Earth Work

We are just passing visitors: this globe is in it for the long game.

Yet we manage to awe ourselves by leaving little scrabblings in the globe’s surface: etchings and age-old tracery, lines the purpose of which we can only surmise.

Years ago we arrived at my sister-in-law’s house on the edge of Bodmin Moor.

“Get your walking boots on,” she instructed us. “I have  a surprise for you.”

My sister in law knew all the local landowners. She was on good terms with everyone. And she had gained access to a private piece of land on Bodmin Moor, on which nestled neolithic treasure trove.

It was a gusty, wet day, a grey day worthy of Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. And we tramped obediently after my sister in law past the last lines of trees and up out onto the barren, inhospitable moorland, wondering what on earth could be worth a triumph over this soggy adversity.

The destination rendered us speechless; for there they were, dotted all over the moor.

They were strange little slate boxes, the size of a human in foetal position. The wet rough-hewn pieces of slate were sunken in on four sides to the peaty soil . They met at a solid slate base.

Their tops had long since been removed, and lay at a distance from their original resting places, in disarray. The things that were deemed precious to the dead had been looted long ago.There was no manual here; no instructions for how to read these thousands-year old traces of settlement, and how to approach what must have been a sacred place.

There was residual awe, though. A feeling of something bigger than us, hanging in the air even now. It’s there at stone circles and Stonehenge and burial mounds and so many more places: but I tell you, it hung thick on the misty moor that damp day

To this day, with all the might of the internet, I cannot find any more information about those small, grey slate grave-chambers where the dead once slept.

This is probably because the whole moor is a concentrated mass of evidence of stone age settlement, There are burial mounds and portal tombs, interlinked stone circles and standing stones. Once the deserted moor was a veritable stone age metropolis.

It is quieter now. Eerie, almost.

Mounds housing stone-clad tunnels are not always what they seem, though. Without the handbook or instructions one might be puzzled – as archaeologists were for a long time – as to the provenance of one particular kind of earthworks.

The mounds in question are called pillow-mounds.

Typically cigar-shaped earthworks, they contain a labrynthine maze of stone-clad tunnels, with many entrances, covered by a great earthy mound.

And they’re all over the place: they pepper the land, with up to two thousand monuments in England, located from the rurality of the Lake District to the urban greenery of Epping Forest. English Heritage looks after a lot of them them these days.

The one in Epping Forest had led archaeologists to believe it was an iron age burial mound. Yet there was testament to the fact that the land had fulfilled a very particular purpose in mediaelval times.

Put simply: these are mediaeval rabbit farms.

The Normans brought rabbits over with them. And they were good for the pot; and so way back then, men would construct tunnels and heap earth over them. English Heritage desribes them:

“….an area of land set aside for the breeding and management of rabbits or hares, usually comprising a series of purpose-built breeding places known as pillow mounds and buries, vermin traps and enclosures to contain and protect the animals, and living quarters for the warrener who kept charge of the warren.’ (English Heritage, 1988).

Apparently you made about ten of these if you were a warrener, or rabbit farmer. And into each you simply threw one male rabbit and one female rabbit. And lo, lots of little rabbits appeared.

A king’s license was needed to run one of these teeming mounds: once granted, you had the Right Of Free Warren. But it was generally the Lord of the Manor who was able to serve rabbit pie. Peasants rarely got the chance unless they were clever poachers.

So everything that glitters is not gold: not all mounds are ancient neolithic sites with all their potent charm.

Yet the mediaeval rabbit-farming mounds have developed their own idiosyncratic pedigree, and are just as coveted in their own way.

Every scrabbling on the globe’s surface has its purpose, and leaves its own mark.

Image source here, at Kiwi Photographer. Who is, incidentally, incredibly gifted and well worth a visit. Amazing pictures of Whitby.


27 thoughts on “Earth Work

  1. Its a part of what I felt in the UK, so many histories all around, for me it eventually felt oppressive. The weight of the past was almost too much to bear

  2. It is a pity no-one wrote down what all the stones were used for – we have followed them through Brittany and Devon & Cornwall 🙂

  3. Absolutely fascinating, Kate. I’ve used the term “rabbit warren” for years when referencing tight, messy or overstocked spaces (think hoarders, or small second-hand/antique shops overflowing with years and years of accumulated treasures); but, I always believed actual rabbit warrens were constructed by the rabbits, not by humans. 🙂

    Mounds, to me, meant ancient burial grounds and the like:

    So, reading further this morning, I found this site, which might provide some additional information for Tandy regarding the stones:

  4. There is something awe inspiring when one first set eyes on Neolithic and Late eolithic/Early Bronze Age items and structures – so old and yet still tangible.

    A very interesting post: thank you.


  5. Every scribbling on the earth’s paper may leave a mark, the problem is for later generations ‘translating’ that mark. We sometimes have deep rooted preconceptions of the marks around us which can be very misleading especially when sacred ancient monuments become bunny breeding parlours. That one made me chuckle. Is that still a ritual after all?! 🙂

  6. If I had the chance I would have loved to be a paleontologist or archaeologist and just dig dig, dig. Social anthropology is of interest too. As you know Roman Britain is one one my fav eras. Quite some time ago I understand a fellow with a metal detector discovered a fortune in Roman coins unexplainably scattered over a large farming field. Do you know about that ?

  7. Kate, one of these days, I am determined to have both the means and the time to see some of these spots with you as my companion. Jamaica Inn is one of my favorite Daphne books, and you evoke the same swirling sense of mystery in the telling of these stories.

    It’s so strange that these mounds dot the planet, spawned by different peoples. What compelled them to make mounds? If I could ask one question, that would be it.

  8. What a strange, yet magical land! There is nothing in my experience that comes even close to such a discovery or tale. The way you describe it and tell the story leaves me with the sense that even in rabbit burrows there is great importance and history. This is just a wonderful thing to know about. At one point in time this wasn’t particularly interesting, I’m thinking, and just a practical way to raise rabbits! Now, with centuries passed, it’s almost a fairy-tale. And someone just has to figure out about the slate boxes, or at least make up a really good story and stick with it for future historians! Debra

  9. This is really fascinating, Kate – are rabbits a big problem there now? In Australia they are considered a pest and much time and research has gone into investigating ways to eradicate them

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