Britain is blessed with some truly magnificent ancient sites. Every year tourists flock to the great megaliths of Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire, the Callanish Stones in the Hebrides and Castlerigg in the Lake District. However, the prehistory in Britain goes back far longer and is far more diverse than these well-visited monuments may suggest. Author and explorer Dave Hamilton looks at some of the lesser-known ancient sites around Britain; from a Palaeolithic cave burial and an ancient axe-polishing stone to a towering broch and site of prehistoric rock art.
King Arthur’s Hall, St Breward, Cornwall
In a desolate, windswept corner of Bodmin Moor, in the shadow of Cornwall’s highest peaks, an unusual rectangular configuration of 56 stones set in a manmade bank of earth lies open to the elements. The site has been known as King Arthur’s Hall since the 16th century but it is doubtful it ever had anything to do with any figure connected to the legendary monarch. It is thought there were once up to 140 stones, first erected in the Neolithic period – although beyond that, its purpose remains a mystery. It has been suggested it might have been a meeting point for tribal elders, who would gather within the rectangular interior of the upright stones. Similar sites in France and Ireland were used for cremation and it is possible King Arthur’s Hall served the same function. However, there is no direct archaeological evidence to back this claim. Some have even suggested that it is not Neolithic at all but a medieval cattle enclosure.
The consensus seems to be that it is at least 4,500 years old and probably served some sort of ritual purpose – although this is often shorthand for “we don’t really know”! It does seem to be one small piece of a larger landscape of sites, with associated stone circles; cists (stone coffin or burial chamber) and monoliths dotted around the surrounding moor.
The climate on the moor can be unforgiving, so the centre of the site is often flooded and boggy. Nevertheless it is a magical place to visit and quite unlike any other ancient monument in the country.
The Grey Wethers and the Polisher Stone, Avebury, Wiltshire
On Fyfield Down, just off the Ridgeway path near Avebury in Wiltshire, there is a large field containing hundreds of glacial deposited stones. It is a spectacular site, often known as the Grey Wethers (but also known as Mother’s Jam), as from a distance the grey sarsen stones resemble countless grazing sheep. Not to be confused with the Dartmoor stone circle of the same name, these rocks provided easily accessible building material for the Neolithic people who erected the great stone circles of Avebury and the Long barrow at West Kennet.
Among the deposited sarsens, one stone particularly stands out (if you can find it!): the ‘Polisher Stone’. A series of grooves were carved into this recumbent stone by generations of people polishing their stone axes. Stones marked in this way are a common sight in France but are much rarer in Britain. Polished axes were traded throughout ancient Britain and it is thought most were never used for cutting down trees or any other practical purpose. Instead, current thinking is they were both a status symbol for Neolithic man (akin to the modern-day Swiss watch), and an item of ritualistic practice, perhaps like a ceremonial mace.
Although we will never know for certain, the Polisher Stone’s proximity to the ancient Ridgeway path might suggest the rock formed part of a ritualised walk toward the end of the pilgrimage to Avebury during the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age. Look for the stone on the hill between the main field of Sarsens and the Ridgeway path, or see my book, Wild Ruins B.C. (Wild Things Publishing, 2019) for more detailed instructions.
Paviland Cave, Gower, South Wales
Around 33,000 years ago the body of a man was placed into a cave that overlooked a vast, flat plain of grazing mammoths, deer and antelope. Around his neck were shell necklaces and on his wrists were rings made from mammoth bone. The funeral party may have covered his body with red ochre, or he may have been laid to rest in clothing dyed with the pigment.
The man would have been in his 20s and, although perhaps a little larger, physically he would have been no different to you or me.
He was part of an upper-Palaeolithic group of people known as Cro-Magnons – modern humans, who followed on from, and perhaps crossed over with, Neanderthals, appearing in Europe 40,000 years ago. Significantly, he was buried with grave goods and a mammoth skull was placed, like a headstone, above the body, making this the oldest ritualised burial ever found in Britain. We cannot know how the man died but the presence of the ochre and jewellery, along with the mammoth skull, have led some to believe he was either a shaman or celebrated hunter.
Thousands of years later, long after his body had decomposed, the ochre remained, staining his bones red. In 1823 the remains were discovered by the theologian and geologist William Buckland. The staining of the bones along with its proximity to a Roman camp, led him to believe these were the bones of a female, Roman-era prostitute, living in isolation to solicit her trade. With a belief system centred around the teachings of the Bible, much like his peers at the time, Buckland simply could not have contemplated the true age of the skeleton. To further fit this view, he suggested the ‘woman’s’ mammoth bone jewellery was fossilised ivory dug up by her kinsmen. Because of this gender confusion and the red-stained bones, he came to be known as ‘The Red Lady of Paviland’.
Sea levels are much higher today than they were in Palaeolithic and the cave now stands on the shores of the Gower Peninsula. Although the cave is well documented, it can be difficult to find and is a treacherous place to get to. A visit needs to be timed with the retreating tides, as many have found themselves cut off from land, forced to spend the night in the cave!
