Stonehenge, King Arthur and Merlin

8 01 2017

Merlin makes his first appearance in the Stonehenge story in Book 8, Chapter 10, of Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s epic work “Historia Regum Britanniae” (The History of the Kings of Britain, c. 1136AD) when Aurelius Ambrosius – recently annointed King of Britain and the brother of Uther Pendragon – seeks his advice for a lasting memorial to the British princes treacherously slain by the Saxons during a truce.

Merlin says:
“If you are desirous to honour the burying-place of these man with an everlasting monument, KIng Arthurs Merlin at Stonehengesend for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever.”

When Aurelius laughs at the idea of going such a long way when there are ample stones in Britain, Merlin continues:

“I entreat your majesty to forbear vain laughter; for what I say is without vanity. They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coasts of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness. For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is no a stone there which has not some healing virtue.”

And so off to Ireland goes Uther along with Merlin and 15,000 men to fetch the Giant’s Dance.

Robert Wace’s Roman de Brut from about 1155AD retells this story for a Norman French audience. A 14th Century manuscript version of the Brut accompanies the tale with an illustration of Merlin carrying out the work of re-erecting the monument, employing a giant to help him (a detail that Wace added that wasn’t in Geoffrey’s original text).

Aurelius subsequently dies – poisoned by a Saxon at Winchester – and is buried near the Giant’s Dance, reputedly in the largest barrow on Coneybury Hill (Amesbury G23 “King Barrow”) according to local tradition written down by Stukeley in the 18th Century.

Uther succeeds Aurelius and then Uther’s son Arthur receives the crown after Uther also succumbs to Saxon poison whereupon “the bishops and clergy of the kingdom assembled, and carried his body to the convent of Ambrius, where they buried it with regal solemnity, close by Aurelius Ambrosius, within the Giant’s Dance.”

Arthur’s famous exploits are well documented in the romances, but ultimately Geoffrey reports him mortally wounded and departed to the Isle of Avalon, to be replaced by Constantine, son of Cador of Cornwall.

Constantine was eventually killed by Conan and “buried close by Uther Pendragon within the structure of stones, which was set up with wonderful art not far from Salisbury, and called in the English tongue Stanheng”.

There is only one documented burial of a body actually within the centre of the stone circle of Stonehenge itself, known as WA2724, which was discovered by Col. William Hawley in 1926. Whether this is either Uther or Constantine (or neither) is unknowable and the dating is difficult since the burial was badly disturbed and found with pottery from medieval to Bronze Age in date plus a Roman coin and some Victorian and Georgian artifacts as well.

The next nearest inhumation is from fractionally outside the circle on the east side, known as WA1676 and discovered by Hawley in 1923. This person was decapitated from behind, probably with a sword, and then unceremoniously stuffed into a grave not big enough for the body. It does date from Anglo-Saxon times, around 650AD. Interestingly, the very first radiocarbon date for this burial was commissioned by a Welsh dentist called Wystan Peach in 1975 – he was convinced the bones were those of King Arthur himself and published a booklet describing his theory in 1961.

More recently two novels have sought to place Arthur and Merlin back in the Bronze Age at the time of the construction of Stonehenge rather than in the post-Roman Dark Ages – “Stone Lord” and “Moon Lord”, by J.P. Reedman. Drawing on the latest archaeological discoveries from the Stonehenge landscape these novels are a fascinating addition to the mythology of these legendary characters that are so iconic to the British sense of self.

stonelord moonlord

Article by guest blogger and local Stonehenge historian Simon Banton

MoonLord: The Fall of King Arthur – The Ruin of Stonehenge.  Buy on Amazon
StoneLord: The Legend Of King Arthur, The Era Of Stonehenge. Buy on Amazon
Visit Janet Reedmans Blog for more information

Recent Blog: Druid Leader King Arthur Uther Pendragon, Head of the Loyal Arthurian Warband.

English Heritage: The King Arthur Story and links to Arthurian locations
BBC HistoryKing Arthur, ‘Once and Future King’

Stonehenge Guided Tours offer King Arthur Tours including Stonehenge and associated sites in the South West of England.

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Ever wondered where the builders of Stonehenge lived? Discover Durrington Walls with a landscape guide.

25 10 2016

Discover Durrington Walls.  Join the National Trust landscape guides to explore the secrets of Durrington Walls – once home to the builders of Stonehenge – and discover 6,000 years of hidden history (2.5 – 3 mile walk).

