Resources collected from around the web for teaching human evolution

Whether you’re tackling human evolution from a science perspective or as part of a Stone Age Britain topic, here are some resources collected from around the web that might be of use.

Making your own footprint casts

The Fossils and Dinosaurs topic from the Hamilton Trust is free to download and there is a block of work of five sessions specifically on human evolution that I wrote, from creating a family tree of the hominids, tracing human dispersal around the world and particularly exploring what it would be like for modern humans and Neanderthals to meet. There is also one lesson plan (session 5) and resources in a block on fossilised footprints that looks at human footprints at Laetoli in Tanzania, Happisburgh in Norfolk and Pehuen-Co in Argentina.

I also wrote the file for this handaxe found at Happisburgh for the Teaching History in 100 Objects website by the British Museum. Handaxes are some of the earliest tools created by ancient humans, and this one dates to around 850,000 years ago, the same time that early humans (probably Homo antecessor) left footprints in the mud. The file also includes links and images of other handaxes and gives you some teaching ideas on how to use these images to explore the capabilities of ancient humans.

Make your own modroc hominid skull

I wrote more in depth resources for the Coping with Climate project run by the Universities of Reading and Brighton. These include image banks, timelines, fact-sheets and instructions for doing practical activities to explore what kind of tasks ancient humans were able to do, focusing on Homo heidelbergensis in southern England and on Neanderthals and the first modern humans into Europe. They are free to download.

One area I haven’t worked in is creating 3D scans of images, but many other people have! This site at the Smithsonian Museum’s website has a fantastic collection of scans of tools, art objects and fossil hominids which can be searched by species name. There are lots of skulls so you can see how this changes over time.

The Smithsonian have also just created some new video resources called Snapshots in Time that introduce pupils to Swartkrans in South Africa, Olorgasailie in Kenya and Shanidar cave in Iraq. Each site and what was found there is introduced bit by bit in a series of videos that allow pauses for discussion of the significance and meaning of the finds, before the narrative is woven together in the final video.

Sketchfab 3D fossils

New scans of material related to human evolution are uploaded to Sketchfab all the time. There are 3D scans of tools, art objects, pendants, sub-fossil bones, caves, excavations and more. Just go to Sketchfab and search for human evolution or Palaeolithic.

Finally, for another great list of resources for teaching human evolution, but aimed at older students, go to Caitlin Schrein’s list on her website.

If you have any other suggestions for human evolution resources you like to use, let me know!

Must Farm ‘Cluedo’

Must Farm near Peterborough was the site of a new quarry – and before quarrying archaeologists uncovered some amazing late Bronze Age archaeology preserved in waterlogged silted up channels of the River Nene.

A stilted settlement was built around 850 BC when the river was still running, but shallow. The people who lived there traded with far off places like Italy to get beautiful glass beads, travelling up and down the river in logboats. They had wheeled carts for travelling on dry land and kept sheep and cows there; they didn’t eat much fish or shellfish from the river. They made cloth out of lime bast, similar to linen. They also had swords to defend themselves.

Immediately before the end of the settlement, a wooden palisade was built around the outside of the small group of stilted roundhouses. Bronze axes were used to chop down the trees and dress the timbers. The end came as a conflagration – started by enemies from without or as an accident from within we don’t know. The fire vitrified food in bowls that were left behind, still with the wooden spoon inside. The floors and roofs collapsed into the river where the fire went out and the houses settled, to be preserved in the anaerobic environment underwater. There are no human remains in the river deposits, so hopefully everyone got out safely. Here’s a video from the archaeologists who dug it, Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

Based on this site, I developed a game similar to Cluedo for Aylesbury Young Archaeologist’s Club where players would try to work out who had started the fire, how and in which building. I colour-coded a reconstruction drawing by Vicki Herring and created some characters that might conceivably have been residents and some different ways that the fire might have started. Then you play very much the same way as Cluedo. Download the game-board and the instructions and cards here to print and play. You’ll need your own dice and gaming pieces. Tell me what you think and how it can be improved!

Game board – the walkways are divided into squares and the ways in to the buildings are marked by black diamonds.

Instructions and game cards – print and cut these out.

There are also some useful teaching resources on Must Farm created by Pippa Smith of Handling the Past for Historic England here.

