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Agility in the Neolithic Age

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The mystery solved...

There are many relics in Britain and Europe dating from the Neolithic period, more commonly called the Late Stone and Early Bronze Ages including some of our most well known national landmarks, such as Stonehenge or Avebury. It has long been believed that they are aligned on the rising or setting moon or sun at significant times of year, such as Midsummer sunrise. But beyond that, their purpose has remained unexplained, and has been assigned to ‘ritual' use by the archaeological community. Recently, a theory has been put forward that throws new light on the use of these structures, and it is a ritual that we are all familiar with – that of meeting up and competing with dogs!

There are many stone circles, and they have been the subject of study by archaeologists and antiquarians for many decades. It now seems that agility could be a much older sport than we had supposed – but if we accept that the agility term 'ring' has passed down through the centuries because it originally described a circular arena, things begin to fall into place.

Many stone circles tend to enclose an area similar to that of a standard agility ring that we use today, so we can assume that the number of obstacles was roughly similar to now. Of course, the majority of obstacles themselves would have been made from wood. These would have long since rotted away, but at least one still exists – a 'tyre' jump, hewn from stone that is almost identical in size and aperture to the modern standard tyre used now, though padding seems to have been a lower priority. Possibly a layer of local moss could have been used, tied on with spun yarn or plant stems. The stone 'tyre' is still in usable condition as the photo demonstrates. It can be found in Cornwall at what appears to be a major agility centre – the area north-east of St Just.

There are two rings still in reasonable order. On the track approaching the site, there is a single upright stone covered with carved writing in an ancient script. In the Neolithic period there was no Agilitynet, and even paper had not been invented, so the rules and schedule would have been carved on just such a pillar at the entrance to the camping area. Of course, the alignment of these sites on celestial conjunctions now becomes clear, as the competitors would have used these to arrive at the venues at the correct time.

Ring parties
Looked at in this new light, previously mysterious structures such as the rectangular area of stones within the main circle at Castlerigg in Cumbria become obvious. In the harsher northern climate, a sturdy scrime/score hut would have been essential. There was some excavation done in 1882 in this grouping of stones which joins on to the eastern side of the circle, but only charcoal was found – clear evidence of a brazier arrangement to keep the ring party warm. As there is a celestial alignment of the circle to the midwinter rising sun, there must have been a midwinter agility festival there.

The remnants of wooden post-holes found in the vicinity of some stone circles were the supports for the secretary's tent, which would have been covered with animal skins.

The conjunction of these stone circles with burial sites - and in some cases ritual altars - denotes either a lack of today's safety consciousness, or, more worryingly, the possibility that our sport once involved human sacrifice. This could have been either a penalty for harsh treatment in the ring, or for persistent bad handling.

Another theory is that the burials are those of devoted adherents of the sport, who died of natural causes and wished to be interred where they had been happiest, and that burials inside the rings were those of the most respected judges. However, none of the excavations of these burials have found remains of dogs, only humans, so we should not be unduly upset.

Even areas where stone was not available in sufficient quantity to build stone circles were not necessarily devoid of the sport. In many parts of the country, there is evidence of similar structures made from wood. There is one at Bleasdale in Lancashire that may have been the show venue for an early, long forgotten precursor to the modern day Wyre club.

Men Scryfa or 'rule ston

Mick Aston, the one off Time Team with the mad jumpers, was reported to have been sobbing into his pint, muttering 'if only I had realised... my life has been wasted.'

Author credit...
Laura Sivell
is a member of Lune Valley, and runs Ziggy (Intergalactic Lightning). Ziggy is her first dog who is Medium Grade 6, and they have been competing for three years. Laura works as a gardener, and Ziggy as her glove-carrying assistant. They live near Lancaster.

Ziggy is a Morecambe Bay Shrimp-Hound. Once common dogs amongst the fishing communities of the Morecambe Bay area, with the recent decline of the shrimping industry, there are now few left. The dogs used to work in a group, usually five or seven - even numbers were believed to be unlucky - splashing, splashing through the shallow waters of the bay and driving shoals of shrimps towards the fishermens' nets. They are also strong swimmers, if need be. Never recognised by the Kennel Club, they were unknown outside the local area until the author and playwright Peter Tinniswood brought the breed to public attention along with other Northern dying or lost breeds. ‘..the true dogs of the North, killed off by colour television and the advent of one man buses.'

Published 1 April 2009 ha ha ha!