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Lithophonics

…in modern times walk unto the West Country’s fair city of Bristol, our footsteps echoing off the soft-light-brown-sugar sandstone buildings,  Georgian elegance,  reflecting its rich history and not so sweet past of wealth built on slavers. But times have changed in this vibrant cosmopolitan city, we were here for the annual British Rock Art Group (BRAG) Conference in the finely crafted University buildings – not as old as they look.

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Now exotic feet figured in stone found on Stellae in Sardinia which were spoken of here, but  these red fellows are homegrown from a cist slab in Somerset which now resides  in the kids play area in Bristol Museum… feet feature quite a lot in rock art too…from Scandinavia to Scotland where the early Kings of Alba were crowned at Dunadd; stood in stone carved footprints of their ancestors.

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But this being Bristol, there were connections drawn between rock art, superimposition and graffiti in Bedouin culture, so it was inevitable that local lad Banksy got a mention.

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Listening to sounds – lithophonics to be precise – the well known (at least on Tiree) Balaphetrish Gong Stone was rung, you can see this here, and since I am intrigued by this subject in relation to Cumbrian cup-marks and have banged-on about this before (see here) I listened intently to rocks being knocked – well it was a rock art conference after all.

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As you see the kist slab also had cups on – perhaps the prima-face marks – which would undoubtedly made a noise when made, but it was the shape of the cups on the ringing stone that struck me and sent my mind wandering back to the stone I had recently dug at the stone circle known as Long Meg and Her Daughters in Cumbria (although there is a fine circle at Stanton Drew also!).

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Now , although straying somewhat from the subject of upland  archaeology – it is in an elevated situation and commands a wide vista – this collapsed stone made up part of the the circle here, built on the earlier ditch of the ?Neolithic enclosure. The top end of this rock had a large smooth rounded hollow on its underside, a natural feature formed from a solution hollow?

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When its presumed base was uncovered there was a cup-mark, or two? Now there was inevitable debate as to whether this was also a cup mark -which came first – as they were on opposing sides and ends only one end could have been marked as it stood.

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Problems; so what if it was actually a reused cup marked stone or at least one end, it could even have been a “gong stone” perched on a block it would surely resonate – as demonstrated on those columnar dolerite blocks from the Precelis. Either way this particular rock was probably reused, it had a history of its own before being incorporated into the monument.

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So it goes on, cup-marks, found around the world yet their meaning poorly understood in prehistoric Europe. So I set about  pondering the intangible in relation to Lake District rock art and concluding the perhaps in-conclude-able; that these were memorable places well known to people partly through the creative process of cup-marking and partly through other stuff that happened there that is invisible archaeologically – to speculate is to accumulate, knowlwdge at least, appropriate perhaps in the light of recent events to paraphrase a Capitalist mantra…

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…oh no not again.

Pete

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the organisers of BRAG 2015, George Nash and Aron Mazel; a user friendly group of rock art individuals. The following papers are mentioned here: Paul Devereux – Winning the Cup: The problematic relationship between cup markings and lithophonic rocks; George Nash – Something Completely Different: the politics of Bedouin marks in the Negev, Southern Israel;  Cezary Mamirsky – Sardinian statue-menhirs revisited: a central Mediterranean perspective; Peter Style – Visceral places and Volcanic Voids: a consideration of Lake District rock art as ceremonial sites. The excavation at Long Meg was a community project run by Altogether Archaeology based in the North Pennine AONB and led by Paul Frodsham.

Thus the chant went out early in the morning at Woodstock as the somnolent – LSD weary –  space cadets arose, drawn from their slumbers by the mantra; it was Sly and the Family Stone getting funky. This was recently recalled in a BBC documentary and although never a great funkster myself the pounding rhythm that drives the music many find irresistible and the suggestion was that this was because of its rhythm that mimics the human heartbeat. So of course rock art in high places came to mind…

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Well, despite the apparent nonexistent relationship between “Funkadelia” and rock art, it’s all about making human connections and this one concerns the auditory element in the creation of rock art. It can’t be avoided, anyone who has bashed two rocks together knows it makes quite a noise, outdoors with an amphitheatre of mountains the sound is amplified and  echoes too, adding to the effect. In a world free of sound pollution this would make a strong impact on people.

