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.

%Gallery-153665%

%Gallery-98480%

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!”

Megalithic site discovered in India

megalithic, India
The term “megalithic” generally brings to mind stone circles in the British Isles such as Stonehenge and Avebury, or giant tombs such as Wayland’s Smithy, yet prehistoric peoples in many parts of the world erected megalithic monuments.

India is rich in megalithic sites. In Cherrapunji, Meghalaya, India, are some imposing menhirs, or standing stones, shown in the Wikimedia Commons image above. In the Mahabubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh is a site with more than 80 menhirs, some 14 feet tall, plus numerous smaller stones. Some rows of stones are aligned to the rising and setting Sun on the summer and winter solstices and equinoxes. Also at the site is a map of the constellation Ursa Major (the Big Dipper, which points to the all-important North Star).

Now a new megalithic site has been discovered. Road construction in Chatra district, Jharkhand, has revealed numerous tall menhirs. Artifacts found at the site, such as a small copper ring and copper bell, date to the Chalcolithic (“Copper Age”) or 3300-1200 BC, although this has been disputed and officially the Archaeological Survey of India is dating the site to the 7th century AD.

Sadly the road work destroyed several stones, and others have been removed by local villagers. Now archaeologists are trying to educate the locals about the importance of such sites. The researchers are also hoping for an excavation license to figure out just how old the megaliths are.

For more on India’s ancient past, check out this extensive website on megalithic India.

Stanton Drew stone circles yield more clues to the past

Stanton Drew, stone circles
A geophysical survey at the three stone circles at Stanton Drew near Bath, England, has uncovered more details about the prehistoric monuments.

This is Bath reports that subsurface imaging has added to a similar survey done in 1997. That survey revealed that the largest of the three circles was surrounded by a ditch with a wide entrance. The new survey, done with more modern equipment, discovered a second, smaller entrance. Archaeologists also found that one of the smaller stone circles stood on a leveled platform.

Stanton Drew’s main circle is more than 110 meters in diameter, making it the second largest stone circle in the UK, bigger than Stonehenge and second only to Avebury. The main entrance of its surrounding ditch faced a smaller stone circle to the northeast. Further away to the southwest was a third circle. Inside the main circle were nine concentric rings of wooden posts. These rings may have served as a sort of calendar marking important celestial events such as solstices and equinoxes. The megaliths of the three stone circles served a similar function.

Local folklore says the stones are a wedding party tricked by the Devil into celebrating on a Sunday. Stone circles have accumulated lots of folklore and several are said to be petrified people, including the Rollright Stones.

The complete archaeological reports are available here.

[Photo courtesy Rosalind Mitchell]

Prehistoric stone circle discovered in Yorkshire

cairn, stone circleA stone circle that was once part of a prehistoric cairn has been discovered by a group of amateur archaeologists on Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire, England.

A cairn is a large pile of stones that marked the grave of an important individual in prehistoric times. These stones were often taken away by later farmers for building walls or cottages, and sometimes all that’s left is a circle of stones from the base, as is the case here. The team says the cairn measures 27 by 24 feet. It would have been pretty high back in its glory days.

One stone had a man-made circular impression archaeologists call a cup mark. These are found all over prehistoric Europe singly or in groups, but nobody knows what they mean.

The UK countryside is full of ancient remains. When I was hiking along Hadrian’s Wall and the East Highland Way I brought along Ordnance Survey maps not only to find my way but because many prehistoric sites are marked on them. I passed stone circles, Anglo-Saxon ring forts, crumbled castles, and much more. Take these maps along to make your walk through the countryside a walk through history.

The Yorkshire team has made numerous discoveries in recent months. Archaeology is understaffed and underfunded, and dedicated groups of amateurs help take up the slack. Archaeological societies exist in many towns throughout the world and are a great way to learn about the past. While members are amateur in the sense that they don’t make their living as archaeologists, they’re often well trained and knowledgeable. This is important so that when they make their discoveries they don’t harm the very sites they are trying to study and preserve.

[Photo of Mölndal cairn in Sweden courtesy Wikimedia Commons. No image of the Ilkley Moor cairn is available. It’s not as well preserved as the Mölndal cairn.]