The Stone Lord Saga: Landscape and Memory in the Stonehenge Environs

by AHanna on October 11, 2013

Back in November 2012, Janet Reedman wrote a guest post for Eternal Idol introducing her book Stone Lord, which, though a retelling of the story of “King” Arthur, took place during the period when Stonehenge was at the height of its use. Moon Lord, the sequel to Stone Lord, has recently been published, so I invited Janet back to share with EI readers how her archaeological experiences in the Stonehenge landscape have influenced her books and how findings have been incorporated into them.

J. P. Reedman

 

Over the past few years since moving to Wiltshire and writing novels set in the Stonehenge landscape, I’ve come to look at various enigmas around our most important monument, with a mind to questioning the established dogma and often badly researched reports, trying to build up a clearer image of how the landscape would have worked and functioned in the Neolithic and bronze age period.

Hunter-Gatherer Home Camp

One of the main “game changers” which heavily influenced my novels was the amazing work being done at Blick Mead in Amesbury (Vespasians Camp) by the Open University in Cambridge, over the last 5 years.

“Here is a site now claimed to be the second oldest, continually occupied site in the U.K.”

The above quote actually comes from an eminent Stonehenge scholar and archaeologist who was amongst the ones to write off the site as nothing special — a much later fort of little interest which had been extensively landscaped around the 18th century. Case closed, move along.

Whilst, this last sentiment might bear some truth, it did not remove the important, older features, preserved by virtue of being “sealed” like a time capsule, courtesy of some illegal chalk dumping during the 1960s when the A303 road was originally cut.

In this particular case, people were so blinded by concentrating on Stonehenge that they didn’t see the wood for the trees. This is a lesson that we cannot just rely on established fact and have to constantly reinterpret what we’ve been led to believe, just in the same way that science and DNA are reinterpreting our origins. Much can be gained with our Stonehenge studies from cross-cultural comparison, something some archaeologists in the past have been very reluctant to see, such as the clear links between the Bush Barrow lozenge, the Clandon lozenge and the Upton Lovell gold cone.

I will try to highlight three specific areas which certainly deserve more research, but there are smaller anomalies which I have also worked into my two books, such as the alternative meaning behind the name of the “Cuckoo” stone, and Amesbury’s enigmatic and spurious link with Saint Melor — the only dedication to this Breton saint outside of Brittany and Cornwall.

With the Breton connection with Stonehenge and Normanton Down Barrow Cemetery, the story becomes even more interesting. Melor, with his silver hand, seems cognate with Nuadha/Nodens. Nodens has a link to water, with healing, with dogs, and with the Milky Way. If you start looking in the landscape you can find him in several places.

The traditional story associates Melor with a magical healing spring, from where his severed head spoke, telling his killer to strike the ground with a staff. It was from here that a spring arose. In itself this seems to relate to a “cult of the head” but is of even more interest when you realise we have a geo-thermal spring yards away from the abbey church of his name, venerated for over 5,000 years with depositions back to 8,500BC, and you might be able to share my enthusiasm for the rich material we are being given.

Mother Mound

Conspicuous by its absence in the neolithic Stonehenge landscape is a “mother” mound. Avebury has its Silbury, Marlborough its Merlin’s Mound, Marden its Hatfield Barrow.

Could Vespasians Camp be the missing key in the landscape — the place of the ‘old hunters,’ the old “mother” mound from where all life (water) was born, and from which other monuments sprang up around it?

Not only were the springs here a place of continued reverence since the Mesolithic to Middle Ages, but also one of the oldest continually occupied human sites in Britain, and one of the main reasons why Stonehenge came to be built where it was — this hill, occupying an important middle ground between Durrington and Stonehenge, is home to one of the largest barrows (53m diameter, around the same size as The Monarch of the Plain) on the Salisbury Plain.

Roughly contemporary with the size of Phase 1 and 2 of Silbury Hill (also positioned on top of natural springs and floods around its base at certain times of the year like Vespasian’s Camp), could the place I chose to be Arthur’s fort in Stone Lord be one such mound? Devoid of any burial except a bronze dagger and secondary cremation, it could have begun in the early neolithic, like a lot of round barrows did. If I’m right in my thinking, from the summit of this mound on Vespasian’s Camp it might be just enough to have Stonehenge in eye-line, as it appears over the top of the Kings Barrow Ridge.

The Stonehenge Underworld

Gay’s Cave is a chalk-cut grotto with a stone facade set into the defenses of Vespasian’s Camp near Amesbury, metres from the natural spring heads where 15,000 flint tools have been unearthed over the past few years. Also found were hundreds of cooked aurochs bones denoting evidence of the first cooked meal in the landscape and one of the longest continuously settled areas in the British Isles. Funny then that the same area should be where Stonehenge was eventually built millennia later.

The digs at this site, of which I have been a part, have attracted the interest of Stonehenge archaeologists and scholars worldwide, proving once and for all why Stonehenge was placed where it was and providing supplementary evidence contemporary with the oldest known phase of Stonehenge — its mesolithic post holes, dating to around 7000BC. It’s not hard to assume that the very people who were worshipping or meeting at the mesolithic totems were in fact the very people who were living in and around the West Amesbury area, on rising ground above the River Avon with its natural springs, watching the wildlife come down to water. Not mentioned is the fact that the alignment of posts does in fact point towards that very landmark.

