Stonehenge Field Notes

2022 is the year of Stonehenge. A new exhibit at the British Museum collects artifacts from Neolithic and early-Bronze Age Europe, giving context to “The World of Stonehenge.” I recently took a camera through the gallery, as part of a larger video project about the monument. This culminated in Wiltshire where I spent the morning filming within Stonehenge itself.

You can watch the video below, or at YouTube.

See also: Help Save Stonehenge.

Megalithic Journals

Balanced Rock in North Salem, New York was the subject of a post I made in July, one of two experiments with video so far. I filmed the footage during a visit to the site in April. You can watch it here at the blog or on YouTube. Below is a transcription of my field notes which formed the basis for the narration of that video.

Balanced Rock is a stone structure consisting of an enormous boulder supported above ground by five smaller stones.

The boulder is an erratic, weighing between sixty and ninety tons: pink granite from the Hudson Highlands. It was deposited at the site by a receding glacier at the end of the last ice age.

But did the glacier balance it, or did men?

Barry Fell believed that Balanced Rock is a megalith of the distinctive dolmen type found in Europe. This would be evidence that European mariners crossed the Atlantic and made inroads in the New World thousands of years before the first Viking expeditions. The megalithic tradition dates to the Neolithic period with dolmen-building activity heavily concentrated between 4000 and 2500 B.C.

From the plaque erected by North Salem Historical Society: “It has been suggested in recent years that this may be a dolmen—a Celtic ceremonial stone used to memorialize the dead.”

A dolmen is the inner framework of a portal tomb, consisting of a base standing stones arranged vertically, with capstone laid horizontally across the top, forming a chamber. Within this chamber human remains would be placed and the whole thing covered over with cairn stones and earth, forming a mound or tumulus or barrow.

It is possible that burial was a secondary feature of these structures, much as it is at a parish church, and they were built for other mysterious purposes. We see them in the British Isles, in Germany, Scandinavia, and France. Where the earthworks have eroded over time only the standing stones are visible.

In his book, America B.C., Dr Fell wrote “… the largest Celtiberian dolmen yet discovered in North America, located at North Salem, New York. The 90-ton capstone is supported on the apexes of five erect peg-stones. Probably the memorial of a Celtiberian king, the North Salem dolmen most closely parallels a similar monument near Dublin.” This is presumably a reference to the Glendruid Dolmen in Ireland.

Of course Dr Fell received a chilly reception for his theory in academia but it is not at all implausible. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Exeter established similarities between the earliest man-made tools in North America and the tools of the Solutrean culture that inhabited what is now France and the Iberian Peninsula during the Upper Paleolithic suggesting that the Solutreans brought their technology with them across the Atlantic. (See: Across Atlantic Ice by Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley.)

The megalith builders would have come much later but we can imagine successive waves of European exploration in the Atlantic preceding the historical record.

Balanced Rock certainly looks like a dolmen.

Into The Wild Wood

Every year I (re-)read Kenneth Grahame’s masterpiece The Wind in the Willows to my children. I favor the Candlewick Press edition illustrated by Inga Moore. It is a slight abridgment, omitting Mole’s and Rat’s encounter with the god Pan in “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” But this functions as a stand-alone story and can easily be supplemented by reading from another edition (there are several on our bookshelves).

The defining virtue here is Moore’s superlative illustration. She has accomplished precisely what Grahame himself has: a transcendent vision of the English countryside.

An interview with Moore about her illustration of The Wind in the Willows was published by The Guardian in 2010 and can be read on its website.

An Ancient Megalith in New York

A dolmen is a type of Neolithic tomb architecture found in Western Europe. So what would one be doing in a small town in the Hudson Valley? Balanced Rock in North Salem, New York is a unique example of (what appears to be) a European megalith in North America, long predating recorded transatlantic contact.

I filmed a short video about the structure and the question of its origin which you can watch below, or at YouTube.

