Druid loses fight to have Stonehenge burials reinterred

A druid named King Arthur Pendragon has lost a legal bid to have human remains discovered at Stonehenge reinterred.

The cremated remains of more than forty individuals found at the stone circle in 2008 are currently being studied at Sheffield University. They’re due to remain there until 2015, at which point they’re supposed to be returned to Stonehenge. King Arthur stated in a BBC interview that the authorities have no plans to return the remains and he was fighting to have them reburied at once. The court rejected his claim, stating there was no evidence that the university and courts have acted outside the law.

King Arthur Uther Pendragon, shown here holding a staff and praying while celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge, is a prominent druid who often appears on British media. He had his name legally changed after he realized he was the reincarnation of King Arthur, his website says. King Arthur was one of the driving forces behind getting full public access for solstice celebrations at Stonehenge. He has also successfully campaigned for Druids to wear their traditional white robes while incarcerated, as he himself has been several times after political protests.

OK, I can practically hear the eyes rolling. Yes, this modern King Arthur is an eccentric like only an Englishman can be, but he’s bringing up a valid issue, and one that is contentiously debated in many nations. In the U.S., Native American groups have successfully lobbied to have human remains returned to them so they can be reburied in the traditional manner, rather than being left in museums to be studied. Native peoples in other nations have had varying levels of success.

One might also bring up the objection that the Celtic druids came long after the Neolithic, when Stonehenge was built, so that the stone circle isn’t a religious monument for them. But the fact is modern druids feel the site is sacred, and if we are to have freedom of religion, that means we have to accept not only Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, but also Druids, Mithraists, and Satanists. Freedom takes us outside our comfort zone.

In the past twenty years, public and academic opinion has generally shifted towards granting Native Peoples the rights to their remains, but the issue is less clear when it comes to prehistoric remains unrelated to any existing ethnic group. After 5,000 years, can the English really say they’re related to the people who built Stonehenge? The modern King Arthur says yes, but scientific opinion differs. This question has led to a lot of legal battles, especially in the U.S. with tribes claiming remains that archaeologists say don’t belong to them.

What do you think should be done with humans remains? “Don’t dig them up in the first place” isn’t always an option, since many remains come to light during modern construction or natural erosion. Tell us what you think in the comments section!

[Image courtesy Ann Wuyts]

Brimham Rocks: weird natural formations in Yorkshire

What do you see in this picture? In Victorian times, the local people called this The Dancing Bear. In a more PC age where we don’t humiliate animals for our entertainment (much) the name has been changed to The Dog. Looks like he’s begging at his master’s dinner table.

This is one of many rock formations at Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire, England. An ancient river laid down grit and sand in this region more than 300 million years ago, forming a sandstone called Millstone Grit. Wind and rain have been scouring it away ever since. Softer portions go first, while those layers with tougher ingredients take longer to weather. Thus over millions of years the once-featureless stone has been twisted into odd formations like this one.

Needless to say the rocks have been a Yorkshire landmark since before recorded history. In Victorian times it became a tourist destination, with lots of colorful names and stories attached to the stones. One spot is called Lover’s Leap where, according to an 1863 guidebook, a couple named Edwin and Julia decided to end their lives.

“They were madly in love with each other but Julia’s father wasn’t having any of it. Especially when Edwin asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He forbade them to see each other any more. But of course, they couldn’t stand to live without each other. They decided to leap off Brimham Rocks and spend eternity together that way. Julia’s father got wind of the plan and dashed up there to dissuade them – but they jumped before he could reach them. However, by some miracle, instead of plummeting to their dooms, they floated gently to the ground. “Some said that a fairy who lived among the rocks had witnessed their misery and knew they could be happy if only they were allowed to marry.” Perhaps it was the influence of the Druids – or maybe even the magic in the rocks themselves. More boring people put it down to Julia’s skirts being so voluminous. But whatever, her Father at last consented to their marriage and naturally they lived happily ever after.”

The mention of the Druids is significant. The Victorians were fascinated by all things Celtic and many scholars thought archaeological sites like Stonehenge had been built by these Celtic priests. Natural formations were attributed to the Druids too. One table-like formation is called “The Druid’s Writing Desk” although many people say it looks more like E.T. There are dozens more, like the Idol, the Bulls of Babylon, and the turtle. There are also spots where Mother Shipton, the famous Yorkshire soothsayer, made her prophecies and practiced her magic.

