Secrets of Stonehenge

October 5, 2013 at 4:31 pm (Art History)

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During the most recent excavations at Stonehenge in the Salisbury Plain of England, new discoveries have been made, which alter our view of Neolithic Britain.  An overview of these findings has been chronicled in the PBS documentary, Secrets of Stonehenge, and while many aspects of Stonehenge history remain a mystery, there are several theories regarding the site’s construction and purpose.

Re-excavation and close examination of the cremated remains discovered in the 1920’s revealed that the majority of the individuals were male, age 25 to 40, suggesting an “aristocratic, male-based society (Archaeologist Mike Pitts).”  The bones, which date from 3000 to 2500 BCE, would have been placed at the site around the same time as the outer ring of bluestones with similar carbon dating.  These stones, which had been imported from Wales, over 150 miles away, were later moved within the sarsen trilithons.  Digging at several sites surrounding Stonehenge itself, has uncovered a wealth of information.  A digging pick fashioned from a red deer antler was found in a chalk ditch and many stone hammers were unearthed in an area used for “dressing” the megaliths.  Evidence of a timber henge was uncovered two miles north with a similar avenue leading to the River Avon.  The two henges mirror each other and have opposite alignments with the summer and winter solstices.  The site included remains of feasting pits and eight or more Neolithic houses, inferring that people resided there during ritual seasons.  Surprisingly, remnants of another henge (Bluestonehenge) were also found on the riverbank at the end of the Stonehenge processional avenue.  It is believed that the stones were later incorporated into Stonehenge proper.

One theory, concerning the purpose of the site, resulted not so much from tangible evidence, but from a revelation by a Madagascan colleague of archaeologist, Mike Parker Pearson.  According to Ramilisonina, Stonehenge is “a meeting place to connect with the ancestors.”  In Madagascan culture permanent stone structures are associated with the dead, while more temporary wood structures belong to the living.  This notion is supported by the discovery of the timber henge and seems the most plausible of the theories presented.  Although it is clear that the solstices were important to Neolithic peoples, one alignment does not signify an observatory or calendar.—“It’s about the nature of eternity, the meaning of life and death (Pearson).”

Interpretations of evidence (or lack thereof) concerning the transport of the megaliths and the method of their post and lintel construction are controversial.  Personally, “I’m not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens.”  Out of the theories presented in the film, I’m leaning toward the ball bearings hypothesis.  Although complex, it would explain the discovery of so many carved, stone orbs of similar diameter during that time period.  I also like the idea of placing the stones with giant ramps and levers, although there is no direct evidence to support that assumption.

I am left with several related questions.  It was stated in the film that the people of Stonehenge only resided in the area for part of the year.  If they spent the rest of their time travelling with their flocks, how long did they visit?  Were they present for both solstices and if so, how was their schedule coordinated?

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