Archaeologists Looking At Stonehenge In A New Light

StonehengeStonehenge is the world’s most iconic prehistoric monument. Scientists have argued about its significance for generations, but few have been allowed to excavate there. Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson is one of those lucky few, and he’s documented his finds in a new book.

Stonehenge: A New Understanding chronicles a seven-year excavation of Stonehenge and the surrounding countryside.

Pearson and his team took an innovative approach and came up with some innovative interpretations. Instead of looking at Stonehenge as an isolated monument, they studied the landscape and other prehistoric monuments around it. This led them to determine that Stonehenge was part of a ritualistic network of monuments and natural features.

But what was it all for? Pearson believes that despite the astronomical alignments and the regular meetings of people at Stonehenge, it was not a monument to nature or the seasons or fertility as many archaeologists have concluded, but rather a monument to the dead, similar to other enclosed cremations burial grounds in the British Isles. Other constructions nearby were symbols of life and were intimately connected to Stonehenge just as the concepts of life and death are intimately connected with each other.

The main connection is with a site called Durrington Walls, two miles away from Stonehenge. Both had avenues leading to a nearby river. Durrington Walls, however, had a settlement while Stonehenge only had burials. Natural features in the landscape aligned with important astronomical events, making the location of Stonehenge perfect for any monument concerned with the heavens.

Weighing in at 350 dense pages, this is not for the casually interested reader. Luckily Pearson has a clear writing style, avoids getting overly technical, and the book is richly illustrated with maps and photographs that help the reader follow the text. I would suggest this to anyone with a serious interest in archaeology and science.

I had the good fortune to hear Dr. Pearson talk a few years ago to a packed auditorium at Oxford University. Once he was done, Oxford professors gathered around in their self-important way to talk with this leading scientist. Before they could start posturing, a twelve-year-old girl came up to him and chirped, “I want to be an archaeologist!”

Dr. Pearson could have patted her on the head, replied, “That’s nice darling” and gone on to speak with the professors, but he didn’t. Instead he sat her down and spoke with her for a good five minutes about what she needed to do to become an archaeologist and all the fun she could have in that career.

The professors looked ruffled and impatient. The girl left glowing with enthusiasm.

That’s my kind of scientist.

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Prehistoric Tombs And Viking Graffiti In Orkney, Scotland


There’s something about death.

Graveyards, war memorials, mummified monks, Purgatory Museums … if there’s dead people involved, I’m there. That’s why my 6-year-old son found himself crawling through prehistoric tombs with his dad on remote Scottish islands for his summer vacation.

He loved it, of course. He still has that wonderful sense of adventure children should keep into adulthood. Plus he wasn’t scared in the least. It’s hard to fear death when you assume it doesn’t apply to you. My wife is a bit claustrophobic and so is less into this sort of thing. She prefers stone circles, although she gamely explored the tombs with her crazy husband and son.

What appealed to him, and me, was the spooky, silent darkness of these prehistoric tombs and the strange texture of the stones. That’s why I love this photo by Paddy Patterson. It shows the Tomb of the Eagles on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay just off the north coast of Scotland. This image highlights the almost fleshy texture of the rock and the dank, dark interior.

Orkney is full of Neolithic tombs. As I mentioned in my previous post in this series, Orkney was home to a flourishing Stone Age culture 5,000 years ago. These people buried their dead in large subterranean tombs with several side chambers that were reused over several generations. The Tomb of the Eagles was one of the biggest and gets its name from the many eagle bones found inside.

Our visit started at the museum nearby, where a docent passed around artifacts found at the site and showed us the skulls of the people buried there. Life was hard back then and those who survived childhood rarely made it past their 30s. One woman’s skull showed an abscess the size of marble. Strangely, it never got infected. Her teeth showed signs of wear consistent with chewing on leather, a crude but effective way of softening it up for use. Since the traditional method of curing leather required soaking it in urine, and urine is a natural disinfectant, perhaps her abscess never got infected because she was chewing on urine-soaked leather all day. The good old days? I think not.

%Gallery-161068%While the museum was great, I must admit I was a bit disappointed by the tomb itself. It was unprofessionally excavated by a local farmer who tore off the entire roof to get inside. Now it’s been covered with a concrete cap that reduces the whole effect. Hopefully someone will provide the funds to restore the roof someday.

A much smaller but almost perfectly preserved tomb is Cuween Hill on Orkney Mainland. Overlooking the road between Kirkwall and Finstown, it has a central chamber and four side chambers. My son and I had to crawl inside through a tiny entrance passage. When we got there, we found someone had lit candles at the entrances to each of the side chambers.

“Why did they do that?” my son asked.

“Because they’re respecting the ancestors,” I replied. “Leave them alone. We’re going to respect their respect.”

“OK,” he replied. “Just don’t burn yourself when you crawl over them.”