While Brimham Rocks didn’t make it onto our list of the 17 strangest natural wonders, it’s well worth a visit not just for its natural beauty but also for all the strange and funny folklore that’s glommed onto it over the years. How much of it is “real” folklore and how much has been made up by the guides? Who knows? Our guide did admit that in Victorian times visitors paid only what they felt like, so the guides were under some real pressure to entertain.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: York: capital of England’s north!

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.


Conversing with the Welsh ghosts of Nant Gwrtheyrn

Editor’s note: Jan Morris is universally considered one of the greatest living travel writers. She is the author of some 40 books, including the Pax Britannica trilogy and major studies of Wales, Europe, Sydney, Venice, Hong Kong and Trieste. She recently sent us this epistle from a sojourn into the linguistic heart of her homeland, Wales.

There is only one way to approach it. Down a violently precipitous and twisting road you must drive, along the edge of a deep, deep gulley, round several horseshoe bends, dizzily downwards through a dark conifer wood, until the road emerges, slightly shaken, on a wide shelf above the sea. Mountains tower above this secretive place, isolated sheep and feral horned goats meander about the heather and the bracken, there are ruined farm-houses here and there, and directly over the empty ocean is the hamlet called Nant Gwrtheyrn.

The name means Gwrtheyrn’s Spring, because among the ghosts of the village is the half-mythical Welsh king Gwrtheyrn, otherwise known as Vortigen, whose reputation in Wales is ambiguous because he collaborated with usurping Saxons out of England. He is supposed to have died here, and he has left behind him a host of ancillary legends. There is the story of the bride who, according to ancient Welsh custom, playfully hid herself from her bridegroom on the morning of her wedding, but was found years later, a skeleton in festive rags, hiding still in a split oak tree. There is the tale of the three monks who were not welcomed by the village, and responded by cursing it with three terrible curses, allegedly applicable to this day. Varied ghosts and apparitions, owls, coffins, divine fire, a marauding eagle, skeletons and cormorants, Romans and druids and pilgrims all figure in the blurred folk-memories of Nant Gwrtheyrn, and temper its atmosphere still.

Far below you on the shore, as you twist your way down through the woods, you may see the vestigial remains of three jetties. These are more substantial ghosts. For many centuries this valley was occupied only by a few hardy livestock farmers and fishermen, and by miners working its scant resources of iron and manganese. In the middle of the 19th century, however, quarry companies realized that there was money to be made from the granite mountains all around. Soon three separate quarries were being worked. Granite was then used to surface roads all over Britain, and from those quays down there, one to each quarry, for nearly a century small coasting steamers took profitable slabs of it off to England.

On the flat land above the quays a village was built to house the quarrymen and their families, and there it still stands. When the granite industry finally collapsed in the mid-20th century, it became the legendary lost village of Nant Gwrtheyrn, gradually fading, amid its winds, its legends and its goats, into a ghost itself. For years nobody lived there, and on the right damp twilight, if you wander through its buildings, you may fancy that nobody lives there now.

It is a very unusual relic. It is a sort of company town, all alone, backed by the dead remains of its quarries. Twenty-six trim cottages form two terraces connected at right angles, with a chapel at one end, a grander manager’s house at the other, and in the middle a sunken sort of village green, mounded by moles and shaded by oaks (in one of which, I need hardly say, the bones of that poor bride were eventually discovered). In the sparse fields around, immemorial stone walls mark the patterns of Celtic field systems. Bits of ancient quarry mechanisms litter them, too, part of an old iron ship is propped up on the beach, miscellaneous chunks of granite are everywhere and running down the high ground behind you can see the line of the tramline that once rattled by with its stones for the jetties below.

On the right damp and suggestive evening there is not a sound down there, except for the lapping of the waves. Even the sea is an empty sea – no ship has put into the bay of Nant Gwrtheyrn for a hundred years; only dolphins sometimes sport in it, and seals bask on the beach. But here’s a strange thing. All along the line of the silent cottages electric street lights are burning, and this is because they burn, as it were, in exorcism against a ghost of the future, a premonition.

* * *

The primeval language of the Nant Gwrtheyrn valley is Welsh, one of the most ancient literary languages in Europe. It was, more or less, what King Gwrtheyrn spoke before the dawn of history. During its industrial period workers came to Nant Gwrtheyrn from Ireland and from England, bringing their languages with them, but when they left, and the empty village fell into desolation, it was the lyrical echo of Welsh that lingered on, to be heard by wandering poets and romantics.

