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.

Bookmarks for 16th of November through to 18th of November


These are my links for 16th of November through 18th of November:

  • The Academic Journal Racket « In the Dark
    Telescoper explains how aca­demic pub­lish­ing works. The only thing that would improbe the post would be the theme from ‘The Naked Gun’ in the background.
  • A Case in Antiquities for ‘Finders Keepers’ — NYTimes​.com
    You can make argu­ments in favour of repat­ri­ation of antiquit­ies. You can make argue­ments against. Being on either side doesn’t make you inher­ently fool­ish. But when you write that the British Army took the Rosetta Stone from the French and “returned it to the British Museum” then some­thing has gone wrong. It’s prob­ably a case of moment­ary brain­fade rather than idiocy, but it mat­ters because the whole ques­tion of own­er­ship of the Rosetta Stone is about where it right­fully belongs. Using the word ‘returned’ builds in the assump­tion that all antiquit­ies are inher­ently British.
  • Notes & Queries; Sledges — Theoretical Structural Archaeology
    Geoff Carter con­cluded he didn’t have evid­ence for a stag­ger­ingly early cart shed in Poland. Could it have been a used to house a sledge? I’ve just real­ised I know abso­lutely noth­ing at all about the his­tory of sleds and sledges. Not only that, but I can’t recall much atten­tion being called to them in early pre­his­toric archae­ology other than when people want to talk about mov­ing mega­liths to Stonehenge. Yet Martha Murphy (guest blog­ging) shows there’s plenty of ques­tions to ask about neo­lithic transport.
  • British bank turns to treas­ure hunt­ing via @johnabartram
    Avast me hearties! Robert Fraser & Partners be scourin’ the high seas in search of booty. They be fundin’ Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. ter search the Caribbean fer Spanish gold. Arrr!
  • CRM Problem in Cadboro Bay « Northwest Coast Archaeology
    More on the prob­lems of pre­serving her­it­age in BC. Ancient buri­als have been scooped out of the ground, <em>after</em> an archae­olo­gical assessment.

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.

Stonehenge Decoded?


I saw it and it was like the Curate’s Egg, good in parts.

The big idea is some­thing Mike Parker Pearson has been push­ing for a long while. Stonehenge is a place for the dead, and import­ant in funer­ary rites. I’ve been wary of this. An astro­nomer thought it was a giant obser­vat­ory. A Gynaecologist recently pub­lished it was a birth canal. It’s no great shock to dis­cover that a spe­cial­ist in buri­als thinks it was asso­ci­ated with buri­als. What marks out Mike Parker Pearson’s work are two key differences.

One is that he’s been patiently gath­er­ing data to sup­port his idea. While not always strongly suc­cess­ful, he’s not really had a major prob­lem with the data for­cing him into spe­cial plead­ing. The second is that his ideas explain a lot more than Stonehenge and actu­ally say some­thing use­ful about British soci­ety in the 3rd Millennium BC.
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Newgrange and the Astronomy of the Dead

Entrance to Newgrange pas­sage tomb. Photo (cc) Sophie Robson.

One of the prob­lems with archae­oastro­nomy is that it’s quite hard to find an archae­olo­gical site where you can be cer­tain astro­nomy was import­ant. Even Stonehenge is prob­lem­atic. A lot of people think it was related to sun­rise or sun­set at one of the sol­stices, but there’s no cer­tainty as which one. Some people argue that it’s the mid­winter sun­set which is import­ant at Stonehenge and the align­ment towards the mid­sum­mer sun­rise is a happy acci­dent of geo­metry. As for other mega­lithic sites it’s often impossible to show that an align­ment wasn’t due to chance. Statistical ana­lysis of many align­ments cer­tainly show pref­er­ences for astro­nom­ical tar­gets, but all archae­ology is local and who is to say that, at any spe­cific site, the res­ult wasn’t due to chance?

Newgrange, a pas­sage tomb in the Republic of Ireland, is one of the most com­pel­ling sites — if you want to demon­strate an interest in astro­nomy in the pre­his­toric British Isles. It is the strongest argu­ment for an interest in astro­nomy, but at the same time one of the strongest argu­ments against read­ing ancient astro­nomy as an ancient sci­entific research pro­gramme.
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Prehistoric rice farming and modern consequences

Paddy fields
Rice fields. Photo (cc) mack­aysav­age.

I’m mak­ing a note of this because I missed it when I was on cam­pus today. There’s a report in Nature on the dis­cov­ery of the earli­est dam­ming in pre­his­toric China. From the Register-Guard:

Stone Age Chinese began cul­tiv­at­ing rice more than 7,700 years ago by burn­ing trees in coastal marshes and build­ing dams to hold back sea­wa­ter, con­vert­ing the marshes to rice pad­dies that would sup­port growth of the high-yield cer­eal grain, research­ers repor­ted Thursday.

New ana­lysis of sed­i­ments from the site of Kuahuqiao at the mouth of the Yangtze River near present-day Hangzhou provides the earli­est evid­ence in China of such large-scale envir­on­mental manip­u­la­tion, experts said.

This is inter­est­ing because the trans­ition to farm­ing is an inter­est­ing sub­ject, but Neolithic Chinese farm­ing may us some­thing about Global Warming accord­ing to palaeo­cli­mato­lo­gist Bill Ruddiman.
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Archaeologists peer inside Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill

The shafts in Silbury Hill are to be re-opened and archae­olo­gists are going to enter the engimatic monu­ment for the first time in around forty years. One of the reas­ons why Silbury Hill is so enig­matic is that it wasn’t built with any shafts — which is the big prob­lem on the site.

In fact there’s pre­cious little known about Silbury Hill. It’s the biggest pre­his­toric monu­ment in Europe, being about 30 metres high and 160 metres across. It’s more or less con­ical, so it looks the same shape from any dir­ec­tion and built from earth.

Silbury Hill Silbury Hill from Avebury car park

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