Episode 9: Dawn of the Head

Throughout history we have attributed worth and sentiment to inanimate objects, things that when looked at out of context or without the language to understand their worth would otherwise appear completely insignificant.   At one end of the scale it may be something as small as a trinket, a memento of a happier time, or something to remind you of somebody you love. 

At the other end, it may be an idol that for some might represent the material embodiment of nothing less than a god – but to another might seem nothing more than a strange looking doll.

It is a trait we develop from an early age as explored by celebrated psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. 

During his early work as a pediatrician, Winnicott became fascinated with the various blankets and toys that children, mainly aged 4 to 12 months, would bring to his consultations.  What he discovered was that these items rather than being mere distractions or comfort aides, were actually serving a far greater purpose.  The objects in fact provided a bridge between the inner world of the child and the external, outside world, thus beginning the transition of separation from the mother in order to develop its own identity.

In other words, even at that early stage we are already imbuing physical things with our own unique sense of meaning. 

The branch of philosophy known as phenomenology as explored by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger posits that all reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in the human consciousness, and not of anything independent of human consciousness.  In its simplest form it explains why one person might look at their nation’s flag and feel pride and affection, while another looking at the exact same thing might identify it with far more negative connotations. 

But what of those objects that seem not to conform to the vagaries of the human conscious.  Objects that, some might say, seem to have a power all of their own…

In June 1971 the presenters of the BBC children’s show Blue Peter buried a time capsule into the ground at BBC’s Television Centre in West London.  300 miles away, in the small northern town of Hexham two young boys were digging up their own time capsules of sorts.  What they found exactly has never been fully explained. The discovery of the objects, now known as The Hexham Heads, would set off a chain of extraordinary and strange events that have never fully been accounted for.  It is a truly astounding mystery that remains to this day unexplained.

It began one afternoon roughly half a mile from the town centre of Hexham, as two young boys were out playing in their garden.  The Robson family had only recently moved and were still settling into their new home at number 3 Rede Avenue.  As spring finally turned to summer and with oldest daughter Wendy away on honeymoon in Scotland, the Robson’s took the opportunity to conduct a spring-clean of the property.

11 year old Colin Robson and his younger brother Leslie had volunteered to tidy up the garden, their mother Jenny watching from the kitchen window as they set about tackling the overgrown vegetation.  At some point Colin wandered to the back of the garden and began pulling up the weeds when he came across something very strange buried in the ground. 

The object, spherical in shape and just smaller than a tennis ball, was larger and different in texture to the normal stones you might expect to find in the area.  Colin sensed immediately that there was something peculiar about it, a feeling that was justified when after clearing the mud from the surface he uncovered what looked like a face carved into the stone. 

Colin called his brother Leslie over to have a look. A short time later, after some further digging, Leslie found his own tennis ball sized stone.  Wiping the mud from the surface, sure enough, he too found a face carved into the rock.

After giving the heads a proper clean, the boys proudly showed off their discovery to the rest of the family.  The strange heads appeared to be made from a sandstone-like material, the faces seeming too distinct to have been made by natural erosion. 

They had an appearance like two grotesque dolls heads, the first one known as ‘the boy,’ had hair etched into the head an open face with wide set eyes and a long nose.  The other, had a far more severe look, and has been described as having a ‘strong beaked nose’ and wild bulging eyes. It would later be known as ‘the witch.’

Excited by their find, the two boys gave the heads pride of place on a shelf in the living room and headed off to bed. The next morning however, something strange had occurred. The heads had moved. Having been positioned to face one way, the boys discovered that they now seemed to be facing out the window toward the spot where they had been buried.

And things only began to get stranger.  Certain objects in the house started to break with no reason, a bed belonging to the youngest daughter was showered one evening with glass forcing her to move out of her room.

