In the second feature in our mini-series on Stonehenge, Roy Goutté asks… Is the blatant over-publicising of anything remotely connected to Stonehenge justified, or making archaeologists look foolish?
Stonehenge as it appears today
Throughout the UK, to many people, there are dozens of equally important sites if you happen to live in their areas, but they are, on the whole, totally overlooked compared to Stonehenge. Funding for research and excavation is always a problem with them it would seem, while, on the surface, the impression is that anything within five miles of Stonehenge has archaeologists crawling all over them. Sure it pays for itself and is the UK’s premier cash cow, but is the sheer hype and constant publicity it draws to the detriment of serious archaeology. Year in and year out, last year’s claims of what it was and what it was used for are swept aside as yet another fantastic claim is made and ‘proof’ provided for it. And year in and year out we have to ask ourselves what happened to the previous year’s ideas and proof that countless media articles covered and often sensationalised?
It’s been a Temple to worship the Gods; an Astronomical Observatory; a Prehistoric Calendar; a Centre for Healing; a Site for Ritual Feasting; a Circular Graveyard for the Elite and recently a Monument of Unification, bringing together people from across the many parts of Britain and just about anything else that had the slightest whiff of possibility about it.
It has been roofed by some; totally rejected of ever being so by others… and yes, you guessed it… they were all experts! Oh and I mustn’t forget, it was also claimed to have been a Mecca on Stilts!
It was considered a place of healing in certain quarters because the bluestones were seen as having therapeutic qualities. The buried remains of the so-called Amesbury Archer discovered in 2002 was lauded about to bolster up that belief by the media because the poor chap had a kneecap missing and had such an apparent serious bone infection that it became his reason for being there. It was speculated he was a pilgrim making his way to Stonehenge to be healed. Well if he ever did make it to the henge then his journey was in vain it would seem as no healing was evident!
The whole landscape around Stonehenge was then dragged into this media frenzy that it really was a place of healing because many of the other poor devils buried around and about also showed signs of life-threatening ailments, wounds or injuries. But you see that just about everywhere in Bronze-Age burials and not just near Stonehenge! It was, as is often the case when it comes to Stonehenge, pure over-reaction and speculation but a great story nevertheless!
We have got to accept these days that next year another theory provided by yet another expert will come to light and in all probability the following year yet another, so, is Stonehenge in danger of burning itself out, or to finally become a Centre of Ridicule?
That will hardly be surprising after the claim was made that Mesolithic Wiltshire men and woman dined out on ‘frogs’ legs after the charred remains of a single 8,000 year-old toad were discovered at Blick Mead near Amesbury just a mile from Stonehenge. Yes that’s right, a single toad, not a vast pile of their bones discovered in a midden heap or buried in a ditch. Even Sherlock Holmes would have required more proof than that before reaching that conclusion surely!
Recently reported would you believe, is a suggestion that ‘Stonehenge’ was once built in Wales but moved to Wiltshire 500 years later making the Stonehenge we all know and love, second-hand! No actual solid proof mind you just speculation again, but before long and until shown to be otherwise, will become yet another ‘fact’.
We’ve already had the ‘roofed’ idea but now here’s another which I rather like, having a background in the construction industry. Architect Sarah Ewbank believes that the stones could have possibly once been the supports for a two-storey timber built roundhouse, a venue for feasting, speakers and musicians, and gives a good account of herself with some well thought out ideas and excellent scaled plans and drawings which the following two links amply demonstrate here and here.
All of this just goes to prove that even after all these years we are still fishing in the dark and to be honest, often making fools of ourselves along the way. The words ‘enough is enough’ spring to mind as the cost of all these studies, investigations and excavations over the years must have mounted up into multi-millions of pounds, yet the dozens of other sites of equal interest to others in various parts of the UK are simply waved aside when it comes to funding for research and excavations. While we are supposedly finding out everything there is to know within a five mile radius of Stonehenge, those other parts of the country, with a few notable exceptions, remain a complete mystery in comparison. This can’t be right surely.
‘Firsts’ are claimed every other month, thus making the area appear to be even more special than it already is, but we have no idea if that is true or not because those other areas are not being investigated with such fervour. A false picture could quite easily be building up!
When visitors from all over ask what Stonehenge was built for, they are, on the whole, asking what was the monument we see stood before us today built for, not the first of the three accepted stages of build in total starting around 3000bce. As there was then a 500 year gap before the second stage was started, shouldn’t the first build be seen as the most important and the one we should be concentrating our thoughts on and not what followed which is an entirely different thing altogether in my opinion?
To be considered a ‘stage’ it suggests there was a blueprint in use taking it through to what we see today. If the second stage had followed the first almost immediately, then I can well see the builders working to a blueprint, but not after a 500 year gap I can’t.
According to English Heritage, the first ‘structure’ consisted simply of a circular ditch and bank …the earliest known major event was the construction of a circular ditch with an inner and outer bank, built about 3000 BC. This enclosed an area about 100 metres in diameter, and had two entrances. It was an early form of henge monument.
Within the bank and ditch were possibly some timber structures and set just inside the bank were 56 pits, known as the Aubrey Holes. There has been much debate about what stood in these holes: the consensus for many years has been that they held upright timber posts, but recently the idea has re-emerged that some of them may have held stones. Within and around the Aubrey Holes, and also in the ditch, people buried cremations. About 64 cremations have been found, and perhaps as many as 150 individuals were originally buried at Stonehenge, making it the largest Late Neolithic cemetery in the British Isles.
I personally doubt the theory that some stones may have once stood in the Aubrey holes as packing stones would most certainly have been found in them but the words ‘Late Neolithic’ give you a clue as to why the ‘second stage’ and the introduction of a proven stone structure then appeared …and it had nothing to do with a continuance of the first stage or its use which would appear to have been purely for funeral practices being a graveyard.
This was the ‘crossover’ period leading into the Bronze-Age and life and beliefs began to change in the southern part of Great Britain from a more nomadic way of life to a more settled and peaceful time with the arrival of the Beaker people from the Near East. We were on the cusp of leaving the Late Neolithic and entering the Bronze-Age and all that came with it. With their arrival the newcomers not only brought their way of life with them but also their beliefs. The meaning and use of the original ‘Stonehenge’ which, without a shadow of a doubt must have been a very, very special place and highly venerated was brushed aside just as the church was to later build over Pagan sites to Christianise them, so Stage 1 suffered the same fate!
Something similar was happening at Avebury just 20 miles away to the north. The West Kennet Long Barrow was closed down and the enigmatic Silbury Hill was rising up to challenge its influence from the valley below. One belief was being swept aside to make way for another.
The times they were a changing…and fast. Different time, different people, different purpose. Stonehenge as we see it today was on its way with just one main question remaining for that time …why was Stage 1 sited where it was?
Seek and you will find.