16th November 2016 at 1pm

Event ticket prices
Adult £8.00
Child £0.00

Booking details
Call National Trust Direct: 0844 249 1895
More details on the National Trust website

Why did the builders of Stonehenge choose Salisbury Plain?

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Barrows or Burial Mounds Near Stonehenge.

5 10 2016

The area within a 2 mile radius around Stonehenge contains more than 300 Bronze Age burial mounds or “barrows”. Often these are clustered into what are termed “cemeteries” – groups of barrows that often occur along the ridgelines within sight of the stone circle. Almost all have been opened by investigators and treasure hunters prior to the 20th century and have had their grave goods removed.

The nearest ones to Stonehenge are within easy walking distance – 10 to 20 minutes away – and the views across the landscape are well worth the journey. Please don’t climb the barrows, tempting though it is, as they are easily eroded.

Less than a mile to the east lie the King Barrows under the beech trees on the horizon to the north of the A303 main road. These are amongst the very few barrows that have not been opened by antiquaries in the 18th or 19th centuries and are some of the largest and oldest.

Northwest of Stonehenge are the Cursus Barrows, a group that is easily accessible – being less than a quarter of a mile from the entrance to the monument field. These were all excavated by William Cunnington and Richard Colt Hoare in the early 19th century.

The double bell barrow in this group had previously been opened by Lord Pembroke in 1722 and it contained some very fine grave goods including a dagger; amber, shale and faience beads as well as a gold mounted amber disc which all accompanied the cremated remains of a young teenage girl.

Within the monument field itself, 100m east of the stone circle, sits a wonderful example tweezersof a bell barrow. It was excavated twice by Cunnington and on his second attempt he discovered a cremation burial within an urn along with a beautiful set of bone tweezers which are now in Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.

Visible from Stonehenge on the ridge south of the main A303 road are the Normanton Down Barrows, a huge linear cemetery of burial mounds. This group is on private farmland and so cannot be visited.

stonehenge-cupWithin the group is a bell barrow catalogued as Wilsford G8 that contained some extraordinary items of gold and amber jewellery along with a ceramic incense vessel that is known as the “Stonehenge Cup” because of a perceived resemblance to the monument.

At the time of writing (October 2016), the items from Wilsford G8 are on display in the
Stonehenge Visitor Centre Exhibition, on loan from Wiltshire Museum.

Also in this group is the famous Bush Barrow – so called because it has a large bush growing out of the top of it.

The excavation of this barrow in 1808, again by Cunnington and Colt Hoare, found the body bush-barrow-lozengeof an adult male laid north-south accompanied by one of the most spectacular grave assemblages ever found in Britain, including two lozenges of sheet gold, a polished macehead and 5 cylindrical bone mounts, bronze and copper daggers, and thousands of tiny gold pins used to decorate the hilt. All of the Bush Barrow finds are on display in Wiltshire Museum.

There is an interactive map showing all of the barrows which were investigated by Cunnington and Colt Hoare in the Stonehenge landscape at http://web.org.uk/barrowmap/

The Ordnance Survey 1:25000 Explorer Map 130 “Salisbury and Stonehenge” is an excellent reference for exploring the area, showing public footpaths and National Trust open access land.

This weeks article was submitted by guest blogger and local Stonehenge expert Simon Banton

Stonehenge Landscape walking Tours:
National Trust: Walk with an archaeologist: Durrington Revealed
Local Tour Operator: Stonehenge and Salisbury Guided Tours
Foot Trails:  Full Day Stonehenge Guided Walking Tours
Tours from London:  The Stonehenge Experts
Durrington Walls, Wiltshire walk of the week: The Daily Telegraph

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Sights to visit around Stonehenge.