Oldest daughter Wendy returned from her honeymoon to find the family in a heightened state of anxiety. Believing the boys to be playing tricks, Wendy determined to put an end to the nonsense and promptly hid the heads under the top end of her bed.  The following morning they had moved again to the other side. A few nights later the Robson’s were awoken by screams coming from next door… 

The property was rented by the Dodd family.  That night, Nellie Dodd, the mother of the family had been staying in her children’s bedroom to comfort her young daughter Marie who had been suffering from an ear infection.  After finally getting to sleep, she was woken by her ten-year-old son Trevor. He told his mum that something, or someone had been pressing on his legs as he tried to sleep.

Nellie calmed her son and put him back to bed.  Some time later, Marie was awoken by a noise.  She woke up her mother who immediately sat upright in bed, as there in front of her stood a creature with the torso of a man but the head of a ram.  When they screamed in terror but the creature was unmoved, eventually turning out of the room before disappearing down the stairs.

Nellie was so traumatised by the incident that she applied to Hexham Council to have the family relocated, the request was shortly after agreed.

Meanwhile, the Robson’s continued to experience a number of strange phenomena.  A mysterious glowing light had started appearing at night at the end of the garden in the place that the heads had been discovered.  Later an unusual flower grew grown up from the same spot.

Eager to put an end to the strange occurrences, the Robson’s took the heads to Hexham Abbey where they were later passed to archaeologists Roger Miket and David Smith of the Newcastle University Museum of Antiquities.

The two academics were unconcerned by the reported hauntings and only too happy to take possession of the peculiar stone objects. Miket was particular enthused by the discovery, believing the heads to be of Celtic origin and despite not being specialised in this area, he knew just the person to help.

Dr. Anne Ross, a well-known Celtic scholar from Southampton University was at the time best known for her book The Pagan Celts and Pagan Celtic Britain. After being sent a photo of the heads by Roger Miket, Dr. Ross confirmed his hunch, agreeing that they were indeed Celtic in origin.  Eager to learn more, Ross requested the heads be sent to her at Southampton to be analysed.  A few days later the heads arrived at Dr. Ross’ office.

Opening the package Dr. Ross was instantly gripped by a strange sensation. It wasn’t anything particular, just a very base sense of unease.  Nonetheless due to a number of work constraints Dr. Ross had little choice but to take the heads to her home to examine them further. 

A decision she would soon come to regret. 

Two nights later, Dr. Ross awoke suddenly at 2am in a fit of terror.  A deep chill was in the air as Anne looked towards the door where a tall dark figure over six foot in height and appearing as if to be made of shadow, was slipping out of her room.  In her confused state, the figure seemed to Dr. Ross to be part animal and part man.  Overwhelmed by an irresistible force, Dr. Ross rose from her bed and followed the strange creature form her room.

She followed the sound of it to the landing and again caught sight of it moving towards the kitchen.  Seeing it more clearly now, the upper part of its body was unmistakably that of a wolf, it’s back covered in a black fur, while the lower half seemed to be that of a man. Terrified she ran back to the bedroom and woke her husband, archaeologist Richard Feacham. Together they searched the house but found no sign of the intruder.

A few days later, Dr. Ross and her husband had been visiting friends in London.  When they returned they were shocked to find their daughter Berenice deathly pale and incapacitated with fear.  Barely two hours before they had returned, Berenice had come back from school to find something dark and inhuman standing on the stairs.  It was the black furred creature returned again. 

Startled by the girl the creature had run at her, vaulted over the banisters and dropped down to the corridor below before vanishing in front of her eyes. Richard and Anne tried their best to calm their daughter down and made an immediate search of the house but again found no sign of the intruder.

Unaware that the hauntings may have been connected to the heads, Dr. Ross shortly after received the results of the composition analysis.  The tests, conducted by her colleague Professor Frank Hodson failed to confirm the age of the artifacts. However after performing a visual and petrological analysis, Hodson declared the heads to be made ‘from sandstone with hints of lime coating and some applied colour pigments’.

The results seemed to confirm Dr. Ross’ theory of the heads’ Celtic origins.

