Abridged excerpt from "The Calderstones of Liverpool" published in Darklore Vol 6 (2011)
The Calderstones - South Liverpool's Stonehenge
Formerly a private estate, the land which now makes up the Calderstones Park was purchased by Liverpool Corporation in 1902 for the sum of £43,000 from shipping magnate brothers Charles and David McIver. The Park was officially opened to the public three years later in 1905. The 94 acre (0.38 km2) space is well kept and always busy, boasting as it does a walled garden, a children’s play area, an historic Mansion House, a café, a former boating lake turned wildlife haven, a miniature ride-on railway, and even a thousand year old Oak Tree known as “the Law Oak”. Buried amongst this myriad of amusements, attractions and events – set back from the pathway which leads from the park’s heavily ornamented main gates - is an unassuming, semi-derelict looking conservatory*. This weather-beaten structure is known as “the vestibule” and once served as the entry point to a network of greenhouses belonging to the Harthill community allotments beyond. Though the allotments are still in use, the greenhouses are long gone. Today the padlocked vestibule is home to half a dozen curiously ornamented sandstone relics ranging in size from almost 8 feet (2.4 m) to 4 feet (1.2 metres) tall, whose history was already all but forgotten when the Law Oak was still an acorn.
The oldest written record of the stones dates back to 1568 where they are marked on a map relating to a boundary dispute between the districts of Wavertree and Allerton thusly:
“The Calldwaye Stones, called by the Quenes tenantes. And called bye y tenantes of Rich. Lathame the Dojer Stones, otherwise Roger Stones, or Calldwaye Stones”
Three centuries later Baines's Directory of 1825 gave the following information:
“Close by the farm on which the famous Allerton oak stands, and just at the point where four ways meet, are a quantity of remains called Calder stones [...]. From the circumstance that in digging about them urns made of the coarsest clay [and] containing human dust and bones have been discovered, there is reason to believe that they indicate an ancient burying place [...]. Some of the urns were dug up about sixty years ago, and were in the possession of Mr. Mercer of Allerton.”
A young farmhand’s recollections of the destruction of the mound on which the Calderstones stood were recorded in 1833.
“When the stones were dug down to, they seemed rather tumbled about in the mound. They looked as if they had been a little hut or cellar. Below the stones was found a large quantity of burnt bones, white and in small pieces. He thought there must have been a cart-load or two.”
By this time the land which was to become the Calderstones Park was owned by wealthy lead shot manufacturer Joseph Need Walker (builder of the park’s extant Georgian-style Mansion House, completed in 1828). It was Walker who had the idea of making a feature of the stones - relocating them to a site at the South East entrance to his estate, not far from their original position. The Calderstones were retrieved from the nearby farmland and arranged in a circle, as they were assumed to have originally stood. A low wall was constructed around the Calderstones and still stands to this day at the junction of Menlove Avenue, Calderstones Road and Druids Cross Road. The stone plaque built into the barrier is now partly below street level so that only the top line of its inscription is clearly legible. Beneath “THE Calderstones” the sign once read “Enclosed and Planted 1845”.
In a talk given for the Historic Society of Lancashire & Cheshire, later reproduced in their 1865 Transactions, the noted Scottish physician Sir James Young Simpson spoke eagerly about the “small megalithic circle” he had examined in Liverpool. Sir Simpson is most famous today for discovering the anaesthetic properties of chloroform but he was also something of an antiquarian, speaking and writing on various archaeological and historical topics. The most fascinating, though perplexing, detail of the Calderstones, so far as Sir Simpson was concerned, were undoubtedly their markings:
“Many suggestions, I may observe, have been offered in regard to the intent and import of such lapidary cup and ring cuttings as exist on the Calder Stones; but none of the theories proposed solve, as it seems to me, the hieroglyphic mystery in which these sculpturings are still involved. They are old enigmatical 'handwritings on the wall,' which no modern reader has yet deciphered.”
