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Mike Parker-Pearson and Stonehenge

30 November 2012

Returning to the recently published book by Mike Parker-Pearson, leading archaeologist of the Riverside Project – see earlier posts – we may note a specific tie in with the Euan Mackie posting earlier today. The site of Durrington Walls, upriver from Stonehenge, included a set of houses that are an exact replica of the Skara Brae stone houses, but in wood rather than stone, the ones that Mackie theorised resembled a monastic assemblage with a common cooking facility. In other words, they were not houses for families, farmers, or labourers, but a group of houses for an elite, resembling the later druid tradition (and foreshadowing the Celtic church and it's monastic settlements). Mike Parker-Pearson does not foresee a connection between Stonehenge and the druids – they are separated by at least a thousand years, possibly two thousand years. He even goes so far as to say Iron Age people avoided Stonehenge and Avebury as if it was associated with an obsolete belief system, or some kind of taboo – but is this justified. In the story of St Patrick the Arch Druid is specifically associated with a megalithic site and the druids appear to have used stone circles – at Gorsedd for example. Perhaps evidence of Iron Age people at stone circles is lacking but Wainwright and Darvill found plenty of evidence of a Roman presence at Stonehenge – in fact they may even have converted it into a Roman temple.

On that basis it is worth keeping an open mind when reading anything on Stonehenge. In chapter 13 it becomes clear that most earlier books on Stonehenge are now out of date – which means several volumes on my bookcase. What the Riverside Project has done is show where earlier excavation went wrong – or misinterpreted the evidence.In fact, lots of stuff in text books is now out of date. Atkinson, for example, although he eventually worked with Thom quite amicably was in the earlier stages of his career quite put out by astronomical theories. He saw the Aubrey Holes as a refilling, like ritual libations that were made in pots at entrances to the Underworld, resembling the Classical Greek model that he presumably learnt at school.  Hawley, on the other hand, a character that I am beginning to like, was sure most of the cremated bones were included irreverently in the initial filling of the pits and disturbed somewhat later. Newall and Young, between the World Wars, collected four sandbags full of cremated bones from Aubrey Holes and not knowing what to do with them tipped them all back into Hole 7. This was dug up again by Mike Parker-Pearson and his team, much to his annoyance at their poor archaeological methodology. He also found some fresh cremation burials in the vicinity of Hole 7 – missed by Hawley and others. Hawley had dug 30 cremations from a variety of Aubrey Holes which also produced over 400 hammer stones and over a 1000 chippings from bluestones and sarsen. This is the bit that is not adequately explained, why chippings of sarsen if they were being used several centuries later as bigger and more prominent than the bluestones. Some of the cremated material had already been inserted after the holes had been vacated by what seems to have been stones. These were rearranged, it seems, in another configuration. Is it still clear that stones were inserted in the holes, as early as Parker-Pearson alleges? Seems like other ideas might emerge to dispute this idea. However, hammer stones and chippings are found as packing material wherever stones are placed in holes and require to be sat up straight and erect. In other words, the earlier cremated bone, according to this theory, was also used as packing material. It may be that they were reused material that would throw some of Parker-Pearson's C14 dates out. Anyway, keeping in the spirit of the book, he notes that hammer stones were cobble shaped stones used to pound the surface of stones in order to dress them – but why was this happening in 3000BC? Digging down to the bottom of Hole 7 it was clear Hawley had not entirely cleaned it out – which may simply mean he left a bit of the detective work for Parker-Pearson, having satisfied his own curiosity. Anyway, the new investigation of Hole 7 found some undisturbed rammed chalk contiguous with a stone being in the hole. It was depressed as a result of the weight of the stone. Not a big stone like a sarsen, but a smaller stone such as one of the bluestones. Here we encounter a bit of guesswork, resting on what was found in Hole 7 and expanded to include all 56 Aubrey Holes. I think it is a good deduction and Parker-Pearson is justified, and not only that, his clarity of thought throughout the book is self evident. What he has done is overturn the ideas of people like Atkinson – but as we have learnt, Atkinson failed to write-up his train of thought and how he arrived at his conclusions, his work becoming muddied by his unwillingness to present it in a coherent written form, possibly because he was unsure which way to jump. Parker-Pearson adds that from the size of the holes, and not just the crushed chalk at the bottom of Hole 7, it is clear they could not have housed great big lumps of sandstone (sarsen). Hence, it seems likely that Stonehenge began life as a stone circle – of bluestones. Where the bluestones originated is clear, the Preseli Mountains in west Wales, but how they got to Stonehenge, in the period immediately following 3000BC, is less than certain – and not the subject of this post. The fact there were 56 of them and the nature of the number 56 in plasma behaviour either as a result of a massive CME or as a result of an inter change between a closely approaching body such as a comet, an electro magnetic side kick so to speak, is something to bear in mind, but no doubt other explantations can readily be suggested in opposition to the catastrophic theme, and this aspect is again beyond the thrust of this post. These stones, it seems, were at a later stage incorporated into a different scheme, a rearrangement involving a bluestone circle and a bluestone horseshoe, currently C14 dated somewhere between 2300 and 2000BC. This rearrangement actually involved, it would seem by the number of holes, some 80 bluestones (or their equivalent) which implies another 24 came from somewhere else, possibly the small stone circle found at the bottom of the Avenue, by the side of the river Avon. Another, currently unknown stone circle near Stonehenge may have been the source of the missing 24 stones. Now, this is where it all becomes ambiguous as Mike Parker-Pearson is still stuck in his mindset of 15 years previously, when he co-wrote an article in which he thought Durrington Walls was a place of the living but Stonehenge was a place of the dead (influenced by his archaeological activities in Madagascar). Now, Stonehenge is in Britain, in the land of the druids, and Madagascar is many miles distant. In a review of his book in the journal Northern Earth Bob Trubshaw, a noted folklorist and author of some interesting books on the subject, makes the point Parker-Pearson has not changed his tune for some 15 years – saying nothing new in spite of everything he found during the Riverside Project. The idea Stonehenge was a prehistoric cemetery or a place of the dead, simply because of 68 cremations, and a projected figure including the unexcavated parts of Stonehenge of no more than 150 cremations, does not imply it was associated with the dead. Any medieval church or cathedral, he says, could have more than 60 burials under the floors of any of them, quite apart from the graves in the churchyards. Churches are not places of the dead but places of worship. Therefore, the real purpose of Stonehenge has not been found – it is as simple as that.

However, the fact cremated bones occur at Stonehenge, and at the Orkneys site too, means that burial was at least one part of what went on there, or how people disposed of the dead. In general, prior to 3000BC people were left to decay or were laid out for birds to pick and the bones were deposited in long barrows (one point of view). We have no way of knowing if this was applied to an elite rather than the general populace – and we have no idea of how Mesolithic or Palaeolithic people disposed of their bodies. After 3000BC it seems that cremation became the fashion, but inhumation or burial became the in-thing after around 2300BC (with all those round barrows and beaker burial equipment and paraphinalia). Now, Stonehenge obviously does not accommodate all the remains of humans – just a few of them. Were they the remains of the elite or of sacrificial victims? There is some evidence to suggest bodies were left to decay on platforms and the bones were subsequently deposited in rivers – such as the Avon. Obviously, this is an archaeological story of the future – after river bed sediments have been picked clean with trowels. For the moment it is all speculation – including the idea people treated the dead with respect. The fact that cremated bones were used as backfill or as material rammed down to keep stones upright seems to imply otherwise – but the great and the good have always kept their nests tidy.

To be continued as there is lots more to comment on in this book.

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