Back at her home, Dr. Ross began to notice a cold presence in the house arising at random times throughout the day.  On more than one occasion doors would burst open unaided, other times the family would hear the familiar sound of something leaping from the bannister to the floor below, as if landing on its hind legs.

After conducting a lecture on Celtic heads at Newcastle University, Dr. Ross was introduced to the Dodd family.  Unlike Miket and Smith, Dr. Ross was profoundly moved by the Dodd’s story regarding the strange part man-part animal creature they had witnessed, not least because her family had been experiencing the very same thing.  It was clear to Dr. Ross that the heads were cursed, believing that in all possibility the garden of 3 Rede Avenue had once been home to a Celtic shrine.

Before long the strange tale of the heads was national news with Dr. Ross insisting on their Celtic origin and attesting to the peculiar hauntings that seemed to accompany them.  She had even gone as far as to compile a report of her theory, which had been due to be published in volume 1 of the journal Archaeologia Aeliana.

In her report Dr. Ross calculated the heads to be around 1800 years old and that they were indicative of the Celtic cult of the severed head.

Renowned Greek and Celtic art scholar Paul Jacobstahl describes how the head to the Celts was ‘venerated above all else since the head to the Celt was the soul, a symbol of divinity and the powers of the other world.’

After battle Celtic tribes were infamous for decapitating their enemies and placing their heads on spikes to be displayed on the outskirts of their settlements or sometimes even nailed to their doors.

Although the strange events had yet to be accounted for, it would seem at the very least the Heads had been granted a genuine historical context.  But then something extraordinary happened. 

Shortly after Dr. Ross compiled her findings, a man contacted the Newcastle Evening Chronicle claiming to have valuable information pertaining to the origins of the mysterious Hexham heads.  His name was Des Craigie. A lorry diver and life long resident of Hexham, Craigie, it turned out, was also a former resident of no. 3 Rede Avenue. 

He claimed to know about the heads because he had made them 16 years previously.  Telling the press, ‘I made the heads from bits of stone and mortar simply to amuse my daughter Nancy.’

Des Craigie’s admission was a surprise to say the least and for Dr. Ross the sort of revelation that could end a career.  Undeterred she published her report in 1973, and demanded Craigie provide proof of his claims, challenging him to make the heads again, a challenge that Craigie was only too glad to take on.  

However, having provided the press with examples of his handy work, many failed to see any significant resemblance to the original models casting doubt on the veracity of his claims.

For Dr. Ross’ her accounts of the events that took place at her home in Southampton never wavered, nor did that of her daughter and husband.  And more to the point, the hauntings had continued regardless.  Convinced that the stones had brought something evil into her home, Dr. Ross finally had them sent back to the Newcastle Museum of antiquities.  At which point the strange occurrences ceased immediately.  Saying herself, ‘it was as if a cloud had been lifted.’

The following years saw the heads pass between a number of different parties. They were retested again, this time by a Dr. Douglas Robson of Newcastle University.  His report offered a somewhat different result to the Southampton analysis, concluding the material from which the heads had been formed was in fact ‘an artificial cement’, a material ‘unlike any natural sandstone’.  Although the results cast doubt on Dr. Ross’ theory, a precise date for the objects remained tantalisingly out of reach.

In 1977 the heads passed into the possession of Don Robins, a controversial chemist whose book the Secret Language of the Stones posited an extraordinary theory.  It was his belief that ancient stone circles such as Stonehenge or the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney had unusual magnetic energies attached to them and that the Hexham Heads may too hold similar properties, affecting anyone that came near them.

It is a theory that came to prominence in 1961 having been first proposed by archaeologist and Cambridge University graduate Thomas Charles Lethbridge.  After graduation, Lethbridge worked for 35 years as Keeper of Anglo-Saxon Antiquities at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.  However as his theories and methods became more and more unorthodox, Lethbridge faced mounting criticism from many of his peers. In 1957, Lethbridge left the museum and turned his attention instead to researching paranormal phenomena.

