travelers-talesBy Anne Sigmon

A weight of awe, not easy to be borne,
Fell suddenly upon my spirit
—From “The Monument” by William Wordsworth

At nearly one in the morning, the night was black around me—not even a sliver of moon to hang onto. Standing on the damp, foggy grounds of my English manor house hotel, I felt adrift, like an uneasy ghost wandering the moor. I struggled to make sense of the series of calamities that, over the previous six months, had slammed the people I loved. My mother was dead. My brother-in-law’s health was fragile. A miscarriage had cost my family a much-wanted child. One good friend’s husband had died, another’s was desperately, irretrievably ill. Two friends had lost sisters, far too young, to senseless tragedies. Now my cousin—only fifty-eight years old—faced what we all knew would be her final battle with cancer.

I felt cursed, like the precinct of my heart had been strafed by God.

My faith in shreds, my confidence in life shaken, I had come to Cornwall—English land of myth and ancient mystery—to rest my soul and to ponder the haunting fields of primal stone that had been sacred here for six thousand years.

I wondered what these ancient rock temples had meant to the stone and bronze-age people who built them, and to the people who held them holy still. Could these enchanted stones speak to my unmoored heart? If so, what would they say?

The high granite plateaus of Cornwall—rocky outcrops, boggy moors, and windswept cliffs—harbor the greatest concentration of prehistoric stone monuments in Britain: colossal aboveground tombs known as quoits or dolmen; man-tall stone sentinels called menhirs, and enigmatic stone circles with magnetic properties and mysterious force fields. Many of these cryptic stones are aligned with each other, or with the sunset or sunrise on the equinoxes or solstices. It’s a magical vista that has been invested with supernatural power since hunter-gatherer clans first settled here six thousand years ago.

The day before my midnight wanderings, I’d driven into Cornwall alone, heading south down Highway A30. As I crested a hill, the eighty-square-mile plain of Bodmin Moor stretched below me. Under circles of darkening clouds, the moor was a patchwork of yellowy bogs and shamrock-green fields. Crop and pastureland were cordoned into off-kilter rectangular and trapezoidal plots by hedges of dark granite called moorstone. The heft of these ancient walls was camouflaged by cascades of brushy plants. Towering above the landscape, imposing bald granite outcrops called tors jutted from hillsides. Like knots on a spiny massif, the tors—Rough Tor, Stowe’s Pound, Tregarrick, Carn Brea, Trencom—slice through the center of the Cornish peninsula, coursing south toward the Celtic Sea.

Looking down from a highway viewpoint at this eerie landscape, I felt the weight of these primeval stones on my heart—the eons of life, hope, and death that have played out here. I shivered and skipped a breath, disturbed by a palpable force of time and inevitability.

Not far from my lookout, Tregarrick Tor stands on a small tributary of the River Fowey. It is, at a thousand feet, one of the highest points on Bodmin moor.  Some of Cornwell’s earliest hunting bands once took refuge here.  I imagined them clothed in bearskin hides, brandishing spear throwers, skulking through the undergrowth of a hazelwood and beech forest; Cornwall was covered by woodlands then. Life was short—about thirty years—and hard. Set on high ground, often near water, the tors offered shelter, warmth, and viewpoints to spot prey. Over time, wandering clans camped together at these points of sanctuary, to share information, seek mates, and exchange gifts.

Perhaps these prehistoric hunters saw the tors as ancient buildings constructed by ancestor/creator gods. Maybe this is where clans from the north moved in and began to share astonishing information on how to take seeds from the plants they’d gathered and bury them in rows. People learned to water and fertilize the seeds and to coax emmer wheat, barley, lentils, and flax from the rocky soil. They worked the ground with hand axe tools struck from hard volcanic greenstone found nearby, and fashioned flint sickles to harvest the grain. This was the dawn of a new age—the Neolithic, or new Stone Age—which lasted in Cornwall for fifteen hundred years, from roughly 4,000 to 2,500 BC.

Incredibly, one of the first things these people did—just as they abandoned their hide teepees and settled into hamlets of thatched huts, before they built walls around the tors to enclose crop and pasture land—was to turn their eyes heavenward and build some of the most incredible structures known to history: megalithic stone tombs.

Called quoits in Cornwall (and, elsewhere, dolmen—which means “stone table”), these monuments became, over time, much more than gravesites. Visible from afar, the enormous structures marked clan territory. They also served as the focal point for community rituals and, historians believe, an emerging—and fervent—religion based on ancestor worship.

In the West, we no longer worship ancestors. Or do we? I thought of my father, dead for fifteen years. In life I’d always adored him. My promised to him to take care of my mother was the most solemn pledge I’d ever made. Now she had joined him. Their staunch protestant faith had assured them—without question—that, after death, they’d be together in a tangible, sentient heaven. My own faith was murkier, of less comfort in loss.

Leaving my highway overlook, I drove toward Trethevy Quoit, one of the best preserved megalithic tombs in Britain. Less than two miles away, it perches atop an ancient mound in an open field near the 19th Century Cornish mining village of Tremark Coombe. Known locally as the Giant’s House, Trethevy is an immense stone rectangle with a slanting top, built about 3,700 BC.

I arrived in late afternoon. Skylarks twittered from trees at the edge of the field; the air smelled of grass and dried mud. The weather had cleared and filmy cirrus clouds drifted above the quoit. Its dark granite glittered golden in the sun.

