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Stonehenge – more from the Mike Parker-Pearson book

26 November 2012

There were some interesting buildings found near Woodhenge, situated on high ground overlooking the river Avon as it arched and twisted below. They appear to have been a tower and platform construct surrounded by a fence or palisade with wattle and daub added. What were they for?

This brings us to another problem, what happened to the dead? Some ended up in barrows of various kinds, and bits of cremated bone have been found regularly at Stonehenge – but this accounts only for a minority of the population. Presumably they were cremated and the ashes buried or scattered. Josh Pollard suggested the timber towers had platforms used for exposing the remains of the dead. Their bones would have been picked clean by crows, or by kites. Red kites can pick a dead cat or pet rabbit to pieces in a surprisingly short time, simply by leaving it somewhere in the open for the birds to spot. However, what then happened to the bones – did they end up in the river? Evidence for this should have survived, but apparently Environmental Agency rules disallowed archaeological exploration of the palaeochannel below Durrington Walls and Woodhenge. Heavy objects should have become wedged in the sediment and mud and survived – pots, bones, and stone implements etc. A restricted search on the very edge of the palaeochannel only brought forth a few burnt sticks and some worked flints. Thwarted by bureaucracy the archaeologists were undeterred and they went on to create a sequence of layers containing pollen grains, the bottom layers going back to the very early Holocene. This revealed a surprise – but not such a surprise in some quarters as even Oliver Rackham has tweeked his famous missive on the vast virgin forest that once covered almost the whole of Britain, it being recognised now that in the Mesolithic period there were open areas and these were added to by the actions of human hunters and browsing animals. What the pollen grains revealed was that Salisbury Plain was never thickly forested – but was lightly wooded, almost akin to wood pasture habitat. This may say something about Mesolithic human activity – but that would be speculation. It had beech trees and pine, hazel and oak, but was never dense. In the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, where Stonehenge belongs, it was largely devoid of trees and even shrubs. The vegetation at this time was dominated by grasses, sedges, and by marshy herbs in wet hollows and stream and river floodplains. It wasn't a lot different to what it is like today – but what caused the trees to disappear? We are faced by a somewhat chicken and egg situation. What came first – the first farmers or the disappearing trees. A similar situation can be found on the continent, where the migration of farmers is linked to evidence of burning landscape fires. What drove the early farmers to cross over to Britain – what impelled them? Was it the burning event, if that is what it was, or was it population pressure, over breeding. This is an aspect of catastrophism rarely addressed but it could easily gell with evidence of disruption and depopulation in other parts of the world.

Trees are known to have mysteriously disappeared in other quarters of Britain. On Cranford Chase, for example, just 20 miles south of Stonehenge, and subsequently occupied by early farmers. According to Francis Pryor, Neolithic farming in Britain was stock orientated. They grew grain but not in large quantities. They were pastoralists primarily and it wasn't until the Bronze Age that the pattern of farms and fields was laid out. That was after 2000BC. Previous to that, farming in Britain was much like the traditional manner in the west of the country, and across Ireland and Scotland. It was animal husbandry. Hence, when the early farmers entered the country they would have homed in on the chalk downland that stretches from Kent to Wiltshire, and East Anglia to Salisbury Plain, and their animals would have prevented the regrowth of trees and shrubs.

The study of snails also supports the idea that Salisbury Plain has for a long period been empty of trees. During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages the whole area around Stonehenge was not inhabited by wood dwelling snails. After the Ice Age the area was first colonised by birch and pine trees, in the so called Boreal climatic phase. During the mid Holocene Atlantic climatic phase, a warm period, there was light deciduous woodland – but it was light as opposed to thick as one might imagine Savernake or Epping forests. By 3000BC the open grassy plain was a fact of life – but of course, the odd tree will have survived, such as today. Woodland regeneration didn't happen on account of browsing animals and this led to the development of a distinct chalkland flora, mainly dwarf versions of common herbs that evolved as a result of the munching animal appetites. The first farmers arrived shortly before 4000BC and it is at this time we have evidence of landscape fires on the continent – assumed to be as a result of slash and burn. A similar event possibly occurred shortly before 3000BC as there is some evidence of depopulation at this time – or an increasing tendency to abandon grain cultivation in favour of stock breeding. 

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