Chapter 24 – The Neolithic Community

It was Grace who was the first to fall as they descended from the tumuli-decorated ridge, carving a tunnel through the impenetrable blanket of wet grey mist. She tripped over a stone buried in the heather, but managed to keep her balance as she half fell, half jumped to land on her feet in a little squared pit. The knee-deep reeds and grassy bottom contrasted with the enveloping heather. George chuckled as he looked about in the mist. ‘Great! Grace appears to have found the necropolis we were looking for!’
Rhan peered at the depression in the ground, which she thought looked recent. She then noted that it had stone sides and a leaning standing stone at one corner. She was horrified as it dawned on her that her new friend had stumbled into a grave, even though Grace seemed in no hurry to get out again.
‘You think that’s a grave? Why?’ Rhan asked.
‘Ma says that the burnt remains of commoners where left in cists like this down south,’ Grace lectured from the bottom of the pit. ‘There’s around thirty or so graves on this hillside. They’d have been visible from that ancient motorway we saw earlier, but not today.’
‘There are other burial sites of a similar size on that hillside and a much bigger one with hundreds of cists just over that hill.’ George directed Rhan with his hand again, which in the mist had absolutely no relevance to anyone. Both Grace and Rhan chuckled at his behaviour.
They went from hollow to hollow, inspecting a good handful of graves, delighted with Rhan’s interest, as their guest gave a running commentary on her discoveries.
‘So most appear to have been cut into the bedrock on the side of a hill, leaving two or three stone sides which could be the natural bedrock as well. That could suggest quarrying? But then some have a standing stone right beside the hole. On the downhill side, there is sometimes a smaller stone, but it is missing in that one, and that one. Could these graves be just places where stones have been extracted?’
‘You have to decide,’ George responded, without committing himself.
‘Oh, that stone could have been a lid! I see your point. This one is big, yet that one is tiny.’
‘Come on, Rhan, we’ve got something more to show you.’ With renewed purpose and a definite direction in the reduced mist, Rhan was led down a hill, up the far side and across a plateau, where George restarted the grand tour.
‘We’ve circled round and are just above the double wall again. Look first at all these quarries just below the crest.’ They picked their way between quarry pits some three or four metres wide and a metre deep, similar to those they had seen earlier in the walk. ‘We used to think these quarries were for the double wall, but it appears they’re not.
‘Are you sure these are old?’ Rhan asked, deciding to question the wisdom of her guide.
‘Just look at some of the stones that’ve been left by the pits,’ George suggested. ‘OK, the pits could’ve been dug last year, but look there – that stone’s fallen over, yet it’s weathered both on its tip where it stood, and also on its side after it fell or was pushed over. It’s been there for many centuries. No one has suggested that they did much up here in medieval times, which would mean it was quarried in ancient times. Anyway, come down here and see where most of the stones went.’
They walked down the drop, which was strewn with boulders or partially shaped stones and pits to a flatter area. The mist allowed Rhan to see that it was just above the bottom of the slope.
‘Stand on that stone there!’ George ordered. ‘You on that corner Grace, and I’ll take this one.’
‘I see your point,’ Rhan declared with some relief after a few moments of feeling stupid. ‘We are at the corners of walls, presumably to a house. That unoccupied corner is built up with several courses. It’s…’ She stopped, left her perch on the lowest stone corner and paced to each of the others. It’s six metres by seven. Quite big! Is that an internal wall and a small room in that corner??’
‘Yeah, we haven’t figured that out yet,’ Grace responded shaking her head. ‘We call this East House. Just look. Those stones below this wall that we’re stood on make a curve, which we think could’ve made a yard. Shall we carry on down?’
‘Look around you now, Rhan!’ George said enigmatically after just a few careful paces. The ground sloped gently and Rhan peered into the mist, which was more consistent and less confusing than it had been on the plateau they had just crossed.
‘There are stones everywhere!’ Rhan exclaimed as she obligingly and energetically scampered around in the mist, through a landscape of craters and boulders, while making sure she kept within sight of her guides. She felt relieved that the dog decided to join her and was sniffing around while the others stood watching. ‘Some stones are piled in mounds, but others are in lines.’
