Ancient wonders: five little-known archaeological sites in the UK

Our landscape is studded with reminders of past peoples. An expert in the field chooses her favourite windows into antiquity

The name means “stone with a hole” in Cornish and the site is probably about 4,000 years old, dating from the bronze age. There are more stones hidden under the turf. What’s clear is that you’re in an ancient landscape – there’s a neolithic enclosure on the hillside, bronze-age barrow burials and the Boskednan Nine Maidens stone circle nearby. Some 400 metres to the north of the Mên-an-Tol is the Mên Scryfa, probably a bronze-age standing stone that was reused some time between 450-650AD as a grave marker. It’s inscribed with RIALOBRANI CVNOVALI FILI in Roman lettering, meaning “Rialobranus, son of Cunovalus”. Rialobran, or Ryalvran, is a native Cornish name, and may mean “royal raven”.

These stones have borne witness to so much: the introduction of metallurgy, the arrival and departure of the Romans, the rise and fall of local leaders. But the legends that really stick are the ones that mark the drama of normal lives – crawl through the Holed Stone and your longing for a baby will be rewarded, they say; pass your baby through the stone, and you’ll protect them from rickets, consumption or fever. A portal to a safer future, drawn from a timeless past.

Prehistoric rock art, Ilkley Moor, West Yorkshire

Cup and ring marks on the ancient Badger Stone. Photograph: Ashley Cooper/Alamy
Cup and ring marks on the ancient Badger Stone. Photograph: Ashley Cooper/Alamy

British rock art isn’t colourful and impressive like the famous caves of Lascaux in France. Here it tends to be small and generally defies explanation. Look out, on rock outcrops and earthfast boulders, for carved, circular “cup marks”, often surrounded by concentric rings or linked by grooves. There are more than 400 known art sites on this famous moor alone, and thousands more across the country.

The markings seem too small to have been used as territorial markers. But maybe they denoted boundaries that were more subtle, perhaps for areas of the landscape only accessible to initiated people or elders. Maybe they were used in ceremonies for divining the future by reading patterns made by pouring liquids – perhaps milk, oil or blood – on to the rocks. Some research suggests patterns like these are a universal output when the human brain is high on magic mushrooms.

Whatever the truth, your guess is as good as the experts’. And Ilkley Moor is a magical place in which to ponder the truth. Two of the most impressive stones to visit are Badger Stone and Barmishaw Stone. They are both peppered with enigmatic markings made some 4,000 years ago. Find the stones using the 10-digit OS map grid references at stone-circles.org.uk.

Aberlemno stones, near Forfar, Angus

Pictish symbol stone at Aberlemno. Photograph: Alamy
Pictish symbol stone at Aberlemno. Photograph: Alamy

Aberlemno village boasts a collection of astonishing carved stones. The deeply incised images of animals, battles, and pairs of cryptic symbols were created by the Picts, indigenous tribes of northern Britain who lived from the first century AD to the end of the ninth. Much of what we know about them comes from unreliable classical writers, who describe a savage woad-painted people, wading naked through swamps to conduct guerilla warfare against the Romans. The stones suggest a very different reality.

The symbols seem to form a writing system of sorts – double disc and Z-rod, crescent and V-rod, mirror and comb, serpent, wolf, bull: the “language” is consistent across many sites, but until we find a British Rosetta Stone, we’re in the dark. The craftsmanship proves these were sophisticated people, keen on history, patrons of the arts.

The Picts embraced Christianity in the late sixth century, but continued to carve their ancient symbols too. In the churchyard there’s an astonishing masterwork telling the story of a battle, and a vast, elaborately decorated Celtic cross. The Celtic cross itself may have its origins in Pictland, where a Christian symbol was superimposed on to a pagan circle to create a potent, hybrid symbol. It continues to resonate today.

Earls Barton and Brixworth Anglo-Saxon churches, Northants

All Saints Church, Brixworth. Photograph: John Morrison/Alamy
All Saints Church, Brixworth. Photograph: John Morrison/Alamy

In the late 600s, buildings in central England began to be laid out on a standardised grid plan, using a unit of measurement called the perch (around 4.6 metres). It’s likely that the push for neatening things up came from religious communities increasing their control as landowners. We’ve lost most of these lines in our landscape, as they were obliterated by all that has come along since. But there are a few places where the old measurements survive.

Walk in the footsteps of Anglo-Saxons by pacing out perches at All Saints Church in Brixworth, Northamptonshire. Founded around AD680, this strangely tall and profoundly ancient building is magical. It’s one of the oldest Saxon buildings in the country, and feels a world away from the post-Norman medieval churches we’re more familiar with. For some reason, most people have never heard of it. It fits the perch plan: the nave measuring four perches by two, and the four bays each a perch long.

Then head to nearby Earls Barton to marvel at the Saxon church tower, constructed from stone but with the styling of a wooden-framed building. Distinctive long-and-short work and stone pilaster strips are clues to this being a culture that celebrated carpentry over stone masonry.

Lullingstone Roman villa, Eynsford, Kent

Part of a wall painting at Lullingstone Roman Villa showing early British christians at prayer from the 2nd century AD. Photograph: Alamy
Part of a wall painting at Lullingstone Roman Villa showing early British christians at prayer from the 2nd century AD. Photograph: Alamy

If you have memories of trudging round windswept historic walls on dull family trips, this is the place to exorcise those demons. Lullingstone was probably the country retreat of the governor of Britain and despite the intervening centuries, it feels like you’re getting a sneak peek “through the keyhole” to another era.

The villa remains are under a vast roof, making this an all-weather day out, and a light show brings the house to life. Wonder at the games played using the bone dice, the name of the dog carefully buried in the doorway of the granary, and the activities in the deep cellar used as a cult shrine.

Wall paintings – actual paintings by Roman people – of water nymphs survived because they were covered over when later residents redecorated. The family also transformed the room above into a Christian chapel – the earliest evidence of Christianity in Britain. Adorning the walls are unequivocally Christian chi-rho symbols, which combine the first and second letters of the Greek word for Christ.

The classical mosaics in the house, depicting Jupiter and Europa, and Bellerophon and the Chimera, may also contain covert Christian messages. This site reminds us to imagine Romans not just as conquerors and colonists, but as complex spiritualists too.

All Rights Reserved for Mary-Ann Ochota

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