In 1961, Gerald Hawkins produced the seminal work Stonehenge Decoded. In it he set out the case for the prominent national monument on Salisbury Plain being an ancient cosmological calendar. Whilst derided by much of the scientific community at the time, it did put the first real crack in the dam of the prejudice, which held that primitive ‘Celtic’ communities had neither the technology nor the intelligence to conceive of - let alone erect - such a sophisticated undertaking. Now when you visit Stonehenge, in the era post Michael Parker-Pearson, it is described not only as a marvel of carefully-constructed cosmic stone chronology, but just one element in a vast landscape of interconnected sites with an underlying philosophy of design and use.
There are still naysayers, who would ascribe the alignments of the megaliths to chance co-incidence, but they now seem so 20th Century. In those days, any structure pre-agricultural and pre-industrial used to be termed ‘ritual’ - a catchall bin for concepts not to be discussed seriously in professional society.
In her own way, Carolyn Kennett is reinterpreting the scattered sacred sites of Bodmin Moor, many half buried and half forgotten, in a similar manner to that of Hawkins - and in so doing she is bringing a different angle and a deeper meaning to the location and construction of the megaliths and their outliers.
As a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, you would expect her to be a little cautious about embracing the wilder aspects of alternative archaeological thinking - yet she deftly treads her own narrow pathway between the experimental and experiential. It’s a style that embraces new ideas in the light of emerging information, without adopting unproven concepts as facts without appropriate investigation.
Here, Carolyn reintroduced us to our local sites through a thoroughly modern, yet essentially ageless, perspective. We examined in detail the better-known locations such as the Hurlers and Trethevy Quoit, but also some of those now largely robbed out or swathed in undergrowth.
It’s only when you see the sheer scale of the schedule of known archaeology on Bodmin Moor that you come to appreciate just how many riches it still hosts. Many of the standing stones and earthen embankments were doubtless destroyed by the decades of mining and quarrying, but the demise and subsequent desolation that followed the industrial period has, in a strange way, allowed at least some of the rows and menhirs to survive - complete with their embedded yet intangible alignments - and to be rediscovered in a new era.
The recumbent stone circle on Craddock Moor to the west of the Hurlers is a classic of its kind. Its 20+ fallen stones have become so incorporated into the vegetation that it is easy to miss the group altogether between Spring and Winter - let alone appreciate its significance in relation to other neighbouring sites. Carolyn may not be the first to bring Craddock Moor to our attention, but her emphasis on it being part of a longer pathway - or pathways - gives added weight to its relevance as a once-pivotal placement.
Another trademark instance of lateral thinking is her work around the ‘long cairn’ on the north western slope of Rough Tor. This appears to point to one of the pinnacles of the outcrop at the summer solstice - and in fact seams to have been built in three distinct, but increasingly insubstantial, sections each addressing one of three points on the ridge of the tor. She surmises that standing below the cairn would merely blind the sight of the solstice observer, while standing atop Rough Tor the rising sun would cast the viewer’s gigantic shadow along the length of the cairn - just as dramatic, but much safer!
Another interesting angle on an enigmatic site is her suggestion that the huge sunken pit that is King Arthur’s Hall, which does indeed look a bit like a Neolithic swimming pool, might once have been filled with water - and therefore could (on a still night) reflect the starry sky at ground level. As above, so below, as we like to say.
While there is any number of intersecting theories as to why King Arthur’s Hall is where it is, no one has yet come up with a watertight (unintentional pun) reason for its shape or function. Attempting to stand in the shoes of the ancient builders is a hallmark of a professional thinking outside of the box - trying to make sense of aspects of archaeology that are difficult to comprehend through the lens of a 21st Century mindset.
Carolyn also set a few heads nodding, as she explained that she felt the quoits of Cornwall were probably never covered in earth or small stones as conventional archaeology would have us believe. In that instance, she is certainly siding with the dowsers, rather than the diggers - but with an evidence-based approach, of course.
All those who bought her book (see below) will have many a happy hour seeking out the lesser-known locations on Bodmin Moor and dowsing the various possibilities for their erection, use and reuse.
Perhaps even more importantly, she has various walks coming up later in the year, including a Summer Solstice outing to the flattened but fascinating Craddock Moor Stone Circle.
This recent talk has also inspired me to set up a field trip, at some point, to dowse around the summit of Caradon Hill - a location better known for its 1960s television mast, but a site that once hosted 27 barrows and still, no doubt, has pathways to both sky and land running off in all directions.
Many thanks to Carolyn (supported by her friend and fellow astronomer Brian Sheen) for such an interesting presentation, illustrated by her own stunning images, which will provide food for thought for as long as there are dowsers keen to dowse the mysteries of Bodmin Moor.
The latest book by Carolyn Kennett - Sites of Prehistoric Bodmin Moor - and details of her forthcoming walks can be obtained from her website: