PHOTO: Gerald Ponting

Letters from CA May 2020/June 2020


Early insights into Callanish Site XI

I was an active amateur archaeologist on the Isle of Lewis between 1975 and 1984, working with Margaret Curtis, who was then my wife. She remained on the island when I relocated to my native Hampshire.

Our studies mainly focused on the Standing Stones of Callanish (Calanais in Gaelic) and the many other megalithic sites in the surrounding countryside. The extensive professional excavation at Callanish in 1980-1981 was at least partly stimulated by our studies, and resulted in a lost stone being re-erected. We also discovered and published a previously unknown fallen circle at Achmore.

Thus I was very interested to read of the work of the Calanais Virtual Reconstruction Project as reported in your article, ‘New discoveries in the Neolithic landscape of the Callanish Stones’ (CA 360), in particular the discoveries at Site XI.

PHOTO: Gerald Ponting
PHOTO: Gerald Ponting

Our studies in the mid 1970s were greatly aided by a pre-publication copy of a map created by Glasgow University Geography Department under Dr David Tait. Their expedition had found the single standing stone on Airigh na Beinne Bige, included it on their map and christened it Callanish XI, extending the numbering instituted by Professor Alexander Thom.

We investigated Site XI ourselves, finding an additional megalith, prone and partially covered by a growth of heather. Probing with a graduated metal rod suggested several other stones beneath a thin skin of peat, and our Gaelic-speaking neighbours told us tales of stones having been removed, perhaps generations ago, for use as lintels in village black houses. They were moved, we were told, on sledges in winter weather.We brought the site to the attention of the archaeological community through an entry in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 1976, with some additional information in the following year. (Note that Tait’s map, a geographical not an archaeological work, was published in 1978.) We speculated that Site XI might originally have been a stone circle, an idea justified by the recent geophysics. We also noted that, given its position on a south-facing hillside, almost all of the other sites in the ‘Callanish complex’ could be seen from Site XI. We published further information about Site XI in The Stones Around Callanish in 1984, and it was also included in our unpublished Callanish: The Documentary Record II – the Minor Sites.

Regarding the fallen circle at Callanish X, virtually reconstructed as part of the same recent project – this was recorded by RCAHMS in 1928 as ‘Stone Circle (destroyed), Druim nan Eum, Callanish’.  The corrected spelling of ‘Na Dromannan’ was introduced by us after consultation with Gaelic speakers. It was generally believed that the spelling introduced by RCAHMS was due to a non-speaker mis-hearing the Gaelic name.

I will be fascinated to learn what the Project will discover with its planned remote-sensing of parts of the seabed that were dry land in Neolithic times.

Gerald Ponting
Chandler’s Ford, Hampshire

Staffordshire hoard

On reading your article about how the Staffordshire Hoard’s martial contents were put together (CA 361), I was reminded of the Discworld character ‘Nobby’ Nobbs, who spent his time during various wars ransacking bodies on the battlefield. He had a cheerful disregard for ethics when it came to rings, boots, or anything saleable. Then, realising that this hoard seems to have been collected over more than one generation, I was also reminded of the woodworking tools, gardening equipment, jars and tins of nails, old hinges, screws, washers, and so on in my Dad’s sheds (and now mine), plus the half-made clothes, almost-finished porcelain dolls, boxes of fabric, wool, sewing and knitting equipment, lace-making in progress, half-made jewellery, and so on collected over the years by my mother, both for dressmaking and hobbies. Then there were all the knick-knacks originally owned by my great-grandmother, and all the books… not the detritus of kings, of course, but the sort of collection of ‘that might come in useful!’ stuff we all collect.

Helena McGinty
Malaga, Spain

Instrumental advice

The drawing of the bard reciting with a lyre-player accompanying him, in your article on Iron Age musical instruments (CA 362), does not do justice to the skill of some performers. Folk-singer Robin Williamson (once of the Incredible String Band) does a fine job of telling bardic tales while accompanying himself on the Celtic harp. I recommend ‘Finn and the Old Man’s House’ from Wheel of Fortune, the live album he made with John Renbourn, for a great (and very funny) example.

John O’Dwyer
Steeple Claydon, Buckinghamshire

More musical musings

Readers may be interested in The Sorrow of Derdriu by Mac-Talla nan Creag (Firecracker Recordings, 2019), which explores the famous ancient Celtic myth, and features John Kenny’s carnyx (as described in CA 360). They may be lucky enough to find it on double LP – otherwise, it can be downloaded from Bandcamp.

Matt Richie


Over the Easter weekend, we challenged you to recreate your favourite CA covers using things in your home, and you didn’t let us down! Here are some of the brilliant images you sent us on Twitter.

@Romani_Angel21 created this picture inspired by the cover of CA 329.
This recreation of CA 359 was by Hazel Blair.
We had a go too, with this recreation of CA 297’s cover!

Edible Archaeology

My mother has told me to send you pictures of her birthday cake. As an amateur archaeologist, Yvette Cook was responsible for the discovery of the Romano-British site at Liss in Hampshire, but now lives in Bersted, West Sussex. Her 80th birthday outing (at the beginning of March) was to the Chichester Novium exhibition on the North Bersted Warrior [featured in CA 361], her cake being a replica of the helmet with a ‘plume’ of 80 red candles. She had to excavate the cake to find a silver bracelet. She absolutely loved it, and was even able to produce a clean trowel with which to dig…

Deva Armstrong.

What you shared with us this month

Dr Tess Machling @Tess_Machling
Nice little mention of research by me and @bodgit_bendit in this month’s @CurrentArchaeo magazine! Lovely to be recognised!

Nathalie Cohen @Nathalie_Cohen
Got distracted from what I was originally doing by looking through old issues of @CurrentArchaeo. In Issue 167 (March 2000) there’s a short article on the excavations in #GreenwichPark & a photo of me in a very fetching hat!

Save The London 1665 @SaveTheLondon
The plight of the #LondonWreck1665 @SaveTheLondon with @NautArchSoc @LondonShipWreck and @StevenEllis3 is out in CA 363 @CurrentArchaeo – thanks to everyone who helped write and supplied images of this #Thames #ProtectedWreck #Southend #Essex #archaeology #HeritageAtRisk

Kurt Adams @Avon_GlosPAS
Recording some Roman pottery I found while on my local walk. My first record as the recorder and finder @bristolmuseum @findsorguk

Andrew Jamieson @a_jamieson1
Been enjoying wading through vintage eps of @thetimeteam on @All4 which led me to find this interesting piece by @CurrentArchaeo ‘Time Team: the rise and fall of a television phenomenon’

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