The Luccombe Valley below Salisbury Plain and Bratton Camp, just visible in the upper right. In the foreground are two of the four barrows in the valley, with one of the others being the site of the Bloodstone.
While wandering on Salisbury plain one day I came across a hidden valley and as I walked into it the air changed all around me. There were flashes and sparks of tragedy like nothing I’d ever experienced before. So I got home and googled the valley and found this …
“One of the smallest and most overlooked of these sites is the Blood Stone, situated in the center of a sheep infested valley between Westbury White Horse Hill and Picket Hill in Bratton, on the edge of Salisbury Plain.”
“The stone itself is about three feet across, two feet high and a dark, scabby red in colour. It’s said that the stone was one of those used by King Alfred’s men as a block upon which to behead Danish prisoners of war after the Battle of Ethendune of AD 878, which is how it is supposed to have got its particular shade. There are even paired indentations in the surface of the rock, which look uncannily like the marks left by a pair of front teeth.”
“There is archeological evidence to suggest that it really is an ancient execution site since a large pile of headless skeletons, dated to around that time, were excavated from the nearby watercress beds at the bottom of the valley in the 1970s. The skulls were found a half mile away, buried upside-down, apparently according to the Saxon tradition that if a soul escaped through the top of the head it could be thus trapped into heading straight down into the bowels of the Earth.”
“There were quite a few of these stones dotted around the valley up until the nineteenth century, but only one remains today. It is mostly visited now by villagers walking their dogs and in need of something to sit upon, and local children, who revel in local myths about the stone, (such as the idea that the Devil appears when you walk round it backwards thirteen times, reciting the Lord’s Prayer)”
I hadn’t seen the bloodstone in the long grass, and because I didn’t know it was there. Now I’ve seen it it’s clear it’s come out of a barrow right next to it, so I knew what it said in that article isn’t entirely true. Since then I’ve learned this is article was a small bit of fact and a lot of folklore. But there is evidence of Romano British human sacrifice at the spring there.
Or maybe it’s the name, the Bloodstone that sent the chill up my spine. The word already had meaning, because of the mineral of the same name.
Bloodstone, also known as as Heliotrope is a form of Chalcedony, dark green in color and spotted with red. The Aztecs used it for health, to control the flow of blood. European folk beliefs and mythology give it the power to make the sun turn red in the sky, as well as cause thunder and lightening. It was also thought to give one the ability to see into the future, or the past and to perceive things which weren’t visible to the eye.
Christians of the medieval era used Bloodstone as a basis for their carvings of the martyrs, as well as of the crucifixion, which led to the name Martyr Stone. Legends and folklore attribute the spots of red to a story where drops of Christ’s blood fell onto some Jasper which lie at the foot of the cross.
In India, Bloodstone is ground up and used as an aphrodisiac, and I can’t help but wonder what dark sex would spring up from the use of that.
It’s the nature of British history that various eras are stacked one atop the other, seeping from layer into the one below, making identification and understanding difficult at best.
Historians and archaeologists start by sticking to the facts, and try to build a story from there. Experiments and ideas have to be repeated to be of use in their conjecture. Folklore is the opposite. With folklore, something can happen in one place quite unexpected, and never occur anywhere else again.
For example, we know that Romans in Britain frequently buried their dead near roads. We also know that criminals and other outcasts were often buried away from the main settlements to show their place in society. We also know that executions were buried quickly and without ceremony, and are often found face down, with their hands behind their back.
Some attribute that to the belief that the soul goes the direction the body faces. So the ghosts of criminals and other miscreants will head into the ground rather than out of the grave. But that’s supposition. It could also be it’s a lot tidier carying a body which has had its throat cut face down rather than up.
The Romano-British discovery at the Bloodstone
In 1955, a skeleton was found near the Bloodstone, which sits through the woods from Luccombe Spring near Bratton, buried face down, its arms behind its back. It was dated to the Romano-British period, about 100AD.
Archaeologist have supposed that the Bloodstone was once a territorial marker, which could provide evidence that this person was executed, or deliberately sacrificed.
