In the shadow of the stones

Illustration by Tom Owen

Five thousand years ago, Britain looked vastly different than it does today. From the climate, to the plants and trees, to the animals and landscape, this small island located off the coast of mainland Europe, resembled little of the place we know today. When I think of our Neolithic ancestors however, I’m inclined to believe we have more in common than not.

Imagine a crisp autumn morning, an earthy smell and frosty breeze. Now picture a bustling market, filled with people selling their unique, handcrafted items. People coming and going, the air filled with a simultaneous excitement and calm as parents explore stalls with their children, picking up items, and deciding whether to take something home. Imagine this market is situated on a hillside, with mountains encroaching on the landscape around it. Seasonal changes mean that the grass becoming sparse on the ground below you, and you’re surrounded by huge grey stones arranged into an ominous circle.

Craftspeople are huddled around fires and stalls, while they carve wood and knap flint. You’ve travelled for miles from your summer homestead to be able to congregate with others, to browse the latest wares and exchange some gossip. You see an old friend; you share a hug and introduce them to the newest member of your family. You leave at the end of the day with an axe, which will be used to chop wood for the fires, to build a shelter you’ll return to year after year, or to cut the meat you’ll cook for your loved ones.

On a windy mid-November morning, we pulled up on a quiet country road, stretched our stiff legs and changed into some weather appropriate footwear. As I walked from the road to the farmer’s fence, following the map that told me where Castlerigg stone circle was, I imagined the people who walked this exact journey before me. I left the warmth of the car to walk through the harsh winds for only a few metres before I was greeted with the breath-taking scenery of Thirlmere valley, where the stones are. The stones sit at what feels like the edge of the earth; mountains stand tall around you and the weather hits you like you’re standing at the precipice of something fundamental. English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited the site in 1799 with William Wordsworth and noted that “the mountains stand one behind the other, in orderly array as if evoked by and attentive to the assembly of white-vested wizards”.

Every time I visit a stone circle, whether its Stonehenge in Wiltshire, or Long Meg and Her Daughters in Penrith, I’m taken aback by the ingenuity of our ancestors. Their ability to struggle, create and overcome in circumstances that would be seen by any as less than ideal. As well as serving as meeting grounds (or a market place in the case of Castlerigg), stone circles are undeniably a fantastic example of prehistoric public art, which is sometimes overlooked by those who study the functional uses of these sites. What is especially fascinating about Castlerigg however, aside from its dramatic location, is the sheer size of the structure. There are 40 stones in total, the tallest being 7 and a half feet high, and the circle is almost 100 feet in diameter. What the stones are there for, and who exactly put them there, are questions we’ll never be able to answer with total certainty. This makes prehistoric archaeology even more fascinating. As a student of archaeology, the scientist in me spent time being incredibly frustrated with the idea that there are things we will just never know about the ancient past. However, as I’ve grown and experienced more of my own life, I’ve been able to make connections with the humanity – with the lived experiences, with the emotions – of those who came before us, instead of being obsessed with simple truths. While still being informed by scientific discoveries being made today, it is those connections to humanity that motivates me and shapes my interest in archaeology. 

I admit that, in the past, the belief that most stone circles have ritualistic and religious connotations has made my eyes roll. In my naïve atheistic tendencies, I believed that this was a cop-out explanation of past societies, but I can now see ritual in everyday life – from your morning coffee to simple superstitions – and divorce religion from my narrow view of the Church of England. Reading an account of Neolithic life in a book by Francis Pryor, where he mentioned finding intact cooking implements that appeared to have been purposefully deposited in pits around communal structures, the mention of ritual made my brain question it immediately. Maybe there was another reason? Maybe they were moving on and didn’t want to carry a particular implement to another location? I thought of students throwing away perfectly good microwaves when they go home after finishing their degrees.

Later on, I was driving with a friend when I noticed her salute a magpie – which was something I’d seen her do a thousand times. We laughed when we both realised what she’d done, and when I pressed her, she said she instinctively did it to avoid bad luck. I thought back and remembered bringing home a new pair of school shoes as a child, putting them on the table without thinking and my mam shouting at me to move them quickly as she warned it would bring us bad luck. Neither my friend nor my mam are religious. Neither go to church or even believe in a Christian (or otherwise) god. Now I think about all the weird and wonderful things humans do that don’t have clear explanations, and it makes me feel more connected to the people who lived here 5000 years ago.

It feels strange to think of mass congregations at a time when weddings are cancelled and funerals are livestreamed; at a time where we’re all experiencing loneliness and alienation like never before, as we head in to winter months facing uncertainty over lockdown restrictions. This year has seen the cancellation of cultural festivals and major religious holidays have been adapted and celebrated in new ways. In the case of Eid, Muslim families took to local parks to exchange gifts and see their loved ones as meeting in households was banned. Some people donated the money they would have used for a large gathering to local charities.

At the time that Castlerigg was in use, it will have most certainly have been a meeting point for communities on important occasions, perhaps seasonal holidays such as the winter and summer solstices. Just like on Christmas and Eid, families will have met there and exchanged items with those who lived far away from each other. Perhaps they shared food and told stories to children, passing down traditions and teaching them about their gods. As Christmas looms and I think of how this year’s celebrations will look, I wonder how journeying to the circle must have been something they anticipated – and how much they would have planned ahead.

When the holiday season comes around, I think about the words and comfort, the excitement and the anxiety of extended families all in the same house. I imagine someone my age, back then, preparing for the trip to the circle, and what she might be thinking or feeling about it all. I think about the people that haven’t made it to Christmas, and how they’ll be honoured across the country. I think about how our ancestors honoured their relatives no longer with them.

Coronavirus and lockdown measures have changed 2020 in a lot of different ways, but they haven’t altered basic human experience. Technology has been adapted to ensure we can still contact the people we love, and we’ve had parties and conferences online. Thanks to social media, people are more connected than ever. This year will be very different, but as humans we will be able to overcome the adversity we’re facing, and in the process we’ll invent new traditions and rituals along the way.

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