The “cup and ring cuttings” referred to by Sir Simpson are a form of rock-art found chiefly in Europe, although similar markings have been discovered elsewhere including Mexico, Brazil, Greece, and India. They consist of a concave depression (cups, cupmarks, or cupules), carved into a rock surface and are often surrounded by etched concentric circles (rings). These markings upon the surface of the Calderstones literally date back millennia.
Cup and ring marks are often found on rock outcrops, standing stones, and on cists (small stone-built coffin-like boxes) but they are also commonly associated with passage graves. Passage graves consist of a narrow passageway made of stone leading to one or more burial chambers enclosed in more stone. A circular earthen mound is set over the chamber(s) giving them a hillock-like appearance. The nearest such surviving tombs to the Calderstones are Barclodiad y Gawres ("The Giantess's Apronful"), and Bryn Celli Ddu (“The Mound in the Dark Grove”) 100 miles (160 km) to the West on the isle of Anglesey, in Wales. Both of these passage graves are virtually intact and some of the stones at Barclodiad y Gawres have very similar carvings (known as petroglyphs) to the Calderstones, most notably the double spiral design on the Welsh tomb’s “Stone 6”. Comparable patterns are also found on the stones of Irish passage graves at Newgrange and Knowth, which Barclodiad y Gawres and Bryn Celli Ddu also share similarities in their construction, size and layout with. These similarities have lead archaeologists to conclude that the Calderstones – rather than being a “small megalithic circle” – are in fact the remnants of a Neolithic passage grave constructed 4000 to 5000 years ago.
Given that it has already been mentioned that “urns made of the coarsest clay [and] containing human dust and bones” were discovered among the Calderstones some time prior to 1825, the revelation of the tomb might not seem quite so… revelatory. However, the urns in question would almost certainly date from the Bronze Age and could in fact be as much as 2000 years younger than the passage grave itself. The later record of the farmhand’s testimony of excavation with its mentions of “a little hut or cellar” beneath, and “a large quantity of burnt bones” should, however, have made it very clear to Sir Simon and his fellow antiquaries that they were not dealing with a simple stone circle. In fact, it may well have done so when they eventually read it because, although recorded in 1833, the account was not published until 1896 in W.A Herdman’s A Contribution to the History of the Calderstones, near Liverpool.
The presence of the Bronze Age cremation urns is now seen as evidence that the Calderstones Tomb remained in use as a sacred site for many thousands of years after its initial construction. This was a place where generation after generation after generation performed now long forgotten rituals. Where they committed the remains of the chosen few to the already ancient earthen sepulchre which must, to them, have seemed as old as the world itself.
In 2007/2008 a high resolution digital photography survey of the stones was undertaken by Messrs George Nash and Adam Stanford. Key to the success of Nash & Stanford’s survey was their use of oblique lighting techniques to optimise shadows cast on and by the designs. Their paper Recording Images Old and New on the Calderstones in Liverpool was published in 2010 and is an exhaustive chronicle of every visible motif upon the stones’ surface.
In addition to the Early Bronze Age cup and ring markings, the six surviving Calderstones also bear many other petroglyphs including spirals (single and conjoined) carved circa 3000 BCE (the previously mentioned Irish passage graves at Newgrange and Knowth, and the Welsh Barclodiad y Gawres feature stones engraved with similar complex spiral designs), curved and straight lines (single and in groups) again from the Early Bronze Age, and Bronze Age footprint images.
There are eight well defined individual footprints (more correctly referred to as petrosomatoglyphs, rather than petroglyphs), seven of which have five forward facing toes, while one print on the stone known as Stone B has six. Each footprint has a blunt, squared heel giving them a slightly flipper-esque quality. There are only a few British stones and artefacts with similar carvings, most notably a cist which originated from the Pool Farm barrow in West Harptree, Somerset and features six such footprints. Because the footprints are all singular, each is thought to represent specific individuals. Whether these were people who were entombed there, who oversaw rituals, or perhaps acted as guardians of the site, we can only speculate.