Investigated by Stella Maddock and Pamela Mahon, they wrote in “A Romano-British Prone Burial from Bratton, Wiltshire,” the location of the burial on a boundary hundred and parish – may be significant. Hundred boundaries may very tentatively have their origins in Romano-British territorial divisions. If Westbury was the centre of a Romano-British territorial division, it is possible that the extent of the later hundred followed its boundary, meaning the burial site was on a significant boundary in the Romano-British period. This might be a relevant factor in explaining the burials, suggesting the victims were criminals or outcasts, deliberately buried at the outer limits of a local territory.”
A keen eye will pick words from that selection – may, possible, might, suggesting – each defining the statement which they refer to not as fact, but as supposition. If a set of circumstances which have been properly defined happened for a certain reason in one place, a similar set of circumstances in another place may be be supposed to have happened in the same way.
That works in the world of science, but not in the world of people. There isn’t always a good or even cognizant reason people do what they do. Sometimes shit just happens, and that was as true in the era of Romano Britain as it is today.
In short, the archaeologist takes a limited set of facts and tries to expand on them using what they know from other places, other times. When we do that, we stop looking at the individual as a person, and instead we see then as a part of a group, and this poor unfortunate soul’s story will never be known.
If your bones are dug up dear reader, in a thousand year’s time, they’ll be able to tell a lot about you. Your age, your sex, health conditions, medical problems, diet, where you lived during your life. They’ll know a wealth of information about you.
But the one thing they can’t tell from all of that is who you are, and what your story is.
The assumption is this person is an outcast, a minority or a criminal, because its skeleton was found face down with its arm behind its back. But it could have just as easily ended up in that position by rolling it into a hole not quite wide enough. Or being carried face down to the grave by the arms and legs and dropped into it. They may not have known the person, didn’t do anything ceremoniously, they just didn’t want him decomposing near the spring, uncovered.
This shows the difference between archaeology and folklore. archaeology has a few facts to base its story on. Quite often, folklore does too. The difference is with archaeology, we know what those facts are.
But it doesn’t make it any more likely that the story is true, than folklore. They both have value. Perhaps archaeology’s reputation is a double edged sword. Their work is invaluable for understanding the past. But they’re often seen as snobs for discounting folklore, for the same reasons that could be applied to their own work. It’s based on supposition.
Folklore is more colorful and like archaeology, the story is always changing.
Where the original folklore came from
The vale in which Luccombe Spring sits was once called Danesley. The reason for this is a battle was fought near here, the Battle of Ethandun, in 878 AD between armies of King Alfred and Guthrum, a Viking. The Danes had invaded Wessex and essential been kicking Alfred’s ass all over the countryside. They were holed up nearby for the winter in what is believed by some to be Chippenham, and others to have been Bratton Camp, an iron age embankment at the top of Bratton Downs, which looked down on Luccombe Spring.
Alfred spent the winter not far away, trying to raise his army to a fighting strength once again, and in a hurry because soon farming would start and men would be wandering off.
Exactly where the battle was fault is also a contentious one, with some saying down near the Avon, and others on Salisbury Plain.
The most sensible theories have Guthrum camping here in the Luccombe valley the night before the battle. Some believe they were struck by Alfred here, during the night, but that seem unlikely. Alfred pulled off a decisive victory and the Vikings were routed. It’s generally agreed the bulk of the fighting force made its way to Bratton Camp. Bratton Camp is distinctly uphill from the Luccombe Valley. A steep hill. A man fleeing for his life doesn’t take a route up a hillside, they run downhill.
So for my money, if they ended in Bratton Camp, the battle was fought on the plain.
According to legend there was some who did run downhill, back towards Luccombe Springs where they had camped the night before. They might have expected not to be pursued far, as Alfred had the reputation for being wishy washy and not following up on his few victories. Alfred didn’t make that mistake this time, and slaughtered all those his pursuing men came across.
Up till the discovery of the 1955 skeleton, this was the story that colored the legend of the Bloodstone red. For it was said that it was the stone where the Danish captives were beheaded on Alfred’s orders.
There has long been reports of mass graves in the area, found over the centuries, also attributed to the rout following the battle. There were also other bodies nearby where this skeleton was found, but the location was lost since the excavation.
