Monday, 14 November 2016

Hamel Down Tor

We walked straight out from Widecombe Cottage, heading north through Widecombe on The Moor before taking a left turn off the Ponsworthy Road shortly after leaving the village. At the end of the road, we reached the footpath to, and subsequently the boundary of the higher moor of Hamel Down.

The route across Hamel Down is a section of the Two Moors Way which follows the humpback ridge, and takes you past a wealth of archaeological features as it heads solidly towards Grimspound and Hookney Tor beyond.

Our first distraction from the panoramic views, came in the form of a ruined barrow, almost overlooked if it hadn't had a few low stones set about it's perimeter. The cist within however was very obvious, and made us wonder why the feature did not appear on the OS map we carried?

"unmarked" barrow and cist

"unmarked" cist

Later, in the week I was to find a reference to the unmarked cist and barrow, in W.D. Lethbridge's "Discover Prehistoric Dartmoor A Walker's Guide To The Moorlands Ancient Monuments" (2015) which I purchased from the National Trust shop in Widecombe on the Moor. This excellent book also put us onto the stunning sequence of stone rows and monuments at Shovel Down! Of the unmarked cist on Hamel Down, Lethbridge surmises that it must have originally had two capstones, where only one is present now.

Continuing, we arrived at Hamel Down Beacon, closely followed by Two Barrows, Single Barrow and Broad Barrow. Newman (2011) tells us these barrows form part of a cairn alignment comprising 13 separate cairns upon Hamel Down; referring to this alignment as demonstrating that the “Cairn chronology and locations suggest – [they were] established over generations, Combining tradition of [a] communities association with a place, links with spiritual presence of ancestors, funerary arrangements, territory and place”.

Hamel Down Beacon

Two Barrows

Single Barrow

Newman (2011) citing the 1892 excavation of Two Barrows suggests the cairn as probably having a phased sequence of separate constructions over an extended period of time, being a mound containing both a stone ring and central cairn. Of Broad Barrow he describes it as one of the largest cairns on Dartmoor being over 50m in diameter.

Broad Barrow

En route to Broad Barrow we were intrigued by a series of timber posts which stretched in a line across the down. We wondered if they might be way markers or snow poles? Or some kind of boundary marker. The post we inspected was very rotted through and chock full of interesting lichen and mosses. As it turns out the posts are the remnants of WWII anti-glider defences, the moors having been identified as a possible landing stage for German airborne invasion (Newman 2011).

WWII anti-glider post
Taking a westerly diversion from the path, the remains of a mediaeval wayside cross marks the boundary of a 19th Century estate belonging to the Duke of Somerset (Historic England 2017). The cross is decrepit comprising of only the upright and a single arm, the head and other arm being broken. The Historic England listing for this monument reports that damaged wayside crosses “bear marks of damage and destruction because they underwent the wrath of iconoclasts during periods of religious turmoil, and in this sense the damaged cross bears witness to such turbulent times, the evidence of which is clearly apparent” (Historic England 2017).

Mediaeval Cross (Remains of)

Returning to the Two Moors Way we proceeded to Hamel Down Tor, and then shortly after arrived at Grimspound.

Hamel Down Tor

Grimspound - towards Hookney Tor


Historic England (2017) [Online] Hamel Down Cross

Lethbridge, W.D. (2015) Discover Prehistoric Dartmoor A Walker's Guide To The Moorland's Ancient Monuments Halsgrove, Somerset

Newman, P. (2011) The Field Archaeology of Dartmoor English Heritage, Swindon

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Merrivale Reprise

On our first visit to this Bronze Age ceremonial centre, we were ably defeated by driving rain and wind, which drained the energy from both ourselves, and the iPhone camera - costing us a hasty retreat, with a vow to return in better conditions.

For a full account of the rain-soaked visit, please refer to:

Thankfully on the return visit we were blessed with blue skies and sunshine, giving us the opportunity to walk the double stone rows with dry ground beneath our feet; and explore the adjacent stone circle and its close-to standing stone.

Double stone row A

Julian Cope (1998) refers to Merrivale as the Plague Market in his gazetteer of megalithic Britain - so named because the plague victims of the 1600's banished to the moors - would be brought food at this place, by the healthy citizens. I have also found reference to this in the account by Legendary Dartmoor (2017) [Online] of the Bronze Age remains being referred to as Potato Market Or Plague Market citing William Crossing's Crossing's Guide to Dartmoor 1990 as historical reference.