Late Iron Age mirror from Holcombe, Devon – print and make

Download and print this PDF on the back of some gold metallic card, trace the dashed lines and shade in the dotted areas to make your own copy of the Holcombe Mirror.

This mirror found in Devon was made sometime between 50BC and AD 70 in the Late Iron Age or just into the Roman occupation of Britain. It was made of bronze, highly polished on one side and engraved with a complex design on the other. This design is seemingly abstract but hides many grinning faces. How many can you see?

New resource for teaching about the Stone Age written by Canterbury Christ Church University

Front page of the new resource pack on the Stone Age from Canterbury Christ Church University

Emilie Sibbesson of Canterbury Christ Church University has written a guide to the Stone Age with lots of factsheets, twelve lesson plans, supporting resources and loads of beautiful illustrations that is free for teachers to download and use. The information in there is not exclusive to Kent, though the suggested places to visit are all in Kent.

You need to create an account with them to download it, but it is free. Go to their website to get hold of this great resource.

There are great ideas like using toilet roll (though it has to be 1000 sheet!) for a timeline, challenging children to try to move balls across a room on all fours, guidelines for cooking fish wrapped in nettle and dandelion leaves and clay, and some great drama to undertake at the end of the block. The resource has been piloted with several Kent schools and so the activities have all been well tested.

Example illustration from the resource pack

The illustrations by Penny Bernard are also fantastic and give a sense of the richness of culture in this remote time.

Coping with Climate: the legacy of Homo heidelbergensis

Handaxe from Boxgrove, West Sussex, made by Homo heidelbergensis. By Midnightblueowl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16466144

In a project led by Dr Rob Hosfield of the University of Reading and Dr James Cole of the University of Brighton on understanding how the early human species Homo heidelbergensis coped with climate changes during the Pleistocene era we have contributed some teaching resources linked to both the history topic, Stone Age to Iron Age Britain and the science topic of evolution.

Homo heidelbergensis was a fore-runner of Neanderthals and lived around 500,000 years ago. At one of the most iconic sites for this species in Britain, Boxgrove in West Sussex, H. heidelbergensis seems to have lived in a relatively warm climate and either hunted or scavenged rhinoceros among other animals.

The resources also take in a number of other hominin species and start to ask the question what makes us human? Were other hominin species human? Did earlier species wear clothes, make fire, make art, have language? The resources also explore how archaeologists, palaeogeneticists and other scientists try to work out the answers to these questions.

There are lesson plans and supporting resources available as PDFs, Word documents, and PowerPoint presentations including image banks, guides for running practical activities and experiments, and fact sheets on these ancient human species. They’re all free to download, so take a look, use them and send us feedback!

What is Stone Age cave art all about?

We’ve been round many schools and seen your children’s fine artwork inspired by the Palaeolithic painted caves of southern France and northern Spain, and there are always interesting ideas about what the cave art was all about. Was it telling stories? Was it recording hunting scenes? Was it a way to bring good luck to an upcoming hunt? Let’s explore some of the features of the painted caves to see what they can reveal.

Marks in El Castillo cave in Cantabria, northern Spain. http://cuevas.culturadecantabria.com/el-castillo-2/ 

Some of the oldest cave paintings are at El Castillo cave in Cantabria in northern Spain and Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France, dating to about 40,000 years ago. In El Castillo there are paintings of a mammoth, goats, deer, horses, aurochs (wild European cattle not extinct) as well as many hand-prints and some abstract symbols that may refer to the cycle of the moon. At Chauvet there are bears, an owl, woolly rhino and cave lions painted in the cave, as well as a panel of handprints at the entrance. Handprints in these painted caves have recently been analysed. Men and women have a marked difference between their hand shape: men generally have longer index fingers than ring fingers, women’s are usually about the same length. By analysing the handprints it was found that over half of them were made by women, and there are also a few children’s handprints known, and ‘flutings’ made by children’s fingers in wet clay walls. It was the entire population who were involved in making art in these caves.

