Monday, 11 March 2013

Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons

I was all agog for the big Stonehenge prog on C4 last night. I always love to guess what things we've known for ages will be presented in a portentuous voice as earth-shattering facts that "will turn our current understanding upside down." But first up, I presume that Prof Brian Cox wasn't available. I'm guessing if Prof Parker Pearson was in a 1980s pop group, it was probably Genesis? He constantly looked worried - as if aware of how thinly his research was being spread. He's probably a good archaeologist, whose sensible research got a bit - well, sexed-up, I guess.

So, I can't be bothered to summarise the programme. Instead let me approach this via the via negativa:

We already knew Stonehenge wasn't all built at once, in what would be the "present" arrangement if most of it hadn't fallen down. We knew the bluestones were erected first, in a wide circle, which was later dismantled  and rearranged within the sarsens. But then we've known this all for years.

We already knew that people were buried at Stonehenge. That's why there are neo-pagans protesting about the "ancestors" being removed for research.

We also already knew that the contents of the Aubrey holes were dug out by Col Hawley, and all the remains - including human remains - dumped in "graves". If anything, the programme was kind to Hawley's memory - he was a dutiful plodder who wasn't even the one who guessed about the Aubrey holes (that was his assistant did that), and just dug - relentlessly and largely pointlessly, destroying the archaeology - for years.

If you say evidence of Orcadians at Stonehenge shows a "pan-British" culture, while evidence of someone from the Alps at Stonehenge means an invasion, you don't know how far Orkney is from Salisbury. (Not as far as the Alps, but far enough). And you've recast the past in the shape of the modern political situation.

Stonehenge as cemetery, solar observatory or temple is not an either/or/or proposition. In the same way that an English medieval church is a burial place, aligned on the sunrise, and a place of worship.

A change of burial practice does not necessarily mean an invasion. Otherwise, archaeologists in 3,000 years will wonder what invasion caused 20th Century Britons to change from burial to cremation, and guess it may have been the "Tesco" culture that brought it about.

Men and women have been known to be part of the same religious communities - right up to the English Middle Ages. Hannington in Northamptonshire had a nice example, still reflected in the architecture of the church.

Mind you, barbecued pork ribs are nice. I'm glad we got that cleared up.

And, in passing, I've a suspicion that we're missing the whole point of Durrington Walls. It's clear now that the reason the Ancient British spent two months a year there, drinking, feasting and celebrating, was not that they broke off occasionally to put up Stonehenge. No. Clearly, taking advantage of the opening-up of communications routes, they got a bunch of Eastern Europeans to do that while they kept partying. The Amesbury Archer wasn't Swiss - he was a Slovak.


  1. "(Not as far as the Alps, but far enough)"

    As I'm sure Burton would remind you, there is not much in it. According to Google Maps, Stonehenge to Kirkwall is 713 miles in 13 hours 30 minutes, and Stonehenge to Mont Blanc is 741 miles in 11 hours 3 minutes, both including a sea crossing. Of course the builders of Stonehenge wouldn't have been able to make use of the superiority of French autoroutes over Scottish twists and turns. But I know which journey I would prefer to do by foot, and boat.

  2. Just remembered Google also gives walking directions. On foot Mont Blanc is only 615 miles, but I think that excludes the sea leg, but Kirkwall is 658 miles. Sorry, Orcadians, you are the foreigners at Stonehenge.


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