Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Stone Circles:Seeking the people behind the stones

by Mark Patton

For more than thirty years, I have been actively involved in the study of Europe’s megalithic monuments. From passage graves such as Maes Howe in Orkney, and Newgrange in Ireland; to the long barrows and stone circles of the Cotswolds; the standing stones of Brittany; and the stone temples of Malta, guide books and museum displays tell us that these structures were built between seven thousand and four thousand years ago, by Neolithic farmers who grew wheat and barley; kept cattle, sheep and pigs; and used pottery; but who had no knowledge of either metals or writing. Generally, the monuments themselves are assumed to have played some role in the religion of these people. Some were collective tombs, others clearly were not. Some of them are aligned towards particular rising or setting points of the sun. Those built six thousand years ago did not necessarily have the same function or significance as those built four thousand years ago.

I grew up in Jersey, surrounded by these monuments. At the age of seventeen, I hitch-hiked through France, to the great stone alignments of Carnac, in Brittany. Since then, I have visited hundreds of these monuments all over Europe; spent many days in museum stores, examining, measuring and drawing the artefacts found within them; and many months directing excavations of my own. In the course of this research, I published several works of non-fiction.

The alignments of Carnac, in Brittany. Extending over 5 Km, different sections were probably built at different times, some as early as 4500 BC, others perhaps as late as 3000 BC.

The cold stones of a monument, however, and the stone tools, pottery fragments and bones found within them, can tell us only so much about the people who built the monuments, and the societies in which they lived. The great archaeologist, Christopher Hawkes, used to talk about a “ladder of inference:” it was relatively easy, he argued, to talk about prehistoric technology; rather more difficult to talk about the economics of prehistoric communities; and almost impossible to draw inferences from the archaeological evidence about the belief systems or emotional lives of prehistoric people. For my part, however, I could never stand in a stone circle, or hold a stone axe in my hand, without wanting to understand these people in fully human terms. As an archaeologist, this frequently left me perching, somewhat precariously, at the very top of Hawkes’s ladder. Ultimately, it is what inspired me to write fiction about the distant past.

Recent archaeological discoveries have shed new light on these monuments. Some megaliths in Brittany, which had been thought to have been among the earliest (carbon dated to around 4500 BC), have been shown to have been made up of the broken fragments of monuments that were earlier still. At Gobeckli Tepe, in Turkey, a stone “temple” has been found to be more than eleven thousand years old, built not by Neolithic farmers, but by Mesolithic hunters and gatherers. In England, in the area around Stonehenge (one of the most iconic, but also one of the later monuments, built around four and a half thousand years ago), archaeologists have excavated the houses and the graves of some of the people who may have built the monument. Scientific analysis of the bones shows that some of these people (the first in Britain to use metals) came from far afield: from West Wales, the origin, also, of some of the stones at Stonehenge; and, in at least one case, from Austria or Switzerland (where copper, bronze and gold were worked long before their first appearance in Britain).

The passage grave of La Table des Marchand, Brittany. Dating to around 3800 BC, the carved stone upright at the end of the chamber, and the capstone which covers it, are broken fragments of an earlier monument.

Each individual discovery is like a piece in a jig-saw puzzle, and together, they allow us to build up a picture of a dynamic society, in which some people must have travelled great distances; in which new technologies were developed in some regions, and carried to others; and in which new ideas about life and death were circulating and being debated. It is against this background that I decided to set my novel, Undreamed Shores, in which I try, for the first time, to imagine, in three dimensions, the lives of the people whose remains I have studied for so many decades.

It is both a coming of age story and an epic journey narrative. Swept off course by the tides at the end of his first trading voyage, a young man, Amzai, finds himself washed up on the shores of a land unknown to his people. Here, he struggles to master the language spoken by Nanti, the woman who has rescued him; to understand the changing society of which she and her family are part; and, ultimately, to find his way, with Nanti and her brother, back to his own homeland, opening up new contacts and trade routes as he does so. The new world into which he is drawn, however, is one riven by tensions, jealousies and rivalries, for which his upbringing in an isolated community has done little to prepare him.

Grave picture thanks to Wessex Archaeology
This grave, found near Stonehenge, has some of the earliest copper and gold objects ever found in Britain. Chemical analysis of the man’s teeth shows that he grew up in Central Europe (probably in Austria or Switzerland).

In Undreamed Shores
the character of Nanti’s father, Arthmael, is based on this discovery.

Undreamed Shores is published by Crooked Cat Publications www.crookedcatbooks.com). It can be obtained in Kindle edition from Amazon and the paperback edition has been published in October 2012. Further details can be found on my website www.mark-patton.co.uk and blog http://mark-patton.blogspot.com


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Mark, this is amazing...thank you so much for this fabulous post. You have opened a door for me, one I intend to walk through...

  3. Apologies for the lack of pictures - some gremlins seem to have got into the system!

  4. Christy, you won't regret it. A lot of people don't realise how fascinating the British neolithic and later bronze age can be. You get lots of articles and tv shows talking about 'mysterious ' Stonehenge and putting in all sorts of nonsense such as aliens or Atlanteans, but the truth is far more interesting! And always remember too, of course, that most people of British ancestry will have some descent from these people too...they are our direct ancestors as much as the more commonly talked about Saxons, Vikings, Normans etc!

  5. Excellent post Mark. It was on a trip to Jersey last year that we stumbled on the stone circles... quite different to the other Channel Islands. I find the whole history fascinating. Thanks for the post

  6. This is really interesting. I recently read Neil Oliver's History of Ancient Britain, after seeing the TV programmes, and it was really fascinating to think of these people living so long ago, travelling so far and building these marvellous monuments, and being so closely in touch with the sea and seasons and movements of the stars, and yet unable - so far as we know - to write or give us any written record of how they actually felt or thought -which you are trying to do. The best of luck - I'm off to check out your book!

  7. My husband and I went to Drombeg and Carnac and several ancient sites. We visited a cairn in Brittany, very mysterious. I am sending him this link. Thanks for the wonderful article which brought back the mystery of it all!


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