The Isle of Purbeck 1884 – From a 4,000-year-old burial mound,
an extraordinary object is unearthed,
and lost until the 21st century.
Archaeologists excavate in the valley below the burial mound, discovering evidence for prehistoric rites as their own pasts overshadow the present…..Dig director and TV celebrity, Allan Kingsley, torn by conflicting loyalties. Dennis Ludlock, ruthlessly competitive. Erica Giles, risking everything to pursue the secrets of ancient science…..Lives that are impacted by a find with devastating potential.
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‘Sir…..We’ve found something.’
Arthur Bertram turned towards the burial mound, the chalk subsoil ghostly in the fading light.
His labourers stepped back, leaning on their spades after hours of digging, and watched as he approached the stone slab they had uncovered. In his earliest memories he recalled asking about the mound known as Nemet’s Barrow, begging his father to excavate, but his father refused to disturb the ancient dead. Now Arthur was master of Stoneacre Grange the decision was his to make.
He spoke under his breath. ‘May our efforts be rewarded.’
Bertram himself was first to take hold of the slab. The men followed his lead, calloused hands gripping it beside his. There was a pause, then the labourers released their hold and looked up. The stone felt warm as a hearth.
Seeing the apprehension on their faces, Bertram stood firm.
‘The hour is late. Let us finish what we’ve begun.’
For a moment they hesitated, but afraid to defy him, retook their positions. Bertram secured his grasp and, bracing himself, helped raise the slab, manoeuvring it onto its side. As he looked at the chalky soil which filled the cist beneath, he wondered whether he stood at the brink of discovery or disappointment. Reaching for a lantern, he instructed his stable-boy Will Ludlock to dig.
Minutes passed. Bertram focussed on the pool of light at his feet, searching for the first sign of what the cist contained. Whether it was a cremation urn or an inhumation, he hoped for grave goods.
When Will’s spade struck bone, he crouched beside him, intense and silent. He wiped away debris, examined the dome of a skull, then, taking the youth’s place, continued excavation. The back-aching work ahead required skill, and he dared not trust it to others. He gave the men leave to go, but as the burial was slowly revealed they stayed at his side.
Delicate brow, narrow jaw……From the proportions of the skull Bertam judged it to be a woman’s, and as he dug he visualized her in life, walking the land before Roman or Saxon. She had known the outlook from the ridge, the contours of the hills, as he did; and had lain in the barrow while he played there as a boy or day-dreamed as a youth.
Bone by bone, the cist disclosed the remains entrusted to its keeping. Not crouched in foetal vulnerability as Bertram had seen in other barrows, but extended – conveying power, dignity, in death.
The skeleton was partially uncovered when he noticed a circular object resting on the collar bone. As he brushed away loose chalk, it became clearer.
Bertram eased the disk free and cleaned it on his shirt sleeve, polishing until the metal shone, then held it up for the men to see.
It was gold. They had found gold.
Once more he began to dig. As he excavated the delicate bones of the woman’s right hand, he became aware of a warmth in the ground, inexplicable as the warmth of the stone slab. He brushed chalk from a second object, reached down to extract it, and cursed. The thing burnt like a hot coal and shock jarred his body, setting him off balance.
Fighting dizziness, he clutched the slab for support, his heart hammering against his ribs.
The men’s voices sounded remote.
‘Sir, what ails you?’
As the symptoms passed, Bertram replied with forced calm.
‘It is simply fatigue.’
He stared at the object where it lay and, with grim determination, closed his fingers around it. When he felt nothing worse than tingling, he raised it to the light. A milky quartz sphere: two inches in diameter, perfectly symmetrical. He turned it over, studying the pattern of flaws which radiated from the centre. Finally, unable to find a reason for what he had experienced, he put it aside and resumed digging.
His palms were clammy. In the cool night air he felt feverish, but nothing mattered except the treasure he would show the world, treasure which he continued to unearth: an amber cup and gold armring, beads of faience, a bronze dagger…..After removing the final object – a deer skull which lay at the foot of the grave – he looked at the remains of the individual who had been buried with such wealth. The gracile skeleton and shape of the pelvis convinced him it was a woman. He had dug half a dozen barrows, witnessed the excavation of half a dozen more – seldom anything of value. Who was she?
