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December 2018 - The Old Stones

The Old Stones

Andy Burnham at North Hill Village Hall

Not that long ago, archaeology seemed to be such a black and white affair – ancient people had limited knowledge and primitive technology; were grubbing a subsistence survival in mud and stone huts; and worshipped passing planets as deities.  But there was always that little matter of the megaliths – seriously large and sophisticated structures that must, at the very least, have required a hierarchical and organised society to construct them. Consigning such megaliths to ‘ritual’ behaviour never did seem much of a match.  The menhir on the moorland always was the potential elephant in the room for the archaeologist.

Thankfully, the last couple of decades have brought about a sea-change in how we have come to view our distant ancestors.  The woad-painted savage has given way to an image of a more thoughtful, rounded and calculating person, more at one with their environment, and significantly less tattooed than their distant descendants!

This steadily-emerging picture has developed partly through the improved technology available to landscape historians, which in turn has produced a new wave of finds and artefacts, but far more to the subtle change of attitude in a significant minority of professionals in the field – people such as Andy Burnham.

Andy’s latest work, The Old Stones, is a much-updated 1,000+ site compendium of many of the significant megalithic sites in the UK. Stonehenge and the other crown jewels of the British archaeological scene are well represented, but so too are many sites that have previously not been given anything like as much attention as they clearly deserve.

Twenty years ago, this work would have seemed too close to the fringe to be regarded as true archaeology, but the times they are a changing.  Today, indications of the main astronomical, even astrological, alignments can be important pieces of information in decoding the use of a site, and in understanding the reason for its location – often well away from obvious places of habitation, of social interaction and of food production.

Along with this widening window of investigation, dowers have shifted shape too.  No longer the latter-day rustic with a theatrically wiggling twig; now more likely to be a serious member of the academic team, highlighting unseen and undetected geological features, underground water flows and mineral lodes around the site in question.

Even those previously discounted non-physical phenomena, such as earth energy currents, thought forms and leys are now being regarded, however begrudgingly, as potential sources of valuable information in the analysis of many sites, which are themselves now appreciated as being far more complex than isolated, remaindered standing stones, ignored for some reason by the stone-cutters.

Andy’s talk flagged up the more considered and nuanced approach now being taken by archaeology generally to megalithic structures.  Stonehenge is a prime example.  Once thought of as a stand-alone temple, with a few unconnected tumuli in the vicinity, it is now regarded as an integrated landscape, with distinct sectors for specific, but related, social, commercial and religious activities.  

Sites are no longer just petrified snapshots of the work of bygone tribes, which have somehow made it to the modern day largely intact, but more as evolving structures, used over many generations and by subsequent cultures for a variety of sacred and secular purposes.

And, when the facts get few and far between, the dowser can provide a bit more context and texture to the timeline.  Dating features and physical components by dowsing can give the archaeologist, at the very least, a worthwhile pointer for the next line of enquiry. Locating hidden and missing elements at a site can change the whole emphasis of the dig.

Whether ancient man actually used divination in the modern sense of the word is, of course, still very much a controversial topic of discussion – but dowsing can throw new and significant light onto the design and construction of the megalithic matrix.  And there are many alignments and chosen positions for standing stones, circles, cairns and quoits that can only be determined, even today, by the dowsing rod and the map pendulum.

At sites such as the Hurlers, on Bodmin Moor, a geological survey has recently flagged up that the three main circles are situated right above a fault line, where a change in rock type emerges.  It is unlikely that this could ever have been detected, other than by sensing a subtle change of feeling.  It would have needed to be both ‘real’ enough to be worth marking and sharp enough to be determined so accurately.  As the dowser, Robin Heath, never tires of exclaiming, “How many co-incidences does it take to make a fact?”

Andy’s presentation included a whole raft of sites across Cornwall and Devon, together with shining examples from the rest of the UK, including Orkney and the Western Isles, Ireland, Cumbria and Wales – with a smattering of exceptional locations from around the world.

A record attendance for the Tamar Dowsers was well pleased with his talk and, judging by the number of big yellow books heading out of the hall, he had inspired a new generation of archaeo-dowsers from the far south west to follow up on some of the ideas he had raised and the places he had chosen to highlight.

Many thanks to Andy for travelling down from sunny Surrey specifically to talk to us.  I am sure we will be tapping him up again at some time in the future.

Thanks, too, to all those who helped to make this event such a success.

Nigel Twinn  Tamar Dowsers  December 2018

The Old Stones by Andy Burnham (Watkins Press) ISBN 978-1-78678-154-3


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