What does the new henge mean for Stonehenge?

Confusion at Stonehenge
Confusion at Stonehenge

Confusion at Stonehenge

I don’t know.

I think the cov­er­age at places like the BBC are good, David Gregory found it excit­ing and I thought his story was a good read. However there are too many details miss­ing from the reports to come to any con­clu­sions. That’s not a com­plaint about the cov­er­age, the mass-media isn’t an archae­olo­gical journal. It’s not even a gripe about pub­lic­a­tion by press-release because Mike Parker Pearson showed last year that news leaks out, so why not give the brief details out properly?

On the other hand the Birmingham team are look­ing at the land­scape and, from read­ing the reports, I’ve no idea where this new site is in rela­tion to Stonehenge. It’s almost cer­tainly in sight of Stonehenge, but then the land­scape round there is littered with bar­rows, Bronze Age burial mounds. The loc­a­tion will affect how we see the land­scape. This henge isn’t to be con­fused with Bluestonehenge, the site found by the river Avon near Stonehenge last year. It’s also not Woodhenge, des­pite being made of wood, because that’s a dif­fer­ent site near Durrington Walls, which is another site that has been in the news in recent years.

There’s not a lot I can say about the astro­nomy of this henge either. It could be aligned to the sum­mer sun­rise, but I can’t tell because the dia­gram doesn’t say which way north is. Also look­ing at the dia­grams, the stone circle seems to have entrances facing one axis and the tim­ber circle an entirely dif­fer­ent align­ment. In fact, the entrance to the wooden circle seems to be facing stones. To me, that sug­gests at least two phases to the monu­ment. I ima­gine that there’ll be some sort of test excav­a­tion along sim­ilar lines. If you want to take your time plan­ning an excav­a­tion it’s a very sens­ible idea not to flag up the loc­a­tion in the news.

Ground Penetrating Radar by Ben Urmston

Ground Penetrating Radar by Ben Urmston

The con­fu­sion that this find­ing is going to cause will be huge fun for Stonehenge watch­ers. The equip­ment they’re using is Ground-penetrating RADAR. This used to be rub­bish, some­thing you’d only use in an urban loc­a­tion where you got a good sig­nal, but as with everything involving a micro­pro­cessor it’s advanced massively. It means that there’s huge swathes of land where some com­pletely unex­pec­ted things will be found. In some­where as busy as the Stonehenge land­scape there has to be much more than this wait­ing to be dis­covered. It’ll raise some awk­ward ques­tions for archae­oastro­nomers, because des­pite there being align­ments will these newly dis­covered struc­tures have blocked the view?

The excit­ing thing about this work is that it shows not only to we not have all the answers, we don’t even have all the questions.

Photo credit: Ground Penetrating Radar photo by Ben Urmston.

Bateman’s Scars

Arbor Low. Photo © Google.

Arbor Low on Google Earth

Arbor Low is a Neolithic stone circle and henge in the Peak District. The henge is the bank and ditch arrange­ment with the bank on the out­side and is prob­ably the old­est part of the monu­ment. The cur­rent estim­ate is that it was built around 2500 BC. That’s a date that’s open to a lot of revi­sion as the last pub­lished excav­a­tion was 1901–2 I think. The stone circle could be as late as 2000 BC.

There’s some odd things at Arbor Low. For example the two entrances mean that the path through the henge runs in the same dir­ec­tion as the Roman Road built over two mil­len­nia later. That sug­gests there’s some pretty deep ideas about move­ment embed­ded with the land­scape. Excavations at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls have revealed pos­sible tim­ber posts and mul­tiple phases for build­ing, often much earlier and much more com­plex than pre­vi­ously thought. So why hasn’t any­one taken a mat­tock to the site for a cen­tury? One reason is money, but another can be seen on the east side of the monument.

Some time in the Bronze Age, a chief­tain looked at the henge and decided: ‘I’m hav­ing that.’ He gathered a lot of earth, quite a bit from the henge bank, and built a round bar­row to be bur­ied in. If a tomb is a machine for remem­ber­ing, then any­one who used the site after that would be reminded that here lay someone who as power­ful enough to take one of the biggest, most ancient, sites in the region and make it his. These days we’d call it van­dal­ism and egot­ism but because it happened over three thou­sand years ago it’s part of the rich pal­impsest of the land­scape. Yet his actions made him a tar­get for the future.

The Bronze Age barrow at Arbor Low

The Bronze Age bar­row at Arbor Low.

