The Discovery of Lascaux Cave Paintings

Eighty years ago on the 12th September 1940 four teenagers followed their dog down a narrow hole to discover a stunning underground gallery of prehistoric artwork.

Hall of the Bulls

The boys had discovered a complex of caves at Lascaux in the Vézère Valley of the Dordogne region of southwestern France. French archaeologist Henri-Édouard-Prosper Breuil, the first to study the artwork, estimated the paintings to date from between 15,000 BC to 17,000 BC and recognised them as some of the finest examples of Upper Paleolithic period art.

The Lascaux cave system consists of a main cavern 66 feet wide and 16 feet high. The walls of the cavern are decorated with prehistoric art of animals, human figures and abstract signs, totalling nearly 2,000 figures. Some 600 are painted and drawn animals in excellent detail with nearly 1,500 engravings etched into the cave walls.

Depictions of horses form the majority of the artwork with 90 paintings of stags and also cattle, bison, felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and one human. The archaeological record shows that these paintings reflect the fauna which would have been known to humans in this area in the Palaeolithic era.

The entrance quickly leads into the main chamber of the cave, the Hall of the Bulls, showing the famous four large bulls, or aurochs, which appear to be in motion towering above fleeing horses and deer. One of the bulls is 17 feet long, the largest animal discovered so far in cave art.

The Great Bull

The Hall of the Bulls leads into the Axial Gallery, a dead-end passage termed the ‘Sistine Chapel of Prehistory’ as the ceiling is covered with art dominated by a circle of red aurochs.

Doubling back and taking the second exit from the Hall of the Bulls you come to the lateral Passageway with mainly engravings and some paintings of a variety of animals. The lateral Passageway leads into the Nave where a panel features a large black cow. Opposite, a freeze shows five deer swimming. Further is the Chamber of Felines with engravings of lions dominating the room. A branch off the cave, the chamber known as The Shaft (of the Dead Man) shows a wounded bison, a woolly rhinoceros, a bird on a stick (?), and the only human depicted in the Lascaux complex.

Shaft of the Dead Man

The bird-head man with an erect phallus, has been described as a shaman in a state of ecstasy in ritual stance, performing a magico-religious ceremony to bring a successful hunt. Another mysterious figure is depicted with panther skin, a deer’s tail, a bison’s hump, two horns, and a male member.

Having been undisturbed for over 17,000 years the cave was opened for public viewing in 1948. Yet within just a few years after its opening an algae growth was noticed on the cave walls in 1955 causing damage to the paintings. The use of high-powered lights and the presence of too many visitors bringing with them carbon dioxide, heat and humidity was identified as disturbing the unique environment within the cave causing irreversible damage to the prehistoric artwork.

The Panel of the Black Cow, The Nave

Subsequently the cave was closed to the public in 1963, yet despite the closure, fungi have continued to spread throughout the cave. It appears unlikely that visitors will ever be permitted to the cave again.

Recognising its importance to prehistory, the Lascaux cave and several other decorated caves of the Vézère Valley were protected by addition to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 1979. Yet even with the protection afforded of a UNESCO site the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux are in real danger of being lost to future generations after black mould was reported spreading through the cave in the 2000’s. Since 2008, with the elimination of the human presence the black spots appear to fading.

However, the public can see copies of the prehistoric artwork and visit a replica of the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery sections, in a modern gallery known as Lascaux II constructed 200 metres from the original cave complex and opened to the public in 1983.

Visitors can also see a complete replica of the caves at the Lascaux International Centre for Parietal Art (also called Lascaux 4).

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Mitchell’s Fold: Prehistoric Monument or Modern Hoax?

Situated just inside the English border with Wales in the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Mitchell’s Fold stone circle is part of a complex of prehistoric monuments in the landscape near Priest Weston, Montgomery.


Sited on a dramatic moorland setting on the flat plateau of Stapeley Common near the village called White Grit at an altitude of just over 305m (1,000 ft) on a saddle between the hills of Stapeley to the north and Corndon to the south.

Nearby there are also two other stone circles, a long barrow and numerous cairns; the Hoarstones stone circle is just to the north-east across Black Marsh, comprising 38 doleritic stones, all  under 1 metre tall with the largest at the centre, framed against the dramatic setting of Corndon Hill in the background. Two mounds of uncertain date lie to the north.  Immediately west of White Grit was the site of the destroyed stone circle of Whetstones, its larger stones incorporated in to a boundary wall in the 19th century.

Mitchell’s Fold lies on the line of the south-west to north-east ridgeway following the spine of Stapeley Hill, said to be the old coach route from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth which may follow the line of a prehistoric trackway.

Nearby was the important Bronze Age axe factory at Cwm Mawr, where distinctive picrite Group XII Bronze Age battle axes and axe hammers were produced and traded extensively across Wales and England. The exact site of the quarry at Cwm Mawr is unknown but said to be at an unnamed little hill north-west of the village of Hyssington immediately south of Corndon Hill. Excavations by the Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust in 2007 proved inconclusive.

Constructed from dolerite stones from nearby Stapeley Hill, forming a rough circle 30m across, during the Early Bronze Age, Mitchell’s Fold is thought have once had as many as 30 stones. Sadly the circle has been badly damaged and today only 15 stones remain; as recently as 1995 a local farmer pulled the stones out with a mechanical digger.