The grotto is disputed to have been an 18th century folly built for the Amesbury Abbey Estate (once owned by King Alfred, William the Conqueror, Henry III, and linked to the legendary King Arthur whose queen is said to have been laid to rest at the Abbey. However, another reference speaks of her being buried at a Holy House on Vespasian’s Camp). Gay’s Cave got its name famously as it was believed that John Gay might have penned some of “The Beggars Opera” and “Polly” there during his stay and patronage by the Duchess of Queensbury. But like the rest of this strange area of the River Avon, have we simply misjudged this and assumed that it is a modern creation along with its “ornamental fish pond” now proven to be a geo-thermal spring venerated for over 5,000 years?

(We were curious if the stone used for building the grotto could in fact be sarsen stone from Stonehenge’s missing stones. Amesbury Abbey once owned Stonehenge for a time. There has been a mystery as to where exactly the missing stones hauled away from the 18th century onwards went to. It is commonly attributed to greedy local farmers and to building new houses, though not many places in the nearby villages appear to be built from sarsen–or bluestone–for that matter. English Heritage’s Senior Landscape Surveyor, David Field, suggested that the stone used for the cave probably was sarsen, however this is later refuted by Mike Parker Pearson’s team who visited the site just once. Who is correct?)

There does exist references that say that the cave itself is prehistoric, though no evidence is cited. I see no earthly reason why anyone would go to the trouble of cutting into a chalk earthwork, high above the river, and then creating a grotto if something had not existed there before. If it was just built for visitors to the Abbey to take a rest in whilst ambling about the estate, why was it built on the other side of the river from the house and gardens where it was hard to access? You already have the Chinese Summer House amidst the grounds, a grotto which was amply suitable as a retreat for someone to write in relative peace.

Further to this, it now seems that a natural fording area existed on the Old Stonehenge Road from the river into the fort which followed the line below the fortifications, running past the cave mouth.

I came by another reference today which implied a Roman heritage which also might go some way to identifying why the camp got the ‘Vespasian’s’ name tag. We know the area has well-attested evidence in this period with a shrine once over on Countess Roundabout, another at the Cuckoo Stone near Woodhenge, and a cemetery at Boscombe Down, not to mention evidence of ‘tampering’ at Stonehenge itself.

More Holes in the Earth

Wilsford Shafts functionality as a well is disputable and needs to be properly reviewed as the only excavations were over 50 years ago. Clearly for me, these ritual shafts appear to be purposely dug for the ceremonial deposition of objects to placate the world of the spirits. Deposits such as precious metalwork and animal bones (perhaps sacrificial) have been found. In traditions associated with well lore, it’s become common practice for centuries to place a coin in a well and make a wish. Just how old is this tradition — prehistoric? I think so. As well as this, in certain traditions which stretch as far as Italy, pits known as ‘mundus’ were dug before being closed with a stone over the top, to symbolise the domain of the nether gods. Philostratus tells us how the cthonic gods welcomed ceremonies to them in the hollowed earth.

There is a possibility that Stonehenge’s ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ Holes, two concentric rings of pits surrounding the sarsen circle, dug much later but never utilised, might have the potential for being mundus. Not as deep, they perhaps might have marked the start of another phase of stone building which never happened. Nevertheless they seemed to be utilized in some way as many contained ‘deposits’ synonymous with ritual.

I believe this will be the first time the shaft would have been mentioned in fiction and it’s stuff like this that ordinary people don’t see or get to hear about because visitors to the landscape get so polarized with just looking at Stonehenge. My whole M.O. with creating the Stone Lord Saga was to show the audience that the whole landscape is the star and alive with such interesting stuff.

Archaeologists can, at times, be afraid to speculate. This is where the fiction writer can come to the fore. By attempting to link bits of the puzzle together and applying logic with other fields such as anthropology and even alternative sciences, we can do what they cannot. It’s not enough to say what was found now, you have to demonstrate the wider context even if it means putting your neck on the block and having a pure out-punt. I understand why professionals feel anxious about doing such things, when reputations are made and broken in one thesis, but writers can fill this void, and there’s a huge industry in historical fiction writing.

People want to read about the past, and, when you’re also hopefully learning something at the same time, this must be good, right?

 

Stone Lord

 

Stone Lord was released in 2012, re-telling the early parts of the Arthurian legends using a number of ritual monuments of Wessex, as well as the recent excavations at Blick Mead. Vespasian’s Camp was given its first literary prominence as Arthur’s camp, a Bronze Age “Camelot”, if you will.

Certainly Vespasian’s Camp is not quite so early, but there are signs of Bronze Age habitation, making it one of the earliest hill forts.

 

Moon Lord

 

Moon Lord, the second and final book in the series, can be seen as a direct sequel, but is also a stand-alone book. It was published in September. It takes the action forward, shows us the decline in the fortunes of Stonehenge, a lessening of its reverence, which actually did not occur for several hundred years in the future. This bit of artistic licence gives people an indication of how and why monuments like these may have fallen out of use, from social and climate change which put pressure on the population, changing the interest in the sky to the earth and waters. This change runs in neatly with the tale of Arthur having to go on a quest to heal the failing lands. The grail may in fact have older precedence in the various Celtic vessels, like the cauldron of the Dagda. In Moon Lord I’ve given the Holy Grail a more Bronze Age flavour, basing the cup on the Rillaton and Ringlemere Cups.

I hope that within fiction I’ve been able to breathe life into an ancient peoples and landscape which have often been misrepresented or plain forgotten due to the “glamour” of focus on that fascinating circle of sarsens in a field next to what is the A303 today.

J.P.R

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jonathan October 19, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Well done Janet. It’s very good to see this idea, that Arthurian tales are based in the neolithic, being developed.

Jon

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