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Gilgal Refaim

10 December 2015

The Times (December 2015) has a piece on Gilgal Refaim, the 'Wheel of the Giants' which is situated on the Golan Heights (and currently on land assigned as a firing range for Israeli military manoevres). It consists of piled rocks set in concentric circles up to 5000 feet wide and has a burial chamber at its heart – the bull's eye. In Arabic it is known as the 'stone heap of the wild cat' for some reason but it is on semi wild land in a high position. It consists of 42,000 tonnes of stone piled some 30 feet high. It is built from small stones rather than big slabs and has been dated to around 3500BC. As such, it is not far in time from the concentric circles we find on British hill tops, the so called 'causewayed camps' – but these are made from earth banks and ditches. The concentric circle as a megalithic motif is interesting as that is what some of the rock art in northern Britian could be likened to – the so called cup and ring marks (for example).

Meanwhile, author Tom Holland has a written an article in The Times (also in December) and this asks why historians have tended to ignore the successes he attributes to a daughter of King Alfred, one Athelflaed. He intends to bring into prominence in his new book on Alfred the Great and the war against the Vikings. This will be a good yarn and one to look out for. However, he begins by saying Bernard Cornwell's novel which was adapted for the TV series 'The Lost Kingdom' portrays Britain under attack from Viking raiders and attempts at mass settlement. The kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia were overwhelmed by Viking armies and largely dismembered leaving just the one English kingdom intact, Wessex. However, even Wessex came under attack in 878 and Alfred was forced to retreat into the Somerset Levels (at that time a marshy waste). Here he regrouped his supporters and over the next three generations a united kingdom of England was formed. The various regions of England had previously been rivals, a situation they inherited from their Celtic predecessors.

Alfred defeated a Viking army and married off his daughter Athelflaed to Ethelred the king of Mercia (who was virtually an invalid). This was a master stroke as on his death his son Edward succeeded him and his daughter became queen of Mercia after the death of her husband – and took command of its army. In 910 her forces surprised a Viking army near what is now Wolverhampton and despatched not one but three Viking kings in one battleAthelflaed and her brother, Edward, then set about neutralising the Vikings in Northumbria. They went on to establish a line of forts from Essex to the Mersey and in 917 they annexed East Anglia, the area most settled by the Scandinavians, thereby uniting the kingdom. In 918, when Edward died, England included all the country south of the Humber estuary. HIs successor, Athelstan, expanded by conquering Northumbria, and that is actually the story of the origin of England as a country as when the Normans arrived in 1066 they simply inherited the kingdom established by Alfred and his immediate heirs.

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