Today Mitchell’s Fold is a designated Scheduled Ancient Monument which as a whole includes the stone circle, an outlier standing stone, a cairn base, portions of two field banks and a area of ridge and furrow, today protected by the guardianship of English Heritage.

At nearly 2m high, the tallest stone is said to have been one of a pair forming an entrance to the circle. Antiquarians claimed a third stone formed a lintel over the two portal stones forming a trilithon setting, such as witnessed at Stonehenge. There may also have been a central stone, described as an “altar”; probing suggests that there may be a central stone under the turf. Most of the stones in the circle stand less than half a metre high and some are recumbent.


Across the border in Powys, Mid Wales, is Corndon Hill, at 513m (1,683 ft) it draws the eye and provides a dramatic backdrop to Mitchell’s Fold. Corndon is covered with Bronze Age burial cairns and must have been a prehistoric funerary complex.

Facts and Fictions
It is said that during a time of famine, a fairy provided a magic cow that produced an endless supply of milk. One night an evil witch milked her into a sieve. When the cow realised the trick, she vanished. The witch was turned to stone and a circle of stones was erected around her, to ensure that she could not escape.


A very recent tradition constructed to promote Shropshire tourism suggests that this is the site where King Arthur drew the sword from the stone to prove him as the rightful heir to the throne.

The date of Mitchell’s Fold stone circle has been called into question in modern times when aerial photography revealed mediaeval ridge-and-furrow plough-marks that not only go up to the ring, but also go straight through it indicating the circle was constructed later than the plough marks and may not be prehistoric at all.

There is also no written record of the stone circle before the 19th century, which, when considered with the plough marks, has led to claims that Mitchell’s Fold is an historical hoax constructed in the 18th century by Druid Temple enthusiasts.


YouTube video by Bald Man
Photographs by the author
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Provenancing the stones of Stonehenge

Standing on Salisbury Plain like a megalithic cathedral in the centre of a huge prehistoric cemetery the ancient monument of Stonehenge has been a puzzle since Roman times: What is it? Why is it here? Where did the stones come from?

The answers to some of these questions seem unattainable even in our high-tech age and we will probably never know what purpose Stonehenge was meant to serve, yet scientists are homing in on the source of the stones.

Stonehenge sarsens and the smaller bluestones

Almost one hundred years ago the source of the bluestones, the smaller stones at Stonehenge, was first hypothesised by British geologist Herbert Henry Thomas in his seminal paper “The source of the stones of Stonehenge” (1923) as the Mynydd Preseli region of north Pembrokeshire in south west Wales.

The so called “bluestones” of Stonehenge is a collective term (unsatisfactorily) used to describe all the non-sarsen stones used in the construction of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

Thomas argued that the dolerite stones likely came from Carn Meini and Cerrig Marchogion and the rhyolitic stones from Carn Alw. Thomas’s theory remained unchallenged for over 80 years.

But now, owing to modern scientific advances, this most enigmatic of ancient monuments is starting to reveal its secrets.

The latest issues of the two most popular Archaeology magazines in the country both feature articles on the source of the stones of Stonehenge.

The Science of Stonehenge is the issue title on the cover of the latest edition of Current Archaeology magazine (Issue 366).

It seems the long puzzle of where the Stonehenge bluestones came from is now closing in with scientific advances allowing the scientists to pinpoint the most likely outcrops where they were first quarried with ever-greater accuracy.

An extract from the feature article Provenancing the Stones features on the Current Archaeology website.

Thomas recognised the source of some of the bluestones after he noticed the iconic white/pink spots found in the majority of the Stonehenge dolerites (the material of the most-common bluestone orthostat, and second most-common debitage) was also present in the rocks of Mynydd Preseli area in west Wales.

However, these spots vary macroscopically in size and colour between outcrops on the Preseli hills. Advances in the last ten years by Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins applying new mineralogical, petrographical, and geochemical techniques in the study of the bluestones suggests that the outcrops at Carn Goedog were the origin of most of the spotted bluestone orthostats at Stonehenge.

Carn Goedog

Further examination of the spots between different dolerites, both at Stonehenge and in the Preseli, can be used to further refine their provenance and identify further potential quarry sites.

A further mystery at Stonehenge is the presence of many thousands of pieces of buried debris (debitage), the so-called “Stonehenge Layer” found in the stone circle and scattered throughout the Stonehenge landscape.

Recent studies of samples of debitage have compared favourably to rhyolitic rocks near Pont Saeson, on the northern slopes of the Mynydd Preseli. Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson and his team identified a potential Neolithic quarry site at Craig Rhos-y-felin as the likely source of some of rhyolitic rocks at Stonehenge.

Craig Rhos-y-felin

However, although this rock-type (now designated Rhyolite Group C) is highly abundant as debitage, it only seems to match one of the buried orthostats at Stonehenge. It seems the most likely explanation of the abundance of this type of debitage is that there were other Rhyolite Group C orthostats, now totally lost, robbed or chipped away by souvenir hunters, with only the debitage as evidence of their former presence.

Sarsen Sourcing
The cover of the latest issue of British Archaeology magazine (Issue 174 September/October 2020) features a knobbly, unworked sarsen lying in woodland, with the cover story “New: Where Stonehenge came from”.

In an exclusive feature for British Archaeology magazine, the research team claims to have shown that the sarsens, all the large stones at Stonehenge, were brought by the monument’s builders from the Marlborough Downs 20 miles to the north, identifying an area at West Woods, not proposed before, as the likely source.