With the discovery of the skeleton discovered there dating to Romano Britain, at least 500 years earlier than Alfred, the folklore began to change as well. The words ritual sacrifice added a new whisker for the storyteller to use in their stories. For dark as mass executions are, ritual sacrifice holds a new kind of terror, the folk horror that has helped define Britain’s history.
The second excavation
In 2009, an excavation was begun to identify the site where the 1955 skeleton had been found, and if accomplished, search for the other skeletons nearby. They had quite a bit of luck with the former. The debris found in the trenches illustrate the layers of history which sometimes turn into a soup.
They found everything from Romano-British pottery sherds, as well as debris from the Medieval period through the Victorian era. They found a pencil stamped with R&J Reeves & Sons Agricultural & General Engineers. Phone Bratton 236-7 that could have dated from the 1955 excavation.
And they found bones. This time they didn’t find complete skeletons, but rather pieces, enough to show that it was the remains of at least five people, all jumbled together, and perhaps up to ten. A young man or woman was one, as was one a child.
We’re in the era of the internet now, and it thrives on sensationalism. All it takes are the words ritual sacrifice, and suddenly the story behind the Bloodstone takes on a more sinister tone than a forgotten battle.
And if the 1955 skeleton was a sacrifice, it’s reasonable to assume all these bodies could have been sacrifices.
There are two sharp indentions on the Bloodstone, and folklore has them caused by the teeth of victims as they bit into the very stone in pain. Of course, that story could equally apply to the Danish prisoners, so one can’t automatically assume that the story of the teeth dates from after 1955. It likely just changed to fit the new story.
And no, the indentions aren’t caused by teeth. The people buried here had a few dental problems. I can’t imagine their chompers biting into stone.
But there’s a problem with all these stories. When examined, the bone they tested from the later excavation dates to 1756, That leads to two conclusions. One would be that the archaeologists were digging in the wrong place, which is possible. But if so, they did manage to find a second mass burial and it should be noted, they were fairly confident they were in the right spot.
It’s also possible these later burials were done in complete oblivion to the fact that there was another body buried right beside it, about 1,500 years earlier.
Or it’s also possible that folklore, and knowledge of the landscape helped keep that spot alive as a known burial location. Perhaps for those outside of society, perhaps for criminals or perhaps for people whose history just wasn’t known from finding their corpse.
The Bloodstone is part of a scheduled monument, and I found this from its listing, “The barrow lies on the gentle south west facing slope of the valley floor immediately above a sharp drop to the valley of the Stradbrook to the west. The mound of the barrow is 9.2m in diameter and 0.75m high. There are two depressions in the surface of the mound which are interpreted as chalk diggings or early attempts at excavation. Surrounding the mound is a ditch 2.5m wide and 0.25m deep from which material was quarried during its construction. A single sarsen stone 0.8m high which lies in the ditch on the north west side is known locally as the `Bloodstone’.
It’s not unusual for later generations to bury their dead in or near neolithic and iron age barrows. Hell, here in the states the settlers often buried their dead among the mounds of native Americans. Oddly enough, like many Britain burials, in areas prone to flooding.
In this way, the folklore of a place becomes as tangled as the bones you find in the ground beneath. Not only is it impossible to untangle the eras, it’s sometimes wrong to. Because the folklore of one generation can influence the reality and practice of those following it.
And besides, time isn’t really linear anyway, you dig?
According to Sherlock Holmes, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
If Holmes were investigating the Bloodstone he would lament “I need data Watson!”
For you simply can’t eliminate the impossible in the legends. The body of the Romano-Britain man might truly have been sacrificed on the Bloodstone. Survivors from the Battle of Ethandun might truly have been beheaded on the stone as well. It’s entirely possible that the executed in the centuries that followed were buried here too, all the way through the 18th century.
If so, it was folklore that kept the memory alive of this place. And keeps it alive still.
And so it was that a few years later I found myself standing outside the earthworks of Bratton Camp looking down toward Luccombe Springs and the Bloodstone. Then I fixed my gaze along Salisbury plain, out towards where they believe the Battle of Ethandun was fought. I looked for the Viking horde to come stumbling back through the mist to the safety of the camp.
