On a wet and windy Saturday, I explored Thor’s Stone on Thurstaston Common, Wirral.

IMG_20190727_122713This distinctive natural Sandstone outcrop is the Wirral’s equivalent of Dartmoor’s tors which were perceived by some antiquaries as monuments created as pagan altars. IMG_20190727_122736What makes this natural feature is that its purported association with pagan rites was:

  1. very late, and not formed in the 17th, 18th or early 19th centuries, but instead being first proposed in 1877 by J.A. Picton,
  2. rather than afforded a link with ‘Celtic’/’British paganism, the site’s pagan ritual attribution was part of a Victorian fascination with Old Norse paganism on the Wirral, related to the historical, place-name and archaeological hints of Hiberno-Norse settlement on parts of the Wirral peninsula from the early 10th century AD.

To my knowledge, there is no archaeological evidence for early medieval activity on this part of the Common. Proximal to Thingwall, argued by some to be derived from Old Norse ‘assembly field’ (þing vollr), the ‘Thor’ place-name for the settlement most likely derives from an Old English place-name incorporating an Old Norse personal name: ‘the settlement of Thorsteinn/Þorsteinnen) (I think this qualifies for what place-name specialists call a ‘Grimston hybrid’ place-name, an OE suffix and an ON preflix: these are found widely in the Danelaw). So while the nearby presence of at least some Old Norse-speaking people in the Early Middle Ages is likely, and there persists an association between Norse paganism, large isolated rocks and both religious worship and judicial assembly in the popular imagination, an association with Thor and indeed any connection to Viking-period gatherings of any kind is completely erroneous.

IMG_20190727_122417Rather than validate an archaeological association, by including it on the Megalithic Portal, this free resource serves a valuable purpose in dispelling the misinformation about what remains a distinctive and evocative natural feature.

Footfall and graffiti render Thor’s Stone an eerie topography of 20th and early 21st-century popular walks and recreation. For some, this renders it an eyesore, for me: well, I am both disturbed and fascinated by the scale of the contemporary attention.

The sides and top of the rock are uniquely smoothed surface by climbers, peppering with an intense palimpsest of names, initials, numbers and conjunctions carved into the soft rock. These are combined with the wear of thousands of climbs whose paths to the summit have worn foot-marks and deep notches, wearing away the very graffiti some of the climbers are making. So there are two competing human processes of erosion at work, in addition to wind and rain, each slowing chipping away at this natural monument. Each renders it an alien landscape and a distinctive cultural landmark in a fashion that it probably never was in the Early Middle Ages. In rain, it is particularly distinctive as the smoothed rock surface glistens. Camp fires are also being lit in the naturally sheltered crevices upon the summit. In short: it looks like a giant pink-red unbrushed and pitted molar!

Moreover, it is not just Thor’s Stone that receives this treatment: almost all of the exposed rock surfaces along the ridge are subject to this treatment. This is an entire landscape of football erosion and graffiti with the Thor’s Stone as its focus.

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Indeed, around the highest point of the Common, where there is a monument that perhaps deliberately evokes a Dartmoor or Bodmin Moor rock stack, there is plenty of graffiti too.

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Is this because people on Wirral are particularly keen to carve their names into the natural rock in a fashion that people elsewhere do not? Certainly not: it’s just that the soft sandstone makes it easier for them to do so and a ready surface for inscription, whilst granite and other harder rocks elsewhere (say: Yorkshire, the Peak District or the South West Peninsular) it takes greater effort. The rocks of Tintagel, for example, have received a similar treatment by tourists since the 19th century. Indeed, elsewhere, more elaborate and formalised interventions have and do take place: most recently there was controversy about a sea cliff being used this way at Tintagel, but examples go back to the 19th century, including the The Commandments on Buckland Beacon. So my point is that this graffiti perhaps as much an inheritance of Victorian tourism as the erroneous place-name and Old Norse association and the erosion counters it to a degree.

Hence, I’m ambivalent about this graffiti and erosion from climbing. At one level it it testimony to contemporary place-making and informal popular memorialisation in the same fashion as coin trees and love-locks and therefore it interests me as an archaeologist. It also has a weird messy beauty of its own.

Yet I’m torn in my feelings, since on another level, it upsets me to see the scale of the damage to the natural landscape as it is as much an arrogant imposition onto the place as much as littering and dog crap: and similarly these are the marks of a small minority of visitors: not everyone. Moreover, there’s no doubting the fact that this practice was most likely started by the Victorians, and surely fostered by its association with Thor: so academics are collectively culpable for it. Hence, despite the lack of evidence linking this striking rock to Thor, I’m half-tempted to (a) promote the systematic recording of the graffiti, which itself is part of the life-history of this natural monument and (b) to start a campaign gain the Thor’s Stone recognition as a real sacred site of Norse heathenism in order to curb the practice. You’re not allowed to do this to Stonehenge anymore, so why here?