The larger stones at Stonehenge comprising the huge trilithons of the central horseshoe, the uprights and lintels of the outer circle and outliers such as the heel stone, the slaughter stone and the station stones are known as “sarsens”, weighing typically 20 tonnes and up to 7 metres tall.

The name is said to have derived from the local term “saracen stone” used to identify them as relics of a non-christian age. The hard silcrete rock is found scattered naturally across southern England and also used for the stone settings at Avebury, 2o miles north of Stonehenge. Often ignored, the sarsens may hold as many secrets as the bluestones.

The first monument at Stonehenge was envisaged as a circular earthwork enclosure, constructed around 3,000 BC. An outer ditch was cut and the chalk rubble removed used to form an inner bank (the opposite to a henge bank and ditch), known as a counterscarp. Around the perimeter of this bank was a ring of 56 holes holding timber posts. The monument was used as a cremation cemetery for several hundred years until around 2,500 BC the monument was transformed by the introduction of the massive sarsen stones and the smaller bluestones.

The Stonehenge sequence has been revised recently by Mike Parker Pearson et al, suggesting that the ring of 56 pits, known as the Aubrey Holes, first contained bluestones, not timber posts at all, as the first stone setting at the monument.

The Heel Stone

However, it is possible the first stone setting at Stonehenge was the unworked, knobbly, sarsens known as the Station Stones and the Heel Stone. These stones are completely different in appearance to the finely worked sarsens of the the huge trilithons of the central horseshoe and the uprights and lintels forming the outer circle. It has been suggested that the Heel Stone was raised up from a pit close to its current position. These old sarsens were probably on the site long before the transportation of the sarsens from Marlborough Downs to construct the trilithons. Furthermore, the Station Stones appear to hold a relationship to the Mesolithic post holes found in the car park of the old visitor centre.

from: The Astronomical Significance of Stonehenge, C. A. Newham

The sarsen stones used in these megalithic monuments are said to have originated from Marlborough Downs, but their exact origin remained a mystery. Until now.

Using geochemical data scientists have found that 50 of the 52 sarsens at Stonehenge share a consistent chemistry and therefore there is a high probability that they originated from a common source area.

Stonehenge sarsens

On comparing the geochemical signature of a core extracted from Stone 58 at Stonehenge 60 years ago with equivalent data for sarsens from across southern Britain, they have identified West Woods, on Marlborough Downs, as the most probable source area for the majority of sarsens at the monument.


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The Source of Stonehenge Sarsens

Archaeologists have discovered the source of Stonehenge’s sarsen stones in a Wiltshire woodland.

The sarsens weighing typically 20 tonnes and up to 7 metres tall, constitute the huge trilithons of the central horseshoe, the uprights and lintels of the outer circle and outliers such as the heel stone, the slaughter stone and the station stones.

The stones in West Woods, on the edge of modern-day Marlborough, are found to be exact match for majority of the Stonehenge sarsens is 15 miles (24km) to the North of the famous megalithic monument on Salisbury Plain. Their movement required a considerable effort by Neolithic Man.

The sarsen sample was returned to Stonehenge in 2019

Research, made possible after a piece of one of the stones taken away as a souvenir 60 years ago was recovered, concludes that 50 of the 52 sarsen stones at Stonehenge were probably sourced from West Woods.

Future research will try to pinpoint the specific sarsen extraction pits in the woods,


>> BBC News Wiltshire 29 July 2020
>> Origins of the sarsen megaliths at StonehengeScience Advances  29 Jul 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 31

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Stonehenge Tunnel Delayed

The recent discovery of a 1.2 mile-wide (2km) circle of at least 20 shafts measuring more than 10m (30ft) in diameter and 5m (15ft) in depth centred on Durrington Walls has delayed the decision on whether to build a £2.4bn road tunnel through the Stonehenge World Heritage site.

It is thought the shafts form the largest prehistoric monument ever discovered in Britain and may have served as a boundary to a sacred area.

Highways England claims the proposed tunnel would remove the sight and sound of traffic from the frequently congested A303 route running past the ancient monument on Salisbury Plain.

Yet, the controversial road scheme is strongly opposed by archaeologists who would prefer the A303 improvement to be routed outside of the World Heritage Site altogether.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was due to make his decision by this Friday but has pushed back the announcement to November to allow for “further consultation”.

The discovery of the Durrington Shafts demonstrates how little we understand this rare prehistoric landscape.


>> BBC News Wiltshire 16 July 2020

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Iron Age mystery at Wendover

Preparatory work ahead of the construction of the HS2 high-speed rail link that will connect London to Birmingham has unearthed a a number of finds near Wendover in Buckinghamshire ranging from the Neolithic Age to the Medieval period with evidence of continuous domestic occupation during the Bronze to Iron Ages (3000BC to AD43).

The Neolithic wooden circle, dating to between 4,000 to 5,000 years old, is seen as further evidence of the site’s ritual importance over thousands of years [HS2]

The site at Wellwick Farm near Wendover in Buckinghamshire, has revealed:

  • A large Neolithic circular monument of wooden posts 65m (213 ft) in diameter and aligned with the winter solstice, “similar to Stonehenge”
  • A Roman era “high status” skeleton buried in an “expensive” lead coffin set within a square enclosure
  • A gold coin dating from about about 100BC (Iron Age) was found in a ditch near the funerary monument

Project archaeologist Dr Rachel Wood of Fusion JV said the team were surprised to discover a site with evidence of human activity spanning some 4,000 years, used over centuries as a funerary monument for the burial of specific, high status people as shown by the Roman era skeleton found in an expensive lead coffin.