She paused now and then to kick piles of dead bracken away, which were either soggy or dry enough to turn to powder and revealed yet more underlying stones. Keen not to be alone, she continued to report her findings, aware that the brother and sister seemed to be waiting on her observations. She began to think that everything she had seen previously on the walk had just been preparation for a test at this site.
‘Large-faced stones…shaped…some with chisel marks. Some of these line walkways or hollows in the ground…sunken areas, similar to those grave hollows. What did you call them? Oh yes, cists. Except the low bits…they are larger and longer, like passageways, formed with massive stone sunken kerbs. The heaps, and the gaps between hollows, have smaller, partly shaped stones. What a waste of good stone! How strange! Are these more graves or is this a quarry, or a stone dressing area for your double wall?’
There was no reply from the two watching guides.
‘Well, I know you are waiting for me to say it’s a town or something, but you two are presumably keeping something from me,’ Rhan complained eventually.
‘No, we don’t know anything,’ George laughed while Grace shrugged her shoulders. ‘This stonework was only revealed when the bracken started to die off a few years ago and it’s still emerging, so we just wanted to hear your views without influence. We’ve probed the ground and there is usually soil rather than rock underneath, so your guess of a quarry is no good. These stones were presumably from those quarries just up there, so were dragged down here for a purpose.’
There was a long pause before Rhan spoke again.
‘If these lines were the foundations to walls of ancient houses like that East House you showed me, and the hollows were the gaps between them, then …that would mean that all the rest of these stones, as far as I can see in this fog, are also probably ruins of stone houses. How unusual would a town be? How many houses are there?’
Rhan paused. ‘I remember my mother saying that in Syria, the rectangular houses were older than the round houses.’ She looked up to see George raise his eyebrows at his sister.
‘My mother used to translate for tours sometimes,’ she continued, aware that she had spoken so rarely about her mother. ‘So is this a wrecked version of Skara what’s-it in Scotland? Surely someone would know if this was an ancient town or village?’ She was waving her arm as she spoke, amazing herself at what she was suggesting.
‘Skara Brae is in Orkney on the top of Scotland,’ George helped. ‘We visited a few years ago and there are spooky similarities that could be just coincidences in the layout of the passages, if that’s what they are. Skara Brae has eight surviving buildings and was Neolithic, say five thousand years ago, before the Bronze Age. They weren’t meant to have stone towns like this around here in Neolithic times, just timber settlements. Then the Bronze Age had the roundhouses that we’ve found.
‘But that could be all wrong. Someone spent decades quarrying all the stone for this town, temple or whatever. And except at East House, where you’ve just seen up to three or four courses of stone in one corner, not much has survived above the foundations. Anyway we’ve started to call this settlement Scarth. We thought at first it was a necropolis, didn’t we Gracie? But we wanted to see if you thought it was a village as well. We’ve plotted around ten roughly rectangular houses like East House, along with their attached curved walls that could be outside yards, but we keep finding new outlying houses. I think there are at least sixteen, maybe twenty houses. You won’t appreciate it now Rhan, but this was a great place to live. It gets sun from dawn to dusk but is sheltered by that hill we’ve just come down. It’s a pretty dry spot so they just had to be inventive to get water here.’
‘How come you have never mentioned this to me before?’ Rhan demanded of George. ‘Who knows of this site?’
‘Well,’ Grace intervened, defending her brother at first but then dumping him in it. ‘The hillside is known to be of interest for its archaeology, but the site was covered with bracken. No one seems to have explored this place as much as us. You’ve had the up-to-date tour – except for the stuff George told me not to tell you ‘til the end. It was in New Scientist a few months ago.’
Rhan looked from one to the other and back again, waiting for an explanation. Grace looked at her brother who just smiled, so she began.
‘It’s beginning to make Game of Thrones look like a picnic compared with what may have happened here.’ Grace had obviously planned a theatrical beginning. ‘The Neolithic people, who built the later bits of Stonehenge and who we reckon lived in these houses and put up the biggest and best lines of standing stones and water channels around here – they may have been wiped out really quickly, or at least the men. There was a version of the Black Death and then a vicious tribe from the east who swept right through Europe and brought the Bronze Age, and all that. They say that genetic tests show they had few of their own women, but took the local women. The men’s genes seem to have stopped dead.’