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So the remote Weather Stones on top of Boulsworth Hill came to mind, where I had found an eroded cup-and-ring, cups and grooves on a slab and at an altitude of over 500m this must surely be a candidate for the highest rock art in England!

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Here on the wild East Lancs moors the wind and water eroded gritstone blocks endow an otherworldly feeling to the place, it is transformative, liminal, between earth and sky;

Saucer Stones

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the sun begins to set – a crack between the worlds

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Cold water glows gold

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The pointing finger

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The basin

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This is also a place of myth, also known as Lad Law with  Hill of Slaughter conveniently carved into the rocks below a solution hollow said to be where druids sacrificed…well people?

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Runnels and grooves are also a feature of other rock art sites, most dramatically at Lordenshaw,Northumberland, another elevated site, arguably, set in a ceremonial landscape on the slopes of Simonside Fell, where a friend referred to them as blood gutters, mmm… a touch of hyperbole I hope!

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Now unlike the neighbouring Rombalds Moor, across the Aire Valley, this is a locale with rather a dearth of rock art although some cup-marks can be found on the easterly parapet of the pack-horse bridge at Wycoller which appear to be the sections of a broken monolith.

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This is the setting for  Anne Brontes Wildfell Hall, she and her sisters conveyed the elemental nature of these moors well.

A sheepdog – wolf, the queen of hearts

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The auditory force of the rhythmic tapping would have only added to the dramatic effect of the place on any throng that might have assembled. Pounding rhythms using percussion have been used for millennia by shamanic types to create a trance-like out-of-body experience or to be technical Altered States of Consciousness. So we can see that the creative act of producing these rock-marks may have actually had more impact and was the more significant element in that process than the finished impression.

There has been debate over the years as to whether narcotics were used in British prehistory to attain altered states of consciousness, there are suggestions that this was so but on balance I would say the jury is still out. But human nature supported by anthropological examples suggest that  when people find something that intrigues them they use it, and when it means they spend some time out of mind, the thrill seekers do it. Of course there are many cases where this is used as a powerful tool such as in shamanic ritual, these days one difference is that these kind of drugs are available to buy should you so wish.

Lithophone, Peter Crosthwaite

Coming back down to earth in Cumbria and the somewhat more prosaic. The lithophonic quality of the Langdale tuff or clinkstone as it became known has been noted by researchers and we also have a lithophone! The original (pictured) was made in about 1786 by Peter Crosthwaite from Skiddaw slate this, and a more sophisticated version that was played to Queen Victoria in London, is on display in Keswick Museum, I somehow doubt she was amused.

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So some people still seek their escape from the  hum-drum material world. These days some find refuge in the heart throbbing frenetic drug fueled clubbing scene, others seeking flight can still be seen wandering the moors searching for solace, some of those questers you will notice with  their heads inclined earthward, sometimes looking for the eponymous liberty cap fungus, as perhaps people may always have done.

Pete

Sources and acknowledgements

More about the Keswick lithophones can be found here

http://www.leeds.ac.uk/ruskinrocks/relevant-articiles.htm and at Keswick Museum

http://www.allerdale.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/museums-and-galleries/keswick-museum/the-collection.aspx

The picture of the lithophone is from the website of Martin and Jean Norgate and can be found here

http://www.geog.port.ac.uk/webmap/thelakes/html/topics/lithph01.htm

More on English Rock Art can be found here: http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/era/

If you would like an introduction into possible prehistoric narcotic use you could look at Richard Rudgley’s book The Alchemy of Culture

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