By Unknown – Screenshot from the film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41964466

The type of animals depicted on the walls changes over time. Some of the paintings in Chauvet Cave date to about 39,000 years ago, while Lascaux cave in the Dordogne region of southern France dates to around 17,000 years ago. More time passed between Chauvet and Lascaux, than from Lascaux to now! And the climate had also changed. Some animals were not so common and others more common. Woolly rhinos and cave lions don’t appear at Lascaux, but aurochs, megaloceros (giant deer), bison, and horses do. What is interesting is that the main source of hunted food for the people who painted Lascaux (and, incidentally, lived elsewhere – the caves that were painted were generally not lived in) was reindeer, and they are not depicted in the cave at all. Similarly, many predators were painted at Chauvet, like cave lions, hyenas and bears, species that wouldn’t have been hunted for food. So the cave paintings were probably not painted to bring luck to the hunt, or record past hunts.

The Venus of Willendorf from Austria. By MatthiasKabel – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1526553

In fact, if they were hunting scenes, you would expect to find hunters depicted but humans are very rarely painted at all. If you have found images of hunters supposedly from Lascaux or other European painted caves, you’re probably looking at images of hunters from southern African rock paintings which are later in date in the main. When humans are depicted in European Palaeolithic cave art, they are shown in one of two ways, both of which are paralleled in the portable art from these times – little figurines carved out of mammoth ivory, antler, bone or stone. One way is the so-called ‘Venus’ figure. A stalagtite in Chauvet Cave has a vulva and legs painted on it, and from many other European sites, especially in Austria and the Czech Republic, there are little carved figurines showing naked women in various stages of pregnancy or post-pregnancy. Old theories assumed men had made them as erotic images but it seems more likely that women were making them for themselves to mark this important life event.

 

 

Man/bird hybrid being killed by a dying bison in Lascaux Cave. By Peter80, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2416632

Another way humans get depicted is generally a human/animal hybrid. This is usually a man, such as the Man-Bison from Chauvet Cave (interestingly, painted next to the Venus), the Lion-Man from Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in the Baden-Württemberg region of southern Germany, and the man-bird from the deepest past of Lascaux cave. Sometimes shape-shifting can be attributed to female figures, such as the Femme au Renne from the Laugerie-Basse cave in the Dordogne region of France, which shows a pregnant woman/deer under the legs of a reindeer. There seems to have been a taboo on depicting people in cave art, unless they were shape-shifting into some other animal or a woman. What does this tell us? It’s difficult to say but it would prod us towards thinking that the paintings potentially have a spiritual dimension.

Auroch roundel found in the Mas d’Azil cave, southern France
Musée d’Archéologie nationale et Domaine national de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Paris

There’s one last feature of Palaeolithic art that is quite special. There are discs showing images on both sides, perforated in the middle of the disc. The images are similar but usually different in a small way, such as a deer with legs down on one side and bent up on the other, or an auroch calf on one side and an auroch cow on the other. These are very early thaumatropes, better known as a popular Victorian optical illusion. You thread a string through the middle and spin them to see a moving image. Amazingly, moving images were made on cave walls too. There are paintings in Chauvet and other caves with multiple animals seemingly superimposed on each other, but in fact these are different positions of the same animal, with tails wagging, or heads raising, and as the flickering light from the fat lamps that people used fell on them, they would appear to move. Here is a video showing some of these incredible paintings in action.

What does all this add up to, then? The fact that children were involved in painting the caves and clearly present in many caves suggests that the paintings may have been used as teaching aids, but that everyone also observed the world outside the cave very closely too. One theory is that the caves may have been seen as the birthplace of life, and so these are paintings of animals coming out of the cave. The way they move supports this theory.

The fact that many of the human figures seem to shape-shift into animals also suggests that shamanic rituals may have taken place either in the caves or elsewhere with people dressed in animal skins and pretending to be animals, moving like them, making noises like them in ceremonies, or for telling stories. But animals were not the only thing depicted in Palaeolithic art, bearing children was clearly important, while making other abstract marks and putting your handprint on a cave was also done. Can you think of reasons why?

Book review: Archer, Journey to Stonehenge by Jane Brayne

Archer, Journey to Stonehenge by Jane Brayne

This newly published comic strip style picture-book tells a story of a young man’s journey from the Alps to Stonehenge. It is based on a discovery of a man buried near Stonehenge just outside Amesbury in 2002. Examination of his body showed he had grown up in the Alps and had journeyed to Britain when a young man. This book is an imaginative look at what that journey might have been for, and what is might have been like. Jane Brayne, the author and illustrator, was the first person to ever draw a reconstruction of the Amesbury Archer and now has drawn his entire story.