Yet the biggest surprise was the discovery of an Iron Age skeleton lying face down with his hands bound behind his back, a suspected execution victim. Further analysis will hopefully explain the circumstances of the gruesome death of the 2,000-year-old adult male.

>> Iron Age ‘mystery’ murder victim found in Wendover – BBC News, Beds, Herts & Bucks, 11 July 2020.

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The Source of the Altar Stone

The Altar Stone at Stonehenge is unique, no other stone at the monument on Salisbury Plain constitutes the same lithology; a greenish sandstone thought to be of Late Silurian-Devonian (‘Old Red Sandstone’) age.

The Altar Stone

It is classed as one of the bluestone group of lithologies, exotic to Salisbury Plain, most of which have been sourced to Mynydd Preseli, in west Wales. However, there is no Old Red Sandstone outcrop in the Preseli.

In 1923 HH Thomas proposed that the pale sage-green micaceous sandstone had a strong similarity to either sandstones from the Senni Formation, which outcrop between Kidwelly and Abergavenny in south Wales, or to sandstones from the Cosheston Subgroup from the shore of Milford Haven in west Wales.

The Stones of Stonehenge

Consequently, Milford Haven was suggested as the source of the Altar Stone. This location sat well with a proposed transport route established in the 1950’s by Richard Atkinson (Stonehenge, 1956) which argued that the bluestones were taken to Stonehenge by sea, being loaded into rafts at Milford Haven, sailed along the coast, then up the Bristol Channel into the river Avon, before a final land crossing to Salisbury Plain.

However, results of detailed petrographic examinations of the Altar Stone sandstone and sandstones from Old Red Sandstone outcrops in west Wales have called into question the Cosheston Subgroup source for the Altar Stone. Recently a source further to the east has been suggested.

As a result, it is argued in the latest issue of The Journal of Archaeological Science 120 (2020), that if the Altar Stone was not sourced at Milford Haven then the sea route for the bluestones looks increasingly unlikely, suggesting a totally land-based route was used following a natural route leading from west Wales and beyond the Severn estuary.

Alternative Transport Routes

The land route supports the identification of two bluestone quarries on the northern flanks of the Mynydd Preseli, at Craig Rhos-y-felin and Carn Goedog with the Altar Stone probably collected en route.

Many standing stones have been recorded at the eastern part of the Senni Formation area. The authors of the study point out that the Growing Stone (Cwrt y Gollen), a 4m-tall sandstone monolith beside the modern A40 road between Crickhowell and Abergavenny which compares well with the Altar Stone at Stonehenge.

The eastern section of the Senni Formation lies on a natural routeway which today is traced by the A40 road, following a route along the valleys which may have been significant in prehistory, raising the possibility that the Altar Stone was added to the assemblage of Preseli bluestones taken to Stonehenge around or shortly before 3000 BC.


Constraining the provenance of the Stonehenge ‘Altar Stone’: Evidence from automated mineralogy and U–Pb zircon age dating
Richard E. Bevins, Duncan Pirrie, Rob A. Ixer, Hugh O’Brien, Mike Parker Pearson, Matthew R. Power, Robin K. Shail.
Journal of Archaeological Science 120 (2020)


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Ring of Shafts Discovered Centred on Durrington Walls

A 1.2 mile-wide (2km) circle of large shafts measuring more than 10m (30ft) in diameter and 5m (15ft) in depth has been discovered centred on Durrington Walls.

A team from the universities of St Andrews, Birmingham, Warwick, Bradford, Glasgow and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David believe the 20 or more shafts may have served as a boundary to a sacred area connected to the henge.

This feature is significantly larger than any comparable prehistoric monument in Britain. Tests indicate that the pits were excavated by Neolithic people more than 4,500 years ago.

In addition to being centred on the huge henge monument of Durrington Walls, the huge ring encloses Woodhenge and intersects the cause-wayed enclosure at Larkhill.

Further reading:

BBC News Wiltshire 22 June 2020

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The Desecration of Doll Tor Stone Circle

The small upland area of Stanton Moor in the Derbyshire Peak District, with more than seventy prehistoric barrows is awarded protection as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The moor has four Bronze Age stone circles, of which the best known is Nine Ladies, said to be nine women turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. Today, witches are said to dance at the circle.

The biggest threat to Stanton Moor over the years has been modern quarrying. Mineral rights still exist at various sites around the moor, granted by the Government before the Peak District National Park was created. Endcliffe and Lees Cross quarries have not been worked for over 50 years but as recently as 2014 Stancliffe Stone desired to extract 2.4 million tonnes of stone at a site barely 200m from Nine Ladies. Thankfully the application was rejected.

Claimed by the New Age fraternity, today Nine Ladies feels far removed from its prehistoric origins. Whenever I have visited the Moor there has often been a camp by Nine Ladies said to be guarding the site against the threat of quarrying. I am told the camp has now gone along with the quarry threat but gifts, such as rowan berries, crystals, feathers, can typically be found left on the stones. The centre of the circle is often blackened, evidence of camp fires. Nearby, a sacred tree is adorned with blessings.