Bertram sighed, getting up from where he knelt. He planned to begin lifting her remains the following day, and was about to instruct the men to cover the cist with sacking, when he paused, troubled by a growing oppressiveness. He dismissed it. He was tired and hungry, his shirt soaked with sweat. Once he had rested he would celebrate his great discovery.
Without looking up from his laptop, Allan took a drink of lukewarm black coffee. He scrolled down, studying the survey results, only raising his eyes when the door to the Portakabin opened.
As he removed his glasses, his colleague’s face came into focus.
‘I’d like a word.’
Allan nodded towards the chair opposite, but Dennis remained standing.
‘Have you given any thought to the point I raised this morning? As I said, we should consider extending our investigations beyond the south-western entrance – open a trench between the outlying megalith and the causeway.’
Needing a moment to think, Allan took another mouthful of coffee.
‘We have a clear research design, which takes into account what we can realistically achieve this season. If we come back for future seasons the anomalies to the south-west will be investigated fully.’
‘In my experience……’ Dennis stopped short, controlling the anger that had crept into his voice. ‘Of course, it’s your decision.’
‘It’s a joint decision,’ Allan replied evenly, ‘reached with our partners at the City Museum.’
Dennis stared at him, his jaw taut, and left without speaking. For a moment, Allan returned to the survey. Then, taking a battered tin of tobacco from his jacket pocket, he went outside. As he smoked, he looked across the site, digital images translating into an area of exposed chalk dotted with figures kneeling in the sun. Plundered and levelled over the centuries, Stoneacre henge posed a challenge, one he had been glad to take on when the project’s director resigned at the eleventh hour and Professor Quinlan asked if he would step in. He had half-expected Dennis to resign too, though he seemed to gain satisfaction from making life difficult.
Allan took another drag, beginning to unwind. He remembered his first dig: the thrill of discovery, with the freedom to savour it, a freedom increasingly compromised by career advancement. Now he saw the students experiencing that same thrill, and had the reward of helping them achieve their ambitions.
Extinguishing his cigarette, he headed towards the trench where assistant director Erica Giles was digging alongside undergraduates from the University of West Sussex. He hoped they would soon have a chance to talk properly, to catch up, but things had been so hectic.
Erica had scarcely altered in the twelve years since they went their separate ways, when she finished her PhD and left to work abroad. Seeing her with shirt-sleeves rolled to the elbow, fair hair tousled by the wind, he found it hard to imagine her behind a desk at the City Museum where she was curator of the prehistoric collections. Harder still to imagine her endorsing the views of its traditionalist director.
Crouching beside her, he picked up a fragment of stone.
Erica stopped digging and turned. ‘It’s tragic that the megaliths were broken up, no doubt just to build a few cottages, and all we’re left with is debris in the stoneholes.’ She pointed to the fragment Allan held. ‘See those tiny crystals embedded in its surface. The circle must have looked spectacular, glistening in the sun…..or moonlight.’ She got to her feet and stretched. ‘Anyway, how are things with you?’
‘Getting there…..slowly; a few outstanding issues.’ Allan was on the point of mentioning Dennis’ suggestion, but said instead, ‘We’ve had a complaint.’
Erica gave a wry smile. ‘That didn’t take long!’
‘A group of first-years were warned by the game keeper from The Grange, told that if we continue causing a nuisance it’ll be taken further. I need to speak to the landowner and resolve this before it escalates.’
‘We want him on our side.’ Erica looked past the scars of excavation, to the ridge of the Purbeck Hills where cloud shadows drifted across rough pasture. ‘Especially as the barrow up on Stoneacre Down lies on his property. I’m curious about it, aren’t you? It’s aligned with the henge entrances. That has to be more than coincidence.’
Allan followed the direction of her gaze. ‘Nemet’s Barrow, according to the notes I was given. Dug in the nineteenth century, but there’s no record of any finds. The Dorset Museum and county archives both drew a blank.’
‘I’d like to look into it. Perhaps Dennis knows something. He said he grew up in the area, in the village of Stoney Bridge.’
Allan tensed. ‘I doubt he’d be interested.’
He saw the question in Erica’s eyes, but before she had a chance to voice it he went on,
‘I’ll call The Grange this afternoon.’