4 03 2016

While Stonehenge is by far and away the superstar of southern England, and no visit to Wiltshire is complete without touring it, Stonehenge is in fact just one of many ancient sites in the area. Indeed, the surrounds of Stonehenge contain the most densely-grouped collection of neolithic sites and monuments within England – and more are being discovered all the time. It’s thought that the nearby settlement of Amesbury (believed to be the oldest in Britain) was a major cultural centre during the island’s ancient days. If you’ve got some time to spare during your Stonehenge trip, and want to take in some of the area’s other sights, here are a few suggestions:

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Within Walking/Cycling Distance Of Stonehenge – Woodhenge, Durrington Walls, The Cuckoo Stone

In all fairness, you can strike out in pretty much any direction from Stonehenge and hit archeological gold – although you may not always recognise it as such. Just be careful not to wander into the path of the military (who train on Salisbury Plain). If you’re cycling, be sure that you’re properly prepared for historically significant (but nonetheless unexpected) bumps and tumbles! Woodhenge, less than four miles from Stonehenge, is an odd sight at first glance. However, once you understand what you’re looking at, it becomes much more impressive. It’s thought that this was once a large burial mound with a complex system of banks and ditches (now eradicated through ploughing). Thousands of years ago, six concentric rings of wooden posts may have supported an enormous building. Today, the position of these posts are marked with stumps. It’s an atmospheric and very interesting place! A short walk away from Woodhenge is Durrington Walls – a recently discovered monument which in its heyday would have dwarfed Stonehenge. The ‘Walls’ were formed by lines of enormous stones, which could possibly have formed a processional way leading to Stonehenge itself. There’s not masses to see there now, but it’s still a lovely area! West of Woodhenge is the Cuckoo Stone – a sarsen boulder lying on its side. It was once a standing stone, the origins of which remain a matter of debate. It’s an enigmatic piece of history in a very atmospheric location.

Salisbury – Old Sarum, Salisbury Museum

Old Sarum is a wonderful visit for anyone with an interest in history. It’s the site of Salisbury’s oldest settlement – a hilltop fort commanding absolutely incredible views over Wiltshire. There’s an iron age hillfort to walk around, the remains of a castle to admire, and an absolutely breathtaking panorama which will give the camera-happy everything they could ever dream of. There are also plenty of events put on by English Heritage throughout the year, giving people the opportunity to really step back in time! Down in Salisbury itself, the Salisbury Museum is packed full of fascinating finds from all over the county. It’s a well laid-out and beautifully explained museum, with some truly intriguing exhibits. You can find it just opposite Salisbury Cathedral – which it itself a beautiful and interesting building.

A Short Drive Away – Avebury, West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill

A 40 minute or so drive from Stonehenge is Avebury. Managed by the National Trust, this ancient stone circle sits in a Neolithic landscape incorporating avenues of standing stones, a henge, and an enormous stone circle in which a village was once situated. The stone circle itself is the largest in the world, and contains two smaller circles. A short walk away is West Kennet long barrow, which can be entered by those who are neither claustrophobic nor fearful of our long-dead ancestors! Then, of course, there are the round barrows with which the landscape is littered, and the curious structure of Silbury Hill. Silbury Hill is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, and would have taken similar effort to construct as its contemporary pyramids in Egypt. It was clearly important to those who built it – although, unlike most barrows of its kind, it contains no burial. Its purposes remain perplexing, but its presence is both beautiful and fascinating! Anyone with an interest in Stonehenge and its ilk, particularly those who enjoy the mystery of the structure, will find much to whet their appetites at Avebury and Silbury!

There are Stonehenge tour companies who operate guided tours of the area and the Visit Wiltshire webiste lists the best ones.  If you want to explore the Stonehenge landscape with a local expert then we recommend ‘The Stonehenge Travel Company

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The Stonehenge Landscape Tour, introduced by Phil Harding: CBA Members’ Event

22 02 2015

Join Time Team favourite Phil Harding and expert guide Pat Shelley for a unique exploration of the Stonehenge landscape at the exclusive Council for British Archaeology (CBA) and English Heritage (EH) members’ event on Sunday 19th April 2015.

EH-Tour

The pair will be leading a walk through some of the often-overlooked enigmatic elements of the landscape, combining rich archaeological background with personal anecdotes and replica artefacts. The walk will take around an hour and a half, and highlights will include round barrows at nearby Fargo Woods and the Cursus barrow group, before visiting the Cursus itself. The culmination of the walk will see our group descending into Stonehenge Bottom before walking up the Avenue to Stonehenge.

CBA and EH members will meet at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre where they can enjoy complimentary refreshments Phil supporting the New YAC Dolls raising money for the Young Archaeologists' Clubbefore beginning the walk at 11.30am. Participants should wear suitable clothing and footwear for the walk, and be of a reasonable level of fitness. Please note that this is a walk around the wider Stonehenge landscape putting the monument into its context, and does not include access into the stones themselves.

