The power of the stone

By John Medland

Friday, June 7, 2013

 

The power of the stone

The Longstone, at Mottistone, which dates back thousands of years.

WIGHT LIVING THE delightful settlement of Mottistone is now a tiny hamlet but it has not always been this way.

For 4,000 years it was a seat of great economic and religious power. The source of this sacred power was the mysterious Longstone.

This great hewn sandstone slab, four metres high and two metres wide, is the oldest standing human structure on the Island. It dates back 6,000 years, to when the first agrarian societies began to prosper there.

Standing stones were sacred objects to our pagan forbears. Other sacred places were springs, river crossings and particular trees where offerings would be made.

The Island had its share of all of these (there are still ceremonies at the holy well sites in the deep south of the Island). But, like all islands, the Wight itself was seen as sacred, a symbol of the dividing line between the world of spirit and the waking world. The way the Island divided the tide and the weather was special.

We can imagine the Wight was a place of pilgrimage and the Longstone was possibly its leading shrine.

Mottistone’s story takes us back to the first modern humans, who came across the dry Channel valley 12,000 years ago. They were Stone Age hunters, clad in sewn skins, who followed the herds of grazing animals which grazed the arctic steppe as the last Ice Age retreated.

After 4,000 years, our forbears had adapted to fishing, trapping and plant gathering in a land almost completely covered in marsh and forest.

Around 8,000 years ago, seeds, domesticated animals and agricultural technology that had been developed in the Middle East arrived in Britain. Now people began to clear the forest by burning. Starting with horticultural experiments, they soon discovered the best places to farm and as they settled, their numbers grew.

Mottistone was ideally placed to develop as a 'new stone age’ or neolithic (4,000 to 2,200 BC) farming community. It was protected from the north wind by the chalk ridge rising 200 metres above the sea. The porous chalk massif collected water, which rose in a series of springs that watered the fertile greensand soils that lay between the sandstone ridge and the coast, then far out to sea. The sea provided fish, seafood could be collected on the coast and there was woodland and grazing land as well as the arable fields.

The community prospered as part of a western European culture that expressed itself in monumental stone architecture. On Mottistone Common, probably then cleared for livestock and tidily trimmed by grazing animals, the farmers of the south west coast marked their success by constructing a huge barrow. It was 31 metres long, nine metres wide and two metres high, aligned east to west. This 'long barrow’ was used to preserve the bones of members of the local clan. It was dug using flint and antler tools. The raising of the original stones was a major feat of communal engineering.

Over centuries and then over millennia, the barrow decayed and slowly disappeared. Its original meaning was lost but it remained a powerful reminder of a now-mythical former world. Finally, just one of the entrance stones was left, standing to pose a mystery to future generations.

In the Bronze Age (2,200BC to 800 BC) the area around Mottistone again flourished as an agricultural community. Many round barrows were constructed prominently on hilltops around the surrounding area. As the Island had to import bronze, the agrarian settlements between the central and southern chalk massifs had to export foodstuffs.

Mottistone was ideally situated to be a trading centre. It was located midway between the two obvious passes through the chalk ridge, at Shalcombe and Calbourne. These gave access to the waterways of the Yar, Caul Bourne and Medina. There was also relatively easy overland access to the other population centres in the upper Medina and eastern Yar watersheds.

In the Iron Age (800BC to 43 AD) the monument remained a powerful symbol at the centre of a still prosperous agrarian community. It is supposed the earthwork enclosure (55m by 58m) on neighbouring Castle Hill dates from the Iron Age.

In Jutish times (c450 to 686 AD) Mottistone probably gained its old English name from 'moot-stone’, or 'the stone where important communal meetings were held’. It seems the structure was still significant enough for the solution of social disputes and administrative measures at collective 'moots’. In the late 400s, the Jutish conquerors chose nearby Chessel Down as the site of their own burials, complete with spectacular treasure now in the British Museum.

Four centuries on from the Saxon-Christian invasion of 686, Mottistone remained a significant place. At the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, 14 families of smallholders and slaves were recorded and the manor had a high tax value of £6. The Church of St Peter and St Paul was rebuilt in stone around 1200 by the Norman lord Brian de Insula.

Most of the current church was added in the 1500s by the Cheke family. Mottistone Manor was also built in the 1500s but later part buried in a landslide.

The Mottistone estate was bought by the Seely family in 1861. The manor house was excavated from 1,500 tons of sand. In 1963 the estate was bequeathed by John Seely, second Lord Mottistone to the National Trust.

Longstone Farm on the estate now serves as the head office of the Trust on the Island.

The mystery of the Longstone was finally solved by Jacquetta Hawkes, second wife of J. B. Priestley. In the 1950s they lived at Brook Hill House and in 1956 she managed an archaeological excavation. The site had been repeatedly dug by the curious but Hawkes’ dig discovered kerb stones defining the original long-barrow.

The National Trust has a difficult task of managing the land to best preserve and maintain the diverse natural habitat that has adapted around 6,000 years of human farming.

The 1987 hurricane destroyed some of the conifers planted on Mottistone Common in the 1920s and extensive clearance work followed, allowing the land to return to the open heathland landscape previously created by our Neolithic forbears.

The gardens of Mottistone Manor are open to the public and the house is open to the public once a year.

• For this story my thanks go to the National Trust.

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