The book is packed full of research, from the patterns on the clothes that the people of the Alps wear based on standing stones of the region, to how copper was smelted and cast, to the inclusion of Bluestonehenge, a new henge on the River Avon at the start of the Stonehenge Avenue that was only discovered in 2008.

Many aspects of the book are more speculative, like the function of the standing stones at Carnac in Brittany, the method of sailing on rivers and the sea, and the ‘Observers’ at Stonehenge, and this provides some great material for discussion about what these monuments were for.

Information about the Archer in the back of the book.

Objects that were found in the Amesbury Archer’s grave appear in the story itself, such as the gold tress rings for his hair, the metalworking tools, the stone bracer he wore on his wrist to protect it from a bowstring, the antler pin that was a gift from his father, the boars tusks that he hunted when he became a man and, most importantly, the copper dagger, which is currently still the earliest known metal in Britain. Making a biography for each of those objects really makes them so much more significant when studying his grave, which is mentioned in the back of the book. For many years the idea of a group of people bringing a new style of pottery called Beaker Folk was ridiculed in the archaeological world, but when the Archer was found with a beaker and having come from the Alps, the idea has become mainstream again.

Another great topic is how Stonehenge is portrayed, as perhaps somewhere usually off limits and strictly controlled, but also how one of the main times for engaging with the stone circle was at the midwinter sunset, as well as at midsummer sunrise, as the alignments are exactly opposite each other at this latitude.

The great hunting grounds of the afterlife in Archer, Journey to Stonehenge by Jane Brayne

In the end it is also sad to think the Amesbury Archer didn’t get back to his homeland, which he longs to do in the book, but died and was buried near Stonehenge. In the book Brayne suggests that the people of the time believed that spirits of the dead went on to the great hunting ground, but you can see the Amesbury Archer’s skeleton in Salisbury Museum.

What did people eat in Stone Age to Iron Age Britain?

There’s a great divide between what people ate in earlier prehistory and in later prehistory, and it all comes down to when did farming start. One of the places farming was independently invented was in the Near East in around 10,000 BC. It slowly spread outwards and got to Britain by 4000 BC. This early farming culture is called the Neolithic (New Stone Age).

Early humans

Earlier species of human inhabited Britain at both cold and warm periods in the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) from about 850,000 years ago to around 40,000 years ago. Species may have included Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis. From the earliest times they may have had control of fire, as the earliest hearth was found in Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa dating to about 1 million years ago, although the earliest hearth in Britain was found at Beeches Pit in Suffolk and dates to about 400,000 years ago.

Tusk of the extinct straight-tusked elephant from Swanscombe around 400,000 years ago.

Homo heidelbergensis hunted or scavenged horse and rhinoceros around 500,000 years ago at Boxgrove in West Sussex during a warm period between glaciations. Homo neanderthalensis may have hunted elephants a mere 100,000 years later at Swanscombe in Kent. The now extinct straight-tusked elephant had lived in a very warm interglacial when Britain was probably cut off from the continent temporarily. Elephant bones were surrounded by flint tools that had been made on site, used to butcher it and then abandoned afterwards (Wenban-Smith 2013).

Hunter-gatherers

Some of the cave paintings at Lascaux from the Hall of Bulls (aurochs) but also showing deer and horses

Before this all over the world people had got their food by hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering wild food. The hunter-gatherer diet was quite rich. In the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age, which finished around 10,000 BC) certain animals were hunted that had adapted to the cold temperatures of the Ice Age and died out when the climate warmed. In the painted caves of Lascaux, which date to about 15,000 BC, you see horses, bison, aurochs (another species of wild cow – now extinct), giant and red deer but never reindeer, which were actually one of the main animals the people who lived nearby relied on. There are no mammoths represented here either, although they do appear at the nearby Rouffignac cave, but are not usually in the diet of the painters of this date in this area of France.

The cave art of Creswell Crags, on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border near Worksop, representing a deer and an ibex (a type of goat) then may not be representative of what was hunted for food in Britain at this time around 12,000 BC. A fragment of rib bone from an unidentified animal with a scratched image of a horse’s head on it has led to the suggestion that a few intrepid hunters were up there hunting wild horses on the tundra.