The language is still spoken in the villages above, beyond the conifer woods, because the Llyn Peninsula is one of the Welshest parts of all Wales. Even there, though, it is constantly under threat, as the colossal forces of Anglophone globalism, expressed through television and e-mail, newspapers and popular trend, bludgeon all indigenous cultures everywhere. It is said that of the 6,000-odd languages spoken in the world today, half will be dead by the end of the century, and not long ago Welsh seemed obviously doomed too. There were less than three million people in Wales, and more than 40 million in England, and whereas English was one of the greatest of all the world languages, Welsh was spoken only by a third even of the Welsh themselves. Thousands of English people had settled in Wales, seldom bothering to learn Welsh, while the mass of the Welsh themselves found it advantageous to use the lingua franca of half the world, so accessible and so seductive a few miles away across the English border.

The general opinion then was that in a generation or two the Welsh language must inevitably die. It seemed to be in terminal decline, and in another century it would be gone. It was that specter of the future! But a powerful nucleus of patriots and idealists believed that the demise of so proud an instrument of civilization, richly creative as it still was, would be a great human tragedy. Welsh should never be allowed to follow Hittite, or Nubian, or even Latin into extinction. Trends could be bucked. Premonition could be challenged. Specters could be exorcised.

And that is why the street lights burn in Nant Gwtheyrn in the twilight.

* * *

Among the visionaries was Dr Carl Clowes. He was a medical practitioner of advanced social conscience living and working in one of the villages above, and when he heard that Nant Gwrtheyrn was up for sale, he dreamed of its restoring first as a project for the local unemployed, but eventually as a residential center for the teaching, study and development of the Welsh language. It would become a statement of defiance, a declaration that Welsh really could be restored to its old social and political potency.

It was a wild idea. By the 1950s the village was a forlorn and half-derelict ruin. Windows were smashed, walls were crumbling, roofs had fallen in, the workers’ terraces were a mess of fallen beams and rubbish, choughs were nesting inside the windowless manager’s house and a community of hippies was squatting amidst the rubble. The only road into the valley was hardly more than a track, and there was no electricity.

As it happened, though, history was with Dr Clowes. In the 1960s there was a resurgence of Welsh national spirit. Laws were passed assuring the language of a proper constitutional place in Wales, and there was a growing demand for Welsh self-government. So a trust was set up to buy the village and its valley, in the name of Wales as it were, and from many sources the necessary money arrived – from a thousand private bank accounts, from lottery funds, from local councils, from sponsored walks and races and even from the coffers of the old mining companies. A new surfaced road was built, corkscrewing down the mountainside, and one by one the buildings were restored. By 1997, when Wales did at last achieve its own devolutionary National Assembly, the Welsh language was compulsorily taught in all schools and its decline seemed to be halted – by then the old lost village was established as a National Language Center.

* * *

And look at it now! It is a ruin reborn. It is no larger than it was, and no less peculiar, the detritus of the quarries lies around still and the sheep and the goats are still wandering; but those 26 cottages now provide snug accommodation for students and scholars, and its rebuilt manager’s house, sans choughs, is now a center for tutorials and conferences. The hippies have gone. The old chapel is a heritage center. And at the bottom of the village, overlooking the sea, there is a granite café which is popular not only for meetings and local wedding receptions, but also for that perennial Welsh celebration, the midday Sunday dinner. Some 25,000 students have passed through the Language Center by now, and they have included many people from other endangered minority languages, to whom Nant Gwrtheyrn has offered distant inspiration.

From the foreshore in the evening half-light the village still looks much the same, except for the street-lamps, but now there are lights in the houses too, where the students and their teachers stay. The old ghosts linger suggestively still, but the premonition is held at bay, and if the spell is sometimes broken by a murmur of voices, at least you can be quite sure what language they are talking…

[Photos: Flickr | Stray Croc; Stray Croc; paplamour; paplamour]

Five stunning stone circles (besides Stonehenge)

Every year thousands of tourists flock to Stonehenge, the iconic stone circle on Salisbury Plain, England. While so much attention is focused on this site, especially with the recent discovery of another monument near Stonehenge, people often forget there’s more than a thousand stone circles in the British Isles and Continental Europe. Built during the Neolithic starting about 5,000 years ago, these sites are beautiful and have gathered a lot of strange folklore over the centuries, like the mistaken belief that they were built by Druids or giants. Here are five of the best.

