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Stonehenge Queries

12 March 2010

In Current Archaeology 241 April 2010, the ‘News’ section has a short piece on Stonehenge and the most recent discoveries, shallow banks and depressions within the henge earthwork. These may lead to a radical reappraisal of the site. For instance, one low bank has been dubbed the ‘north barrow’ as it appears to actually underlie in part the enclosing bank and ditch. That would mean it was the earliest earthwork on the site. This has therefore to be investigated at some point in the future as it might just be a natural feature – and the same goes for what is described as a mound or platform within the circle, a foot or so high but 16m in diameter. It is puzzling, but then once again might equally be a natural feature of the ground. We may also wonder why a succession of archaeologists missed the feature when it is clearly shown in 19th century sketches and water colours. In addition some archaeologist are now thinking the early history of Stonehenge might be somewhat different than the current orthodoxy. It may have started out as a ’causewayed enclosure’ earthwork which means it might have been contemporary with the Cursus – an earthwork faced with chalk blocks running along a ridge to the north and forming a perfectly white silhouette one and three quarter miles in length. I consulted my trusty copy of Aubrey Burl’s, Stonehenge: a complete history and archaeology of the world’s most enigmatic stone circle (Constable and Robinson: 2006), and found that Burl also wondered if the Stonehenge bank and ditch may have originally been created as a ’causewayed enclosure’ (Ch 4, page 110). However, such enclosures (and the Cursus monuments) belong to the Middle Neolithic period – in the centuries preceding 3000BC. The surrounding ditch appears to have been dug out in segments – in the format of an enclosure, and somewhat later the bits separating the segments were dug out in order to make a ditch and bank around the whole perimeter, the henge earthwork. Not only that, the segments were straight sections of ditch – not circular. Hence, the evidence is there to indicate an origin as an enclosure – but this means it must date earlier than 3000BC (derived from C14 dates from antler picks used to dig out the circular ditch). Burl even mentions the site may have been abandoned for a long period of time as there is evidence of denudement of the ditch – but would this refer to the enclosure or the henge? At 3000BC the focus of the site was towards the lunar oscillations from major to minor. Why the moon should have been an object of interest to people at that particular moment in history is unknown – but Paul Dunbavin, in Under Ancient Skies (available from the SIS book service) may supply the answer.  

There is a distinct contrast between early 3rd millennium BC and middle 3rd millennium BC. At this time the stone circles were being arranged (and rearranged) and the four station stones, ignored by archaeologists for a very long time, were set up to find the centre of what was to become the sarsen circle and trilithon horseshoe (Burl). The diagonal alignments of the four stones are intriguingly towards Beltane (May Eve) and Samhain (when things go bump in the night). Both are fire festivals. In addition, the Midsummer and Midwinter sun rising and setting points began to play the prominent role as far as the general alignment of the site is concerned. The foci of Stonehenge is towards the east – over the whole span of it’s history. This is self evident from the number of burials and cremated remains found on the eastern side of the earthwork – in the banks and ditch. None appear to exist on the western side of the earthwork and therefore a connection with the rising Sun on it’s annual path from the NE to the SE is assumed to be the main attraction. However, burials and cremated remains can be found as far as due north and due south in the earthwork which implies that the east as a whole was being factored. If that was the sky it means the night was the foci – as the sun set in the west and the heavenly bodies appeared first in the east. The only question is what might they have been looking at? One explanation is provided by the various articles published in SIS journals from  MM Mandelkehr – see back issues on the Book Service page.

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