Human bones from Kendrick’s Cave near Llandudno from the Upper Palaeolithic that were tested with stable isotope analysis

The bones of humans found in Kendrick’s Cave near Llandudno in Wales were tested using stable isotope analysis. This measures the ratios of isotopes of certain elements in bone collagen from ancient bone and can give indications about what kind of food is being eaten (marine or terrestrial, animal or plant) and can also indicate where a person had grown up and traveled to. The ratios of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen from the human bone at Kendrick’s Cave suggested that they got about a third of their food intake from marine mammals, and the team who undertook the work suggested this was probably seal meat (Richards et al 2005, 393), even though the animal bones left in the cave were all from terrestrial mammals.

People living on the coast do seem to have continued to heavily use marine resources. Many shell middens survive on the coast of Scotland but the coastline of England has changed so much since the end of the Ice Age that many of these are probably now beneath the sea. In Scotland such middens have yielded shells of many crustaceans and molluscs, as well as fish and marine mammal bones, e.g. Sand at Applecross, Wester Ross which dates to about 6500 BC (Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2009).

Red deer bones and antler at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr in North Yorkshire

By this time we are definitely in what archaeologists call the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) after the ice retreated but before farming was introduced. At Star Carr in North Yorkshire, which dates to about 9000 BC, the vast majority of the food being consumed seems to have been red deer, although bones of other animals like aurochs (wild cows) and wild pigs also appears. The people at Star Carr went to the sea, as we can see from the collection of amber picked up on the beach, and if they ate seafood they didn’t carry it inland. There are scant remains of pike, though, which suggests they did fish in the now vanished Lake Flixton (Robson et al 2016).

Plant remains have also turned up, although they don’t survive very well, of course. They only survive when they are charred, which might have happened if overcooked by accident. Charred plant remains found on Mesolithic sites in Scotland (and elsewhere in Britain) have included crab apple and pear pips, haw berry stones, hazelnut shells and the roots of Lesser Celandine, which would be a little like very small potatoes (Bishop et al 2013).

Farmers

When farming was adopted from around 4000 BC, everything changed. Stable isotope analysis comparing human bones from the Mesolithic and the Neolithic show a marked change between eating a diet rich in fish to one with little freshwater or marine component at all (although this has been questioned: Milner et al 2003). Signs of malnutrition are often found on early farmer’s bones, caused by a diet of mostly dairy and bread.

Neolithic charred bread found at Yarnton and dating to about 3600 BC.

The earliest preserved bread, charred in a fire, was found at Yarnton in Oxfordshire and dated to about 3600 BC. Wheat and barley grains have also been found charred, of a similar date and some even earlier in many places in the British Isles.

Dairying may have occurred from quite early on in the farming culture of Britain. The remains of lipids, and particularly fats from milk, have been found adhering to the inside of pots in Neolithic sites like Windmill Hill in Wiltshire and Runnymede Bridge in Surrey (Copley et al 2005).

Painted cave art of a woman gathering honey from Cueva de la Araña in Spain, Neolithic or earlier

People in the Neolithic may have had a slightly more interesting diet, though, and there are also remains of beeswax found in pots from Runnymede Bridge and in many pots from farming communities around Europe and Africa (Roffet-Salque et al 2015). This may suggest that bees were being kept in semi-domestication and that honey would be available for farmers. There is a famous piece of rock art from Spain, the Cueva de la Araña (Spider Cave) which seems to show a woman collected honey from a hive on a cliff while bees fly around her. It is not closely dated, and may be Neolithic or much earlier.

Gundestrup Cauldron dating to around 1BC from Denmark (but possibly originally made in northern France)

Large scale feasting sometimes occurs in the Neolithic and in later farming eras. At Durrington Walls near Stonehenge both cattle and pigs were slaughtered at winter-time, presumably for large midwinter feasts. Feasting also seems to be a part of life in the Bronze Age and Iron Age periods, from the discovery of large cauldrons and flesh hooks, such as one decorated with corvids and water birds from Dunaverney in Ireland and dating to about 1000 BC, and the silver Gundestrup Cauldron (probably for some kind of alcoholic drink) from Denmark.