Around the eight­eenth and nine­teenth cen­tury anti­quar­i­an­ism came into vogue. People were becom­ing aware that there was a long pre-biblical past and one way of find­ing out about it was to crack open some of the many ancient monu­ments that littered the land­scape. The gentry would go out for a pic­nic at the week­end and watch, while the hired work would set about a bar­row with pick-axes, spades and shovels to see if any­thing was in it. Which usu­ally meant gold. There might be a few stone tools or bones, but at this time the pre­his­toric inhab­it­ants were thought of as crude sav­ages. Rather like the people out in the Empire that they were civil­ising. But some people took more of an interest, and one of these was Thomas Bateman.

Thomas Bateman was born in 1821, and was the son of an ama­teur archae­olo­gist. His interest grew and he joined the British Archaeological Association in 1843, where he saw how to dig a bar­row. The next year he dug almost forty bar­rows. In total he opened up over a hun­dred dur­ing his life. He used the tech­niques of his time. That’s why, since Bateman’s excav­a­tion, Arbor Low looks like someone thought what the place really needed was a giant earth­work hot-cross bun.

Bateman wasn’t a bad archae­olo­gist for his time. On the con­trary, he pub­lished his find­ings. Nevertheless he used the tech­niques of his time, and dig­ging deep trenches across the bar­row were an effect­ive way to get at the arte­facts and pot­tery. Stratigraphy, the idea that the lay­ers of soil overly­ing a site could reveal some of the con­text of finds, wasn’t really recog­nised until the work of Pitt-Rivers and Flinders-Petrie towards the end of the nine­teenth cen­tury. Bateman’s tragedy is that he had the tech­no­logy, but he worked before there was a bet­ter under­stand­ing of how to use it.

Modern archae­olo­gists are aware that not only do ideas change, but so too does the tech­no­logy. Bateman’s excav­a­tions could be called van­dal­ism, but he didn’t have the bene­fit of hind­sight. Archaeology often invest­ig­ates a site by des­troy­ing it, and that can only be done once. Today we have a per­man­ent reminder in the Bronze Age bar­row at Arbor Low, which still bears Bateman’s scars.

Foreground: The remains of Bateman's trenches across the barrow. Background: The interior of Arbor Low.

Foreground: The remains of Bateman’s trenches across the barrow.Background: The interior of Arbor Low.

Rock cut grave at Mycenae


Rock cut grave at Mycenae

Found a batch of old pho­tos on one of my hard drives which I’ll be upload­ing over the next few days. This is a tomb cut into the rock on the road up to Mycenae. This type of tomb lines the road on the way up, but unless you know what you’re look­ing for you’ll never see it. The tour­ist buses just whizz past them which is a shame because they’re really interesting.

They’re tombs that have been hol­lowed of from the rock. They have a pas­sage­way which leads down into the tomb, so you have an eerie feel­ing of des­cend­ing into the bowels of the earth. Inside there’s room for any­where between ten and thirty people to sit in the tomb. It appears that they were re-used over and over with new bod­ies being added and older bones swept to the side of the tomb.

Yet from the road, these days, the only clue that they are there is that you’ll find the veget­a­tion is some­what more lush. Because they’re so ignored they are also rather exclus­ive when you do get into one. If you feel over­whelmed by the crowds at Mycenae, then this is a nice antidote.

Time for a moratorium on Orion?


Life would be a lot easier if I could bor­row God’s paint­brush and cover up seven stars. I’ve been sent another inter­pret­a­tion of the Sky Disc of Nebra. This time the seven star cluster is the con­stel­la­tion Orion. The clue was that the three stars through the centre were not quite in a straight line.

Orion on the Nebra Disc?
Orion on the Star Disc of Nebra?

I’m not con­vinced.
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Britain BC by Francis Pryor


There is a prob­lem in archae­ology, which Francis Pryor neatly encap­su­lates in at the start of his book Britain BC:

Stories have plots and themes, and I have fash­ioned this book around what I think are the most import­ant. But inev­it­ably I have had to omit an enorm­ous amount of sig­ni­fic­ant mater­ial, simply because it fell out­side the imme­di­ate scope of the story. However Britain BC is not inten­ded to be a text­book, nor is it in any way com­pre­hens­ive. It’s essen­tially a nar­rat­ive – and a per­sonal one at that.

(Pryor 2004:xxvi)

It’s a prob­lem referred to by Campbell (1996), idea that pop­u­lar and schol­arly are polar oppos­ites. Ultimately it leads to the belief that if a text is writ­ten so as to be inac­cess­ible then by logic it must be highly schol­arly. If (by avoid­ing writ­ing a text­book) Pryor aimed to pro­duce an unschol­arly work he has, thank­fully, failed spec­tac­u­larly.
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