We arrived in Dorchester with time enough for a coffee and a short wander before Helen’s train was due to arrive, after which we would be heading north a few miles to meet our companions for the workshop weekend. Window-shopping holds no appeal, but the railway station is very close to an intriguing site, one we had already passed and dismissed on our recent research trip to the area.
“Oh, that mound looks suspicious…”
“The sign says ‘Roman amphitheatre’.”
“Romans? Pah…” The invaders, who did their best to wipe out and discredit the Druids, imposed their roads on our ancient trackways (and took all the credit for them too), as well as stamping a ‘mini-me’ version of Rome on Britain’s landscape… they do tend to get short shrift around here, in spite of a grudging respect for their technological advances and organisational capabilities.
Even so, curiosity had got the better of me and I looked up Dorchester’s Roman amphitheatre a few days after our return. I kicked myself… we should have known. It wasn’t Roman at all. Like many other ancient places, it predates the Romans and had simply been taken over by the invaders around AD100… some three thousand years or so after it had been built. We would have to visit…
Maumbury Rings is a Neolithic henge. While ‘bury’ derives from the old word for a hill, the ‘maum’ in its name is thought to derive either from the local dialect, where maen means a ‘great stone’… one of which lies hidden near the entrance, unseen now for a few centuries… or the words for chalk or vessel, all of which fit the site well. The site originally consisted of a central and circular space surrounded by a deep ditch and enclosed within a white chalk embankment that rose around thirty feet high and around thirteen feet wide and almost three hundred feet in diameter.
There is a single entrance to the henge that was once guarded by a stone that has since been lost. Excavations showed that the ditch held a series of shafts, around forty-five of them. Eight of these were examined and were found to be around thirty-five feet deep. Within the shafts were found two potsherds and a collection of flints, carved chalk, antlers and the bones of humans and animals… all of which suggest, if the size of the place alone was not evidence enough, that this was a site of significance to the people who first built the henge.
The construction… an outer bank with an inner ditch… would make these henges pretty useless defensively, with those caught inside able to be picked off like sitting ducks by any attacker who scaled the bank. They could, conceivably, be used to pen cattle or other livestock… but then, why the ritualistic deposits and burials in the pits? The consensus seems to be that these were gathering places for social, ceremonial or ritual purposes… and perhaps all three at once.
We still tend to think of cavemen when we speak of the Neolithic period… the Stone Age… but this is far from being an accurate view. Nearly a thousand years before the Great Pyramid was built at Giza, complex tombs and temples were being built in these isles, many of them aligned with the movement of the stars. Recent archaeological discoveries, such as those at the Ness of Brodgar, are radically changing the way we view our distant ancestors and engendering a growing respect for their technology, culture and knowledge.
Maumbury is not a lone survivor in Dorchester. There are a number of other earthworks of incredible complexity. The term ‘earthwork’ has seemed almost derogatory and sheds no light on what these henges, embankments and cursi may actually have contained or the purposes for which they were used. Close by is the magnificent Maiden Castle, to which we would be heading on the Sunday of our workshop.
There is also Mount Pleasant henge, Poundbury hillfort and burial field, numerous cairns and barrows, a stone circle, Flagstones ditch enclosure and the remains of another site now buried beneath a supermarket car park. Pre-Roman Dorchester was a major site. Sadly, apart from Maiden Castle, which is a bit too conspicuous to quietly destroy, most of the sites have been almost eradicated by centuries of ploughing, urban development and ignorance of their significance.
Mount Pleasant, for instance, of which little now remains visible, was once a great henge enclosing a smaller henge, within which five concentric circles of huge wooden posts were erected, similar to what is known to have existed at Woodhenge and Avebury’s Sanctuary. The posts were laid out with four aisles leading to the centre, forming a cross. Within the aisles were sockets where standing stones once stood. The bones of children were found buried in the henge ditch. We can only speculate on the true purpose of these sites, but we do know that in a time when the fragile world of Man was poised between the natural forces of earth and sky, understanding them, and perhaps seeking to harness them or harmonise our relationship with them, would have been of paramount importance.
Maumbury Rings has survived the depredations of time and plough, largely because it has been adopted by successive cultures and used to serve their needs. The Romans who appropriated the area and built the town of Durnovaria (Dorchester), used it as an amphitheatre for their gladiatorial games, executions and gatherings. They lowered the banks by ten feet, cut four chambers into the embankment and added a seating area. They altered the shape of the central enclosure too, making it oval instead of round and levelling the floor.
In the Middle Ages, the Rings became a gathering place and jousting. In 1642, during the Civil War, Parliamentary troops used the henge as a gun emplacement, once again altering its form. Later still, the bloody history continued as it became a place of public execution. The ‘Pitchfork Rebellion’, crushed in 1685, gave rise to the ‘Bloody Assizes’, where Judge Jeffries, the ‘Hanging Judge’, sentenced seventy-four local people to death for their part in the uprising. He wrote: “These are, therefore, to will and require of you, immediately on sight hereof, to erect a gallows in the most public place to hand the said traytors on, and that you provide halters to hang them with, a sufficient number of faggots to burn the bowels, and a furnace or cauldron to boil their heads and quarters, and salt to boil them with, half a bushel to each traytor, and tar to tar them with, and a sufficient number of spears and poles to fix and place their heads and quarters; and that you warn the owners of four oxen to be ready with dray and wain, and the said four oxen, at the time hereafter mentioned for execution, and you yourselves together with a guard of 40 able men at the least, to be present by eight o’clock of the morning to be aiding and assisting me or my deputy to see the said rebels executed. You are also to provide an axe and a cleaver for the quartering of the said rebels.”
1706 saw the most famous execution at Maumbury Rings, that of Mary Channing. A wild young woman, she had taken a lover who she continued to meet after her parents sought to calm her by marriage to a local grocer. When her husband, Thomas, died suddenly, the post mortem showed that he had been poisoned. Mary was suspected but proclaimed her innocence, asking that she be allowed to touch the corpse of her husband, and, only if it should bleed should she be found guilty. At her trial, she conducted her own defence but was found guilty and sentenced to death… a sentence that was deferred when she was found to be carrying a child. Mary gave birth to a son in prison that Christmas and fell ill with a wasting fever. Three months later, she was burned at Maumbury in front of a crowd of ten thousand people.
The writer Thomas Hardy, a local man, references Mary in several of his works, including The Mayor of Casterbridge, and The Mock Wife was inspired by her story. In the London Times of 1908, he wrote of her execution: ““When fixed to the stake she justified her innocence to the very last, and left the world with a courage seldom found in her sex. She being first strangled, the fire was kindled about five in the afternoon, and in the sight of many thousands she was consumed to ashes.” There is nothing to show that she was dead before the burning began, and from the use of the word “strangled” and not “hanged,” it would seem that she was merely rendered insensible before the fire was lit. An ancestor of the present writer, who witnessed the scene, has handed down the information that “her heart leapt out” during the burning, and other curious details that cannot be printed here. Was man ever “slaughtered by his fellow man” during the Roman or barbarian use of this place of games or of sacrifice in circumstances of greater atrocity?”
Today, thousands still gather at the Rings, but these days they come to watch plays and musicians and most will know no more of its history than is written on the socially acceptable information boards. But these places are not about the facts and figures, they are about the people whose lives they have held, nurtured or seen taken. The gently curving form of the Mother, found so often at our great, ancient henges, has seen too much of bloodshed, horror and violence. Within the banks of the henge, memories linger; I doubt that anyone would remain unaffected, though what is felt there, perhaps, says more about what they carry in their own innermost heart and their empathy for their fellow man.