Double stone row B


Merrivale stone circle
Merrivale Standing stone


Cope, J. 1998 The Modern Antiquarian Thorsons, London

Legendary Dartmoor 2017 [Online] Merrivale Legendary Dartmoor

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Stanydale Temple - Shetland Mainland

Stanydale Temple (panoramic)

Stanydale Temple, is situated a short while off the minor road to Gruting, which runs south from the A971. The structure - a heel shaped building - with six internal recesses, and two post holes - was so named as a "temple" by Charles Calder in the 1950s following his excavation of the site; as it was thought to resemble the shape of the Maltese Neolithic temple buildings (Turner, V. 1998).

Coincidentally, it was a visit to Malta in the early 1990's which fuelled our burgeoning interest in the sacred landscapes of the prehistoric. In a pretty hectic week of exploration by foot, by local bus; by push-bike, boat and private hired mini-bus; we took in the grandness of the Maltese churches; its ancient walled city and stunning Port.

However, we came away most affected by our times spent within the temple complexes of GGantija, Tarxian and Buggiba; and beneath the streets in the cool air of the catacombs. I remember running my hands across one particular carved stone at Tarxian, imagining the hand of the stone mason who carved it doing exactly the same; trying to connect physically and spiritually to these ancient people. I felt a connection. To both my bemusement and my partner's grand hilarity, this carved stone turned out to be a modern replica - with the original being held in the Valletta museum (Zammit, T. 1980).

I returned home with a plaster model of the headless Maltese Goddess of the temples, which I still contemplate on occasion, sitting as she does behind the glass of the first bookcase that I ever bought.

The Maltese Goddess

The way-marked approach to the Stanydale "temple" takes you firstly across wet moor, and then into the centre of a small pre-historic settlement with the remains of three Neolithic houses, stone walls and clearance cairns on the horizon. The first Neolithic house that you encounter has a SW facing wind break at it's entrance (Fojut, N. 1993). The settlement is dated to Ca 2500BC (on site interpretation).

Neolithic farmhouse

The temple itself stands out due to both its size and construction being twice as big as any excavated prehistoric house found on the islands, and constructed of very large blocks of stone with smooth facing internal wall stones. Turner describes it as Shetland's only megalithic structure (Turner, V. 1998). I sat within the temple, for a long time sheltered from the ever-present wind behind it's low walls. I noticed common dog-violet (Viola riviniana) flowering in the eastern recess.

Common dog-violet

The archaeological record suggests strongly that the "temple" was a special meeting place, perhaps a place of ritual? Excavation found very little evidence of what would be considered domestic use of the building - there was no central hearth - although small hearths were found near the entrance, there was a lack of rubbish and rough stones, which are normally found in a domestic setting. Some pottery was found of late Neolithic, and early bronze age, along with a polished stone knife (Turner, V. 1998; Fojut, N. 1993). Other pottery found dated to the Broch period may suggest use of the site for over a 1000yrs (Turner, V. 1998).

Entering the temple
Towards the entrance (panoramic)
The smooth internal walls

The two stone set post holes in the centre of the temple floor, would have contained wooden posts to hold the roof up. The wood found within these settings was spruce, a tree which did not grow native to Shetland at the time of the temple being built. It is suggested that the trees may have originally arrived as driftwood from America (Turner, V. 1998); or imported from Scandinavia (Fojut, N. 1993).

Post holes

When we visited St Ninian's Isle the following week, we came across a large driftwood log, on the sands below the low cliffs; cleaned and scoured by the sea, it made an instant connection in my mind, to the construction of the Stanydale temple.

The St Ninian's Isle driftwood

So taken was I with the actual temple itself, that I completely failed to spend any time amongst the standing stones sited immediately adjacent to the temple in a curved line. I think I was spooked by the arrival of a couple heading along the path who held a large sheet of paper, and a GPS - plotting as they went the archaeology within the surrounding landscape. Whilst curious to ask them "who? what? why?"; I did not want to break the silence and peace of the site with unnecessary conversation. I moved on, and left them to their purpose. A single photo record shows at least some of the standing stones over the height of the temple walls?


Fojut, N. 1993 A Guide to Prehistoric and Viking Shetland, The Shetland Times Ltd., Lerwick Shetland

Turner, V. 1998 Ancient Shetland, B.T. Batsford Ltd / Historic Scotland, London

Zammit, T. 1980 (7th Edition) The Copper Age Temples Tarxian Malta, Malta
On-site interpretation

Sunday, 15 May 2016