My son knows me well enough to know that a little bit of fire won’t stop me from exploring an ancient tomb.

What struck me about this tomb was how well it was made. There was no mortar; it was simply made from rectangular slabs of rock cleverly stacked atop one another to form arches, doorways and passages. A lot of care went into their final resting place.

Besides human remains, archaeologists discovered 24 dog skulls in Cuween Hill, prompting witty locals to call it the “Tomb of the Beagles.” Another tomb had otter bones. Perhaps each group had their own communal tomb and totem animal.

Orkney’s most famous Neolithic tomb is Maeshowe. Built around 2700 B.C. within sight of two stone circles and at least two major settlements, it appeared as a massive artificial hill 30 meters (100 feet) around and 11 meters (36 feet) high. It was surrounded by a ditch and earthen embankment, something also found around many stone circles.

Entering through a long, low passageway, we soon were able to stand and admire a central chamber fashioned much the same way as Cuween Hill but on a much grander scale. The passageway was acted as more than an entrance. For a few days around the midwinter solstice, the setting sun shines through the passage and onto the back wall. If you don’t want to brave the Orkney winter, you can watch it on a webcam.

Maeshowe’s walls are covered in Viking graffiti. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, on Christmas Day 1153, a group of Vikings were making their way to a nearby port in order to sail off to the Crusades. A sudden storm blew up and the Vikings broke into the tomb to find shelter. To pass the time, they wrote runes on the walls. Most of these are prosaic, like “Tryggr carved these runes.” One fellow showed off by writing in two rare styles of Runic. Those who could read it were rewarded with the boast, “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean.”

Another hints at a buried treasure: “Crusaders broke into Maeshowe. Lif the earl’s cook carved these runes. To the north-west is a great treasure hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he that might find that great treasure. Hakon alone bore treasure from this mound,” signed “Simon Sirith.”

For a complete listing of the graffiti, check this link.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Shapinsay: Visiting A Wee Scottish Island!”

The Heart Of Neolithic Orkney

Heart Of Neolithic Orkney, Neolithic Orkney, Orkney, Standing Stones of Stenness
For reasons that aren’t very clear, the Orkney Islands just north of Scotland were the happening place to be 5000 years ago.

The temperature was warmer in Orkney back then, with forest and deer in addition to the abundant bird and marine life that still mark Orkney out as a natural wonderland. The Neolithic (Late Stone Age) people farmed the land and hunted game. They also built some of the most remarkable prehistoric monuments in Europe.

The photo above shows the Standing Stones of Stenness, a stone circle built around 3100 B.C., making it one of the earliest of the 1000 stone circles in the UK and roughly contemporary with the earliest building phase of Stonehenge. It was once made up of about a dozen massive yet thin slabs, but now only four remain standing. Several lone standing stones stood in the surrounding area.

Many legends and traditions grew up around the stones. One stone, called the Odin Stone after the Norse god, had a hole near its base. Young Orcadian couples used to promise themselves in marriage by clasping their hands through it. A local farmer got so sick of these happy couples trespassing on his land that he knocked the stone down in 1814, with the intention of taking the rest down too. The Orcadians were furious and the farmer wisely stopped destroying the stones.

Like many stone circles, the Standing Stones of Stenness was surrounded by a ditch and earthen palisade. The opening led to a nearby village of the same date called the Barnhouse settlement. Here archaeologists uncovered 15 round stone houses. The rooms have stone furniture and little recesses for beds. They also have fireplaces made up of four stone slabs. One of them seems to have been moved from here to the center of the Standing Stones of Stenness. Why? Nobody knows.

%Gallery-160972%Less than a mile away across a narrow isthmus between two lochs stands the Ring of Brodgar, a massive stone circle measuring 104 meters (340 feet) in diameter. The only stone circles bigger than it are Avebury and Stanton Drew in England. Twenty-seven stones still exist, and archaeologists have found evidence for a total of sixty.

The Ring of Brodgar was built between 2500 and 2000 B.C. and is the youngest of the great Neolithic monuments in the area. Like the Standing Stones of Stenness, it was surrounded by a ditch that would have been filled with water, thus making a symbolic “island” like the real ones these people lived on.

A couple of minutes walk away, archaeologists have discovered an impressive Neolithic settlement made up of large stone buildings. The largest, rather unromantically called Structure Ten, measures 25×20 meters (82×65 feet) with 5-meter (16-foot) thick walls. This is by far the largest Neolithic stone building found in Britain.

Called the Ness of Brodgar, this settlement was inhabited from about 3,200 to 2,300 B.C. Each of the buildings was used for a time and then covered over. Structure Ten got special treatment. There seems to have been a big feast there as a grand finale, with the bones of some 300 cattle deposited at the same time, as well as a complete skeleton of a red deer, which seems to have been simply left there and not eaten. You can read more about the Ness of Brodgar excavations on their blog. New information is being uncovered every day.