Talking of alcohol, a pottery vessel from North Mains, Perthshire in Scotland had a black greasy substance in it which was sampled. It was found to contain cereal pollen and meadow-sweet pollen, which was used in flavouring alcoholic drinks in more recent times, and the archaeologists suggested the pot originally contained ale (rather than beer which is flavoured with hops and is usually said to be medieval in date, though there is some evidence of hops being used in Roman ale (in Andrews et al 2011, 224-5)). The ale at North Mains dated to about 1500 BC (Barclay 1983). It’s likely that ale goes back a long way.

A pot containing nettle stew carbonised in a house fire in the late Bronze Age Must Farm

A more varied diet comes back in the Bronze and Iron Ages after the introduction of a wider range of crops such as oats, rye, beans, vetch, cabbage and other foods. A pottery bowl with carbonised food and wooden spoon still in it was recently found in excavations at Must Farm near Peterborough, dating to about 1000 BC. The food was analysed and found to be some kind of nettle stew.

 

A – celery seed, B – coriander seed, C – dill seed, D – olive stone. Found at the late Iron Age settlement at Silchester in Berkshire.

With Roman contact in the late first century BC, some of the elite of southern England took to importing wine and other exotic foodstuffs. At Silchester, a late Iron Age settlement in Berkshire, imported food included coriander seeds and olives. Some ended up in their graves to take them to the next world, or at least show off to mourners. What a waste!

 

References

Andrews, P, Biddulph, E, Hardy, A & Brown, H 2011. Settling the Ebbsfleet Valley. Oxford & Salisbury, Oxford Wessex Archaeology.

Barclay, G, 1983. Sites of the third millennium be to the first millennium ad at North Mains, Strathallan, Perthshire. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 123, pp 122-281.

Bishop, R. R, Church, M, J, & Rowley-Conwy, P 2013.  Seeds, fruits and nuts in the Scottish Mesolithic. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 143, pp 9-71.

Copley et al, 2005. Dairying in antiquity. III. Evidence from absorbed lipid residues dating to the British Neolithic. Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 523-546. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2004.08.006

Hardy, K & Wickham-Jones, C 2009. Mesolithic and later sites around the Inner Sound, Scotland’s: the work of the Scotlands First Settlers project 1998-2004. Scottish Archaeological Internet Report 31. http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/sair/contents.cfm?vol=31

Milner, N et al, 2003. Something fishy in the Neolithic? A re-evaluation of stable isotope analysis of Mesolithic and Neolithic coastal populations. Antiquity 78, Issue 299, pp 9-22. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00092887

Richards et al, 2005. Isotope evidence for the intensive use of marine foods by Late Upper Palaeolithic humans. Journal of Human Evolution 49, pp 390-4.

Robson, H. K., Little, A., Jones, A. K. G., Blockley, S., Candy, I., Matthews, I., Palmer, A., Schreve, D., Tong, E., Pomstra, D., Fletcher, L., Hausmann, N., Taylor, B., Conneller, C. and Milner, N, 2016. Scales of analysis: evidence of fish and fish processing at Star Carr. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2016.02.009.

Wenban-Smith, F 2013. The Ebbsfleet Elephant. Oxford Archaeology Monograph Vol 20.

Long Meg and her Daughters, Cumbria

Long Meg and her Daughters as seen from the air. Simon Ledingham [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Meg and her Daughters as seen from the air. Simon Ledingham [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Meg and her daughters is a Neolithic stone circle in Cumbria about seven miles north-east of Penrith. It may have had many more stones, but now has 68, and 27 of these are still standing. The ‘daughters’ are the grey stones set in a circle and Long Meg is a 12 foot (3.65m) tall red sandstone monolith that stands just outside the circle to the south-west. She is decorated with pecked spirals and arcs on her eastern face. Long Meg was probably transported a couple of miles from the River Eden or the Lazonby Fells and was erected first, whereas her ‘daughters’ were glacial erratics and put up later. According to local tradition, Long Meg and her daughters were witches who were turned to stone for dancing wildly on the moors on the sabbath. There are many local legends about the stones, including that if Long Meg were ever broken, she would bleed (Burl 1994, 3-6; Soffe & Clare 1988, 552).

