Monoliths: myths and legends

Sacred Stones.
The standing stones of West Wales:
their history and traditions
by Terry John. Gomer 1994

Where I currently live in Pembrokeshire [November 2014] it’s hard to escape standing stones. If I go out our gate and walk in a clockwise direction, in the course of a five-mile walk I will pass three of them, one unnamed, another two all that remains of a complex called Cornel Bach.

If I go on another clockwise four-mile road walk I’ll pass two stones, one unnamed, another — possibly not in situ –all that remains of some stones at the aptly named Temple Druid. Within a relatively short walking radius I can pass the only surviving prehistoric stone circle in the area at Gors Fawr near Mynachlogddu or another complex at Meini Gwyr near Glandy Cross in Carmarthenshire.

Up on the nearby Preseli Hills there is a stone enclosure called Bedd Arthur or Arthur’s Grave, and a pair of menhirs called Cerrig Meibion Arthur or the Stones of the Sons of Arthur. And of course the hills are where the bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried — reputedly. You can hardly take a step without tripping over one.

Continue reading “Monoliths: myths and legends”

Wishing wells and votive offerings

Mammoth and capricorns from Rouffignac (image public domain)

In the Southwest of France, the town of Rouffignac boasts a ‘cave of a hundred mammoths’. Or rather representations of them drawn or engraved on the walls and ceilings. Nowadays the visitor travels one kilometre underground on a small electric train. Every now and then there are isolated mammoths on the walls and claw marks of cave bears on the ceiling; the latter, luckily, are not contemporary with the artists. Suddenly the train stops and there they are, a multitude of mammoths, horses, bison and other horned animals covering the vault of a low ceiling. One horse is about eight feet across. The artist or artists delineating it, lying on the floor about three feet below (as it then was) would not have been able to appreciate it all. It is all breathtaking, simple but effective.

Why did prehistoric people travel so far underground to create pictures they could not enjoy in their entirety? The answer is close at hand: a large, natural but uneven pit descends below the cavern’s floor. From here, no doubt, the deities of the underworld could emerge to appreciate the artistic offerings of humankind and grant the wishes that accompanied them.

Continue reading “Wishing wells and votive offerings”

Cryptic inscriptions

The Catamanus Stone, Anglesey (Wikipedia Commons)
Detail from the Catamanus Stone, Llangadwaladr, Anglesey (Wikipedia Commons)

Living in Wales means living in a landscape where the past is never too far away — eloquent place names, ancient monuments, local legends and folklore. A particular class of monuments are those so-called Dark Age memorial stones inscribed with words, runes, pictograms and abstract patterns that litter the countryside, not just here in Wales but around the north and west of Britain. This repost of a review (it first appeared online in May 2014) looks at one man’s interpretation of what some of these enigmatic inscriptions might mean.

Charles Thomas
Christian Celts: Messages & Images
Tempus Publishing 1998

This is a book that is worth persevering with. Despite its often complex arguments it is shot through with Thomas’ dry wit and apposite asides, and — coming as it does from an acknowledged expert in the field of church history and archaeology — it is also worth taking seriously. He introduces the historical, educative and commemorative contexts that post-Roman inscriptions fitted into; he discusses the insular background in the Celtic-speaking regions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall; and he also delves into the religious implications of some of the texts. But he does more than just give an overview of these enigmatic messages.

Continue reading “Cryptic inscriptions”

The Phoenix and the Fossil

archaeopteryx
Source: Florida Center for Instructional Technology http://fcit.usf.edu/

Phoenix-like, from stone
it rises, wings raised, renewed,
the stuff of legend

Paul Chambers
Bones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals
John Murray Publishers Ltd 2002

A few years ago I had a notion about the legend of the grail as it appeared in medieval Germany. The Bavarian poet Wolfram von Eschenbach described the grail (grâl or graal he called it) by the strange term lapsit exillis, by which he meant a stone rather than the more familiar dish or chalice. Wolfram has his own conceit about this object:

By the power of that stone the phoenix burns to ashes, but the ashes give him life again. Thus does the phoenix [moult] and change its plumage, which afterwards is bright and shining and as lovely as before.*

When reading this I had a sudden vision of the deceased phoenix on its stone as an archaeopteryx fossil, the first of which had been discovered in Bavaria in the middle of the nineteenth century. Checking the map I later discovered that Wolfram’s home town, now re-named Wolframs-Eschenbach in his honour, is not that far distant from the Altmühltal, a river valley where the limestone quarries that first revealed these winged and feathered creatures are situated. Was it possible that this medieval poet had seen a now vanished archaeopteryx fossil, that it too reminded him of the legend of the phoenix, and that he subsequently co-opted that legend for his version of the wondrous quest object?

