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Sunday, 12 September 2010

On Ancestor Worship




Over the past few years I have participated in many online discussions, forums and blog debates (and even some twitters) relating to Stonehenge -- and it has been a deeply depressing experience. Not because one ends up being bombarded with incontrovertible evidence or challenged with brilliant deductions or analyses, or even because one loses arguments. That sort of thing happens, and occasionally one has to admit defeat and accept that what the opposition is saying sounds eminently reasonable..... so one modifies one's hypothesis and moves on.

No, my problem is that over and again the Stonehenge faithful simply refuse to engage or to address evidence-based points, and fall back on the intensely irritating line that "There may be no evidence that the Stonehenge builders did this or that, but we KNOW that they did what we say they did, because they were in possession of much greater skills and motivations than we modern people are prepared to recognize...."

I have encountered this argument -- with very small variations -- so many times that I have become convinced that the Stonehenge Myth really has taken on a religious dimension. Religion, faith, dogma, unswerving allegiance to "the truth" as enunciated by the Prophet Thomas, the Prophet Atkinson and various others -- it's all in there. Even the members of the radical "alternative archaeology" community of internet debaters, all of whom use pseudonyms, and who claim to have no respect at all for the archaeology establishment, display (with very few exceptions) exactly the same degree of certainty about the amazing skills of our Neolithic ancestors.

And the modern high priests of archaeology? As I have said on this blog many times before, they have their fringe religions, some of which are fundamentalist, some of which are evangelical, some of which are radical and some of which are deeply conservative. Some go on about Neolithic hospitals and healing stones, some go on about elaborate ceremonials and rituals associated with reverence for the dead, and some go on about astronomical alignments, echo chambers and so forth. But while they argue about the belief systems of the ancient Stonehenge civilization, and compete with one another to make the biggest and best TV spectaculars, a naive sort of ancestor worship still underpins almost everything they say. They assume, like the "alternative archaeology" chattering classes, that the Stonehenge builders were indeed in possession of amazing technical and astronomical skills, had highly complex patters of social organization, and had the persistence and motivation to bring complex building projects to fruition.

They are, so I gather, not at all pleased when people like me come along and suggest that the Stonehenge builders had no need to collect 82 bluestones from far away since the stones were close at hand, they they did not in any case have the skills for vast long-distance stone transport expeditions, that they were indecisive as planners and technically rather incompetent as builders, and that the great stone monument was never finished.

"Sacrilege!" I hear them cry. "Who is this idiot who challenges all of our established truths? Ah yes, he isn't an archaeologist. That explains it. He obviously does not understand these things, and does not have the experience and the instinct of the true Stonehenge specialist......."

Well, my response to all of that is to suggest that a little less reverence might not be a bad thing. Let us respect our ancestors, by all means -- but can we please drop this absurd ancestor worship and this absurd belief in some "ancient wisdom"? Might it not be a bad thing to accept that the builders of Stonehenge might have had rather grand ambitions, but that they were just as likely to be incompetent as the rest of us?

2 comments:

Kostas said...

Brian, I share with your frustration!

I fault your glacier transport theory in part, however, because as it is it concedes to the 'human transport' zealots their most salient points. If Neolithic ancestors had the technical skill, social organization, and binding believes to mobilize the population to move huge sarsens even 20 miles and erect them to stand for 5 millennium, why couldn't they have the skill and ability to move the bluestones from 200 miles away? If you multiply the effort you concede to them by a factor of ten, they can argue that such feats would be humanly possible!

Brian, to win this argument you need to go to the reasonable extreme and argue (as I do) that Stonehenge and all other Neolithic 'monuments' were made possible through the agency of 'local ice' (as compared to glacier ice) that covered the area. This explains everything!

“The un-Henging of Stonehenge” : http://knol.google.com/k/constantinos-ragazas/the-un-henging-of-stonehenge/ql47o1qdr604/16#

Constantinos

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- we have covered this territory before! It doesn't worry me that I "concede a point" to my opponents. It is self-evident in any man-made structure that the raw materials have been found somewhere and used somewhere else. My point is that the stones are locally sourced -- thereby minimising effort and allowing the monument to be PARTLY finished.