* * *
The laptop under his arm, Allan locked the door to the Portakabin. As he headed for the holiday cottages that would be home for the duration of the dig, he glanced up at Nemet’s Barrow, wondering what Erica had in mind, whether she intended to put forward one of the off-beat theories which always sparked controversy.
Thirty minutes later, after changing and a bite to eat, he was following the lane towards East Creech. Half a mile on, he reached the wall which bounded The Grange estate and, walking in its shadow, eventually came to a driveway with rusty gates standing half-open. There was no house sign, and the property lay out of sight, hidden by trees.
The Stoneacre project would never have got off the drawing board without Annette and Matthew Garner’s permission to excavate on their land, and since the dig began they had been generous with their help. But they were unable to put him in contact with their neighbours, and his failure to find a phone number had left him with no choice……
Again, his plans to spend a few hours with Erica, to open a bottle of wine and relax, were on hold. He wanted to avoid an official complaint, and could not run the risk of the diggers being threatened.
Thinking how best to handle any conflict, he walked down the drive until a gabled grey stone building came into view, surrounded by derelict stables and out-houses.
Sculptures stood like guardians to either side of the porch – part human, part feline – at odds with the architecture. Allan paused a moment to look, then reached for the doorbell. He could hear it ringing in the hall but there was no reply, and he tried again, annoyed that he seemed to have come on a futile errand.
As a last resort, he made his way around the side of the house, the stable-yard to his left, the east wing to his right. When the path emerged onto an overgrown lawn, he began to feel edgy, conscious that he was trespassing. While he hesitated, a light wind disturbed the trees and a wood pigeon cooed from one of the chimneys, then silence.
Deciding there was no one in, he began heading back towards the drive, but after a few paces stopped, sensing he was being watched.
He turned, and saw a dark-haired woman in tight-fitting black jeans and t-shirt. Her feet were bare, and she held a chisel.
‘I’m looking for Christopher Challoner.’ Faced with an awkward situation, Allan tried to hide his discomfort.
The woman stared at him. ‘And you are?’
‘Allan Kingsley. I’m directing the dig at Stoneacre Farm.’
She gave a vague nod.
‘I apologize if our work or any of the students have disturbed you. I understand there may be a problem.’
‘My partner’s busy, but I’ll let him know you called.’
Allan was about to give her his card and leave, when the woman spoke again.
‘I’m sure I’ve seen you on TV.’ Her voice was soft, with a faint Cornish accent.
She looked thoughtful. ‘Ancient Kingdoms.’ The wariness had gone, and her expression lightened. ‘Visiting sacred sites around the world. Is that what you’re excavating here?’
‘Yes – a henge monument. Though most of the visible remains have been destroyed, we’re hoping to piece together its story from what lies below ground. We’ve discovered that nineteen megaliths once stood inside the earthwork.’
‘Stoneacre. Explains the name…..It’s great that you’re finding evidence, and I’ve no idea who told you that your dig is causing a problem.’ The woman took a step forward. ‘I’m Mawnan Lovell.’
She extended a hand in greeting, then glanced at the chisel and laughed.
‘This isn’t to use against intruders. I’m a sculptor. I was in my studio when you….arrived.’ Serious again, she said, ‘I’d like to hear more about what your team are going to be doing. Can I offer you a coffee?’
Allan had hoped the visit would not take long, but felt obliged to accept.
Moving softly on bare feet, Mawnan led the way to a modern extension, its glazed walls letting in the evening light. Sculptures, uncut limestone and a cane sofa filled the floor space, surrounded by plants which merged the studio with the garden.
Most of the work was abstract, or, like the figures by the porch, hinted at human and animal forms.
Mawnan put the chisel on a bench beside her work-in-progress, which she had left hurriedly when she heard someone approaching.
‘Ancient art has always fascinated me…..Dr Kingsley. I’ve travelled across continents, and through time, in search of inspiration.’ She smiled. ‘Symbolically, that is.’
‘I can see the influences, and the influence of this area.’
Mawnan seemed pleasantly surprised by his observation. ‘I feel very connected to the land. I use local stone, and materials are often washed up on the beach: coloured glass, driftwood….’
She fell silent as Allan looked at the other pieces.
‘Are you planning an exhibition?’ he asked eventually.
