This was the perfect complement to Dr Jodie Lewis's talk to the Society in May. Then she had introduced us to recent research on Neolithic monuments in Somerset. To tour the stones in the company of one who has studied the site for years was a real privilege.
We visited the three stone circles that are its most outstanding feature today. The Great Circle is the most prominent and was probably the focal point of the complex as it functioned in Neolithic times. The North East Circle is the smallest yet most complete. One of our party likened its proportions in relation to the whole as a Chapter House to its Cathedral, yet of course its true function is probably lost for ever. The South West Circle lies a couple of (modern) fields away. It is tumbled and incomplete yet occupies perhaps the most open and rewarding view of all.
We went down the main stone avenue to the point where it meets another avenue returning to the North East Circle. In all likelihood we were following ancient processional ways, as the site must surely have been dedicated to the enactment of ritual activities long forgotten. A third avenue probably linked the main complex with the South West Circle, though there is now no trace of it. We marked the medieval Church of St Mary the Virgin on the highest point in the village and shared in Jodie's frustration at not being able to explore a site that most probably held yet another element of this monumental complex.
We saw the Recumbent Stone that had been excavated from the pit where it had been placed in medieval times. It bad now travelled another couple of hundred yards to take up its new role as a gatepost to a field entrance. Here it blended so well with the surroundings that it looked as though it had stood there for centuries. And finally, on the other side of the village, we came to the Cove, a mysterious arrangement of three stones, one fallen that appeared to have been set out with line of sight to a hill in the middle distance. This too carried earthwork features but they still awaited interpretation.
These were the stones, but they are just the eroded bones of the monument Much more has been learned by the application of modem technology. The land surface that looks so temptingly humpty and bumpy is in fact largely the product of geology and modern farming activity. But it has been penetrated by geophysical survey which has revealed two startling circular features, both centred on the same point as the Great Circle.
The first is the presence of a henge ditch surrounding the Circle that appears to have been filled in with such thoroughness that all trace of it has now been obliterated.
The second is the presence of nine concentric rings of post-holes within the Circle. The sequence of construction is believed to be the reverse of what I have just said. In other words first came the postholes, which would have held massive upright timbers, some estimated to be as much as a meter in diameter. Then came the henge, whose ditch would have been surrounded by an earthen bank.
Finally the stone circle was put in place. That all these features respect the same centre and use the same entrance is suggestive of continuity of use despite the inevitable disruption of the successive building phases. Geophysics had also revealed the presence of pits in the smaller North East Circle. A different technique had revealed an important hidden feature of the landscape and the role of the nearby River Chew. By auguring soil samples it was shown that some 4 metres of alluvium had been deposited since late Neolithic times. In other words the level of the flood plain had been 4 metes lower than it is today. The course of the Chew would thus have been very different. It would certainly have been lower and may well have come rather closer to the edge of the monument than its present 100 metres or so. Standing at the meeting point of the two avenues at the northern extremity of the site we could see that this might very well have been the arrival point for people coming up a river Chew that would at that time have been navigable.
Engaging our imaginations still further Jodie invited us to think of boatloads of visitors (pilgrims?) from afar sailing up the Severn, up the Avon through the dramatic Clifton Gorge and then up the River Chew from where Keynsham now stands. On arrival at Stanton Drew the monument would have stood above and beyond their line of sight and only have come into full view as they made their way up the final ascent to the Avenues.
That Neolithic Man was capable of contriving such theatrical settings is evidenced by the original approach to Stonehenge from the north east And what would have met them within? More imagination required at this point! What of these nine circles of timber (probably oaken) posts? Did they carry lintels to emphasise their circularity? Were they cawed and shaped like totem poles? Did they have screens separating them, perhaps to form a maze or separate enclosures for different rituals? Was the approach made at night with blazing bonfires? And later, when the stones had replaced the timber circles, was the light angled to reflect off the crystalline deposits in the stones, thereby adding to the magical aura of the place? Were the as yet excavated pits in the North East Circle used for the disposal of ritually smashed tableware from feasting in memory of the dead, as Jodie suspected?
All this supposes a role for Stanton Drew as a centre for rituals associated with the dead and a major one at that, able to attract visitors from afar. But there is now a general appreciation that this is what these large labour intensive monuments were designed for. There is evidence for people travelling well beyond their native territory to visit them, and Stanton Drew is certainly one of the largest. There are other puzzling aspects to Stanton Drew that need answers. The fieldwalking project had produced relatively little material. In a field opposite the Druids Arms a Bronze Age burial bad been recovered probably from a ploughed-out barrow. But this was sparse evidence for a period and where were all the barrows that normally surround a monument of the Late Neolithic? In Jodie's view Stanton Drew was probably a failed site. It had had its moment and maybe just lost its appeal as the ritual focus changed to the more remote landscape of Mendip, where Bronze Age round burials are found in abundance. Fortunately modem times have restored life to Stanton Drew and we retired to observe the important ritual of Sunday Lunch at the excellent Druids Arms.
Our thanks to Jodie for an inspiring visit and we look forward to reading her final report on The Stanton Drew Environs project which she confirms is nearing the end of the pipeline.