Doll Tor stone circle

Situated on the west side of Stanton Moor near Birchover, a short distance from the natural rock outcrop of the Andle Stone, you can find the unassuming little stone circle known as Doll Tor, or Six Stone Circle. Often neglected by visitors, this tranquil site set under trees, with small stones barely three feet in height, typical of Derbyshire megalithic settings, has been described as one of the most picturesque in England. The stone circle with attached cairn has been dated to between 2,000-1,500BC.

Thomas Bateman “excavated” the site in a single afternoon in 1852. Scratching around in the centre of the circle he found cinerary urns and, what has been described as incense cups.

In the early 1930’s JP Heathcote carried out further excavations and repaired three stones that had been broken up. He uncovered a central grave pit which contained a female cremation along with a faience bead along with further cremation deposits near the base of three of the upright stones.

Then, in 1993 the stones were mysteriously rearranged to create a more complete circle with further stones added. However this was an inaccurate reconstruction and the circle was restored in 1994 by English Heritage and the Peak National Park authority, with two fallen stones being re-erected, to something like to its original Bronze Age setting.

Doll Tor stone circle and cairn

Today, Doll Tor stone circle is completely uncovered, showing that the six standing stones were each joined into one circumference by flat stones.

Such prehistoric sites are now protected by law, not that it seems to amke any difference on Stanton Moor. The protection of ancient sites began in 1882 when Sir John Lubbock, 1st Baron of Avebury, introduced The Ancient Monuments Protection Act which provided guardianship for some 50 ancient sites. In 1913 The Ancient Monuments Act introduced the first effective system for the protection of heritage sites in Britain; today this has evolved as the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act of 1979.

Yet, the desecration goes on and these ancient sites continue to be vandalised. In the last few days the little stone circle at Doll Tor has suffered “serious damage” when stones were moved to build a fire pit while one stone appears to have been moved to make a seat. Other fires had also been made.

A spokesman for Historic England said: “As a scheduled monument, Doll Tor stone circle and adjacent stone cairn is a nationally important archaeological site and protected by law.

>> Ancient Peak District stone circle damaged by campfires – BBC News, East Midlands, 04 June 2020 [ ]


Further Reading:
Victoria and Paul Morgan, Rock Around the Peak: Megalithic Monuments of the Peak District, Sigma Leisure, 2001.
John Barnatt, Stone Circles of The Peak, Turnstone, 1978.

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Watering Well or Ritual Shaft?

The discovery of the Wilsford Shaft, a 30m (100ft) deep pit, underneath what was thought to be a pond barrow (Wilsford 33a), during excavations in 1960-62 led to disagreement between the excavators, Paul Ashbee and Edwina Proudfoot, on the purpose of the shaft: was it simply a well to access water or used as a place of ritual deposition, perhaps a portal to the underworld? [1]

Lake Down Barrow Cemetery, Wilsford cum Lake, Wiltshire

The discovery of this deep shaft beneath a pond barrow raised the question of whether all pond barrows have shafts beneath them. Yet magnetometer and resistivity surveys over a sample of three pond barrows at the nearby Lake Down barrow cemetery near Wilsford in Wiltshire in 1996 failed to reveal any indications of further shafts. [2]

The purpose of the enigmatic pond barrow is still unclear. Pond barrows differ considerably from the broader category of round barrows, although some do contain burials, albeit only in small quantities; a sepulchral role is not thought to have been their primary function. Pond barrows usually occur in association with other Bronze Age monuments, usually within the context of funerary or ceremonial monuments of barrow cemeteries, typically located in prominent locations on rolling downlands, rarely on hilltops. However their positioning within the barrow cemetery, whilst not totally random, does not appear to be influenced by any strict governance. Consequently, as their purpose is little understood, the pond barrow’s association with barrow cemeteries has led to a ritual interpretation.

Less than 100 pond barrows have been identified in Britain and these are generally confined to south and east England, with concentrations in Dorset and Wiltshire, although a few outliers are known further north and east. There are three main concentrations around Stonehenge, Avebury and Winterbourne Abbas, although other examples are known in Berkshire and as far afield as Norfolk and recently (2010) a possible pond barrow has been identified amongst a rare group of earthworks consisting of seven monuments near Llanfyrnach, Pembrokeshire.

If the purpose of the pond barrow remains unclear then the function of the Wilsford Shaft is equally puzzling; clearly “ritual shafts” need to be differentiated from “wells”. By definition a “well” is a deep hole or shaft sunk into the earth to obtain water.

Whereas a “ritual shaft” appears to have been purposefully dug expressly for the ceremonial deposition of objects apparently for reasons other than storage or disposal. Deposits in shafts have been found to include metalwork, pottery, ash and charred wood, human and animal remains. Yet, ritual deposits tend to consist of only a few species of animal and sometimes only a few parts of the animal, but these sacrificial offerings bear no evidence of being butchered for human consumption.

In England and Wales the skulls of cattle and skulls or bodies of horses and dogs are often found underneath Iron Age houses or deposited in nearby pits and in the ditches or ramparts of enclosures. Sheep are rare finds in this context. [3] A ritual shaft may be seen as a portal to the underworld where votive offerings where deposited to placate the gods.

But what happens when a well receives ritual deposits such as in the widespread custom of dropping votive deposits, such as human skulls or coins, into the abyss – should the well then become classified as a ritual shaft?

