Visiting Stonehenge and Purchasing Spirituality

Drunk man standing on a stone at Stonehenge acting like an arse.

I’ve remembered it’s com­ing up to that day again. I went to Stonehenge for the sol­stice once. I’m glad I went, but I doubt I’ll go again. There were a couple of big disappointments.

One was the lack of a vis­ible English Heritage pres­ence. There were an estim­ated 20,000 people there who wanted some con­nec­tion to the past. I would have thought that was a good tar­get audi­ence for EH. At the very least there’s money to be made with the Solstice 2012 t-shirts to be sold. The offi­cial sol­stice blankets for those who for­got to bring one, sol­stice kagouls and umbrel­las for when it rains and so on. It’s also an excel­lent time to attempt guilt-tripping people into join­ing EH to sup­port access to ancient sites. They might have trouble with this last one as they’re not known for sup­port­ing access to Stonehenge on the sol­stice, but it’d be worth a try. The impres­sion I got (rightly or wrongly) was that EH had aban­doned the site for the night.

Drunk man standing on a stone at Stonehenge acting like an arse.

A rev­el­ler wel­comes the arrival of lager and, pos­sibly, the Sun.

The other was the sheer mess around the site. Everyone got a bag as they went in for their rub­bish. It doesn’t have to look like this. After all the fight­ing over access in the 1980s and 90s, is this a place people come are they here to cel­eb­rate or to conquer?

On the plus side I got a les­son in the dif­fer­ence between mod­ern Pagans and New Agers. The Pagans ten­ded to look dig­ni­fied and patient. Quite a few had their cere­mo­nial robes on, but not all. The easi­est ones to spot were those who’d let their beards down for the night.

In con­trast the New Agers were laden with mys­tical kit, and were often very purple. They’d looked agit­ated and annoyed. Every time someone elbowed in the ribs, she’d be wear­ing a pointy hat as if to com­pensate for the clothes she was wear­ing would ideally be on someone taller. There’d also be a purple scarf and purple jumper hid­den beneath at least half a dozen medal­lions. I should have heard them com­ing with the vari­ous eso­teric bangles and brace­lets they were wear­ing.
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If your Stonehenge theory is nonsense, is mine rational because it’s not yours?

Revellers at the solstice in Stonehenge
Revellers at the solstice in Stonehenge

Sound at Stonehenge

I’m cur­rently work­ing with a group of blog­gers on a site to be launched some­where in the next few months. I’m not sure where yet. One of the fea­tures of the site is an informal rule that we won’t com­ment on news till at least seven days have passed from mak­ing the head­lines. There’s a couple of reas­ons for this.

We’re all busy. Chasing the news is work and takes time. If we get stopped before we can fin­ish it could be a while before we pick up the story again. In the mean­time hot news has become old cold news and the key points have already been said a dozen times by every­one else. The post gets spiked and the time is wasted. Intentionally plan­ning for a longer cycle changes how you approach a story and gives you not just the story to ana­lyse but also the reac­tion too. In the case of the Stonehenge acous­tics story the reac­tion is more inter­est­ing than the base story itself.

As a reminder Stephen Waller presen­ted a talk at a meet­ing of American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver. In it he pro­posed that the design of Stonehenge was related to aud­it­ory inter­fer­ence pat­terns between the sound of two flutes being played. Andy Burnham points out the obvi­ous prob­lem in his com­ment.

Waller rigged two flutes to an air pump so they played the same note con­tinu­ously” OK, fine, so how on earth is this rel­ev­ant to the prac­tic­al­it­ies of an ancient soci­ety? In order to get strong, static can­cel­la­tions in the sound you would need equal and unvary­ing sound pres­sure levels from each instru­ment, and for the sources to be from the same two points in space. How pre­cisely would two flute play­ers do this in prac­tice without an air pump? ie hav­ing to take breaths and carry on this trick for any length of time. This is utter nonsense.

