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Monday, 3 July 2017

Pitts reflects on Stonehenge

 Salisbury Plain -- plenty of digging still to be done.......

Mike Pitts has published a long reflection on Stonehenge, on his blog called "Digging Deeper".  It has a strange title, and looks as if it is about Donald Trump, but it contains much of interest. You can find it here:

A lot of it is about the road / tunnel controversy (which I shall stay well clear of), and about the management of the site over the years, but there is a useful summary of the latest thinking on the early chronology, which is worth reproducing (with thanks).  Here it is:

The origins of Stonehenge are, appropriately enough you might think, a bit of a mystery. The puzzle is not one you will read about in guidebooks, or even much in academic research. It is a story that tells us much about how archaeologists think about Stonehenge.

You will hear often that the first structures, the beginning of the monument, are 56 pits (the Aubrey Holes) in a ring surrounded by a ditch whose chalk spoil is piled in banks on either side; the whole ensemble is about 100m across. The particular arrangement is unique, but what especially distinguishes it is what was buried in it: cremated human remains representing more people than found at any other such cemetery in prehistoric Britain. We don’t know exactly how many people (excavations early last century were not always well recorded, and part of the area has yet to be examined), but current estimates range from 150 to 240; there could be more. Like a Christian cathedral, right from the start death and burial were an important part of the meaning of Stonehenge.

So far so good. The way funerary remains were buried, scattered around the area almost furtively in small bags or boxes, seems to suggest that the ditch and the pits were not just repositories for the dead. If the ditch marked the edge of a sacred space, what of the Aubrey Holes? For long it was said they were just empty hollows dug in some lost ritual. Then 20 years ago, archaeologists decided they had supported large oak posts, and more recently it has been suggested they held not posts, but megaliths – bluestones, the site’s smaller stones from Wales. You can find archaeologists to back any of those theories; only new excavation is likely to offer a resolution.

The real puzzle comes when we ask, when did this happen? We cannot directly age an entirely prehistoric event, only certain things susceptible to scientific analysis. The best known technique is radiocarbon dating. With this we can estimate the age of bones left in the ditch, and then infer when it was dug. For obvious reasons, the best samples come from tools used in the quarrying, picks made from deer antler. These date the ditch to some time between 3000 and 2900BC – the figure we all quote for the start of Stonehenge.

But there is a complication. As well as the picks, the ditch contained a lot of old bones, some of them a century or more older than the tools apparently used to dig it out. Among them are a skull and two jaws from large cattle, buried by entrances into the circular enclosure; half a millennium before, in a different age when long burial mounds were being raised over uncremated bodies, we sometimes find such large cattle bones where we might have expected to see human remains. In three other cases Stonehenge bones dated to a century before the ditch are from cremation burials.

So we appear to have signs that Stonehenge was a place for the dead – shown by human cremations and great symbolic cattle heads – generations before Stonehenge existed. This is not a Stonehenge you will read about, because it’s not one archaeologists much talk about. It’s a ghost of which we know only of its apparent existence, and its association with the dead. Invisible for us, perhaps: but I’ll warrant it mattered at the time.

A lot happened in the eight centuries or more after the ditch was dug, architecturally at least, mostly involving big stones – look at the ruin today and imagine that restored in various permutations, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of it (naturally, there are many details that archaeologists do not understand). I tell the origin story, however, because of how it helps us picture the way we see the past. Almost everything that happened on Salisbury Plain thousands of years ago is unknown to us, like the ghost henge with no form. But we make a great mistake if we let our ignorance define what the past must have been like.

In 1805 William Cunnington, excavating furiously for his sponsor Sir Richard Colt Hoare, understood that the past was everywhere. Every mound he dug into, in every ditch and every backyard, he expected to find something – and usually did. That sense of an unlimited history, with a never-ending supply of new discoveries and information, was lost in the last century. Archaeology self-consciously shaped itself from a Romantic pursuit into a science. It dealt with evidence, not imagination.

Occam’s razor cut deep: relentlessly pursuing the simplest hypotheses about the past led to a gross over-simplification of what ancient societies were like, or were capable of achieving. It assumed that what you saw was all there was. At Stonehenge you gazed on a magnificent, sophisticated construction, but all around was a modern prairie: the stones seemed to spring from nowhere. Some archaeologists devoted themselves to excavating what they could of below-ground prehistoric remains, mostly burials, as ploughs and rotavators sliced into them. Others told the authorities there was nothing there to save. The losses were dreadful.

We have moved on, and thanks to the National Trust (and European Union grants) great swathes of downland have been returned to pasture, and what’s left of their archaeology survives. But the idea that what we see is what there was, has been harder to change. Every new discovery – and there have been many – is still greeted with astonishment. In the hands of the media every find rewrites history.


I think I might part company with Mike on how the scientific investigation of the site (which he refers to as Occam's razor) has led to "gross over-simplification"  -- the trouble with Stonehenge studies is that there has always been too much speculation and too much story telling.  That still goes on, and in my view there is far too little proper science being done on Salisbury Plain, not too much.  

 And who has assumed that what you see on Salisbury Plain is all there is?  Surely the history of research at a wide variety of locations shows that archaeologists in general are perfectly aware of the abundant secrets still hidden beneath the turf?

But I agree (to some extent) with this: 
Every new discovery – and there have been many – is still greeted with astonishment. In the hands of the media every find rewrites history.
Mike places the blame on the media.  I place the blame on the archaeologists themselves, who are so obsessed with "ratings" these days that they keep on making outrageous claims about the significance of their work.  They, after all, are the ones who write the press releases.


TonyH said...

Write - up by Pitts doesn't go back far enough. Try:-

Silent Earth blogsite - item entitled "10,000 - year - old monument".

And, as well as the Mesolithic post holes in or near the old car park, and Blick Mead Mesolithic site, David Field considers a mound within the Stonehenge monument to be Mesolithic too.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, perfectly reasonable to assume Mesolithic occupation of this landscape. We have talked about Blick Mead etc before, and whatever arguments there may be about interpretations, ritual significance of posts and post holes etc, the evidence suggests that Mesolithic people wandered around across most of Britain. Salisbury Plain might have been an attractive environment for them. I have no problem in accepting that "the first Stonehenge people" were Mesolitic or even Palaeolithic......

TonyH said...

Interesting firm riposte by the Director of the Blick Mead excavations, David Jacques, to claims that he hasn't disseminated information on his findings, nor received any back - up from other archaeologists and specialists:- go to D JACQUES 21.Oct.2016 3.03 p.m.

Strikes me that some fellow archaeologists were quick to send David to Coventry. They're a cliquey lot!