Cornwall & The Nebra Sky Disc

Hanns, the custodian of the hotel shakes our hands warmly.  There are no other guests so he is delighted to tell us we have been ungraded to a better room.  Our window looks out on a typical German street of apartment blocks, the walls now warmly lit red in the setting sun. Halle an der Saale gets its rhythmical name from the briny salt springs that were once the town’s mainstay but Hanns is wondering what has brought two British tourists 3 hours on the slow train from Berlin to his little town.

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Side street with tram line in Halle

When I explain that we have come all the way from Cornwall to visit Halle’s museum his belly shakes with laughter. “Fifty years I have lived in this town” he says “and I have never been to the museum – maybe next year I’ll go”.

Halle is a beautiful town, there was clearer plenty of money to be made in salt.  The cobbled market square is  surrounded by 16th century houses and in it’s centre looming above the yellow trams is the grand ancient clock tower.  The town is also a town of music having connections to both Handel and Bach, as the next day as I walk the narrow streets in the direction of the museum I notice that the buskers are of a particularly high standard.

Halle’s State Museum has one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of prehistory artefacts in Europe.  In the hills near by more than 1000 prehistoric barrows (ancient burial chambers) have been identified.  The museum houses some 15 million items, but I have come all this way just to see one.  The Nebra Sky Disc.

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Halle’s Prehistory Museum (Landesmuseum fur Vorgeschichte)

Sometimes wonderful and utterly unique pieces of our past are discovered that throw our understanding and admiration of our ancestors into a whole new light.  These objects speak to us somehow.  The first time I saw a photograph of the Nebra Sky Disc I was star-stuck but when I learnt of its connection to Cornwall I just had to go and see the real thing up close.

Despite the museum’s international reputation on the day we arrive there are very few visitors besides ourselves.  As we enter a group of elderly German tourists politely applaud their guide and shuffle back to their tour bus, a class of local schoolchildren are eating their pack-lunches on the grass outside while the security guards chat with each other and wander slowly between floors.  It is all cool marble and glass inside, a welcome relief from the sweltering summer heat outside.  I am ashamed to admit that I am so excited to finally be there that I walk straight passed the cases containing thousands of precious items and head straight for one gallery.

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The Nebra Sky Disc

The room as you enter it is initially pitch black, I feel as if I am stepping into a void.  As my eyes adjust a starry sky of glistening stars appears and as I take it all in I realise I am looking at the Milky Way silently revolving above my head.

Moving deeper into the room the sky disc comes into view, it is the only lit object and the only source of light.  It is wonderful in the fullest and most complete sense of the word.

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Detail showing the Pleiades

The disc put simply was a kind of calendar and map of the night sky.  There are stars, a crescent moon and a full moon (or sun).  The cluster of stars at the top right of the disc represents the Pleiades constellation which appears in the sky in the spring and possibly denoted when it was time for planting of crops.

The two gold arcs that run along the edge of the disc (one is now missing) are set at a 82 degree angle which it is believed indicates the angle between the sunsets of the summer and winter solstices in the precise area in Germany where the disc was found.  There is also a theory that the number of stars represented denotes how many years had to pass before the ancients had to make adjustments to their calendar – like our leap year from what I understand.

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The Golden Boat

And then of course there is the golden boat.  The myth of a boat which carries the sun and the moon across the sky is an idea which has permeated other cultures – particularly the Egyptians – but this one predates any other.

The Nebra Sky Disc is completely unique, nothing else like it has ever been found.

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The back the disc

Peering through the the glass at the reverse of the disc I can clearly see the marks the maker produced hammering it into shape maybe as much as 4000 years ago.  It is roughly 30cm in diameter and made of bronze and gold.  It’s exact age is uncertain but we know it was buried around 3600 years ago and that during it’s life it was remodelled and reused in a number of different stages while still in use.

The stages in the life of the Nebra Sky Disc
The stages in the life of the Sky Disc. Photo credit: LDA Sachsen-Anhalt

The disc’s connection to Cornwall lies in it’s creation.  Analysis of the metals used shows that the tin in the bronze came from Cornwall and the gold used to form the stars and moons was from the Carnon valley, just a few miles from Truro.  If you visit the Royal Cornwall Museum you can see many of the gold finds from the area, including a nugget of gold from in the Carnon valley – the largest found in the county.

To me this thought is magical, that something so beautiful and so important both then and now started life – if only in part – in Cornwall.  And that idea opens up so many other questions – Where was the disc made?  Who mined that gold?  Who transported to Germany?  Why was it buried and lost for so long?

When I leave Halle’s museum I have a huge smile on my face, I can’t wait to tell Hanns that it was worth it, worth the drive to London, the flight to Germany and the two slow trains it had taken to get there!

For other similar stories try: A King and our Lost Cornish Gold or Ravens & Cornwall’s first graffiti artist

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thoughts of Carwynnen Quoit

Carwynnen quoit has fallen more than once.  It’s giant stones have been raised up again and again, the first time 5000 years ago, then again in the 19th century and the last time in 2014.  Yes, unfortunately it has taken me this long to get around to visiting but the twisting back roads led me to a impressive monument.