‘That’s dreadful,’ Rhan said, looking at the mist all around the stones, as though it hid a host of eastern riders. ‘All the men killed?’
‘It was Genghis Khan, minus three thousand years,’ George confirmed. ‘They probably invented cavalry, and I guess had bronze swords and survived the Black Death by living in isolated circular huts, like those we saw earlier. This cheek-to-cheek community, if it was a Neolithic town, would have been a death trap during a Black Death outbreak. It might explain why this township could have been systematically destroyed and left with hardly any stone on another. It all sounds a bit far-fetched, but…it’s more likely they just had timber walls and we only see the foundations. We’ll have to wait for an archaeological dig.’
‘It’s freezing. Let’s go!’ Grace had clearly had enough and led them down the slope.
‘I’ve been looking forward to showing you this ever since our second day together, Rhan,’ George confessed as they started to follow his sister. ‘A couple of years ago, Pa brought some engineers and the landowner up here, but you’re one of just a handful to see this place…you’re the first outside the family who we’ve shown East House since the bracken died back. So that makes you the first to be relatively sure of what you saw!’
‘Well I have no knowledge,’ said Rhan, defensively. ‘It seems strange to be at the forefront of a major find that no one else knows about. One always thinks that the experts know everything already – it’s a bit like climate change. Even admitting we are in trouble feels like a step beyond sanity.
‘So this sunken bit between walls…’ Rhan stopped walking, taking in her surroundings as best she could in the mist. ‘We are now walking the streets of an ancient town! You think you may have your very own metropolis, which…’
‘Oh you need to look at these lines of reeds,’ George interrupted as they crossed a nondescript patch of short turf, bare of stones but with a few scraggy clumps of dark green stems marching diagonally across the slope. ‘Grace has mentioned water courses. This one collects water from three tiny streams and takes it to the two bottom houses of the Scarth village just below us – those stones there. We haven’t worked out whether it was clean running water, or a flush system like they had in the toilets in the medieval monastery at the bottom of the hill.’
‘My father would have loved the water system. But how come this area is almost paved?’ Rhan asked, realising she was not likely to see much more of the water channel.
‘It’s that Bronze Age double wall again,’ he repeated, and stuck both arms out at right angles indicating where the wall traversed the hillside. ‘They had more stone than they knew what to do with here where the wall passed through the Scarth town. So they appear to have done something new – we don’t know what.’ He shrugged. ‘But as you say, it’s almost a paved area that links the truncated bottom of the Scarth community site – cut off by the Bronze Age wall.’
Rhan became distracted as she looked into the mist. ‘Hang on Grace, wait for us! Where are you?’
The walk down was hazardous on the rock-strewn hillside, and the swirling mist appeared to be thicker again as they descended. After a while, the lack of visual references made Rhan feel dizzy, and peering at the heather beneath her feet was no real solution. She and George were happy to use the excuse to hold hands, while Grace still walked slightly ahead, often discussing, or arguing, over the best direction with George. They walked much further than they had expected and Rhan detected satisfaction in both of them when they reached a series of three steep dykes, with deep ditches between, almost as high as a person.
‘So what are these?’ Rhan demanded yet again of George, as they stopped on the ridge between two deep ruts. Only Grace’s head could be seen in the trough just below them.
‘Well they could be defensive dykes,’ he replied. ‘But they’re the “railway tracks” that Grace described earlier. They divide and cross just over there, where that extra track comes up from the valley, so they’re probably just ancient hollow ways, formed by repeatedly driving animals from the moor to the beck for a drink over many centuries. There must’ve been a hell of a lot of traffic to warrant a down track, a fast up track and a crawler lane! Or perhaps they kept changing track when a previous route became too muddy? We’ve had a large herd of those woolly-coated cattle on this moor for a decade or so and their tracks have made no impression at all, so it would’ve taken centuries or thousands of year to cut tracks this deep. Come on, let’s keep moving, we’re nearly down.’