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ISSUE TWO (NOVEMBER 2002)

NEWS FILE

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Posted: November 1, 2002

Flow resumes at Madron baptistry well

   Local pagans, spurred into action by a letter to The Cornishman by Meyn Mamvro editor Cheryl Straffon and Sheila Bright, have managed to restore the flow of water to the famous Madron baptistry in the West Penwith area Cornwall. Work at the site in the Spring of 1999, which included the uncovering of the nearby holy well, caused water channels to become altered. This resulted in the supply of water to the baptistry well to dry up leaving only a thick layer of mud where clear spring water once collected. It is hoped that a Management Plan can now be drafted and presented to the owners of the land on which the site resides to protect this important site from any further disturbance.

   Also, Madron Old Cornwall Society have been investigating the possibility of securing grants to maintain the often muddy path to the site, and reinstalled a rough map near to the well and baptistry that shows the locations of the baptistry and the original holy well. Although, on a recent visit, it seems as though this has also been vandalised as all that remains is a roughly drawn map in marker pen in the space where the map-board used to be!

[Thanks to Meyn Mamvro, 44, p.3 and 46, p.3]

 

Posted: November 1, 2002

Temple of Apollo built on an intersection of fault lines

   Modern chemical analysis seems to confirm that the gases inhaled by the Oracle of Delphi are indeed of geological origin as first suggested by Plutarch almost two millenia ago. Scientists John Hale, Jelle de Boer and Jeffrey Chanton have discovered a second fault aligned north-south which they believe crosses the better known Delphi fault directly beneath the Temple of Apollo. They have named this crack the Kerma fault after the Kerma spring which breaks through the thin crust some sixty metres north-west of the temple. This intersection, they believe, severely weakens the earth's crust and thus allows the groundwater to issue forth from the depths of the earth.

   Only two springs still remain in the area, partly because both faults have been filled by two millenia of erosion debris washed down from the surrounding hills. However, there is a great deal of archeaological evidence for many others in antiquity.

   Hale, de Boer and Chanton report that when they examined the Kerma spring, they found deposits of travertine. Travertine is a calcareous mineral that is formed when groundwater is heated at great temperature and pressure within the earth. It is a deposit characteristic of hot springs in volcanic regions. Furthermore, they found travertine deposits on one of the remaining walls in the temple.

   Further analysis of the mineral and spring water revealed traces of methane, ethane and other similar light hydrocarbon gases. The concentrations of these gases appear to increase the nearer to the temple the samples are taken. Hale et al. suggest that these hydrocarbons are formed when seismic activity due to the fault creates friction and thus heats the local limestone, and causes the bitumen content of the rocks to break down. These gases can then escape as steam or dissolve into the spring water.

   One of the chemicals found in the analyses was ethylene, a sweetly smelling gas that is known to affect the central nervous system. At high concentrations it can act as an anaesthetic and cause death. At sub-lethal levels it can cause feelings of light-headedness and euphoria, even delerium. Plutarch himself reported that the vapours in the adytum smelled sweet and had caused the death of a seer.

   It would seem, therefore, that the ancient seers at the Temple of Apollo, and at the Temple of Pythia before that were achieving altered states of consciousness by breathing in the vapours created by the earth. Furthermore, the temple was surely precisely sited on the intersection of the two fault lines where the earth's crust was at its weakest and springs issued from the depths.

[Thanks to New Scientist, 171(2306), pp.40-2]

 

Posted: November 1, 2002

Bronze Age ritual shaft or a backfilled well?

   A Bronze Age ritual shaft uncovered on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire but not excavated may be a backfilled well shaft. The shaft is believed to comprise of a pit approximately five metres in diameter which gradually narrowed to form a one and a half metre diameter shaft penetrating the earth for an unknown distance. The site has been compared to the excavated shaft found on Wilsford Down, also in Wiltshire. Here the shaft was found to descend thrity three metres into the earth. It was so narrow that there was insufficient room to swing a antler pick, it could only have been dug out by lowering the axcavator into the shaft head first (and i thought my job was bad! - Ed).

   TWilsforsford Down shaft revealed a number of votive offerings, including amber beads, bone pins, a bone needle, shards of pottery dated to the middle Bronze Age, pieces of worked wood and some bone - human and animal. The site has been interpreted as both a ritual shaft and a backfilled well. Although it could be both!

[Thanks to Northern Earth, 82, p.7]

 

Posted: November 1, 2002

Five more wells to visit in Cornwall

   More good news from Cornwall. In addition to the Bodmin wells reported elsewhere in this issue, Meyn Mamvro tells us that a further five wells have been either rediscovered or restored.

The restoration of Tregaminion well has been detailed in the Well Resored stream of this issue. Nearby, in Lelant, Fenton Sauras has been rediscovered in the grounds of the old abbey after the owner of the land cleared the area of vegetation. The unusual two-storey building is inscribed with the date 1612, and the water still flowsfrom it.

   Meanwhile, at North Petherwin, near Launceston, the North Cornwall District Council restored the lost well of St Paternus. A new stone structure has been built over the spring but the entrance has been enclosed with a padlocked grill. A rededication ceremony attracted two hundred local people.