There was a pause before she replied. ‘It’s difficult at the moment. I need to stay at The Grange. Soon perhaps.’ She turned away. ‘I’ll make that coffee.’
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, the kind that dragged on for ever. Allan’s brothers were arguing, and in snatches between the songs blasting from Radio 1 in his sisters’ room, he could hear John Coltrane on the living room stereo.
Tomorrow would be his thirteenth birthday. Every year he wished he had been born in the summer, not the dark depths of January.
He threw his book onto the bed and went to the window. The sky was grey as the estate, the horizon lost in a blur.
Looking north-west across London, he imagined he could see a wooded hill with a spire rising above the trees. He pictured an antique schoolroom, its wall panelling carved with the names of pupils destined for fame – prime ministers and poets – pictured the dormitories, the vast concert hall, cricket pitches, acres of green, and wondered if it was raining there too.
Would he ever fit in? It was all totally alien. He was popular, but had seen boys bullied for being different, and taken their part. Who would stand up for him? The outsider with the wrong accent, whose dad was not a lawyer or diplomat or oil billionaire. Only eight months before he would find out……
Disturbed by sunlight shining through the curtains, Allan opened his eyes. He had been on the border of sleep: half-dreaming, half-remembering. He turned over to look at the time – 6.30 am – lay still for five minutes, then got up and took a shower.
Down in the kitchen the work-surface was scattered with tools and dirty crockery, and the milk had been left out of the fridge overnight. There was no sign of Jack, just the evidence of his presence.
It was good to be working with him again, their friendship cemented over eighteen years of travelling and digging and chancing fate. And to work with Erica. There were no two people he would rather have on the team. Without Dennis waging a war of attrition things would have been easier, but he faced this every day at the department; Allan told himself he should be used to it. Now that he had looked into the complaint from The Grange, the dig seemed on course to run smoothly.
With no clean mugs, he rinsed the dregs from an unwashed one, and while the kettle boiled he rolled a cigarette. He went outside to smoke, strolling to the bottom of the garden where a drystone wall separated it from open pasture. From here he could just see the site Portakabin in Thorn Field. Dew glistened on the grass and swifts were flying high – a sign of fine weather.
* * *
Sunburnt after a day in the open, Erica entered the finds’ hut, a bucket in each hand. While she unloaded plastic bags of animal bone and potsherds unearthed from the southern ditch, she overheard snatches of the conversation behind her. Jack Doran’s account of some escapade in Peru brought a burst of laughter from the students washing finds.
As she put the last bag on the bench, he came over.
‘Join us at The Greyhound tonight.’ His blue eyes glinted. ‘You know what they say: all work…….’
Erica was about to reply, when she felt disorientated. Projected against the boxes and trays she saw a woman’s silhouette, a luminous sphere cradled in her hands. Its light intensified until the scene bleached like a burnt-out photograph.
The brightness in the hut made her flinch, and she took a second to regain her bearings. Jack was frowning, but asked no questions and held out his hip flask. When she waved it aside, he himself drank, then shook the flask.
‘Damn thing’s empty.’
She wasn’t surprised; it had been his companion all afternoon. The smell of whisky was strong on his breath and his ruddy complexion was heightened, not only from the sun. As she looked round, she saw the students exchange a glance. Jack’s drinking had already become a standing joke, though Allan ignored it.
Also refusing his offer of a coffee, Erica went back to where she had been digging earlier. Perhaps Jack was right – she had been working too hard. Or had the experience been brought on by lack of sleep? Payback for staying up into the early hours after she and her colleagues had dinner with the Garners. Or Stoneacre?
Being assigned to this project – researching a previously uninvestigated henge – felt like a gift. Despite its poor state of preservation, they hoped to get firm dates for the sequence of activity at the site, exploring change and continuity. But she wanted to test her own hypothesis, and that meant extending her research beyond the confines of the official strategy.
She visualized the circle complete, its nineteen vanished stones in situ, then turned towards the broken stump which survived to the south-west, defying time and humanity. The geophys results indicated that it once stood at the head of an avenue. Again, an image flashed across her vision, a hundred or more shadowy figures moving between rows of stones, but when her eyes re-focussed there was only heather and bracken, and a couple walking along the footpath to the village.
End of extract