Stonehenge Undermined

Associated Press reports:

The British government went against the recommendations of planning officials Thursday, approving controversial plans for a road tunnel to be built near the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge in southern England.

As I wrote back in 2018:

The lifespan of concrete is remarkably short. Modern reinforced concrete needs repairs after only fifty years. In the fullness of time the decay of the tunnel will destabilize the landscape around Stonehenge. Assuming this generation wishes to bequeath the monument to posterity the risk is unacceptable.

A regrettable outcome.

Update (July 2021): The High Court has ruled against the consent order; there is new hope for the old stones.

The Old Straight Track

John Michell writing in The View Over Atlantis describes the moment Alfred Watkins discovered ley lines:

One hot summer afternoon in the early 1920s Alfred Watkins was riding across the Bredwardine hills about 12 miles west of Hereford. On a high hilltop he stopped, meditating on the view below him. Suddenly, in a flash, he saw something which no one in England had seen for perhaps thousands of years.

Watkins saw straight through the surface of the landscape to a layer deposited in some remote prehistoric age. The barrier of time melted and, spread across the country, he saw a web of lines linking the holy places and sites of antiquity. Mounds, old stones, crosses and old crossroads, churches placed on pre-Christian sites, legendary trees, moats and holy wells stood in exact alignment that ran over beacon hills to cairns and mountain peaks. In one moment of transcendent perception Watkins entered the magic world of prehistoric Britain, a world whose very existence had been forgotten.

Pictured above: Michell photographed by Paul Broadhurst.

The Village Survival Guide

This week the Prince’s Countryside Fund released a Village Survival Guide. The 104-page booklet addresses challenges and needs facing rural communities in Britain. It follows from the belief of Prince Charles that, “The role of the countryside, with all its diversity and idiosyncrasies, in our national life is too important to be left to chance.”

The guide offers ten suggestions, including the reorientation of village life around the time-honored poles of pub, parish church, and post office. These are elaborated upon with stories and advice. Read the whole report and order a printed copy here.

Manhattan in Better Days

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer writing in The Century Magazine (May, 1897):

There have been times when the word “suburban” rang pleasantly in the ears of the citizen of New York. Such must have been the times, long ago, when Greenwich village and Chelsea village were the summer resorts of local magnates, and when Harlem village (legend affirms it) was a health-resort so placidly umbrageous, Dutch, and small that people who could not sleep in town were sent out there, assured of a week of unbroken slumber. And such, again, were the nearer times when all the isle was still suburban north of Washington Square, covered with farms, and dotted with country mansions that were often set in forest-like domains, and often fronted on the East or the North or the Harlem River.

England By Train With Eric Ravilious

The aesthetic of Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) blends traditional landscape painting, folk art, and modernism. He painted England in watercolors, with compositions often juxtaposing the contemporary and the ancient. The effect was always surprisingly harmonious. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the related works, Westbury Horse (1939) and Train Landscape (1940), which feature railways passing a Medieval, possibly prehistoric monument.

In his book, Eric Ravilious: Imagined Realities, Alan Powers describes these paintings: “One is seen from an adjacent slope at the same level, with a view over the Wiltshire plain, across which runs the railway with a train passing in the middle distance. The second…reverses the relationship, by viewing the hills and horse from the windows of a third class railway compartment.”

ericravilious2
Westbury Horse, by Eric Ravilious, 1939
ericravilious1
Train Landscape, by Eric Ravilious, 1940

According to Powers, “Train Landscape originally showed the Wilmington Giant from a similar viewpoint (both figures overlook railway lines near the foot of their hills), but was altered by Ravilious who cut away the window area and almost invisibly inserted three new panels.”

Around the same time, Ravilious painted a separate work featuring the Wilmington Giant. Here again we see (what might be) the view from a railway compartment, dynamic and static: the monument caught by the eye just before it passes.

ericravilious3
The Wilmington Giant, by Eric Ravilious, 1939