   St James' well, south of Kilkhampton in the parish of Jacobstow, has recently been resored by the North Cornwall Heritage Group with the help of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit. A path leading to the well from the A39 has been cut back and fenced to stop cattle from trampling the often marshy ground. Stones have been laid around the entrance to improve access further.

   Finally, St Morwenna's Well in the parish of Morwenstow, just over the border with Devon, has been revisited recently by enthusiasts. The well has been impossible to access for some time as it not only lies 150 feet down a cliff side but the perilous path to it is overgrown. Early in 2002, local resident and researcher Alan Rowland cut a path to it and persuaded the local National Trust warden to make the passage safe with the use of ropes. The well is still visible but dry. Alan hopes to be able to organise to further visits to the well in 2003.

[Thanks to Meyn Mamvro, 45, pp.6-7; Meyn Mamvro, 50, pp.6-7]

 

Posted: November 1, 2002

...But one is lost!

   The sad news is that not far from the recently restored St James' Well and recently visited St Morwenna's Well, a recent search for St Peter's Well proved fruitless. This well last recorded by Meyrick in 1982 (see A Pilgrim's Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall) was formerly located behind Killock Farm at Kilkhampton. It was a circular well, made of stone with an adjoining pump house. Investigations reveal that it was destroyed some years ago when the present farmer built a cattle shed on the site.

[Thanks to Meyn Mamvro, 50, p.7]

 

Posted: November 1, 2002

A spring is the focus of a Neolithic ritual site discovered in Wales

  A Neolithic ritual site at Hindwell, Powys may prove to be the largest Neolithic structure in Western Europe. The site covers eighty-five acres, thirty times the size of Stonehenge. The remains of 1400 oak posts up to twenty-three feet tall have been discovered arranged in an oval. The site measures half a mile across and has a perimeter measuring one and a half miles. Two timbers measuring six feet wide guarded the main entrance oriented towards the summer solstice sunset. It is thought that these entrance posts could have been up to thirty feet tall. Archaeologists believe that the gaps between the posts were boarded-up with more wood for at least the bottom third of their height to secure privacy and to block public access.

   Archaeologists are certain that the site had a religious function but cannot tell what was being venerated. However, the focal pointappears to have been a natural spring, possibly accentuated by some kind of shrine. There is some evidence for a second possible shrine five hundred yards north-west of the spring, and a further area of ritual activity about two hundred yards to the north-east.

   Very few finds have been made within the oval, whereas outside of the perimeter a normal number of flint and other prehistoric finds have been made. This suggests that the structure was kept clear from its construction in 2700BCE through to the end of the Iron Age, says Dr Alex Gibson the archaeologist in charge of the excavation. Thus, the site appears to have been kept sacred for almost three thousand years. Furthermore, the absence of finds from the early Neolithic era may indicate that the site was considered sacred even before the construction of the structure. (Or, it was cleared of any debris of human activity at the time of construction - Ed).

   The sanctity of the site was ultimately destroyed by the Romans who built a marching camp on part of the site, and then a permanent fort on another part.

[Thanks to The Independent, 03/12/2000]

 

Posted: November 1, 2002

Another St Helen's Well uncovered in Yorkshire

   Archaeologists have uncovered a thirteenth century holy well beneath a school playing field in Athersley, Barnsley, South Yorkshire. Early maps show that it was dedicated to St Helen, a not uncommon holy well dedication in the county.

[Thanks to Northern Earth, 85, p.5]

 

Posted: November 1, 2002

Chedworth Roman complex reinterpreted

   For many years the complex of Roman buildings nestled in the valley of the river Coln at Chedworth, Gloucestershire was believed to be a Roman villa site used as a central agricultural storage and processing unit. A number of anomolies in its design, however, have led researchers to believe otherwise.

   The site is aligned east and located in a narrow, steep-sided valley, whereas most villa sites are easily accessed and aligned south or south-east. The complex also seems to have an unusually large number of baths located in the north and west wings. Archaeological evidence suggests that the baths were being modified or rebuilt as late as the fourth century CE, a time when the baths in most villas were being reduced in number or taken out of service completely. The layout of corridors and rooms more closely resembles the distribution of rooms in a mansio, a large, government run rest house.

   However, a number of temples have been identified in the immediate area, and a smallwater shrine enclosed within a building was situated between the two bath houses. The building contained an apse, and a small uninscribed altar was found under the later floor. Several of the stones had Christian chi-rho symbols engraved on them, probably indicating that the early Christians considered the site to have Pagan significance. Perhaps the spring was also revered as a Christian holy well.

   Certainly the water from the spring was taken to the bathhouses, thus enabling visitors to bathe in the sacred waters. It would seem, therefore, that the site is better interpreted as a Romano-British religious sanctuary like those at nearby Lydney and Great Witcombe, rather than as a villa. All three of these sites have extensive spring-fed bathing facilities and shrines. Perhaps, along with Bath, these sites formed a West Country Romano-British pilgrimage route, similar to that suggested by Miranda Aldhouse Green in the Burgundy region of France.

[Thanks to Northern Earth, 85, p.8-9]

 

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