Well Deposits
Special difficulties arise in the case of shafts and pits that were undoubtedly used as wells or cisterns, that also contain deposits, perhaps from just one single occasion, suggestive of a deliberate act of ritual deposition. Furthermore, there would appear to have been different deposits for significant occurrences in the water supply and just to complicate matters further different deposits are found in different geographical regions. Human skulls are common in wells and possibly testament to a Celtic Cult of the Head closely associated with sacred waters and wells of wisdom. The Celts were well known for making votive offerings into lakes and pools, wells and springs. They placed similar objects into shafts and pits. Rarely are skulls found in holy wells, more usually they occur in wells that have previously been used to supply water for domestic or industrial purposes. This ritual deposition is emphasised at Caerwent where a cistern was given two skulls and some pottery. An adult human skeleton was laid over it as if to seal it before the wall of a house was built above it. However, well deposits are typically interpreted as accidental loss or refuse disposal.

In London there is evidence of the practice of ritual deposition when a human skull was found in the well in Queen Street. The skull appears to have been deposited in the first century after the well had silted up and became unusable. In Cannon Street, also in London, a box was found in a well containing a human cranium, animal bones, including those of two dogs, and pottery dated to the first century. Another skull was found in a third century Roman well at a villa in Northwood, Herts. This appears to have been a complete decapitated head, sandwiched between layers of building debris, suggesting the head was deposited at the time of demolition.

The bones of certain animals are more common than human skulls as deposits in wells. Five dog skulls were found in a well at Caerwent and numerous dogs were found in a deep well associated with a first century shrine at Muntham Court, Sussex. A complete Samian bowl and the remains of sixteen dogs were placed in a second century well at Staines near London. Similar finds have been discovered in Avon, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, Gwent and Bedfordshire; the practice was evidently widespread in southern Britain throughout the Roman period.  Pairs of dogs feature in many well closing ceremonies, yet archaeologists invariably interpret this as the fatal ending of a dog fight; an interpretation that just does not stand up to scrutiny. The repetition of canine deposition is so common that it indicates a traditional custom in the sequence of well deposits. In the Romano-Celtic period the remains of dogs seem to be found frequently in association with closure of wells.  The regular occurrence of these deposits after the well ceased to be used and covered by demolition material strongly suggests a rite of termination. [4]

Bronze dog figurine, a probable votive offering from the ‘Romano-Celtic’ temple of Nodens at Lydney Park, Gloucestershire.

Evidently, there appears to be some significance of dogs in the rite of termination. The dog has been man’s closest companion for millennia, the first domesticated animal, yet providing a very specific role in spiritual guardianship throughout the mythologies of the world. [5] It seems very probable that dogs were linked with some chthonic or underworld ritual. Dogs seem to have fulfilled a special role in Celtic mythology; for example, in the First Branch of the Mabinogi it is Pwyll’s hunting dogs, in pursuit of a stag, that lead him to an Otherworld meeting with Arawn, king of Annwfn, indicating a curious connection between dogs and travel to the realm of the dead.

At the temple to Nodens at Lydney on the Severn, a funnel shaped structure was placed above a pit in the central part of the temple. The shaft was found to contain twenty one coins and a bronze representation of a dog. Nodens was a god of healing and the association of dogs with hunter gods with healing attributes is well attested throughout the Romano-Celtic world. A small bronze dog was also found at Coventina’s Well at Carrawbrough on Hadrian’s Wall, amongst 14,000 coins, pins, bronze heads, a bronze horse, brooches, glass, pottery, shrine bells and a human skull. [6]

A panel on the Gundestrop cauldron depicts a god, usually identified as Teutates immersing a man head-first into a cauldron with a dog underneath. According to Lucan in the Pharsalia, Teutates, the Gaulish god of the tribe, was propitiated by drowning victims in a cauldron, or vat of water. The iconography is usually interpreted as a ritual act and may be related to the tale of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi in which we see the Cauldron of Rebirth in which “a man who is killed today and thrown in the cauldron, arises the next day he will be as good as he was at his best, except he will not be able to talk”. The dog presumably appears on the panel in his role as guide for the spirits of the dead warriors.

Teutates  panel of Gundestrop cauldron.

The Neolithic- Bronze age complex at Flag Fen, near Peterborough, was a site that was a major focus for funerary rituals for many centuries, from around 1,200 to 200 BC, with most deposition made in the middle of this period. Amongst the objects recovered from the site are three hundred pieces of very fine metalwork of weapons or ornaments, most broken or bent before being thrown into the marsh. Significantly all the deposited material was placed to one side of an impressive alignment of several thousand wooden posts driven in to the marsh between an island and the dry land. The skeletons of two dogs were found buried around the base of the timbers. The posts clearly act as a divisional marker and the dogs seem to have been ritually killed and deposited to serve as guardians of the liminal boundary. [7]

Another Bronze Age site at Caldicot in Gwent provides evidence for a dog buried in a manner which strongly suggests a role as ritual guardian. Large numbers of animal skulls have been found in wells across the country. Often interpreted as refuse, but the large numbers of specific animals supports a structured deposition of a particular rite rather than a haphazard  rubbish tip. Skulls of thirteen oxen, three sheep, as well as two dogs, and a complete skeleton of a Great Northern Diver were found amongst the fourth century fill of  a well at Portchester Castle. At another Roman military site, the auxiliary fort at Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, the skulls of ten oxen were found in the late fourth century fill of the well. If the Roman military had an obsession for putting multiple quantities of ox skulls in wells, then in Essex it was horse skulls. Five horse skulls were deposited in a well in Wickford in the fourth century, signifying the commencement of a period of neglect, although the well was subsequently reused. At Chelmsford, a dry shaft that was re-cut in the second century, was found to contain five horse skulls. Termination indicating the well had failed or political change resulting in the desertion of a site.

