Stonehenge

Spurred on by last week’s announcement of the new henge at Stonehenge, I was encouraged to finish this article that I have been working on for some time. I know that people are saying that the new “Ghosthenge” is the most exciting discovery in 50 years – but, fabulous though it is, I don’t even feel that, with so much happening at Stonehenge, that it is even the most thrilling development (or henge ) found there in the last two years!

There has been an astonishing amount of new thinking, with dramatic finds that have revolutionised the concept and timelines behind Stonehenge. Many cherished beliefs have been proved wrong. The landscape is alive with prehistory.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge, thanks to Jeff Griffiths for the photo

But first why is Stonehenge even there?  In 2008 they discovered two parallel natural chalk ridges whose orientation – by pure chance – aligns accurately to the midsummer sunrise in one direction and the midwinter sunset in the other.  This was confirmed, and a third equally-spaced ridge was found, last year using ground-penetrating radar.  The stone circle and cremation enclosure were built at the end of this natural phenomenon. The avenue was build right next to it.  This has to be why it was there!

But going back to the very beginning – the first known structure at Stonehenge was erected over three thousand years before the well-loved and iconic trilithons. Gigantic postholes (typically they are under the car park!) date back around eight thousand years. The landscape has, almost undoubtedly, been a major important religious site ever since. Incidentally, this gives the lie to the belief that hunter gatherers were not monument builders – it predates farming in the UK by several thousand years.

The Stonehenge, landscape
The Stonehenge landscape

In 2008 a re-excavation of one of the ring of 56 Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge found 60 cremation burials.  They had originally been dug by in the 1920s but, because cremated bones were considered of little value, they were simply dumped.  However, at the very bottom of the hole was an undisturbed layer of chalk with a patch of crushed chalk caused by the weight of a standing stone. The 1920s excavator’s diary shows they originally believe the holes held small standing stones which had been removed.  Unfortunately, after hearing about some huge postholes at Woodhenge, the excavator changed his mind.

Another major feature of the local landscape is Durrington Walls, a henge built over the remains of a substantial Neolithic settlement. This site had always been thought to be several hundred years earlier than Stonehenge, but the new dating evidence means they are contemporary! (dating of within two generations is secure at the 95% certainty level).

I had always believed that the current theory that Stone is associated with death, and Wood with life was somewhat fanciful, (it was based on analogy with primitive tribes in Madagascar). But, when you look at the possible hundreds of cremations at Stonehenge, without no signs of food preparation or feasting, and compare that to the 80,000 pig and cattle bones found at Durringtom Walls with no traces of human death, then it may not be so fanciful after all! Indeed, only three pieces of human bone have ever been found at Durrington Walls.

The pig remains are particularly important. Analysis of erupting teeth showed that the pigs were around nine months old when they were killed. And that puts the feasting not at mid-summer but at the mid-winter solstice. So the hippie and “Druid” invasions may well be at the wrong time of year! And, as no younger cow or pig bones have been found, it implies the animals were brought in explicitly for the feasts.

map
Stonehenge, thanks to Jeff Griffiths for the photo

Yet other surprise come from the fact that the ditches around the Cursus and Bluestonehenge, seem to date from the end of their lives, not as always thought, the beginnings.  So perhaps they are some form of ancient ritual that signifies the “death” or “ending” of the sites?  Surprisingly this ties in with a strange concept that the mound and ditch of a henge might be defensive.  Unlike a hillfort’s outside ditch, a henge’s inside ditch hadn’t been thought to work defensively, but it does if you are trying to keep spirits in, not people out!

Durrington Walls landscape map
Durrington Walls landscape map

Another major feature of the local landscape is Durrington Walls, a henge built over the remains of a substantial Neolithic settlement.  This site had always been thought to be several hundred years earlier than Stonehenge, but the new dating evidence means they are contemporary! (dating of within two generations is secure at the 95% certainty level).

I had always believed that the current theory that Stone is associated with death, and Wood with life was somewhat fanciful, (it was based on analogy with primitive tribes in Madagascar).  But, when you look at the possible hundreds of cremations at Stonehenge, without no signs of food preparation or feasting, and compare that to the 80,000 pig and cattle bones found at Durringtom Walls with no traces of human death, then it may not be so fanciful after all!  Indeed, only three pieces of human bone have ever been found at Durrington Walls.

Another major feature of the local landscape is Durrington Walls, a henge built over the remains of a substantial Neolithic settlement.  This site had always been thought to be several hundred years earlier than Stonehenge, but the new dating evidence means they are contemporary! (dating of within two generations is secure at the 95% certainty level).

I had always believed that the current theory that Stone is associated with death, and Wood with life was somewhat fanciful, (it was based on analogy with primitive tribes in Madagascar).  But, when you look at the possible hundreds of cremations at Stonehenge, without no signs of food preparation or feasting, and compare that to the 80,000 pig and cattle bones found at Durringtom Walls with no traces of human death, then it may not be so fanciful after all!  Indeed, only three pieces of human bone have ever been found at Durrington Walls.

The pig remains are particularly important.  Analysis of erupting teeth showed that the pigs were around nine months old when they were killed.  And that puts the feasting not at mid-summer but at the mid-winter solstice.  So the hippie and “Druid” invasions may well be at the wrong time of year!  And, as no younger cow or pig bones have been found, it implies the animals were brought in explicitly for the feasts.

Ghosthenge
The new so-called “Ghosthenge”

And lastly, what about the two new discoveries: Ghosthenge and the double circular hedge that has recently been found around Stonhenge itself?

Well the geophysics image above shows that Ghosthenge has two entrances on the north-east and south-west sides, with a circular burial mound on the inside which seems to be much later.  There is a ring of pits about a metre wide going all the way around the edge and it probably dates to the time when Stonehenge was emerging at its most complex.

And as to the newfound hedges?  – well perhaps Monty Python and the knights who craved a shrubbery, were not so far off the mark after all!
By Gerry Palmer

2 thoughts on “Stonehenge”

  1. The idea that Stonehenge is associated with death, or indeed a funerary monument is indeed speculative. In fact it’s the oldest explanation we have – an idea originally penned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th Century! We should have moved on by now.

    Is it really surprising that we find cremation burials casually scattered within the fill of the surrounding ditch and in the Aubrey Holes? Some 500 years lapsed between the cutting of the ditch and the arrival of the massive sarsens (it was during this period that the cremated remains were deposited). The fact that one of the cremations dates to around the time of the building of the iconic Stonehenge is hardly convincing evidence for the structure itself being a monument to the dead. By the time the massive stones were raised people were being buried under barrows in the surrounding landscape. The recent headlines declaring Stonehenge to be a monument to the dead or even worse ‘a cemetery’ are at best misleading.

    1. I think that the point is less that Geoffrey of Monmouth speculated on a relationship between Stonehenge and death, but that Prof. Mike Parker Pearson and the Riverside Project found evidence supporting the association. This lifts the idea above other, more speculative, theories. The fact that such a large-scale project found no evidence for the celebration of life at Stonehenge, agrees strongly with, (but doesn’t prove), the death-relationship.

      If you combine this with the overwhelming evidence of “life,” i.e. celebration and feasting, at Durrington Walls, which they – surprisingly – found to be exactly contemporary with Stonehenge; then the story of life and death associations becomes even stronger. The two clearly had to be parts of a single overall landscape monument.

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