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I had wanted to be there a couple of years ago when the cap stone had been lifted into place but that happened at a time when the work I was doing didn’t afford me the kind of freedom that I have now.  I understand from people who were there that it was a magical moment. Apparently everyone surged forward to place their hands on the stones, almost like a blessing for them and for the quoit.

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Sketch of the quoit from 1823

This summer I have been working with a wonderful group of like-minded people who are as enthusiastic and passionate about ancient places as I am (maybe even more so).  We have been spending our days together uncovering two almost forgotten stone circles and a stone row out on the wilds of Bodmin Moor but more of that on another occasion I promise.  I choose to mention it now because one of the subjects we talked of while on our knees in the rain cutting turf was how wonderful it would be to see those stones upright again.  However since my visit to Carwynnen I have to say I have been having my doubts.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am sure that every possible care was taken with this sites reconstruction and it is wonderful to see this ancient monument on it’s feet again so to speak but strangely somehow it felt wrong to me.  Like something was out of place, not quite as it should be.  The stones looked new, too clean, too upright – as if they had just been built – which of course I guess they kind of have.

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Perhaps that is how the ancient people saw them, all clean, fresh and straight and I am just judging this place by all the other sites I love so much where everything is just a bit sunken and wonky. But it does raise a question for me – when they fall do we just leave them?

I guess the answer is a complex one.  Some would argue that these are just old pieces of stone with no intrinsic worth, why should we pay to preserve and protect them?  I am not one of those people, to many, including myself, they do mean something.

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I believe that anything that links us to our roots and to the world we live in should be treasured.  But can we go too far with restoration and how do we know we are getting it right?  Each historical sketch of Carwynnen looks different from the next and different again from the stones as they stand today.

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So if we can’t get it right should we leave well alone, rather than make a misrepresentation of the past?  I don’t know the answer. But I would appreciate others thoughts if you wish to share.

There was a big part of me that looked at the fallen stones of those circles on Bodmin Moor and wished I could see them as my ancestors did but of course I never really will and perhaps I am just not meant to.

For more stoney tales try: The Raising of Logan Rock or When is a Stone Circle not a stone circle?

 

Who Carved The Rocky Valley Amazing Mazes?

One of my most favourite walks takes me on a lovely loop from Trevalga along a stunning stretch of coastline up through Rocky Valley and back to Trevalga via Trethevy.  The Rocky Valley walk is quite famous in these parts and it’s close proximity to the surfing mecca of Newquay means that it gets plenty of footfall all year around.  I have only ever been there once when there was no one but me and a three-legged dog. (And that’s another story.)

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The valley gets all those visitors because it really is a magical place. When you descend from the cliff path into the valley itself the path then winds its way beside a stream gushing downhill towards the sea, it is lush and green and shady even on a hot day.

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Part way up the valley is the ruin of a mill and it is behind this roofless shell on the cool, damp rock face that you find the carvings.

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They are easy to miss but once you spot them I think they are fascinating.  I have traced their gentle curves many times with my eye and my finger, it feels like a game and a spell.  There is a plaque above which claims they date from the bronze age (probably) but in actual fact their origin is a complete mystery.

No one is really sure who carved them or when and there are several theories.  One idea is that they were in fact carved by a bored worker at the now abandoned mill. During the 18th century mazes such as these saw a bit of a revival, it is unclear why but the labyrinth pattern started to pop up all over the place, in architecture and in gardens and in other odd locations too.

Scan maze

Above is a picture of me and a friend in the 1990s at the Troy Town maze on St Agnes island in the Isles of Scilly.  The seven ring maze pattern is not particular to these parts it is common throughout Europe and it has been said that they were built on sea shores to protect sailors by sending them fair winds.  The one on St Agnes dates from roughly 1790 which is also the date of other graffiti carved into the walls of the mill in Rocky Valley.

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It would be nice to known the Rocky Valley carvings real origins but I doubt there will ever be any certainty over their true date.  I do feel that the sign that is there now is a little misleading however and could perhaps do with a bit of an update to leave their provenience a more open to thought and perhaps our imagination.

For another rocky story try: Tregiffian Barrow & the Cup-marked Stone or The Raising of Logan Rock

Our Cornish Honey Harvest

Bees are fascinating creatures and what they give us (a little unwillingly!) is one of the world’s most delicious natural gifts.  But like so many foods these days we as consumers know little about how it gets to our toast.  I could tell you all about how many bees it takes to make a teaspoon of honey or how a bee likes to do the rumba and the jive but you can find all that and so much more on the internet.

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My mother’s hives

I thought I would let you in on our Honey Harvest.

My mother has been keeping bees for about 35 years.  It is safe to say that she knows what she is doing.  And yes it’s true, she does talk to her bees.