I included this notion in a short story I wrote, and passed the hypothesis by the odd mildly intrigued expert, but it remains mere speculation, however much I’d like to believe it may be true. And there it stayed until this account of archaeopteryx (from the Greek for ‘ancient’ and ‘wing’) by palaeontologist Paul Chambers started me wondering about it again. Continue reading “The Phoenix and the Fossil”

The past, now

Current-Archaeology-311
Cover of Current Archaeology 311

In a previous life I was quite into archaeology, young fogey that I was then (old fogey now, of course). My experience includes working on a multi-period hillfort (South Cadbury, Somerset), a Roman villa (Bratton Seymour, also in Somerset) and an early medieval church and Welsh medieval farmstead (Llanelen, Gower). The first lasted a week, the second three years, and the last twenty-one years (from the first recce in 1974 to publication in 1995) with some small investigations subsequently.* The first dig I was involved in coincided with early issues of Current Archaeology, to which I started subscribing, and with very few gaps I have continued to receive the magazine ever since — despite no longer being actively involved with excavation.

It began as a bi-monthly in 1967, becoming monthly exactly forty years later and changing its size once or twice.** Entirely funded from subscriptions (no advertising at all) it encouraged growing loyalty in its readers, to the extent that it now claims some 17K subscribers around the world. Though I’ve since passed on the bulk of my back issues — partly down to downsizing because of moving and partly because theories and techniques and data inevitably move on — I still keep the last year or two of issues to remind myself of where the art of archaeology is now.

I say ‘art’ because, despite the massive use of science, technology and statistics in this field, a lot of archaeology’s success is down to the experience and expertise of the excavation directors: it’s not a skill one can merely apply by numbers, though order and precision is essential of course. Also, archaeology is primarily about humans, their relics and their remains, and humans are rarely consistent across time and place. No one size fits all.

So, the magazine aims to “bridge the gap between the amateur and the professional in archaeology”. This means that mainly professional archaeologists write the feature articles in a language that a non-specialist but intelligent reader can follow. News and views and reviews are also included (hence the ‘current’ appellation), often with light-hearted observation thrown in (forget the po-faced stereotype of the academic historian or amateur nerd).

Issue 311 is particularly interesting from my point of view. There’s news about the site of Glastonbury Abbey (a traditional burial place for King Arthur) which recent research both confirms was occupied in the Dark Ages and throws doubt on the antiquity of so-called Dark Age graves (which in the 60s Radford claimed could include Arthur’s). There’s also a feature on British migration in Roman times, showing from the distribution of Romano-British brooches that insular Celts travelled extensively not just in Europe but North Africa and the Levant. And more work has been done on the origin of the bluestones of Stonehenge (Merlin was popularly supposed to have raised the pillars at this ancient monument), linking them to Craig Rhos-y-Felin in Pembrokeshire. Amongst the range of periods covered (from the Romans to Shakespeare’s home, from the late Bronze Age to the Industrial Age) there’s also room for the iconoclasm and wit of contributing editor Chris Catling, who casts his gimlet eye on such issues as how to pronounce Shrewsbury (posh or contemporary? authentic or orthographic?), mummification in Britain and Horace Walpole’s link to what’s claimed to be Shakespeare’s skull.

I think I shall be subscribing for some time to come.

* Not three or twenty-one years in a single span, of course! Usually two seasons of one or two weeks, or even just a long weekend, were the norm each year.

** This is the second in a very occasional series of reviews of anything that doesn’t fit comfortably into the category of ‘book’. This includes periodicals, journals, magazines,minizines and any other non-bookish reading matter that grabs my fancy.

Breezing through Roman ruins

Excavations at Uriconium (Wroxeter) by Francis Bedford (photo: public domain)
Excavations at Uriconium by Francis Bedford (photo of hypocaust and Old Work public domain)

Ellis Peters City of Gold and Shadows Heron Books 1982 (1973)

Take an assortment of singular characters, one missing person and a generous helping of archaeology; when you blend them together you’ll likely get something like this, a whodunit by Ellis Peters set in her favourite area — the Welsh Marches — and based on the ruins of a fictional Roman city that is rather reminiscent of Wroxeter in Shropshire. Though I’ve not knowingly read any of her work before (certainly before I was aware that this was the twelfth in a series) I wasn’t disappointed in this offering — what would be known in North America as a cozy mystery — especially as it worked very well as a standalone novel.