Andy Burnham is pretty much gold in this thread. In reac­tion to the idea this sound could be achieved by cir­cu­lar breath­ing, he also adds:

I don’t thin cir­cu­lar breath­ing is the answer — it’s pretty dif­fi­cult on low res­ist­ance wind instru­ments such as the flute. Didgeridoos and such­like won’t exhibit this effect — you need a high fre­quency pure tone — as close to a sine wave as pos­sible — ie a flute. Bagpipes wouldn’t work either, unless someone inven­ted some sort of ‘flute bag­pipes’. A reedy bag­pipe sound is rich in har­mon­ics. The har­monic fre­quen­cies from the two instru­ments won’t cre­ate stand­ing wave can­cel­la­tions in the same places in space as the fun­da­mental tones, so you won’t get same strong can­cel­la­tion effect. And as I said you also need two fixed amp­litudes and closely fixed point sources for the effect to work.

Sound is a dif­fi­cult sub­ject for archae­olo­gists. Flutes or pipes seem likely, as to drums, but the closest pre­his­toric musical instru­ments, that I know archae­olo­gists have found, are lurs from Denmark. These date to around the 8th cen­tury BC and sur­vived because they were bronze, not organic mater­ial like wood or bone. You can see them in the logo for Lurpak but­ter. It’s been a while since I’ve read about this, so I’d be sur­prised if there weren’t now some­thing older known. There are a couple of can­did­ates for bone flutes that are older, this is the most prom­ising arte­fact, but I don’t know how widely accep­ted they are yet.

Even though there’s scant evid­ence for music in the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Isles, it’s an odd leap to say it didn’t exist. Music in some form seems to be a con­stant in human soci­ety, so this is where a min­im­al­ist approach breaks down. But it’s not just musical instru­ments that are miss­ing. I sus­pect a lot of Stonehenge is miss­ing too.
Bits of it have broken off and it’s easy to spot where stones were miss­ing but refilling these gaps, as many recon­struc­tions do, doesn’t go far enough for me. The stones are the skel­eton of Stonehenge. We don’t know if they were the whole body. We do know that the skel­eton was a lot of work. The hard sar­sen stones are craf­ted like wood, with tenon and mor­tice joints. Archaeologists cur­rently believe that the blue­stones were trans­por­ted from far Wales. In light of this what else would have been at a liv­ing Stonehenge?

If you visit places of wor­ship in mod­ern times, there’s a bit more than stone. There’s wooden seats, often dec­or­ated rather than plain. The walls are painted, win­dows often dec­or­ated. It’s not unusual to find holy books n plush vel­vet cush­ions and tex­tiles dyed in strik­ing col­ours draw­ing the eye here and there. We also know tex­tiles were used in Neolithic and Bronze Age times. So after the thou­sands of man-hours shap­ing the stones, how likely is it that Gareth turned to Shane and said: “That’s that done. No point in wast­ing time dec­or­at­ing it with tartans or drapes. That’ll just be tedi­ous and gaudy.”?

Once you add tex­tiles into Stonehenge the acous­tic and visual prop­er­ties change. There are many argu­ments that “If you look out of this gap you can see this star,” but you can’t if Blodwyn’s nifty eth­nic rug is in the way. As sci­ent­ists archae­olo­gists need a min­im­al­ist model of Stonehenge as a found­a­tion to build on, but this min­im­al­ist model is an unfin­ished work. It’s a tool to build an idea of what Stonehenge looked like on. If you’re going to say that it’s the fin­ished model and we don’t need tex­tiles, then all recon­struc­tions should show any­one there naked because there’s no evid­ence for the clothes people wore there either.

As Andy Burnham poin­ted out, Steven Waller’s approach misses the prac­tical use of Stonehenge by ancient peoples, and in this case adding people into the past makes Waller’s pro­posal either unwork­able or an aston­ish­ing Jenga tower of spe­cial plead­ing. It’s safe to say I’m uncon­vinced, but I’ve not been too impressed with some of the reac­tions to the story either. “Crank’ seemed a com­mon opin­ion, If Steven Waller were a crank then by present­ing his work at a sci­entific con­fer­ence he’s still closer to pro­fes­sional prac­tice than archae­olo­gists who issue a press release now before a talk in a few months time.

In fact a browse of his web­site shows he’s not likely to be a crank, just ter­ribly unaware of the dif­fer­ences in approach between US and UK prehistory.