She only has 2 hives at the moment and has, in recent years, struggled like never before to keep them healthy due to foreign diseases and the heavy use of chemicals on crops close to us.  ( We are not an organic farm but we do believe that spraying should be kept to the absolute minimum and protecting the soil is a farmers duty.)

A few days ago she went down into the orchard and, much to the bees consternation, stole away their honey (she was stung on the bottom in a revenge attack).  But eighteen fat sticky frames ended up in our dairy with the bees angrily buzzing outside the windows hoping to get in to steal it back.

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We always feel a little mean on the day she takes it away from the hive but her bees are cared for all the year round, she feeds them sugar syrup when the weather is poor and will make sure they make it though even the coldest winters.

So how do you get at your golden crop?  First is the wax capping which the bees use to seal in the honey is cut away from the frames.

Then the opened frames are put into an extractor and spun. (Sometimes with the help of a kitten or two.)

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This is not hi-tech equipment, centrifugal force throws the honey from the cells to run down inside the barrel and it is collected in the bottom.

This golden gloop is then strained through muslin to get rid of any little bits of remaining wax or twigs and leaves that have found their way into the overall stickiness!  And then it is poured into sterile jars so that it is ready for your toast!

Every last drop is precious.

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Golden Yumminess!

The jars are then go into our dairy store-cupboard which my industrious mother keeps stocked with all kinds of jams, chutneys and marmalades.

But once a year the shelves groan under the weight of a fresh harvest of honey- 31lbs this year!- and I am reminded how lucky I am to have grown up and still live in the countryside.

For other family tales try: My Grumpy Grandpa & his Shires or Rock Solid Love

 

The Stargazy Cornishman and the search for Neptune

If you google ‘how to find a new planet’ an article published in The Guardian in May pops up.  In recent months, it reports, NASA has discovered 1200 new planets orbiting distant stars in far off solar systems. In just the last couple of weeks a possible “earth-like” planet has also been discovered.  How far we have come and how deep we can reach into space makes it seem all the more improbable that it is only a mere 86 years since Pluto, the farthest planet (I know, debateable) in our own solar system, was discovered.

Back in the early 19th century however, according to thinking at the time, there were still only 6 planets including our own.  Finding a new planet in the night sky with the telescopes that they had back then was in many ways more luck than judgement.

And it was a Cornishman who lucked out and discovered Neptune, well, more to the point he predicted the existence of Neptune, because that’s what you did apparently, you found the signs of its existence, you didn’t actually see the planet itself.  (Are you picking up on to the fact that science was not my forte at school, along with maths and netball?)

John Couch Adams was born in Lidcott in North Cornwall in 1819 and I know he had no problem with maths at school! The young farmer’s son showed a natural aptitude to algebra and developed an early passion for astronomy after seeing Halley’s Comet in the clear Cornish skies in 1835.

While still an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1841, Adams made notes that he had decided to investigate:-

… the irregularities of the motion of Uranus…in order to find out whether they may be attributed to the action of an undiscovered planet beyond it.

Adams became convinced of the existence of another planet. However he was it seems a unassuming man, many of the other students hardly recalled him, those who did said he was a neat, quiet fellow in a faded green frock coat and not much else. True to his nature Adams only made his findings concerning the new planet known to his small inner circle of like-minded friends.  He did hand in a report in September 1845 to the Cambridge Observatory and this was passed onto the Royal Observatory at Greenwich but it didn’t cause much of a ripple.

When the Frenchman Urbain Le Verrier announced his ‘discovery’ of the possible location of a new planet in 1846 Adams made little attempt at a counter claim, in fact he is said to have written a paper in which he bashfully congratulated Le Verrier on his success.  It was Adams’ friends who reminded the scientific community of his earlier work and in the end the Royal Observatory had to admit their mistake. As a result both men were given the credit for Neptune’s discovery.

Adams went on to work quietly within the field of astronomy for

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Memorial to Adams in Truro Cathedral

the rest of his life teaching and making many other discoveries mostly around comets and meteors. He gained honorary degrees from Oxford, Dublin, Edinburgh, and Bologna and  was elected to the Royal Society, the St Petersburg Academy and to The Academy of Sciences.  But Adams was never one to boast of his achievements and it is said that when he was offered a knighthood in 1847 he turned it down. His own students remembered him mostly for setting them dastardly maths problems to solve.

I think Adams is a wonderful character who despite perhaps his own wishes shouldn’t be allowed to fade into the background.  We as a race have always been so fascinated by what lies beyond our own blue planet and that fascination continues to the present day in our culture and our scientific strivings.  It was men like Adams who were at the forefront of each new discovery that pushed us little by little to where we are today – gazing at a planet like our own 500 light years away.

Because of our long mining heritage there is a saying in Cornwall that if there is a hole anywhere in the world you will find a Cornishman at the bottom of it, I like to think that there is a Cornishman amongst the stars too.

For another clever Cornishman try : The Singular Mr Daniel Gumb & his house of rocks