An essential aspect of a ‘cozy’ is that it often features a strong, intelligent woman as amateur sleuth; and here it is Charlotte Rossignol. Half-French, a classical musician at what one hopes is the start of a successful career, she is drawn by the concerns that a lawyer (“like a very well-turned-out troll from under some Scandinavian mountain”) has over her missing archaeologist uncle, Alan Morris. Visiting the subject of his latest (or last?) monograph, the ruins of Aurae Phiala near Moulden village in Midshire, she makes the acquaintance of a number of very distinctive characters, any of whom could be responsible for some of the odd incidents that start to occur. Who is Gus Hambro, and why is he behaving suspiciously? What is schoolboy Gerry Boden up to? What’s the nature of the relationship between site custodian Steve Paviour and his young wife Lesley? Is gardener Orlando Benyon all that he seems to be? What does graduate student Bill Lawrence know? How does DCI George Felse deal with the strange events that closely follow one another? And do we ever find out what happened to Charlotte’s missing uncle?

Continue reading “Breezing through Roman ruins”

A curate’s egg of a gazetteer

Arthurian Coats of Arms (Bodleian Library)
Arthurian Coats of Arms (Bodleian Library) http://medievalromance.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/Arthurian_coats_of_arms

Derek Brewer and Ernest Frankl
Arthur’s Britain: the Land and the Legend
Guild Publishing 1986 (1985)

This illustrated gazetteer has an authoritative introductory essay by the late Derek Brewer, a distinguished academic and publisher who died in 2008. The illustrations which accompany the introduction all come from late medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and show how their techniques and purposes changed from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The photographs in the gazetteer proper are by Ernest Frankl, with accompanying maps drawn by Carmen Frankl; I’m guessing that both Ernest and Carmen have since passed away as Trinity Hall Cambridge has an Ernest and Carmen Frankl Memorial Fund to cover travel for educational purposes.

Part of a series of souvenir guidebooks by Pevensey Press, Arthur’s Britain consists of Continue reading “A curate’s egg of a gazetteer”

Throwing cold water on a legend

Arthur-and-Guinevere

N J Higham King Arthur: myth-making and history Routledge 2002

King Arthur. How this short phrase stimulates a knee-jerk reaction: from amateur historians who want to convince the public that their vision of the fabled monarch is true, and from hard-bitten historians who deny not only his existence but irascibly inveigh in print against what they regard as the lunatic fringe. Now this is not one of those academic books that castigates and berates that fringe while simultaneously feeding from the hand it bites, but it nevertheless very definitely takes a minimalist view of the existence of Arthur, king or otherwise. Nick Higham is well-placed to authoritatively examine the historical contexts in which the Arthurian legend grew, and does so in very great detail; a short review can only highlight one or two of the original contributions this study makes to the literature.

Continue reading “Throwing cold water on a legend”

A fascinating study of a fantastical building

Edward III's tomb effigy, Westminster Abbey
Edward III’s tomb effigy, Westminster Abbey (Wikipedia Commons)

Julian Munby, Richard Barber, Richard Brown
Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor:
the House of the Round Table and
the Windsor Festival of 1344

Boydell Press 2007

Historical re-enactments have always been popular, especially in the late 20th century, from the Society for Creative Anachronism in America, through English Civil War society The Sealed Knot and Dark Age re-enactment group Britannia in more recent years, to the 500th anniversary of the last great tournament in Wales (which was celebrated at Carew Castle in West Wales in May 2007). Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a supporter of Henry Tudor before he became king, marked his admission to the Order of the Garter with what became known as the Great Carew Tournament of 1507, and appropriately enough his family’s poet, Rhys Nanmor, compared Carew Castle to King Arthur’s palace.

But the enthusiasm for historical re-enactment goes back much further back than this, Continue reading “A fascinating study of a fantastical building”

A fishy tale

Zodiac Window (c.1220): Pisces

Avril Plaisantin The Salmon of Wisdom
March Hare Publications 2014

A few years ago I was crossing a car park with an acquaintance of mine. It was late evening; we’d just been at a convivial meeting discussing matters Arthurian and were in good spirits; and we just happened to glance to the north when we were virtually struck speechless, rooted to the spot. What we saw in the night sky was an inexplicably regular array of lights, moving extremely slowly west to east. They were equidistant from each other – about three fingers apart when I held my hand up – forming a network, a reticulation of about twenty-four points of light, not winking like stars but shining steadily like bright planets. We watched for about five minutes, saying little but the obvious, comparing notes, and then set off on our journey. We never spoke of it again. Well, would you?

I was reminded of this again when thinking about The Salmon of Wisdom, a strange little publication with some Arthurian detail which I recently came across. Confusingly written – it jumps around from point to point, as these self-published booklet often do – it contained a number of ideas, many of which I’d previously come across, plus a number of assertions, which frankly I would find argument with.