Skeptical of the traditional understanding of ghosts, Lethbridge proposed an explanation no less extraordinary.   It was his belief that certain minerals were capable of retaining information given off during a particularly emotional or traumatic event, information that could then be replayed much like a cassette tape recording. The idea became known as the Stone Tape Theory.  Could it be that the Hexham Heads had retained some kind of ancient information that was merely being replayed over and over again?

In 1953, Harry Martindale - an 18 year old heating engineer, was working in the basement of Treasurers House, in York in the north of England.  The house had been erected in 1562 as the primary residence of the Archbishop of York but had since been taken over by the national trust in the 1930s. 

In an effort to modernise the building, Harry had been sent to begin the process of installing a new central heating system.  After a few hours work, Harry became aware of a distant noise that sounded like a trumpet.  The fanfare grew louder until much to Harry’s horror a head wearing a plumed helmet burst from the wall, followed by the rest of the body, along with a cart horse and what looked like nine Roman soldiers. Curiously all the apparitions had been cut off at the knee. 

The terrified Harry fell from his ladder and scrambled into the corner of the room to hide.  Harry was so shaken by the event that he required two weeks off work to recover from the experience.  Any attempt Harry made to recount the story met only with derision.  That was, until it was discovered that not only had a Roman road run through the exact spot where the cellar was located but that it would have been placed 15 inches lower than the cellar, which would explain the missing lower legs.

His description of the soldiers was later found to be perfectly in keeping with what would have been expected of soldiers from that time.  Despite regular retellings of the event, Harry’s story never changed and neither did he ever profit from it.

Is it possible that Harry had witnessed some sort of recurrence of a past event, played out from the very stone the Roman soldiers had walked over all those years ago?  Although the theory has been roundly dismissed in academic circles the theory did however lend itself to an incredible TV play, broadcast on the BBC in 1972.  Written by Nigel Kneale, The Stone Tape is a masterfully creepy combination of science fiction and horror that I can’t recommend highly enough.

So what then of the Heads and the extraordinary half man half animal visitations explained by three separate families neither with any knowledge of each other’s experiences?

In the winter of 1904, just outside the village of Allendale, something strange was brewing.  The village, located only a few miles from Hexham lies in the thick of the North Pennines, a sprawling mass of rolling hills, dark browns and greens.  One morning as a soft orange sun began to rise, a veil of mist crept over the land while out in the field a young farmer was inspecting his flock of sheep.  The farmer was surprised to find that at least two of them were missing. After a quick search of the field he came across a distressing sight.  On the ground before him, were the shredded remains of two sheep carcasses.  One having been stripped of its bowels while the other had been completely devoured with only its head remaining.

A later inspection of the remaining flock revealed a number of contusions and scrapes about their necks and legs.  The farmer recognised immediately the tell tale signs of a wolf.

A few days previously, Captain Bains, a local dignitary, had reported the escape of a grey wolf that belonged to him.  The coincidence was quickly dismissed since the wolf in question was only four and half months old and incapable of inflicting such damage. A hunting party of over 150 people was quickly assembled and duly set out in search of the mysterious beast.  After days of searching no sign of the animal was found and the incident was forgotten.

But then, on Wednesday December 14th, another local farmer awoke to find a great number of his flock had been slaughtered and left to rot in the fields.  The wolf was back.

The hunting party, now numbering 200, resumed the search and continued throughout the winter to hunt in vain for the creature.  A renowned pack of hunting dogs known as the Haydon Hounds were also put on the trail but seemed unable to find any scent. 

In a fit of desperation, like something from a Hollywood movie, a skilled hunter was hired to take down the wolf.  The cocky Mr. Briddick, who had spent many years in India tracking and killing game, vowed to catch the animal through as he put it ‘scientific lines’.  But he too was unable to find the culprit.

Shortly after New Year’s Day, 1905, the corpse of a wolf was discovered on a railway track some 30 miles from Hexham, it’s body brutally torn in two by a train.    The Wolf committee however was adamant that this animal could not have been the same responsible for slaughtering all those sheep.  The real culprit was still at large.