I didn’t see them. Nor did I see the mysterious black dog that haunts Salisbury Plain. Shiny black, with a spiked collar, it was believed to be a murder reincarnated by some, the devil himself by others.
On Bratton Camp …
This strong fortress is situated on a point of land projecting to the north-west, over the rich vale that separates the chalky districts of North and South Wiltshire. On three sides it is naturally fortified by steep and precipitate hills; on the south side where the ground is level, and the approach weak, art has been employed to strengthen it by double ramparts and a large outwork. The entrenchments of this camp, as in all our hill fortresses, humour the form of the hill; on the sides difficult of access one rampart was found sufficient, but where the approach was easier, two were raised. On the eastern side the very perpendicular declivities of the hill rendered any artificial fortifications unnecessary. On the north-east point there is an additional outwork, like a detached camp. The area within the ditches contains above twenty-three acres, the circuit on the top of the outer vallum is one thousand five hundred and forty yards, and the greatest height of the rampart is thirty six feet.
From The Ancient History of Wiltshire by Sir Richard Colt Hoare (published 1812)
On the escarpment of Salisbury plain, at the western edge where the Bratton Downs fall into the Pewsey Valley, stands the iron age earthwork known today as Bratton Camp, formerly known as Burywood. Built about 2,000 years ago, it wasn’t just a defensive position, though with its two deep ditches and high, steep drops on three sides, it would have been hard to breech from any direction.
When excavated, debris from the Iron Age, as well as Romans, Saxons and Danes was found.
The earthworks were created in the Iron Age, and they likely weren’t built for any single defensive event, but to protect against threats in general, as well as to wow those who came there.
Inside these Iron Age earthworks like Bratton Camp, communities were developing. With the working of iron there came better tools and more important, a demand for things made of iron. Where there’s a demand for one thing, there’s usually a demand for others, and so communities begin to grow up around the new industry. Not only would the earthworks of Bratton Camp help protect the occupants, it made for a powerful statement of growth on a scale which which would likely leave a new visitor awe struck.
Those of us who grew up in small towns or in the country know the feeling of going into a city, even a small one and being overwhelmed. It had to provoke a similar feeling amongst iron age visitors, coming to trade or celebrate.
“As you enter this camp from the south, a large oblong barrow appears on the left, which has excited the attention of different people, and given rise to various reports; but as I cannot depend upon any researches, but those made immediately under our own eyes, I shall not repeat those handed down by uncertain tradition”
From The Ancient History of Wiltshire by Sir Richard Colt Hoare (published 1812)
The long barrow he refers to is a thousand years older than the earthworks. So there’s no doubt Bratton Camp was a powerful place from as far back as we can trace. Yet there isn’t lot said about it. It’s only been lightly excavated and seems to have been left fairly clean by its inhabitants.
The folklore is pretty silent on the site as well. In Ireland, locations like this were thought even into the early twentieth century to be the places where spirits of the dead return. Even the Romans were big believers in ghosts. As such these places were avoided. Perhaps this belief once held true in Britain as well, and people stayed away.
For it’s where there’s life that stories about people’s lives grow from. Perhaps after the site was abandoned there simply wasn’t enough life there and the people were forgotten.
It is a barren and inhospitable place, as I found out that morning. Even the high walls of the embankment can’t block the wind over such a large area, which blew cold even in July coming off Salisbury Plain. There is no protection against the rain, and so as Guthrum’s army lay holed up within its walls, they grew increasingly desperate.
In those days you were as likely to die from a wound received in battle later on, no matter how small as you were to be cleaved outright in the thick of things. Indeed, it was recounted in legends from Bratton that the tracks leading from Bratton Camp were awash in Danish blood.
So with Guthrum’s army trapped inside the camp, with only the food the soldiers carried and no water and people still dying all around them, all Alfred had to do was sit outside the walls and wait.
He only had to wait about two weeks before Guthrum came out and accepted the king’s terms. He had to leave Wessex forever, and before he went, he had to convert to Christianity and be baptized. This was important as at the time, being a Christian made you more likely to abide by the king’s laws.