Thornborough Henges, near Thornborough, North Yorkshire
A series of three, 240-metre diameter henge circles, 1,000 paces apart, the Thornborough Henges would have been constructed with nothing more than antler and bone tools and signifies many thousands of hours of labour. The central henge of the three would have been covered in gypsum, which glowed a brilliant white both in daylight and under the glow of the full moon. As with all Neolithic sites, we cannot know its true purpose, but it is thought to have astrological significance, being linked with the rising of Orion’s Belt in the night sky. This may have seen the henge (or henges) used for ceremonies during key times of the year.
Whatever its purpose, it did not sit alone in the landscape. An associated cursus (or large dug out), ceremonial walkway and six henge circles have also been found in the local area, along with countless burial mounds. Such is the extent of the site, it must have rivalled Stonehenge for its importance to the people of the Neolithic period and it is likely people came to visit from far and wide. Two of the henge circles are found on open grassland with a third – the most atmospheric – now hidden amongst a large grove of trees.
Midhowe Broch, Orkney Islands, Scotland
The Scottish brochs were large towers thought to have once housed elite tribesmen along with their families, and perhaps even their animals. Situated mostly in the north of mainland Scotland – the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands – they look like modern-day cooling towers. Midhowe itself is one of many brochs densely packed on the shores of Eynhallow Sound – the stretch of water which separates the island of Rousay from Orkney mainland.
Its strategic location and the presence of holes, through which spears can be thrust, suggests it was used for defensive purposes. However, just as with the hillforts to the south, these may have been used as a mark of status or a show of power, rather than serving solely as a stronghold.
Despite the remote, northern location of Midhowe, Roman artefacts have been found on the site, suggesting direct or indirect trading links with the Roman Empire. Around a third of the defensive wall still stands, along with stairs; proposed kennels for guard dogs either side of the entrance; flagstone furniture and even a working water cistern. The completeness of the broch gives a remarkable insight into life during the Scottish Iron Age.
Ballochmyle rock art, Scotland
Tucked away in a small woodland, just off the river Ayr, about 10 miles due east of Prestwick and 25 miles southwest of Glasgow, lies one of the most enigmatic prehistoric sites in Britain. Etched into a large outcrop of red sandstone are some of the most extensive examples of rock art made by a pre-Christian civilisation found in Britain. Thought to date to the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, the markings are referred to as ‘cup and ring marks’, as they often show a series of rings emanating from a cup-like indentation. They can be found elsewhere in Scotland, Northern England, Ireland and continental Europe, with similar markings also found in Australia and Mesoamerica.
During the Neolithic and early Bronze Age, rivers would have been an important way to navigate through a sometimes densely-populated area. The proximity of the Ballochmyle rock art to the river therefore could suggest these were way-markers or etchings made to appease the river gods to grant their safe passage. Others say they could have been signposts for lost travellers, star-charts, or even an ancient form of writing.
The Devil’s Ring and Finger, Midlands, England
It is rare to find Neolithic monuments of any kind in the Midlands, let alone one like the Devil’s Ring and Finger. It is one of only a handful of circular stones found in Britain and Ireland. It contains perhaps the largest carved hole of any prehistoric monument in the country, much larger than the far more famous Mên-an-Tol in Cornwall. However, unlike its Cornish counterpart, the Devil’s Ring and Finger has only one, rather than two associated monoliths, in addition to the circular stone – hence the name ring and finger.
However, as the monument was removed from its original site some time in antiquity to make way for the plough, we can never really know what the original configuration looked like, or indeed what it was for. It has been suggested that it may have been part of a stone circle or the only surviving part of a chambered tomb, much like Cotswold Severn family tombs south of the site.
The monument now lies on the edge of a farmer’s field and in all but the winter months is almost completely obscured from view by a small copse of trees and crop growth. The present owner of the farm tolerates walkers visiting the site – as long as they respect his crops and livestock by sticking to the field boundary.
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Borvemore, Isle of Harris, Scotland
Also known as Scarista, the Borvemore standing stone sits on a wild, windswept, Hebridean headland between two long, often deserted, white sandy beaches. Below the stone, the azure blue waters which wash onto the beach are some of the most unpolluted in the world. At times, if it wasn’t for the changeable climate, you could be fooled into thinking you were in the Seychelles rather than Scotland.
It is likely that the stone was not erected as a monolith, and was instead part of a larger stone circle. There are signs of others in the area and it may be that Borvemore was once part of a much larger ritualist landscape. We know from climate surveys that when the stone was erected the weather was far more favourable than it is today. With this in mind, it is not difficult to see why ancient people would have favoured a life on these idyllic islands.
Dave Hamilton is the author of Wild Ruins B.C.: the explorer’s guide to Britain’s ancient sites (Wild Things Publishing, 2019), which reveals Britain’s extraordinary ancient history, from 10,000 years ago to the birth of Christ. It is the sequel to his first travel book, Wild Ruins (Wild Things Publishing, 2015).