On Stone D, half buried beneath the ground, is perhaps the most fascinating yet easily overlooked of all the Calderstones adornments: an image of a dagger. The alleged knife, or dagger, is very difficult to make out even with Nash & Stanford’s expert photography. The carving is described in their 2010 paper as “a south east European-style dagger” dating from the Early Bronze Age. Such daggers do occur in funerary art across Bronze Age Atlantic Europe but are not common in the UK. A notable example, showing three such daggers, is visible on the Castriño de Conxo - a Castro (a kind of ancient settlement composed of a fortified area with round stone huts inside it) in the Galicia region of Spain. Actual Bronze Age daggers are occasionally found at grave sites (such as the flat bladed, horn hilted dagger found in a cist at Rameldry, Fife, Scotland, in the year 2000 ) and are usually interpreted as marking the burial place of a high status individual because of the time and resources which would have been devoted to creating such an object. A carving of a dagger then possibly indicates that a high status individual buried there owned such a weapon but that it was considered too precious to commit to the tomb, perhaps even having been already passed on to another individual. That being the case, could the dagger represent the final person laid to rest in the ancient sepulchre? The dagger is certainly amongst the latest of the BCE carvings and quite possibly the most recent. Could an Iron Age chieftain have been the last interment in Claderstones Tomb? Sadly, it seems highly unlikely that we’ll ever know – all of the “human dust and bones” the grave once contained having long since been removed.
In their 5000 or so years of existence the Calderstones have moved - with the possible exception of one or two – less than half a mile (0.8 km). The park which is named after them – landscaped and gardened as it now is – has nevertheless been a continuous, inextricably linked green-space for the duration of that time. And what about their original purpose? What of the prehistoric Britons who carved those labyrinthine spirals whose meaning still eludes us and whose graves the stones once marked? The buried ends of those stones touch that self same soil which was piled up, by hand, millennia ago to form the earthen roof of their tomb. That self same soil in which those bodies – and later those urns of ash – were laid to rest.
*Visiting Calderstones Park recently (July 2012) I noticed that the stones were wrapped in plastic and that some work seemed to be being carried out on and in the vestibule. I emailed Liverpool City Council to find out exactly was going on and received the following reply.
Thank you for your recent enquiry.
I’m pleased to confirm that limited remedial works are indeed underway to the former Harthill Vestibule building which currently houses the Calderstones.
Primarily these works aim to improve the environmental conditions and security for the Stones.
Specifically works will reinstate the structure while improving ventilation, alleviating conditions which were adversely affecting the historic monument.
Structural improvements should also make the Stones more secure, which, coupled with access improvements, will enable us to continue to promote and raise awareness about this registered historic feature.
These works have been supported by the City Council’s Premises Management Unit following a successful bid by Parks & Greenspaces. Sadly this was in response to an unsuccessful Heritage Lottery Fund bid for a far more extensive project in 2011.
Throughout this process we have liaised with Merseyside Archaeological Society and National Museums Liverpool who remain important partners for us in terms of any future proposals, however, as I’m sure you are aware, public funding is very challenging at present, hence the urgent need for interim measures to the Vestibule building.
I trust this is of interest and should you require any further details please let me know.
The Calderstones – A Prehistoric Tomb in Liverpool [ (Merseyside Archaeological Society, 1984)
R. W. Cowell: The Prehistory of Merseyside (Merseyside Archaeological Society, 1988)
Journal of the Merseyside Archaeological Society Vol. 13 (2010)
Ron Cowell: The Calderstones – A Prehistoric Tomb in Liverpool [2nd, revised edition] (Merseyside Archaeological Society, 2008)
W.A Herdman: A Contribution to the History of the Calderstones, near Liverpool (1896)
Dave Roberts: Discussion of the Prehistoric Origins of Calderstones Park (Journal of the Merseyside Archaeological Society Vol. 13 2010)