The situation is further complicated as not all deposits in wells were associated with termination and many deposits are recognised as rituals of commencement. Offerings connected with the rite of commencement, such as complete pots, are usually found at the very bottom, or half way down the shaft. However, as we have seen above, rites of termination may start at the bottom of the shaft and continue in the fill in structured layers.

Ritual Shafts
Clearly it is difficult but important to distinguish between shafts that seemingly serve no practical purpose and appear to have been used from inception for a succession of ritual deposits, and those that were dug and used purely as wells, possibly over a long period of time, and underwent ritual deposition as a rite of termination or commencement, as we have seen above. The offerings may have been intended for the same underworld gods but the purpose of the ritual may have been quite different. [8

By the mid-1980s, twenty one “ritual shafts” had been identified. About half of these are concentrated in Kent and Surrey, the rest spread across England from as fas as Exeter and Warwick. Many of these were given the classification simply because they failed to possess any other obvious purpose. Notably, the shafts of south-east England contained more dog and bird bones, whereas those from other regions contained more horse remains, otherwise they held much the same material: pottery, ash, ox bones and human remains. [9]

We find a classic ritual shaft within the Romano-Celtic temple at Jordan Hill on the South Dorset Downs. The earliest feature on the site was a dry shaft containing a repetitive succession of deposits. At the bottom of this shaft was a rough cist formed of two stones, containing two Roman pots, a short sword, a spearhead, a knife, two pieces of iron and a steelyard. Above this was a layer of stone tiles on which was a layer of ashes and charcoal. Above this was a double layer of tiles, arranged in pairs, with a skeleton of a bird and a Roman coin between each. Another layer of ashes, thereafter in alternating succession a layer of tiles containing bird skeletons and coins and then ashes again. This repetition continued for sixteen layers between the top and bottom of the well but interrupted in the middle by another cist, like that at the bottom of the shaft containing a sword, a spearhead and pots. The birds represented were raven, crow, buzzard and starling, ceremoniously deposited in a succession of rites as the shaft was filled. [10]

Jordan Hill Romano-Celtic Temple

There are many other examples of dry shafts containing ritual deposits. At Keston, Kent, a sixteen foot shaft was found to contain the articulated skeleton of a dog at the bottom. To the side of the shaft were a pile of animal bones that seem to have been distributed for the next layer of three skeletons of horses, articulated and complete, carefully arranged in a triangle, the second with his head to the tail of the first, the third head to head with that of the first. There were a further seven animal deposits, making ten in total. Pottery evidence indicates the deposits were taking place in the first and second centuries. Nearby, a similar shaft was found to contain the cremated remains of two small dogs in a pile at the bottom, covered by sherds of red pottery. Both shafts were in close proximity to the mausoleum of a Roman villa. It seems likely that other shafts may remain undiscovered in this area. The deposition of dogs in the first layer would again appear to be significant  as noted above.

The concept of the deep shaft as a means of communicating with the gods of the underworld is widespread and ancient, it was known in the Mediterranean world to the Greeks and Romans. The device has certainly been used since the Bronze Age in Britain. Whereas there may be some doubt as to the purpose of some of these shafts discussed above, there can be no doubting the function of the shaft at Swanwick in Hampshire.

Swanwick Shaft
The evidence for Wilsford Shaft may appear ambiguous, but a similar shaft discovered in clay-digging near the river Hamble at Swanwick near Fareham in Hampshire, was clearly used for ritual purposes.

The Swanwick shaft is a circular shaft, 24ft deep, 14ft diameter at the funnel mouth but at a depth of 9ft becoming cylindrical and about 7ft across. At the top of this cylindrical part of the shaft a compact horizontal band of charcoal (oak, hazel and elder) ran across the filling. Above the band of charcoal were 20 clay loom-weights, typical of  Deveral-Rimbury cultures of Bronze Age settlements in Susses and Wessex , of between 1,200 – 1,000 BC. Fragments of a saddle quern were found scattered through the fill. Below this, again the shaft narrowed slightly to a diameter of 4ft and contained a central wooden post 5ft high and 8in diameter, packed with estuarine clay.

A brown deposit on the walls of the lower part of the shaft and the post proved on analysis to have a composition that included phosphorous and nitrogen compounds, such as could most likely derive from dried blood or flesh, indicating the post was used for sacrifice. Swanwick can safely be considered a ritual shaft and clearly quite different from a well containing votive offerings.

A similar discovery was made at Holzhausen in Bavaria. Investigations in Germany of the quadrilateral earthwork enclosures known as the Viereckschanzen type of late La Tene period within the last century BC, concentrated in the Upper Danube and northwards toward the Main. These seems to be ritual sanctuary enclosures with smaller square ditches around graves or Romano-Celtic temples.

Holzhausen Viereckschanzen

The enclosure at Holzhausen had three distinct phases with a ritual pit or shaft as a feature of both the first and last. The shaft of Phase III lay in the northern corner of the earthwork and was cylindrical, 20ft deep and 6ft diameter, with a slightly funnel shaped mouth. In the centre of the lower part of its filling a wooden post 4in diameter and 6ft 6in long had been carefully set up and packed into position. Around the upper part were lumps of brown clay found to contain high concentrations of albuminous and nitrogen compounds, and traces of animal fats, which have been interpreted as the result of the decomposition of blood, flesh and viscera.

