A Matter of Faith – The Sleeping Sentinels of Durrington Walls

Undated Sotheby's handout photo of Lancelt trying to take his own life from The Rochefoucauld Grail, in French, illuminated manuscript on vellum, c.1315-23, which is estimated to sell for £1,500,000ñ2,000,000, when it will be offered in Sotheby's London sale of Western Manuscripts and Miniatures on 7th December, 2010. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Thursday November 11, 2010. The illuminated 14th century manuscript containing what is believed to be the oldest surviving account of the legends of King Arthur is to be sold for up to £2 million, it was announced today. The Rochefoucauld Grail, a colourful, illustrated account of the knights of the round table, Merlin and the Holy Grail is said to be one of the finest medieval texts in private hands. It is due to be sold by auction house Sotheby's in London for a price estimated between £1.5 million and £2 million. See PA story SALE Manuscript. Photo credit should read: Sotheby's/PA Wire Copyright in this image shall remain vested in Sotheby's. Please note that this image may depict subject matter which is itself protected by separate copyright. Sotheby's makes no representations as to whether the underlying subject matter is subject to its own copyright, or as to who might hold such copyright. It is the borrower's responsibility to obtain any relevant permissions from the holder(s) of any applicable copyright and Sotheby's supplies this image expressly subject to this responsibility. Note that the image is provided for a one-time use only and no permission is granted to alter this image in any way.

The more I ponder this matter of the purported row of one hundred or so huge sarsens lying buried at Durrington Walls, the more baffled I become. Exactly one year ago, the University of Birmingham announced some of the findings of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, which included a mention of a new survey revealing that there was an early phase when the monument at Durrington Walls “…was flanked with a row of massive posts or stones, perhaps up to three metres high and up to 60 in number – some of which may still survive beneath the massive banks surrounding the monument.”

This was fascinating enough at the time, but now we learn that there’s evidence for as many as one hundred standing stones and the pits into which they were placed upright, with the possibility that as many as forty of these stones remain intact, just three feet or so beneath the ground. Whether you address yourself to the details of the September 2014 or the slightly updated September 2015 announcement (see my previous post and related link), this is an astonishing discovery by any standards, while for all those of us who are mesmerised by Stonehenge, it surely trumps any and all other findings made by the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project.

Who could fail to be fascinated by the discovery of so many massive stones, presumably put in place at around the same time that the early sarsen phase of Stonehenge itself was being constructed? Longer ago than I care to remember, I presented a great swathe of detailed evidence to support the idea that a lost altar stone from Stonehenge, as described in the seventeenth century by Inigo Jones, now stands in two separate pieces in a village close to the ruins, and what I had to say on the matter attracted a huge amount of interest from the media at the time.

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However, the excavation of a previously unknown or unsuspected megalith from the ground close to Stonehenge itself would be a far greater discovery, while the idea that archaeologists could potentially unearth tens or even scores of these stones, with all the new information that such excavations would bring to us, makes the mind reel.

With all this in mind, I’m mystified by the contents of this lengthy feature by Ed Caesar in the Smithsonian magazine, published in September 2014, or at the same time as the press release from the University of Birmingham, provided above. I’ve read through this interview with Vince Gaffney several times, but I can’t find any mention of the stones at Durrington Walls, even though the piece includes the following two paragraphs:

*

Scattered all over the map were blotches of black: features without names. These were new finds, including the more than 15 possible new or poorly understood Neolithic monuments. Gaffney emphasized possible, acknowledging that it will require digging—“the testimony of the spade”—to discover precisely what was there.

Standing in front of this constellation of evidence, he seemed unable to decide where to start, like a child at the Christmas tree. “These are little henge monuments,” he said, touching the screen to highlight a group of black smudges. “Nice little entrance there, and a ditch. These things we know nothing about.”

*

Not only is there no mention of the buried stones at Durrington Walls, an absence I cannot understand, given the nature and size of this piece in the Smithsonian magazine, but Caesar also writes of Vince Gaffney, “He saved his greatest enthusiasm for the discoveries that had been made in the Cursus”, something that’s even harder for me to comprehend when the 2014 University of Birmingham press release contains this, in reference to the one hundred or so sarsens: “The project has also revealed exciting new – and completely unexpected – information on previously known monuments. Among the most significant relate to the Durrington Walls ‘super henge’, situated a short distance from Stonehenge.” (my emphases).

Despite the apparent importance of the discoveries at the Cursus, I’m not aware that any related excavations have taken place there since. The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project has produced an embarrassment of riches, so it would be difficult for anyone to know where to start when faced with these myriad shrines, henges and other monuments, but I would personally have thought that proving the existence of a massive prehistoric sarsen monument so close to the mighty Stonehenge would be at the top of anyone’s list.