The bulk of his work is on rock art at American pet­ro­glyph sites. The acous­tics of rock art in the US is a new field, but pro­du­cing some inter­est­ing res­ults. Some archae­olo­gists are find­ing archae­oacous­tics much more intriguing than, to pick a ran­dom example, archae­oastro­nomy. But American pre­his­tory is dif­fer­ent to British pre­his­tory. They have a richer rock art record, espe­cially in the south­w­est. They also have eth­no­graphic records and research that can help con­nect mean­ing to sym­bols. It’s not per­fect, and I’d like to debunk one inter­pret­a­tion of a site this sum­mer, but it’s very very dif­fer­ent to the lim­ited things we can say about rock art here. It means that Waller’s American work can rely on cul­tural inform­a­tion that we simply don’t have here. What is accep­ted by US archae­olo­gists about US sites is extremely spec­u­lat­ive when applied to UK sites.

Very few people have com­men­ted on work around archae­oacous­tics in gen­eral in rela­tion to this story. A few com­menters have men­tioned Deveraux’s work, but mainly the thrust has been this story must be debunked. I don’t think for a moment archae­olo­gists have con­sciously decided the out­sider must be expelled, but I won­der if an eager­ness to por­tray this as non­sense indic­ates some­thing more. Subconsciously does reject­ing Waller as non­sense and the oppos­ite of what you do men­tally reaf­firm that your own the­or­ies must there­fore by default be sound reasoning?

For some­thing more pos­it­ive about how sound can be explored in archae­ology, Alan Boyle has writ­ten an inter­est­ing piece on MSNBC’s Cosmic Log.

SciAm and Stonehenge


Scientific American has an art­icle on Stonehenge up this month. My first reac­tion would be dis­ap­point­ment if I’d bought a copy just to read the Stonehenge art­icle. It’s not bad, but there’s a lot of ideas being gen­er­ated by archae­olo­gists at the moment. The lack of space means that the three main pro­jects all get skimmed. I can see that it works for someone who hasn’t been fol­low­ing news at the site, but if you’re a henge nut it’ll add noth­ing new.

On the other hand, I did like the sup­ple­ment­ary mater­ial that SciAm has added online. This goes into a bit more detail about the work by Birmingham University. Adding this to the ori­ginal art­icle makes it a lot bet­ter. Instead of being stan­dalone, the ori­ginal art­icle works well as an intro­duc­tion to the addi­tional mater­ial. Without chan­ging a word in the ori­ginal my opin­ion has gone from dis­ap­point­ment to think­ing it’s actu­ally quite clever. It means the magazine’s web­site is more than a bro­chure for the art­icles, or a copy of them.

It’s also a crafty way of get­ting their advert­ising out on other people’s sites, but the wait (if the pre-load advert plays) is worth­while. The actual video is 5m40s.

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.

Astronomy at Ston̈ehen̈ge for the 2010 Summer Solstice


I’ve been busy, recently and I’m likely to stay that way for a while, hence the lack of posts. Still, I’m hop­ing to be able to take a trip to Stonehenge this year to see the sol­stice. That’s why my pre­dic­tion is that it will be cold and wet and thick cloud will pre­vent any­thing inter­est­ing mak­ing an appear­ance. However, if there are clear skies, there could be plenty to see over Stonehenge this sol­stice.

Natural Astronomy

There’ll be plenty to see in the even­ing sky after sun­set at 9.26pm. To the west Venus will be extremely bright at mag­nitude –4.0 (the lower the num­ber the brighter some­thing is). When you see it you won’t be able to mis­take it for any­thing else. That will be set­ting at a quarter to mid­night, so there’ll be plenty of time to see it.

Stonehenge astronomical chart for sunset solstice 2010

Position of the plan­ets at sun­set. Click for full size.

Moving to the left, are Mars, Saturn and the Moon. Mars will be mag­nitude 1.3 so it won’t be the bright­est thing in the sky, Arcturus and Vega will be brighter but it’ll still be easy to find. If you’re strug­gling find the Plough. The two pointer stars that point up to the Pole Star will be more or less also point­ing down to Mars this even­ing. Mars sets at a quarter to one, but if you want to see it real­ist­ic­ally you’ll have to be look­ing before mid­night. If you’re lucky it’ll have a slight ruddy glow. Saturn will be the only bright object between Mars and the Moon. In fact it’ll be slightly brighter than Mars in per­fect atmo­spheric con­di­tions, but I doubt my eyes will be good enough to meas­ure that.