Long Meg and her daughters form the sixth largest stone circle in Britain, Ireland and Britanny, 25 times larger than the average stone circle (Burl 1994, 1). It is part of a European megalithic tradition of building large stone monuments that starts in the Neolithic and continues into the earlier Bronze Age. There are several stone circles in Cumbria apart from Long Meg, including Castlerigg, Little Meg, and Swinside. Not many of these stone circles have had a history of excavation, and so it is difficult to pinpoint with much greater accuracy exactly when in the Neolithic or Bronze Age they were constructed and whether they have been rearranged at any point. The eighteenth century antiquarian William Stukeley suggested that Long Meg had been extensively modified within his lifetime, and stones were also moved later in the nineteenth century, so it is possible that the stones are not in their exact original positions (Burl 1994, 4).

Long Meg. PAUL FARMER [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Meg. PAUL FARMER [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite this, for many years it has been noted that Long Meg aligns with the midwinter sunset. The two more northerly ‘portal’ stones of the southern entrance align exactly on Long Meg and the midwinter sunset. The spiral motifs carved on Long Meg are thought to reflect the spiral shadow that the sun makes as it passes through the midwinter day (Burl 1994, 8). It is likely that there were two burial cairns in the centre of the circle, possibly built in the Bronze Age and later than the stone circle itself, that were removed by the landowners over the centuries. There are other stone circles known in Cumbria with stone cairns inside, at Gunnerkeld and Burnmoor, for instance (Burl 1994, 4-5; Clare 1975, 6, 10).

Although not visible on the ground, there was an enclosure to the north of the stone circle and a cursus monument (a long processional route flanked by parallel banks and ditches) to the west that leads to (or from) the River Eden. These were found in the 1980s through aerial photography. The enclosure bank and ditch may have been round a settlement that was lived in at the same time as the stone circle was built (Burl 1994, 6; Soffe & Clare 1988, 552). People from the settlement and surrounding areas may have processed along the cursus to from the River Eden to Long Meg and her Daughters at midwinter to “supplicate for the return of summer, light and warmth” (Burl 1994, 10).

Wordsworth was certainly inspired by the stones, writing in his 1822 poem, The monument commonly called Long Meg:

A weight of Awe not easy to be borne
Fell suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that family forlorn;

If you are a teacher in Cumbria, you have your own stone circle to teach about and even visit, and don’t have to focus on Stonehenge. There are plenty of other stone circles, rows, single stones or dolmens around the country, too, like the monolith in Rudston churchyard in the East Riding of Yorkshire, stone rows on Dartmoor, and Kit’s Coty in Kent.

References and further information
Burl, A. 2005. A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Burl, H.A.W. 1994. The stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld. Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2nd Series Volume 94, 1-11.
Clare, T. 1975. Some Cumbrian stone circles in perspective. Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2nd Series Volume 75, 1-16.
Clare, T. 2007. Prehistoric monuments of the Lake District. Stroud: Tempus.
Soffe, G. & Clare, T. 1988. New evidence of ritual monuments at Long Meg and her Daughters, Cumbria. Antiquity Volume 62 Issue 236, 552-557.

 

 

Hunter-gatherers to farmers

Demonstrating flint knapping

Demonstrating flint knapping

The tricky question of how and why hunter-gatherers took up farming is explored in one of our all-day school workshops. Starting outside, using the time frame of the Mesolithic, we explore what life was like for hunter-gatherers. What animals were available for them to hunt? How did they make their houses? What skills did they need to survive? How did they enjoy and express themselves?

We emphasise how hunter-gatherers relied on the environment to provide everything they needed; food, clothes, building material, decorative items. We teach children how to make fire and process bramble into rope, or nettle into cord. Using an anatomy apron and a deer skin we ceremonially gut a ‘deer’ and decide which bits are edible, and which bits can be used for something else like making water bags.

Demonstrating spinning wool

Demonstrating spinning wool

In the afternoon everything changes as we go inside and find out about the farming lifestyle of the Neolithic, from making cloth out of wool, to grinding wheat to make flour. We explore how, because people were producing excess food they needed something to store it in, and so pottery became very useful. Children get to make butter and try out wattling.

Finally, the classes come together to celebrate in the Neolithic way, making a causewayed enclosure with their own bodies, playing musical instruments, singing and clapping. It’s a memorable way to finish off a wow day.

Find more details of this and other workshops here.