High on Biddulph Moor sits a structure from the time of the first monuments created in Britain. The Early Neolithic saw the beginnings of a visible record of how people were dealing with the dead. Until this point, throughout the whole of the Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic, there are only a few glimpses of the dead in the archaeological record. These new ways did not occur in isolation, nor did they appear out of the blue. There was the widespread development of tombs, especially those made from stone, across Europe in the fourth millennium BC, with an emphasis on using locally available materials. In the case of much of western and northern Britain this was stone.
The Bridestones is an example of a Neolithic chambered long cairn. It is sited on the western side of Cloud Hill, on the northern edge of Biddulph Moor. The monument itself includes the chambered tomb measuring 6m x 2.7m, it is made of gritstone slabs that have been set on edge and divided into two by a now broken cross slab. South of the chamber's entrance is a portal stone standing 3m high while north of the entrance is a re-positioned portal stone 1.2m high. To the east of the chamber is a forecourt originally surrounded by a complete or partial circle of stones of which 3 survive. There has only been limited excavation of the tomb. In the 1930s the forecourt area beyond the tomb was excavated and this revealed stone cobbling which included a charcoal layer containing flint blades and a flint scraper.
The monument hasn't always looked like this of course. In 1774 it was covered by a long cairn made of earth and stone. This was an impressive c.110m long x 11m wide. Sadly for us, much of this material was taken away for road-making later that year. Just a couple of years later a third chamber was noticed in 1766. A plan of the monument made at that time showed four portal stones - two north and two south of the chamber's entrance. The forecourt was surrounded by six stones in semi-circular form with two conjectural stones completing the circle. Two stones stood within the circle and two stood outside the circle to the east. Despite the removal of the covering cairn, The Bridestones still has important features including the internal burial chambers and the entrance features which provided access into the monument. Interestingly, the drystone wall, all fences and information signs in the image below are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath all these features is included.
So what do we know about this type of monument? Well, there are some 500 long cairns and long barrows, the earthen equivalents of the stone cairns, recorded in England. There are regional types or groupings of such megalithic long cairns, these are mainly found further south, in Wales or the Cotswold-Severn areas, or further north, in south-western or western Scotland, so The Bridestones is something of an outlier. As one of the few types of Neolithic structures to survive as earthworks, and due to their comparative rarity, their considerable age and their longevity as a monument type, all are considered to be of national importance. They are amongst the earliest examples of architecture and the management of space and people that we have. Because they are a structure, the way people approach, understand and use them has been predetermined. They have a purpose, which we today think we know, but cannot experience as people did when it was being actively used. Many of these monuments have what we call a forecourt, within which activities were carried out - what most people might call 'rituals'. These would probably be part of a ceremony to ease the transition of the body from the realm of the living to the realm of the ancestors.
When they have been investigated by both antiquarians and archaeologists, one of the questions asked would of course have been 'who was buried here?'. The interpretation has been consistent over the years is that they appear to have been used for the burial of only certain members of the community. Not only that, but there are many examples of there being only partial human remains selected for interment. It is probable, therefore, that these monuments acted as important ritual sites for local communities over a considerable period of time. Some of our most famous monuments such a West Kennett Long Barrow near Avebury are part of this group of monuments and the story they tell is far greater than can be told in a single blog... however, what is particularly interesting is that these monuments still attract people today, and not just visitors such as archaeologists. Many such sites attract people who feel a sense of belonging or spirituality connected with the such sites, and here at The Bridestones there was evidence of this. On the stones themselves were 'offerings' of sticks, coins and a star-shaped object, while just beyond the tomb was a small area within the bushes where offerings such as garlands, tokens, poems and lights/lanterns had been left, as you can see in the image here. So, whatever their original use was, clearly these tombs continue to attract people today. It's not just tombs either, but more on that another day.
If you would like to know more about The Bridestones or other tombs you can try these:
Books and journals Darvill, T.C. (1982) The Megalithic Chambered Tombs of the Cotswold-Severn Region. Vorda.
Dunlop, M, (1939) 'A Preliminary Survey of the Bridestones, Congleton, and Related Monuments' Trans Lancs and Ches Arch Soc', Vol. 53: 14-24 Malbon, T, 'Antiqua Restuarata' in Antiqua Restuarata, (1766), 319-20 Thompson, FH, 'History of Congleton' in The Archaeology of the Congleton Area, (1970), 3-5
Parker Pearson, M. (1999) The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Sutton Publishing