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Isles, Scotland
The windswept Orkney Isles north of Scotland are covered in prehistoric remains. The Ring of Brodgar, seen above in this photo courtesy of Beth Loft, is built of thin, tall stones on a narrow isthmus between two lochs. Its architects obviously had an eye for dramatic setting. It dates to between 2500 and 2000 BC, a boom time for monumental building in the Orkneys. It’s the northernmost stone circle in the British Isles and also the third largest at 104 meters (341 ft) in diameter. Like many major circles it’s part of a network of sites, with tombs and single standing stones scattered in the area around it. Legend has it that the Vikings were so impressed with the Ring of Brodgar when they arrived in the ninth century AD that they worshiped their gods here. Some Viking Runes carved into the stones may support this theory.

Avebury, England
Bigger than Stonehenge, the site of Avebury just 17 miles north of Stonehenge consists of a massive stone circle 331.6 meters (1,088 ft) in diameter with two avenues of stones leading to a pair of smaller stone circles. Construction began around 2900 BC, roughly the same time as its neighbor. Other monuments, such as the mysterious artificial mound of Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long barrow, an ancient tomb, are an easy walk away. During the Middle Ages the locals got religion and decided this pagan monument needed to go. They knocked over several stones until one fell over and crushed one of the vandals. Everyone thought this was just a legend until modern archaeologists dug up a fallen stone and found the skeleton of a man underneath with some 14th century coins in his pocket!

%Gallery-98480%Rollright Stones, England
This stone circle makes a fun day hike from Oxford. Most stone circles are pretty small. This one is only 33 meters (108 feet) in diameter but has some interesting details. One stone has a hole through which you can see a tall monolith called the King Stone in a nearby field. A nearby dolmen (a small roofed tomb of stone) is called the Whispering Knights. Legend says the circle and these two outlying monuments are a king and his knights who were turned to stone by a witch. Actually the circle and monolith were built by prehistoric people between 2500 to 2000 BC. The Whispering Knights date to about 3500 BC. In prehistoric times, the presence of one monument encouraged people to build more.

Drombeg Stone Circle, Ireland
Drombeg Stone Circle in County Cork is a tight little collection of stones 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter. It’s of a type known as a recumbent stone circle because the largest stone lies on its side flanked by two smaller ones. This was deliberate; the stone didn’t fall down. What this means is anyone’s guess, although the local claim that it’s a “Druid’s Altar” is fanciful because the circle dates to the Bronze Age, about 2000 BC, and the druids were priests of the Celts, who didn’t appear on the scene until around 300 BC. Radiocarbon dating on a burial found in the center of the circle yielded a date between 150 BC and 130 AD. Just like at the Ring of Brodgar, later people were attracted to the site. While Drombeg didn’t start out as a Druid’s altar, maybe it ended up as one!

The Stone Circles of Senegambia, Senegal and The Gambia
Stone circles in Africa? Yep, these monuments aren’t as grandiose as the ones in Europe but they’re equally mysterious. There are about a thousand of them in a region of central Senegal and Gambia, meaning there’s about as many stone circles here as in all of Europe. The stones are as tall as 2.5 meters (8 ft.), although some are only a foot or so high. They mark burials dating from the 3rd century BC to the 16th century AD. There’s a large concentration of them at Wassu, Gambia. Locals put small stones on top of them as a sign of respect. Not much is known about these stone circles but they are beginning to attract attention from the archaeological community. A certain Gadling blogger may be visiting them next year, so stay tuned.

Stonehenge Solstice Celebrations

Broadly speaking, summer solstice — the longest day of the year, in the northern hemisphere, at least — is a time to celebrate the arrival of warm weather; the impending harvest; and — for some — the birds and the bees. Perhaps more than any other place on earth, summer solstice is associated with Stonehenge and Druids.

I don’t know if the all people who celebrate summer solstice at Stonehenge today are Druids — they look a lot the hippies I went to college with — but their celebrations look like fun. Generally speaking, they feature a lot of dancing and singing and didgeridoo’ing and jumping around. There’s some standing around, too, waiting for the sun to rise. It looks something like this:
But it also looks somewhat more peaceful, serene — and even mystical. Here’s a two-part series showing the celebrations. This is probably more what I had in mind when I think “summer solstice” and “Stonehenge.” Part I:
Part II:
Thee guys are definitely NOT Druids — or hippies:

This happens, too — but I don’t know why the revelers need to be naked:
If you put the right kind of music on, the celebration seems more mystical:

I’m not sure how “mystical” the event is, though:
In the end, a lot of people show up — including King Arthur!