So the dates of the two stone circles and two settlements show there was about a thousand years of activity in this area. Archaeologists believe that it was a ritual focal point for all of Orkney and maybe even for people in more distant lands.

On the Bay of Skaill, on the western shores of Mainland, is the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. The eight structures are similar to the Barnhouse site but on a much grander scale. Each has a large square room, beds to the sides, a central hearth and a stone “dresser.” These shelves of stone have caused all sorts of debate among archaeologists. Some think they were simply for storing things, while others suggest ritual use. The buildings were connected by covered passageways.

Skara Brae was occupied from about 3200-2500 B.C., the same period as the other great Neolithic sites. Before Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, Mainland Orkney developed a great and little-known civilization.

The prehistoric sites on the Orkney Mainland are collectively known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Beyond those mentioned here, the UNESCO listing includes many tombs, including the impressive Maeshowe. More on them tomorrow!

A great resource on all things Orcadian is the Orkneyjar website, which has a seemingly endless supply of articles on the history, archaeology, culture and folklore of Orkney. Highly recommended!

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Prehistoric Tombs and Viking Graffiti in Orkney!”

Vandals Break Stone of Destiny, Sacred To High Kings Of Ireland

Ireland, Stone of Destiny
Ireland’s famed Lia Fáil Standing Stone, better known as the “Stone of Destiny,” has been vandalized.

The stone, which stands upon the Hill of Tara in County Meath, was smashed with a hammer on all four sides. Chips broke off from it but were not found, suggesting that the culprits took them.

The stone is the traditional coronation site for the ancient High Kings of Ireland, semi-mythical rulers about whom little is known for certain. The last king was supposed to have been crowned there around the year 500 A.D. The stone was said to be magical and when the rightful king touched it, the stone would roar in approval.

The stone is a menhir, or lone standing stone, dating back to the Neolithic some 5,500 years ago. Many megalithic monuments such as menhirs and stone circles were seen as magical by later cultures.

This is the latest of several acts of vandalism against ancient sites. Unrest in Syria has led to destruction and looting of archaeological sites. In Israel, a 1,600-year-old synagogue mosaic was wrecked by ultra-orthodox Jews. Then there are the oil pipelines passing through Babylon in Iraq.

At this rate of ignorance and greed, there won’t be any ancient sites left for our grandkids to admire.

[Photo courtesy Andrew Dietz]

Stonehenge Replicas Pop Up Everywhere!

Stonehenge replicas, Snowhenge
Is this Stonehenge? No, it’s Snowhenge! It’s a 1/3-scale replica built at the MacKay Jaycees Family Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While it certainly wasn’t as hard to build as the original megalithic stone circle in England, it still involved working 1000 cubic feet of packed snow to make a circle more than six feet tall and thirty feet in diameter. The builders did such an accurate job that they preserved the original monument’s astronomical alignments.

Stonehenge is endlessly fascinating and has inspired people all over the world to create replicas. The most realistic looking is Foamhenge at Natural Bridge, Virginia. The “stones” are made out of painted styrofoam that have been sculpted in the exact shapes of the real Stonehenge.

There’s also the Maryhill Stonehenge, a full-sized concrete recreation of what Stonehenge used to look like in its heyday rather than the ruins we have now. Located in Maryhill, Washington, it was built as a monument to the dead of World War I. In Rolla, Missouri, students at the Missouri University of Science and Technology used water jets to sculpt a Stonehenge out of some 160 tons of granite. It was named one of the year’s Ten Outstanding Engineering Achievements by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1985. Then there’s Carhenge, near Alliance, Nebraska, which is made out of, well. . .you know.

%Gallery-153665%Americans aren’t the only people making new Stonehenges. Despite having the original, the British have built numerous replicas. Even as far back as the early 19th century, gentlemen with too much money and not enough to do were building Stonehenges on their country estates. Contemporary British Artist Jeremy Deller has put a modern twist on an old tradition with his inflatable bouncy Stonehenge in honor of the 2012 Olympics. And then there’s Stonehenge Aotearoa in New Zealand, which has similar astronomical alignments to Stonehenge (solstices, equinoxes, etc.) but aligned for the Southern hemisphere.

For all the latest on Stonehenge replicas, check out Clonehenge, a blog dedicated to them. They have info about Citrus-henge, Woolhenge, and my personal favorite: Spamhenge! If you make your own replica, send them a photo and they’ll post it online with a rating of one to ten druids. And yes, they know the druids didn’t build Stonehenge.

This isn’t just a quirky blog, but a serious research project. Well, maybe not serious, but pretty meticulous in any case. They’ve documented 72 large permanent Stonehenge replicas from all over the world in addition to the ones made with cake, jelly, glass and medicine bottles.

[Photo courtesy MichiganArchaeologist]