But to return to the spot from which I have been looking at the cup
marks at my feet, I am struck by the extreme scarcity of any real
tradition regarding them. Only once do I remember hearing anything
genuine. There had been a good deal of illness in some miserable old
houses where I was visiting, and in speaking to an old man about it,
I expressed my wonder that the people did not remove some boulders
which obstructed the light out of the small windows, and the drainage
about the doors; and added, that it could easily be done and would
make the houses more healthy. No doubt it would he agreed, but then
it would not do to destroy these old worship stones (Clachain Aoraidh).
He said that there had been one near his own door which was very much
in the way, but that he had, with great labour dug a hole into which
he had let it drop and covered it up, for it would never do to incur
the anger of the spiritual beings by breaking it up. This was more
than thirty years ago. The boulders seemed to me natural and of no
significance; but my attention being thus, called to them I found
similar stones at almost every old house or site - many of them, undoubtedly,
placed there of intention. Some of them had cup marks, but on many
I could find none. . . .'
'Notes on some cup marked stones and rocks near Kenmore, and their
folklore' Rev J.B. Mackenzie, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. 34 (1899–1900)
- Graeme Chappell
When at its best the Internet can serve as a vast reference library giving access to information from all around the planet.
Archaeological resources are well represented in this "library" and the study of petroglyphs and pictographs (carved and painted images)
or rock art is perhaps one of its most developed areas in terms of Internet presence.
Want to read on? Go to the full text of Rock Art Resources on the Internet.
- Danny Sullivan
Everyone will be familiar with the ongoing problems at Stonehenge
and the dreadful state of the site, the visitor facilities and the
perennial access problems. On a smaller scale these problems exist
at a number of less well-known, but as important sites. Vandalism
is the main problem. However the response to these and other problems
exists at a number of less well-known but important sites. As a result
we are faced with the prospect of ancient sacred sites and monuments
being closed to public access while their custodians whinge about
lack of finance to deal with the problem.
I would like to draw your attention to the pitiful state of Stoney
Littleton long barrow, near Wellow, Somerset. Anyone who has visited
this site in the recent years will have been disappointed to find
that access to the interior of the barrow has been denied. The roofs
of the chambers and passage have been shored up and notices inform
us that repair works are under way, but in the last three years no
noticeable improvements seem to have been made at all. On the contrary,
the condition of the barrow has sadly deteriorated. An ugly makeshift
timber door has been erected across the entrance to the ante-chamber,
behind which is another, steel barrier. This hoarding has been vandalised
recently - no mean feat as 4" x 2" timber has been broken in two in
an unsuccessful attempt to gain entry. In the process the lintel stone
has been damaged.
- Jennifer Westwood (ed) SACRED JOURNEYS (Gaia Books 1997)
- Adrian Bailey THE CAVES OF THE SUN - THE ORIGIN OF MYTHOLOGY (Cape 1997)
- Philip Heselton MIRRORS OF MAGIC - EVOKING THE SPIRIT OF THE DEWPONDS (Capall Bann 1997)
- Graham Harvey LISTENING PEOPLE SPEAKING EARTH - CONTEMPORARY PAGANISM (Hurst 1997)
- Cheryl Straffon THE EARTH GODDESS - CELTIC AND PAGAN LEGACY OF THE LANDSCAPE (Blandford 1997)
- Janet Bord FAIRIES - REAL ENCOUNTERS WITH LITTLE PEOPLE (O'Mara 1997)
- Jeremy Harte RESEARCH IN GEOMANCY 1990 - 1994 (Heart of Albion Press 1997)
- Treence Meaden STONEHENGE - THE SECRET OF THE SOLSTICE (Souvenir 1997)
- Michael Parker Pearson and Colin Richards (eds) ARCHITECTURE AND ORDER (Routledge 1994; paperback edn 1997)
- John Collis THE EUROPEAN IRON AGE (Routledge 1984; paperback edn 1997)
- Geoffrey Ashe THE TRAVLLER'S GUIDE TO ARTHURIAN BRITAIN (Gothic Image 1997)
- Laurence Main CAMLAN - THE TRUE STORY? (Meirion 1997)
- Thirlie Grundy THE MISERICORD CARVER OF HEXHAM ABBEY, NORTHUMBERLAND (Thumbprint 1997)
- INTERNATIONAL PAGAN PATHWALKERS No.1 Summer 1997
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Created February 1998; updated November 2008