The author starts with a discussion of the Four-and-Twenty Knights at the Court of King Arthur, Pedwar marchog ar Hugain Llys Arthur as the original 15th-century Welsh has it, who each had “an innate peculiarity of achievement beyond other people”. She also cites older Welsh Triads which list Three Enchanter Knights and Three Skilful Bards, the latter of which include the poet Taliesin. She then embarks on a long discourse about the 16th-century Hanes Taliesin, translated into English by Lady Guest in the middle years of the 19th century. Here King Maelgwn asks Taliesin what he is and whence he came, and Taliesin tells him: “My original country is the region of the summer stars … I have been in the firmament with Mary Magdalene.” And so on and on, a boastful curriculum vitae similar to those which other bards, equally inspired, bigged themselves up. So far, so good.

Then the author sets sail on her main thesis, which is that Arthur and his contemporaries came, not from Wales or Northern Britain, but from “the region of the summer stars”. In other words Continue reading “A fishy tale”

No place

yucatan2
The Yucatan peninsula: More’s model for Utopia?

Lorainne G Stobbart Utopia, Fact or Fiction?
The Evidence from the Americas  Sutton Publishing Ltd 1992

It is 1492, when Columbus sails the ocean blue. Though it is that tipping point when the European consciousness is suddenly expanded by the knowledge that it has genuinely discovered a New World, it takes Columbus until 1498, when on his third expedition, to realise that he has touched on the mainland of ‘a very great continent, until today unknown.’ He explores the Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad and the shores of Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama before his death in 1506.

But he is not the only explorer. Continue reading “No place”

Looking Both Ways

Janus on a 3rd-century coin (Wikipedia Commons)
Janus on a 3rd-century coin (Wikipedia Commons)

Traditionally when approaching year’s end and anticipating the new a janiform attitude is called for. To celebrate a year of reading I’ve decided to highlight twelve posts, one for each month and chosen more or less at random, which I hope you might enjoy reading for the first time (or re-reading if you’re already familiar with them).

First is a discussion Continue reading “Looking Both Ways”

The Ark, the Grail and the dog’s dinner

ark_of_the_covenant

Graham Hancock The Sign and the Seal
Mandarin 1993 (1992)

I experienced a sense of déjà vu when I first picked up this paperback: black cover, red titles, a yellow band with the legend “the explosively controversial international bestseller” emblazoned across the front. Back home I realised why. The design was a rip-off of (or, if you prefer, a loving homage to) The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent et al from a decade before. Oh dear – more hype and more tripe, I sensed, for Holy Blood, Holy Grail was a real dog’s dinner of a few facts, a lot of fiction and huge dollops of sensationalist speculation.

In essence the book is, as it subtitle proclaims, “a quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant”. This artefact, popularised by the first of the Indiana Jones films, was ordered by Moses to be built near Mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt. Modelled on Egyptian royal furniture, it functioned both as a container for the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and as the seat of the invisible Israelite god Yahweh. Ensuring victory in battles for the Promised Land, it was placed in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem around the middle of the 10th century BC. And, after some subsequent references in the Old Testament, it simply disappears.

It is at this point that most crank theories begin. Continue reading “The Ark, the Grail and the dog’s dinner”

A commendable compendium

King Arthur by Julia Margaret Cameron
Nineteenth-century photographic study for a portrait of King Arthur, by Julia Margaret Cameron

The New Arthurian Encyclopedia
Edited by Norris J Lacy et al
Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 1996

With the publication of The Arthurian Encyclopedia in 1986 students were able to access, in one volume, academic discussion on a range of Arthurian topics — art, history, literature, fiction, drama, music and cinema for example — across space and time, all listed in alphabetical order. In 1991 an updated hardback edition was published as — naturally — The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, followed by a paperback edition in 1996 which was itself supplemented by an addendum detailing video games and new fiction that had appeared in the intervening years.

Anybody remotely interested in Arthurian matters should own or at least have regular access to this last volume, despite a desperate need for it to be updated yet again some two decades on from its last publication. Continue reading “A commendable compendium”

Celts, cults and comprehensiveness

Newport church, Pembrokeshire http://wp.me/s36La9-celtic
Newport church, Pembrokeshire http://wp.me/s36La9-celtic

James MacKillop Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Oxford University Press 1998

The tag “Celtic” is one of those catch-all but often meaningless labels that are a lazy shorthand for anything mystical, fey or even implicitly racial. Too often it is used by those profoundly unaware of its scholarly origins in linguistics or cultural history, so it is refreshing to have this Dictionary written by a specialist displaying his undoubted expertise in linguistics, literature, archaeology, history and comparative religion. Continue reading “Celts, cults and comprehensiveness”