The Moon will be in Virgo, near the star Spica, which was thought to be a sheaf of corn in the hand of Ceres, if you’re Roman, or Demeter, if you’re Greek. Fans of myth­o­logy will be keenly aware that Demeter/Ceres had a daugh­ter with Zeus which makes her not tech­nic­ally a vir­gin, but the Greeks called her Parthenos and that usu­ally gets trans­lated as vir­gin. To find Spica usu­ally you’d fol­low the arc of the handle of the Plough to Arcturus, and then Spica is the next bright star down. This night it’ll be the closest bright star to the Moon. It could be hard to spot because the Moon will be bright. It’ll be 69% lit, nine days old and wax­ing gib­bous. It’ll be more or less low in the sky to the south at sun­set and set around 1am, which is astro­nom­ical mid­night. It’s not the same as civil mid­night because these days Stonehenge is on Daylight Saving Time, like the rest of the UK.

Stonehenge astronomical chart for midnight solstice 2010

Stars at 1am over Stonehenge. Click for full size.

Around 1.20am Jupiter rises. It’s likely that you’ll need to wait till 2am to get a good view. It’ll be shin­ing in sil­ver at mag­nitude –2.4 and, because Venus will have set, it’ll be the bright­est planet on the sky. Jupiter will have a part­ner, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll see it at Stonehenge. Uranus will be close to Jupiter. If you hold out your hand at arm’s length then Uranus will be five or six little fin­ger­nail widths to the right of Jupiter. Normally there’s no chance at all of see­ing Uranus, but at the moment it’s at mag­nitude 5.8 which puts it right on the limit of human vis­ion. If you have very good eye­sight and the atmo­spheric con­di­tions are per­fect you’ll see what looks like a very faint star next to Jupiter, and that’s Uranus. But even if we have that, I still doubt you’ll see it.

The reason is that it takes time for your eyes to adapt to the dark. Ian Musgrave says it takes a few minutes to see down to mag­nitude 5 or 6. Your eyes need to build up chem­ic­als to make them more sens­it­ive. Every time you see a bright light, like car head­lights from the nearby roads, torches from other vis­it­ors who — quite reas­on­ably — don’t want to break their necks walk­ing around and any light­ing from English Heritage this adapt­a­tion will be lost. On top of this there’s light pol­lu­tion. We don’t just use energy light­ing streets. A lot of energy is used to light up the sky, for no obvi­ous reason. This reflects from any water droplets in the atmo­sphere and gives a sodium glow to the sky. Even cit­ies over the hori­zon will be vis­ible by their light pol­lu­tion and this will pre­vent you from see­ing some of the stars. You’ll stand a bet­ter chance of see­ing Uranus if you use binoculars.

There is another difficult-to-spot object in the sky. To the north near Capella is Comet McNaught. Searching on the web for this is no help. There’s a lot of Comet McNaughts because Robert McNaught has found over fifty of them. This one is Comet McNaught 2009 R1. The cur­rent fig­ures I have are that it will be between mag­nitudes 5 and 6. If that’s the case then you might not see much without dark-adapted eyes and it’s a bin­ocu­lar object. This fig­ure is uncer­tain though because the comet is get­ting closer to the Sun. Around June 30-ish it’s pre­dicted to be as bright as mag­nitude 2. Capella is not too hard to find. It’s the only bright star above the north­ern hori­zon, and it will be due north around half-past mid­night. The comet will be a couple of degrees above it. Look for a fuzzy star.

The Sun is due to return a few seconds before 4.52am. Again, day­light sav­ing explains why the Sun sets less than three hours before mid­night, but doesn’t rise till almost five hours after.


Or, if you don’t tell your friends what they are, UFOs.

The big events will be the passes of the International Space Station. There’ll be two and half over Stonehenge. The first will be at 1.08am till 1.10am. You’ll be able to see the ISS drop­ping from 38º up in the sky to the south­east down to the hori­zon. It’ll be bright (mag­nitude –2.7) but it will also be fast. This is the half appear­ance and you may not see it. You best chance is to be look­ing at Aquila, the bright­est star in the south­east at this time, and it should appear near there.