It’s been a long time since I worked as an archaeologist and I’ve never professed to have any notable ability as far as these matters are concerned, but I can’t begin to imagine why, in the year since the discovery of these many once-standing stones, no archaeologist has probed beneath the surface of the areas in question with an auger, something that would rapidly, easily and cheaply ascertain whether or not there was indeed a row of outsize sarsens buried there. As they’re said to lie around three feet beneath the surface, then even if my aged dog made a half-hearted attempt to bury a bone there, he’d be likely to get within at least sniffing distance of what might prove to be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of recent times.

Given the potential significance of this year-old discovery, I find it hard to think of a reason not to investigate this place, but one did eventually spring to mind. When Mike Pitts was wondering aloud what else these features might be, if not sarsens, he wrote “The area has been close to active military works since before the first world war, so an unknown military structure is not impossible.”

Given the fact that Porton Down Military Science Park is just a stone’s throw away from Durrington Walls, then I for one would be very wary indeed of disturbing any unknown buried ‘thing’ that had the remotest whiff of the military about it, so it may be that similar thoughts have formed part of the considerations of those in the upper reaches of the archaeological firmament as far as Stonehenge is concerned – I just don’t know.

So, until such time as an intrepid archaeologist excavates these strange features and establishes beyond doubt their true nature, the matter must remain a matter for conjecture or, as Michael Crichton described it, “consensus science.” This is no bad thing, as far as I’m concerned, because it allows for informed speculation and as I suggested at the end of my last post, my mind immediately retreated into the arcane but highly rewarding world of Arthurian lore and British mythology when I first heard of these “five-score sleeping sentinels” at Durrington Walls.

They’re matters I intend to mull over in private for the time being, but for those of you interested in the idea of Arthur’s sleeping knights being buried in caves or beneath the walls of an ancient ‘castle’, you might like to read this account (and the account provided in the link at the end of the article) of an apparent visit to a mound where King Arthur and his knights slept in Caerleon in south Wales, a place I know from long personal experience to be thoroughly imbued with aspects of the Otherworld.

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“Cerca trova”.

Giorgio Vasari, 1511 – 1574.

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3 Responses to A Matter of Faith – The Sleeping Sentinels of Durrington Walls

  1. Dr Dan H. says:

    I do wonder if the present Stonehenge stones didn’t spend at least part of their life as part of this newly-discovered monument.

    This might explain why Stonehenge exists; Durrington to Stonehenge is much closer than the original resting place of the stones.

    Excavations to look for stone-shaping debris among other things is clearly needed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robin Melrose says:

    Like you, Dennis, I’m puzzled, since many of these findings seem to have come out in 2014, including the discovery of a Neolithic timber long barrow to the southwest of Durrington Walls. Sleeping sentinels make me think of long barrows, and there may be an Arthurian connection here. In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (Middle English, 14th century), Gawain must meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. When Gawain goes in search of the Green Chapel, all he sees is a mound (translation by Simon Armitage):

    Then he strides forward and circles the feature,
    baffled as to what that bizarre hill could be:
    it had a hole at one end and at either side,
    and its walls, matted with weeds and moss,
    enclosed a cavity, like a kind of old cave
    or crevice in the crag – it was all too unclear to
    declare.
    ‘Green church?’ chunters the knight.
    ‘More like the devil’s lair
    where at the nub of night,
    he makes his morning prayer.’

    To me, that sounds very much like a Neolithic long barrow. The Green Chapel is probably somewhere in the area of the north Staffordshire/Cheshire border – and there are certainly long barrows in nearby Derbyshire.

    Liked by 1 person

    • eternalidol says:

      Robin, I was first introduced to the idea of the Green Chapel being a long barrow or other fairy abode in Richard Cavendish’s truly excellent book “King Arthur and the Grail – The Arthurian Legends and their Meaning”, first published in 1978, while I’m very grateful to you for the translation you’ve provided. I’ve always been fascinated by these various stories of humans entering some kind of Otherworld whose physical portal was a prehistoric structure and I’m also grateful to you for the examples of this kind of thing you’ve provided me with over the years. I don’t know if you looked at the page about Caerleon that I provided a link for, but I was intrigued to learn of such a relatively modern and dramatic example of a mortal encountering otherworldly beings, while this is the only one I know of where someone has claimed to have spoken with King Arthur and his knights. Endlessly fascinating, as far as I’m concerned.

      Like

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