By adding this stipulation, Alfred started a process which led to the eventual unification of England as a country. Which is why the Battle of Ethandun is important. And needed to be commemorated.
On the White Horse of Westbury …
“I shall now return to the western ridge of hill, and direct my course towards Bratton Camp, where the White Horse presents its uncouth and ill-proportioned figure on a steep declivity to the left ; a level plain leads us to the southern entrance to the camp.”
From The Ancient History of Wiltshire by Sir Richard Colt Hoare (published 1812)
If Sir Richard hated the White Horse of Westbury then, he’d certainly despise it now.
Nobody really knows when or why a chalk horse was carved onto the side of Bratton Downs, below the iron age Bratton Camp. The current version has evolved over the past two centuries into its rather literal shape today.
An 18th century engraving shows an earlier horse, smaller and facing the opposite direction.
It’s believed a still older one predated that one, back to around 1200 AD, possibly to commemorate King Alfred’s victory, though there’s no explanation of why it took about 400 years to get around to it.
We know that the first written accounts of the existence of the Uffington White Horse begin to pop up about the same time, and there are those that believe this was when the idea occurred to the people at Bratton.
King Alfred was born in the Vale of the White Horse at Uffington, and the horse became one of his symbols. So there is good reason to believe that this idea could have merit.
Still it’s conjecture – this is what happened here, and so since something similar happened there, it could be related.
If we accept that, then we need not stop there.
Uffington Castle, another hill fort lies above the white horse, and dates back three thousand years. Less than a mile away lies Wayland’s Smithy, a Neolithic Long Barrow, where construction began about 3,500 BC. The Uffington White Horse was first dug into the chalk sometime after 500BC.
So if it happened there, it could have happened above Bratton as well. You have the same evidence – a hill fort, long barrows and white horse carved into the chalk of the hillside. Both sites were along well travelled routes, so it’s easy to believe that those at Bratton Camp had seen or at least heard of what was at Uffington. Or perhaps the idea developed naturally.
Janet and Colin Bord in the book Mysterious Britain recount a legend that the White Horse of Westbury, as it is sometimes thought about the Uffington Horse, might have originally been a dragon, and indeed the earliest white horse at Westbury was thought to have a beak-like nose.
The Bords make the case that it was created in an age where there was a more spiritual tie to the earth and to nature, and that’s a lovely thought. If so it’s certainly been a lasting tribute to those people. The horse is visible for miles across much of Wiltshire, and has become one of the symbols of that county.
Today rather than chalk it’s poured concrete to save the trouble of keeping the chalk clean of brush. Which is a shame in a way, because I can’t help but believe that that kind of communal experience, if there’s any truth to Janet and Colin Bord’s story, would be some echo of that distant past.
Below the White Horse of Westbury lies Briddle or Bridewell Spring, not far in fact from Luccombe Springs. According to the tale, when the clock in Bratton strikes midnight, the white horse comes down to drink from the spring.
The spring itself is also the subject of legends. It’s believed to have some connection in ancient days to fertility, and indeed the name Bridewell could refer to brides. It could also refer to Brigid, who was the patron saint of midwives, and before that the triple goddess Brigid in Celtic folklore.
Lest you be tempted to wait outside at midnight on a dark night, watching the white horse and waiting to see it come down the hill, you should keep in mind there is no clock now in the church in Bratton.
Folklore is the oral history of a people, and I’m sure in the past people realized the storyteller’s job was to entertain, as much inform. I don’t believe they accepted literal truths in the same way we do now. We’re used to knowing facts, disproving beliefs with their use.
These people knew what they saw, believed the stories of the people they trusted, but perhaps most important, believed what they felt. It could be true that they saw the world in a more mystic manner than we do today.
Like the feeling I got when I first wandered into that valley that there was a story to be told here. I was right, it’s an ever changing story, one which can never be told definitively. Since it can’t, all the layers and folklore are allowed to lay jumbled up still, so with each generation a new story gets told, using whatever thread from the past catches their attention and imagination.
That’s what keeps stories, and history alive.