The next appear­ance is the best. At 2.40am it will rise in the west and pass over­head before set­ting in the east at 2.46am. It will look like Venus did, but it will vis­ibly be mov­ing across the sky. It could look like an aero­plane and if any­one else says that you might want to agree before point­ing out that there’s no vis­ible flash­ing lights like there would be on an aero­plane. It will also be trav­el­ling too fast. Get your friends to rule out other obvi­ous causes like Chinese lan­terns, reflec­tions of head­lights, plan­ets and so on so that you sound like you’ve been reluct­antly con­vinced that whatever you saw was not of this world.

Then at 4.15am you can make every­one jump out of their skin by yelling “They’re BACK!” when the ISS makes another pass from the west again. This time it will set 4.23am in the eastsoutheast.

For extra UFO points you can also try point­ing out an Iridium flare. This is a sud­den bright reflec­tion from one of the Iridium com­mu­nic­a­tions satel­lites. There are two dur­ing the course of the night. At 10.52:44pm on June 20 there’s a mag­nitude –1 flare west­north­w­est above a hand­span above the hori­zon. At 3.22:06am there’s a brighter mag­nitude –4 flare in the east­south­east. These will be fast; they’ll last for just a few seconds.

Flare Simulation. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Heavens Above, where I got these details from for the ISS and Iridium also has some transit times for fainter satel­lites, but the night sky is littered with satel­lites. If you see any­thing that looks star-like mov­ing across the sky over six-eight minutes then it’s quite pos­sibly a satel­lite. Some of these could be mis­taken for aero­planes. Registering on the site will enable you to print off your own star charts for ISS and satel­lite passes. If you’re on twit­ter @twisst can tell you when the ISS is passing over your loc­a­tion and send you alerts.

If you’re inter­ested in vis­it­ing Stonehenge for the sol­stice this year and want more prac­tical advice, like remem­ber­ing to pack toi­let roll, you’ll find Heritage Key help­ful. And if there are clouds, it might not all be bad news.

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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Foundations Beyond Doubt?

Jardin archéologique
The Greek found­a­tions of Marseilles? Photo (cc) amelaye.

Tim Jones at Remote Central dis­cusses the latest post from Dennis Price’s Eternal Idol blog. Dennis Price thinks he can identify Stonehenge as the temple of Apollo of the Hyperboreans as men­tioned by Pytheas of Massalia. The latest post com­pares the Tholos at Delphi with the cir­cu­lar design of Stonehenge. Personally I’m not con­vinced. Stonehenge could be the site descrfibed by Pytheas, but I don’t think the evid­ence sur­vives to be sure of where the temple may be. Both posts are worth read­ing, but I think part of the prob­lem is that Price is more will­ing to move from plaus­ible to cer­tain than I am. I wouldn’t dis­miss his idea out of hand, but there are prob­lems. One that there’s likely to be a big shift in what clas­si­cists think is cer­tain about the found­a­tions of sites like Massalia. At the moment many clas­si­cists would agree with the state­ment:

…[I]t is bey­ond doubt that set­tlers from Phocaea, the most north­erly of the Ionian cit­ies in Asia Minor, foun­ded Massilia around 600 BC. By mere vir­tue of the fact that the Phocaeans suc­cess­fully estab­lished a flour­ish­ing city at the oppos­ite end of the Mediterranean in the sev­enth cen­tury BC, it is clear that they were out­stand­ing mar­iners, while we also learn this from Herodotus, who wrote that the Phocaeans were the first of the ancient Greeks to embark on lengthy jour­neys by sea.

There are prob­lems with this. The same tra­di­tion says that the set­tle­ment was foun­ded when the nat­ive prin­cess, Gyptis, mar­ried the leader of the Phocaean set­tlers, Protis. That sounds plaus­ible until you real­ise that Protis means First. That sounds a bit odd to me. It’s pos­sible Protis was an early vic­tim of Nominative Determinism. Alternatively it could be made up. Can you test it?
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