By the end of January, the spate of attacks appeared to be over and the search was eventually called off.  Now known as the Allendale wolf, might this mysterious creature hold the key to the sightings of Dr. Anne Ross and the Dodd family?

Don Robins, who had taken possession of the Hexham Heads in the late 70s is thought to have leant them to a man named Frank Hyde who specialised in the ancient practice of dowsing.  It was Don’s hope that Frank might be able to determine once and for all whether these strange artifacts possessed any paranormal properties. But then, Frank Hyde disappeared.  As Robins later noted Hyde seemed to have vanished as completely as if ‘he had walked into a fairy hill in a folk tale’.  Neither he nor the heads have ever been seen again.

Whatever you come to believe, the bizarre story of the Hexham Heads is certainly not without intrigue.  And perhaps most interestingly, as Paul Screeton notes in his book The Quest for the Hexham Heads, maybe the real power came not from the objects themselves but rather the people that handled them.

Whether the heads were Celtic in origin, or nothing more than crude playthings for a young girl there is no denying their presence exerted a very real effect on those that came into contact with them

Much like the fabled ring in the Tolkien ring trilogy, the weight of meaning projected onto the heads, be that from the time of the Celts or merely later on, was enough in itself to generate extraordinarily physical reactions, leaving a trail of confusion, fear and mystery in their wake.  

It is a sheer testament to the human imagination, which in a sense renders any question of their provenance completely irrelevant.

© Richard MacLean Smith





1.    Compilation of Hexham Heads resources, https://hexhamheads.wordpress.com/

2.    The Urban Prehistorian (2014), The Hexham Heads Part 1, theurbanprehistorian.wordpress.com, https://theurbanprehistorian.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/the-hexham-heads-part-1-the-discovery/

3.    The Urban Prehistorian (2014), The Hexham Heads Part 2, theurbanprehistorian.wordpress.com, https://theurbanprehistorian.wordpress.com/2014/11/26/the-hexham-heads-part-2-tested-and-contested/

4.    The Urban Prehistorian (2014), Drive thru Henge, theurbanprehistorian.wordpress.com, https://theurbanprehistorian.wordpress.com/author/balfarg/page/4/

5.    Hexham Heads Wikipedia page, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hexham_Heads

6.    Clarke, D. (2012), Heads and Tails, drdavidclarke.co.uk,  https://drdavidclarke.co.uk/2012/12/22/heads-and-tales/

7.    Clarke, D. (2012), Twilight of the Celtic Gods, drdavidclarke.co.uk,  https://drdavidclarke.co.uk/2011/03/20/twilight-of-the-celtic-gods/

8.    Clarke, D. (2011), Celtic Curse Tested, drdavidclarke.co.uk, https://drdavidclarke.co.uk/2011/05/04/update-on-campaign-to-protect-celtic-shrine/

9.    Andrew (2012), The Curse of the Hexham Heads?, paranormal-encounters.com, http://www.paranormal-encounters.com/wp/the-curse-of-the-hexham-heads/

10. Boothman, N. (2005), The Wolf of Allendale/The Hexham Heads, taken from Fortean Times published on mysteriousbritain.co.uk,  http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/england/northumberland/legends/the-wolf-of-allendale-the-hexham-wolf.html

11. Laycock, M. (2014), Famous Ghost Witness Harry Martindale Dies, yorkpress.co.uk, http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/11559578.Famous_ghost_witness_Harry_Martindale_dies/

12. Treasurer’s House Wikipedia entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treasurer%27s_House,_York#Roman_soldier.27s_appearance

13. Thomas Lethbridge Wikipedia entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Charles_Lethbridge

14. Nicholls, L., Cunningham-Piergrossi, J., de Sena-Gibertoni, C., Daniel, M., (2012), Psychoanalytic Thinking in Occupational Therapy, John Wiley and Sons: UK