Tickets for this CBA and EH members’ event are just £30 per head, and can be booked now via the English Heritage events booking line on: 0370 333 1183. Proceeds from the walk will go towards supporting the work of the Young Archaeologists’ Club (YAC).

Phil Harding is best known and loved as the hat-wearing archaeologist from Channel 4’s Time Team. His expertise lies in© www.tripadvisor.com.au prehistory, and his personal experience and anecdotes – coupled with the opportunity to handle some of his beautiful handmade replica artefacts – will add a unique extra dimension to your walking tour.

Pat Shelley is an experienced independent guide, with years of experience of bringing Stonehenge and its landscape to life. Described on ‘TripAdvisor’ as “the ONLY way to see Stonehenge”, Pat is an engaging speaker who will be only to pleased to share his love of Stonehenge with you, and answer any questions that you might have.

Visit the Council for British Archaeology Website for full details.

Visit the English Heritage website if you are planning to visit Stonehenge

Stonehenge Guided Tours offer frequent tours and many also include ‘Stonehenge Inner Circle Access Tours

The Visit Wiltshire website lists local operators based in Salisbury offering Stonehenge tours

Merlin @ Stonehenge
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Midwinter walk: Explore the ancient Stonehenge Landscape on the Winter Solstice with National Trust

5 12 2014

On the midwinter solstice, explore the ancient monuments of the Stonehenge landscape. This walk is around four and a half miles.

21st December 2014: Ancient ceremonial landscape of great archaeological and wildlife interest:Stonehenge Landscape

Within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, the National Trust manages 827 hectares (2,100 acres) of downland surrounding the famous stone circle.

Walking across the grassland, visitors can discover other prehistoric monuments, including the Avenue and King Barrow Ridge with its Bronze Age burial mounds.

Nearby, Winterbourne Stoke Barrows is another fascinating example of a prehistoric cemetery. While Durrington Walls hides the remains of a Neolithic village.

Today thanks to their extensive programme turning ploughed fields into pasture, you can explore the landscape and follow in the footsteps of the people who built and used Stonehenge.

Booking essential: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/stonehenge-landscape/things-to-see-and-do/events/

National Trust Stonehenge Landscape Tours:  http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/stonehenge-landscape/

Merlin at Stonehenge
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Stonehenge experiment to be repeated with ‘lost’ stones

14 11 2014

Another attempt is to be made to solve the mystery of how the largest stones used to build Stonehenge were moved.

The experiment was first carried out in a BBC documentary in 1996

The experiment was first carried out in a BBC documentary in 1996

In 1996, a BBC TV programme aimed to find out how the stones for the largest trilithon were put into place, and how the lintel was placed on top.

Since then the concrete replicas have remained untouched and forgotten about at an army base on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

They have now been rediscovered and the experiment will be repeated.

Archaeologist Julian Richards is teaming up with farmer Tim Daw see if modern techniques are any more efficient.

Mr Daw, who farms at All Cannings, near Devizes, and who created the first “Neolithic” long barrow to be built in the UK for 5,500 years, also works part-time at Stonehenge.

He said one of the most popular questions asked by visitors is ‘how were the giant stones moved?’.

“When Julian Richards mentioned there was a life-sized replica of the largest stones at Stonehenge that were looking for a home that we could do some experiments on I said ‘let’s do it’.”

The 45-tonne replicas were used in the BBC documentary Secrets of Lost Empires: Stonehenge, which was broadcast in 1996.

They have remained at Larkhill Camp, about a mile from Stonehenge ever since.

The experiment was partially successful, but now new theories have emerged about how the stones may have been moved.

“The first thing is to collect the stones from Salisbury Plain where they have been languishing for the past 20 years and get them back to my farm,” said Mr Daw.

“Hopefully next year we’ll get some teams of people [to take part in the experiment]”

Mr Daw said different theories had now emerged about how the huge stones could have been moved.

“The experts certainly think they know more. Whether they actually do know more is an interesting question.

“Without trying all the wonderful ideas of how you do it Neolithic style, just using man power – no wheels, no draught animals, no machinery – we can’t tell what is practical and what is just fantasy.”

It is hoped the result of the experiment will be turned into another television programme to air next year.

Full story: BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-30041330

Merlin at Stonehenge
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