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Monthly Archives: July 2015

“Cairnholy Joe” – a man on a mission; to enlighten visitors to the eponymous chambered cairn so that they might understand the meaning of this “monument”. Now this is not a conventional view purely based on the archaeology – way too prosaic – much more than that it is an aesthetic view of the world seen through the lens of the remains of this most architectural of prehistoric structures. Now there are many simple yet impressive Neolithic structures around the country but not many people seem to spend so much time observing the world from one such place these days.

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It seems many people you meet who have visited here also encountered this aesthete whose name it turns out is Joseph Proskauer who describes him self on his blog as: “Lives with his wife and many other creatures, slightly below the surface of earth, toward the point where the sun sets in the dark days of winter – as seen from Cairn Holy.” Unravelling the mysteries of Cairnholy appears to be his destiny. He has studied in infinite detail the relationships between the stones and solar and lunar alignments so that the eight standing stones of the forecourt perform as some sort of complex sundial fulfilling the necessary calendrical functions  and spiritual insights of the Neolithic people who constructed it.

After some interesting discussions around the subjects I was advised to cross the neighbouring field where a dead straight path had been worn, presumably by himself and his “pupils” (or was it Alfred Watkins Old Straight Track!), and approach the forecourt and observe – this is how it looked.

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Now being one who is interested in the relationship of prehistoric archaeology has to  landscape I noted that it appeared that the focus of the structure from this direction was one of two rounded hillocks on the skyline; perhaps echoing the female form. Wrong! I should have been observing the stones – in particular;  that whilst the four stones on left hand side of the forecourt curved in a slight arc those on the right were straight, but also the three outside stones of each side both rise to the right (north). These are certainly intriguing observations although I was not paying enough attention at the time to remember the import of this piece of the jigsaw.

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Of course there were many other observations Joe made including the unrecorded weathered  pecked area of rock and cup mark on the edge of one of the southerly orthostats.

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Virtually invisible when the sun is high but on return to the stones in darkness and controlled lighting it came alive.

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In darkness my own senses were heightened, as peoples must have been in prehistory when viewed at night – the stone would be seen to dance in the firelight – hearths were found in the forecourt when the site was dug by Stuart Piggott and T G E Powell, whose report can be seen here.

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Moon dog stones!

Although Piggot and Powell found a cup and ring marked slab placed in the chamber along with a slab disturbed from the cairn marked with cup and rings they missed this marking of the facade stone. We can pehaps only speculate when this mark was made as it was likely that the walling between the orthostats would have covered this mark when the structure was first built. This is one of the rare occurrences when cup and ring marked rocks are found within a chambered cairn the other notable example being in Dallaides Long Cairn, also a rare piece of burnt jadeite axe from the Italian Alps was found here.

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So people have been doing pretty strange things here for millenia. On reflection despite Joe’s apparent disinterest in the factual elements of the archaeologists excavations and his apparent oversight that the reconstruction of the facade sixty five years ago means that it is most likely that it was not as we see it today when it was first built. His reconstructions of the points of the stones with clay may also be speculative but we can perhaps never be sure that it was not so and that the things he sees in this structure are as not valid as the interpretations put upon these most architectural of structures by archaeologists. Maybe it is as important how these structures feed back to modern people, be they believers in Neo-paganism, Wicca or Witchcraft,  Earth Gods or Goddess’, any of the more mainstream religions or combinations of any or all of these. Who knows if it was not always the case that from their inception people have drawn different inspirations or energies from these places.

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Acknowledgements and Notes; Thanks to Joseph for stimulating conversation! I was reminded of my meeting with Joe after seeing a blog by Upland Pete on Cairn holy. These meetings came about from a cottage rented below Cairnholy in 2012 and occupied by three archaeologists (rock art fiends) a story teller and an architect, thanks Kate, Tertia, Debbie and Anthony.

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“Burnt Mound”, not a very auspicious title for a rather enigmatic monument – a place for heating rocks to heat water – first found from the Later Neolithic-Early Bronze Age some four and a half millenia ago –  a mundane description of their form and contents of hearths, troughs and heated rocks. Yet these were probably places of drama where poorly chosen hot rocks split and splatted around the hearth, probably why the Meur Burnt mound had an enclosed hearth – see a short animation of this great reconstructed site here.

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There has been considerable speculation as to what was going on at these sites and now after excavations we can see there are certain common themes that run through, or should that be flow thorough, these sites. Water from a small stream by way of a cut or small leat was introduced into a trough this was then heated by dropping hot rocks, heated in embers, into the water, simple! The rocks were then discarded and generally form an open horseshoe crescent around the trough; the question is, was this used for cooking, sauna or mashing malted barley?

The the answer may well be that these were multi-functional structures, however many now suggest that brewing was an integral part of their purpose, see Merryn Dineley’s website and the excellent Billy and Dec’s Bronze Age Beer video. These  sites are ubiquitous, found across Britain and Ireland and are particularly prevalent in Northern Scotland.

Here in Cumbria several burnt mounds have been identified and several excavated and at Sizergh Estate an in-situ timber trough was found; where, in common with other sites waterlogged timber survived due to the boggy conditions .

This rather diminutive version can be found in the valley at Buttermere, the trough would have been where the rushes are,  this one is close to some cup marked rocks, however those found in Scotland take on altogether grander proportions with the permanence of their stone lined troughs, here seen at Liddel Burnt Mound on South Ronaldsay, Orkney Isles.

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This fine example below is two metres high and ten metres wide and sits in strange juxtaposition with  Eriboll Church, on the north coast of Scotland. Presumably the builders were unaware that the heather covered mound was a place of prehistoric activity producing the heather ale – demon drink of the Bronze Age – see – in true Scottish tradition someone has left a modern offering at the base of the mound, to give some scale to gauge it by.

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Now in their wisdom the Edinburgh craft brewers Innis and Gunn have produced their own limited edition version of this ale and so it had to be sampled!

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Upon a cup marked slab on a sunny evening seemed an appropriate place to sample this herbal homebrew, a mildly bitter beverage with a slight herbal aroma.

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Bottle conditioned, balanced carefully when carried the half mile from home, perhaps it should have been buried there to condition – its twin might have to endure this fate and brave the bullish cattle’s curiosity for buried things.

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A few flowers of sheep’s sorrel to cushion the cup-mark while it rests – anticipation…

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Decanted from its sediment a straw coloured ale with echoes of honey,

Surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains shining bright bilberry green as the yellow, mellowing sun dips towards the north.

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With a deep draught of strong nourishment, the dying sun carries the cares of daytime away,

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Seen through a glass darkly – the burnt amber ale haze’s the sun with swirls of yeasty magic,

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Sun sets beyond the horizon, while mountains hold the light, changing from bronze to pink

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Great Gable pulls up its frothy blanket

Rising from the valley to meet its night.

Notes and Acknowledgements: It fell to an inspiring session at TAG; Stoking the Flames:Towards an Archaeology of Fire, to persuade me that burnt mounds were not as boring as they sound! A paper from Lauren Doughton of Manchester University entitled Born of Fire: An exploration of the role of fire and fragmentation in the creation and use of burnt mounds I found particularly inspiring using some experimental firings which demonstrated that these were dynamic exciting and dangerous places to work which in itself must have created a performance and mystique around their use, the more so if we accept that perhaps the primary function was to produce ale!

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“…other private functions” –  prehistoric revellers from the Bronze Age included?

Pete

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