The similarities in size, proportion and details between Swanwick and Holzhausen is quite spectacular. Other Late Bronze Age ritual enclosures similar to Swanwick and Holzhausen with shafts containing posts at the base have been found in Southern Germany and one in Vledder in the Netherlands. [11]

Above we have seen examples to illustrate a complex picture of what may be defined as a true “ritual shaft“. There are dry shafts that seem to have been used purely for ritual purposes and wells that have received ritual offerings at certain periods in their use. Yet the waters become quite muddied when the function of the shaft may have changed during its serviceable life. At Wilsford the deposit has been interpreted as an accidental accumulation. However, we should not dismiss out of hand the possibility that the shaft was originally dug to provide access to the underworld realm of the gods, possibly in the Neolithic period, and abandoned as such when flooded and then later re-cut and then used as a well during the Bronze Age. [12]

Prehistoric shafts terminating in wells have been found in England, their intended original purpose unclear. One such shaft found in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, was found packed full with coins, pottery, Roman tiles, sandstone slabs, charred wood, animal and human bones, to a depth of 116ft. A human skull was lodged in a niche in the shaft when it was first dug. Another 37ft deep shaft at Biddenham contained part of an altar slab, a mutilated statue, fragments from about fifty urns, bones of horse, hogs, ox, fox and dog, and a human skeleton.  In Warwickshire a 4ft square shaft (?) was discovered in 1689. At a depth of 20ft  a large square stone, with a hole in the middle, was found supporting several grey-ware urns. Twelve were removed whole while another twelve had been broken apparently by the fall of  a stone from above. The shaft was sounded to a depth of 40ft but the bottom was not reached. [13]

At Ashill in Norfolk, a 40ft deep shaft constructed with wooden square sides contained pottery, bones including those of a toad and a wooden bucket amongst the fill of the upper 19ft. Below this level the nature of the fill changed to layers of perfect urns embedded in hazel leaves and hazel nuts. A layer of flints covered the bottom of the shaft. The hazel tree’s association with sacred wells in Celtic literature requires no further explanation here.[14]

At Fir Tree Field, Down Farm, Dorset another prehistoric shaft, complete with weathering cone and containing artefacts, was found but unlike the man-made Wilsford shaft this was a natural solution hollow utilised for ritual purposes. A pond barrow had been constructed close to the shaft at Fir Tree Field, perhaps making some reference to it and certainly suggesting a link. The close proximity of the Fir Tree Field shaft to the Dorset Cursus and numerous sites of Bronze Age activity suggest this natural shaft was a significant feature in the prehistoric landscape. As with the Wilsford shaft, two alternative proposals have been made for the function of the shaft. Firstly, owing to the presence of human and animal bone and other artefacts such as a shale ring, amber beads, and bone pins, in the fill, that it was primarily ritual in nature. Secondly, the environmental evidence suggests that it was used as a well. Perhaps both explanations are correct?

The environmental evidence from the fill of the Wilsford shaft indicates it was surrounded by grassland, indicating that the shaft, perhaps originally dug in the Neolithic period, was in use around 1,450 BC as a very deep well used by the local community for obtaining water for livestock and other purposes.  The finds including grass cropped by sheep, sheep dung and two aborted lambs , together with the absence of typical deposit material, when compared to Iron Age and Roman period shafts in England and mainland Europe that could be construed as offerings, tends to support this interpretation. As we have seen above sheep rarely feature in ritual deposition

The rare find of prehistoric rope, and a wooden container dated to 3,650-3,100 BC from the bottom of the Wilsford shaft, suggest this was an ancient well, that may have been first cut in the Middle Neolithic period and was merely re-cut, to a wider diameter, in the 2nd millennium BC. Alternatively, the wooden bucket may already have been ancient when deposited at a later date, perhaps the Early Bronze Age. Yet significantly amongst the other finds from the bottom of the shaft were a flint scraper, a selection of flint flakes and blades, amber beads, a notched bone and ring-headed bone pins; refuse or typical of deposits found at consecrated Neolithic sites such as monument ditches and ritual pits and at Fir Tree Field?

After all, is a shaft no more than a deep, narrow pit?


1. Paul Ashbee, M.G. Bell, E.V. Proudfoot, Wilsford Shaft: Excavations, 1960-62, English Heritage Archaeological Report, 1989.
2. Paul Linford, Report on geophysical survey of three pond barrows, March 1996.Lake Down, Near Wilsford, Wiltshire.
3. Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Blackwell, 1993, p.192.
4. Ralph Merrifield, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, BCA, 1987, pp.46-47.
5. Black Dogs, Guardians of the Corpse Ways, Bob Trubshaw, Mercian Mysteries. No.20, 1994.
6. Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, Chicago Academy, 1967.
7. Hutton, op.cit. p.186.
8. Merrifield, op.cit.
9. Hutton, op.cit.p.192.
10. Merrifield, op.cit.
11. Stuart Piggott, The Antiquaries Journal, September 1963 43 : pp 286-287.
12. Ashbee & Proudfoot, op.cit.
13. Ross, op.cit. pp.53-54
14. Ibid.


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