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Some interesting archaeology news-bites

5 December 2011

At www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/dec/04/bronze-age-archaeology-fenland/ … the Cambridgeshire fens have preserved some archaeology intact for 3000 years. Some six hollowed out oak trunks (boats), textile fragments, wicker baskets, and wooden sword handles have been preserved in the peat. How? Well, they are described as beneath a deep layer of peat and silt – and the silt might be a clue. They must have been buried quickly as they are preserved so well, and how this might have happened is explained by where they were found – beneath an old watercourse along the southern edge of Flag Fen basin. It had been swamped by rising sea levels causing rising river levels causing the Fens to become much moister. The finds were actually so deep, as a result of continuous peat growth, there would have been no chance of discovering them. It came about as a result of brick clay diggings – a big industry in the Peterborough area. It exploits the Oxford Clay deposits, a thick band of clay going back to the Jurassic era and in a band that runs right across the country from Cambridgeshire to Weymouth in Dorset. In other words, strata that came after the Jurasssic are excavated in order to get to the Oxford clay (which is particularly thick near Peterborough). In excavations they came across the archaeology, and the brick company is to be commended for bringing in the archaeologists, realising the importance of what they had hit upon, inadvertently. What has been revealed is life on a river bank in the Bronze Age, and the site is barely touched – there is more to come. There are boats, weirs and fish traps, and items of everyday chores as well as votive offerings – swords and spears that had apparently been thrown into the river at some point in the past. Even a bowl of gruel was found, with a spoon still in the bowl.

At www.archaeologyinmarlow.org.uk/2011/02/the-enigma-of-silchester’s-ogham-… is a piece that tells how in 1893, during excavations at the Roman site of Silchester, near Reading, a stone with an ogham inscription was found, tossed down a well. This script is mostly known from southern Ireland, Pembrokeshire, the SW Peninsular, and the west coast of Scotland, areas associated with the spread of Early Celtic Christianity. The problem is that the ogham stone, or the well and other contents, has been C14 dated to AD400 – somewhat before it could have arrived by missionary means. It is supposed that it was brought across by an Irish trader and that ogham inscriptions may have begun under the druids – but the question is open.

At www.archaeologyinmarlow.org.uk/2011/01/986/ … there is a piece on Baalbek, and a description of the Roman period Temple of Jupiter. It then mentions that under this temple is the remains of an earlier one, probably dedicated to Baal. The three biggest stones of this temple foundation and base are the largest building blocks ever used by humanity – some 70 feet long and 14 feet hight, and 10 feet thick, weighing over 800 tons each – which can be compared to the mere 40 ton stones as used at Stonehenge. There is no reliable way of dating these huge blocks of stone – and no way of knowing when and who built them (but see Velikovsky on this). They were cut out of a nearby quarry, just a quarter mile distant. Here there are two further stones, both weighing over 1000 tons. Were they just too big to move – and what else lies beneath the ruins of the Jupiter Temple. Like Stonehenge, the stones are said by locals to have been moved by giants, or magic. Note … Peter Jupp has a video on the Baalbek Temple and its great stones.

Finally, we go to Stonehenge once again – see www.archaeologyinmarlow.org.uk/2011/01/966/ … there are some important points made – and further ones in 2011 could be added to the brew. For example, the ditch and banks around the Cursus, currently dated to somewhat late in the 4th millennium BC, and Bluestonehenge, around 3000BC, may actually date from the end of their useful lives – not from their beginnings. What does this mean? Are they part of a closure ritual, an end to a particular context, in similar fashion to the closure of Mayan sites. The mound and ditches around monuments, and the henges, are set out quite differently from, shall we say, hill forts. The latter have the bank on the outside, suggesting a defensive structure, but henges and monuments tend to have the banks on the inside – trying to keep the insides locked in, or protected from outside interference. Obviously, this would mean that what was inside belonged to the period before any dates obtained from the ditches or banks. Something like this is suggested by those megalithic tombs, such as West Kennet Long Barrow, where the entrance was blocked by large stones and rubble, or Early Neolithic monuments that are discovered buried beneath mounds of earth. So, what does this mean for the Stonehenge Cursus – what was it all about if it wasn't the bank and ditch that surrounds it. One clue may lie in the two pits recently discovered in the 2011 geophysics survey. 

Another big surprise was the discovery in 2008 of two parallel  natural chalk ridges with an orientation, we are told, towards midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, the actual alignments of Stonehenge itself. So, was Stonehenge sited where it was to take advantage of this natural feature. In 2010 a further chalk ridge was found by ground penetrating radar, and like the others it too presumably has an origin in the Ice Ages (I'm currently trying to establish a geological explanation for the feature) or melt-water run-off. Why does the Avenue appear to follow the ridges closely – before veering off to the left towards the river and Bluestonehenge. A little way upstream is Durrington Walls, a site with a simply enormous ditch and bank feature – does that have the same meaning, a closure ceremony after a huge feast involving young pigs (or is there evidence of repeated feasting at the site?) 

Another big mystery of Stonehenge and its environs is the role of the river, and the distinctive meandering shape as it bends and weaves towards Durrington Walls – is this not a bit like the Bend in the Boyne and the Irish tombs of Newgrange and Knowth (and other monuments). What might the river represent in the minds of the Stonehenge people? One idea is that it mirrored a river in the sky, in a clear analogy with the Nile in Egypt below the Giza plateau, representing, it is thought, the Milky Way – but in a catastrophist context virtually any kind of phenomenon associated with the sky. 

In addition, the geophysics survey found another henge, known provisionally as Ghosthenge (as it went unseen for so long). This was found not far from the Cursus. In addition, there was the discovery of the Stonehenge Hedge, blocking the view of the stone circle from onlookers. Why?

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