Turton, Lancashire was founded around the year 1212 near the site of what was once an ancient stone circle at Chetham’s Close, like Stonehenge but on a smaller scale. The famed circle there is about fifty feet in diameter, with stone that once rose a little more than four feet in height. This stone circle was partially destroyed in the 1880s by a tenant farmer who wanted to prevent tourists from coming onto his (rented) land to visit the stones. He broke up the circle and cleaved the stones into chunks. Two additional small stones (19 and 35 inches high) stood outside the circle at a distance. A much larger stone circle was later discovered nearby, buried underground. This one was 24 yards wide. Modern archaeological surveys identified earthworks as well.
In the 1890s, both stone ring sites were attributed to the Druids, though today it is evident that the “Druidical” stone architecture actually belonged to Bronze Age peoples. Indeed, the entire landscape is now known to be an Early Bronze Age ceremonial complex dating to c. 1300 BCE.
Why do I tell you this?
Well, near the stone circles was a very large rock, now mostly destroyed, called the Hanging Stone or the Giant’s Stone, which appears to have been part of the same ceremonial complex as the stone circles. This rock was very large, but I do not know if it was purposely placed on the plain by ancient people or if it was deposited there by glacial activity. (The region has many glacial erratics, some of which were moved for or incoroprated into Bronze Age ceremonial sites.) For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that from time immemorial, the large rock had the air of mystery and sanctity about it.
Thus, in 1787 we find Dorning Rasbotham reporting a curious tradition about the Hanging Stone:
The tradition of the common people is that it was thrown by a certain giant, upon a certain occasion (the nature of which they do not specify), from Winter Hill, on the opposite range, to this place; and they whimsically fancy that certain little hollows in the stone are the impression made by the giant's hand at the time he threw it; but I own I could not find out the resemblance which was noticed to me. It appears, however, to have long excited attention; for, though it is a hard grey moor-stone, a rude mark of a cross, of about seven inches by six, hath, apparently, at a very distant period of time, been cut upon the top of it. It is elevated upon another piece of rock; and its greatest length is fourteen feet, its depth in the thickest part five feet eight inches, and its greatest breadth upon the top, which is nearly flat, about nine feet. A thorough-going antiquarian would call this a Druidical remain.
A century later, Charles Hardwick reflected that such traditions were widespread in England:
Traditions of this class are very common, especially in districts were huge rocks lay apparently unconnected with the general mountain masses. As I have previously observed, striated boulders, brought from a great distance by what geologists term the "glacial drift," are especially regarded as debris resulting from giant warfare or amusement. Many rocks of this class lying to the south of Pendle Hill, near Great Harwood, I am informed, are still looked upon by the vulgar as stones which have been hurled by giants from the surrounding hills. If we regard them as the "frost giants" of the Scandinavian myths, it is by no means an inapt personification of the gigantic force exhibited by iceberg or glacier action.
(Both quotations can be found in Hardwick's discussion in Traditions, Superstitions, and Folklore.)
Does any of this sound familiar? On the one hand we have scientists who have identified the rocks as glacial in origin, and on the other hand we have scientifically illiterate champions of the common man reasoning that if they don’t understand something it must be the work of powerful supernatural beings that vanished without leaving a single trace beyond the object they were invoked to explain.
Those ignorant English peasants are the direct forebears of today’s ancient astronaut and alternative history writers! Their “I don’t know; therefore, giants” is indistinguishable from today’s “I don’t know; therefore, aliens” (or Atlantis or lizard-people or whatever)!
Of course we have archaeology and geology to show us that the ceremonial landscape of Chetham’s Close was constructed by normal-sized Bronze Age people, whose tools and artifacts remain behind. So, with that knowledge we can see that the claims of giants operating in the area hold no water. But if stories of giants could pop up here where we can see how wrong they are, what right do ancient astronaut and alternative history writers have to give credence to similar medieval fantasies that places like Stonehenge were also the work of “alien” giants?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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