The walls of the “house” are formed by six (originally seven) colossal granite slabs. They are, on average, ten feet tall—almost twice the height of the Neolithic men who raised them. The “roof” is a single twelve-foot capstone weighing well more than 20,000 pounds. Today it tilts wildly at about a forty-five degree angle, but once sat flat atop the walls. Most peculiar is a circular hole in the highest corner of the capstone that many antiquaries believe was used for astronomical sightings to mark the seasons. The chamber inside is large enough, archeologists say, to hold perhaps thirty bodies—clan leaders—who were buried with the weapons and treasures they’d need in an afterlife that they, like my parents, were sure would come.

After circling the monument for a time, awed by this crowning achievement of stone-age construction, I walked up the mound and stood in the shadow of the capstone. Shoving hard against a bulwark, I was struck by its immutable heft—a symbol of power and also, it seemed to me, of hope.

Trethevy Quoit and more than forty similar dolmen were raised in England in what archeologists describe as a seventy-five-year frenzy of building between about 3,700 and 3,650 BC. This was a time long before wheels, pulleys, or pack animals—and 1,200 years before the miracle of Stonehenge or the earliest Egyptian pyramid at Sakkara.

I tried to imagine the effort of a hundred men—surely it would have taken that many, or more—laboriously striking greenstone into primitive choppers, fastening the stones with twine to wooden hafts. Straining, in burning sun and biting cold, they swung their axes and toppled trees, then stripped the branches to build rolling logs and dredges. Using all the might the community could muster, grunting and swearing men wrenched each stone onto the log sled, fastened it with leather straps, hauled the wobbly contraption over uneven ground, heaved the stones up an earthen ramp, and, with what seems to me inconceivable effort, hoisted the behemoths into place. It must have taken years.

Why? Why build this gargantuan granite temple instead of walls and hedges to protect their crops and pasture their animals, instead of boats to increase the yield of fish?

The answer, I thought, must lie in belief.

Archeologists say sites like Trethevy show that our stone-age ancestors believed in a journey to an afterlife. This was nothing new. Scholars now believe humans began to conceive of religion—god, spirit, salvation, afterlife—almost as soon as they could think.  What some experts consider the world’s earliest religious monument—celebrating ritual worship of the python—was erected in Botswana 70,000 years ago.

It’s no different for humans today, I thought. The death of my mother and the suffering of my family and friends this year had provoked me to ask some hard questions about my own beliefs. What does it mean to cease to exist? What will it be like, when my time comes, to feel myself slip over the final precipice, into a black anesthesia of nothing? I’ve closed my eyes and tried, many times, to imagine it, but I can’t. I can imagine myself lost, hurt, afraid, falling into protracted sleep. But even in extremis, I can’t imagine myself without some hope of awakening.

Perhaps people have always felt this way. Over the millennia, they have conceived of a savior god-spirit in so many different ways. And, often, they’ve turned to stone as a durable symbol of shelter and hope for salvation.

Standing on the mound at Trethevy with my hand on the warm granite tomb, I felt the power in that space—the gravitas of great age and supreme effort—but also an aura of peace. It was as though, by being there, I was absorbing the faith the builders had in the ability of these god-blessed stones to save them.

It would be almost five thousand years before descendants of these stone-age English forbears once again attempted to raise stone to godly heights. In the Middle Ages, about 1100 AD, they began to construct the great gothic cathedrals. Closest of these to Cornwall is the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in Exeter, fifty miles from Trethevy Quoit.

On the afternoon I visited Exeter, twelve bells pealed the closing of the day from the 130-foot-high Norman tower. In the Lady Chapel, I bowed my head for evensong. Above me, pairs of trumpeting angels carved in medieval times paid homage to the Madonna shining down from 15th C stained glass. As the voices of twelve a cappella choristers filled the vault of this great space, I imagined the heaven its builders saw.

Leaving the service, an adjacent chapel door stood open. On the altar, in place of icons, a slat box heaped with river stones drew me in. Next to it sat boxes of pebbles, seashells, tiny pinecones, and wispy feathers. On the floor, votive candles flickered on a slab of slate, illuminating cairns that unknown supplicants had fashioned from the materials in these boxes. Tiny stone miniatures of the way-posts found by ancient graves, these cairns, I thought, must point the way toward the sacred, to the faith in the future that had abandoned me.

A tear trickled down my cheek as I bent over the boxes and chose a pretty mauve river stone—my mother’s favorite color—a gray pebble, and a tiny feather, then arranged them on the stone altar with the others.  One after another, I remembered loved ones who were in pain: my sister who, like me, grieved for our mother and worried about her husband; my cousin and my friends who faced incalculable loss. I closed my eyes and conjured their faces in happier times, wrapped each face in love and healing wishes, and, for each one, built a cairn, lit a candle, said prayers for deliverance, for healing, for faith, peace—and for hope.

Now we humans have come full circle, I thought, like the ancients, inclining to earth stones to help us face an uncertain future. I turned to leave the chapel, but some ineffable force held me back. I stood in the flickering candlelight feeling close to the spirits of those I loved.  Finally I reached back into the boxes and pulled out stones, shells, and feather to build another cairn. This one was for me.

And as I touch this stone
I feel the hands of those
My brothers
Who at dawn of human life
Erected to that same Old Sun
This temple of eternal praise, and thanked the
Source of Light and Love for just
Another day – to be alive.

—From “The Stillness of This Hill” by Edward Williams (1747-1826)

Anne Sigmon is a California writer, stroke survivor, and autoimmune patient who covers adventure travel for people with health limitations. Her stories about travel to remote corners from Burma to Ethiopia, Iran, and Uzbekistan appear regularly in magazines and anthologies, most recently Wandering in Cornwall: Mystery, Mirth and Transformation in the Land of the Ancient Celts and Bradt Guides’ To Oldly Go.