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Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Politics and Stonehenge Myth-making




I've been pondering a bit more on where the great Stonehenge myths came from, and why they were peddled by the myth-makers and believed by the rest of us (with few exceptions).

Strangely, the two great myth-makers were both Welshmen -- Geoffrey of Monmouth and Hebert Thomas. And they both had ulterior political motives.

When Geoffrey wrote his stirring novel "The History of the Kings of Britain" around 1136 he was certainly seeking to tell a stirring tale and to captivate his readers -- but there was also a strong political motive in what he was doing. He was intent upon flattering his own Celtic community, buttering up the Anglo-Normans who had taken over the country following the invasion of 1066 (and who were still gradually insinuating themselves into positions of civil and ecclesiastical power) and vilifying the hated Saxons. He tried to flag up "the west" -- ie Wales and Ireland -- as the places where an ancient and noble culture still resided. To invoke the magic of Merlin, and to pretend that the stones at Stonehenge has come from an ancient stone monument at Mount Killaraus (which does not exist and never did) suited his purpose very well. So if, in the telling of his tale, he managed to increase respect and even awe for the Celtic civilization that was then on the wane, all well and good. Good story; strong political motive.

Herbert Thomas, when he invented the myth of long-distance human transport in 1920, may also have wished to enhance the image of Wales by drawing attention to its ancient civilization, its old stone circles, and the supposed magical or mystical properties of its stones. Maybe he wanted British archaeology to pay more attention to Wales. Hmmmm -- I'm not sure about any of that, but it's a good debating point. What is much more likely, in my mind, was that Thomas was fully signed up to the post-WW1 obsession within the archaeological establishment for demonstrating that the British Neolithic tribes were cleverer than their German counterparts (who built their rather spectacular Neolithic monuments out of locally-sourced stone). Anything they can do, we can do better -- and our chaps went and fetched 82 bluestones all the way from the Preseli Hills, because those stones were greatly revered.

As I have said elsewhere, there must also have been a "feel-good" motive. Thomas, and everybody else at the time, wanted some proof of the supremacy of man, of the longevity and permanence of British culture, and of the extraordinary skills of our ancestors as compared with lesser mortals who lived on the European mainland. "So to hell," thought Thomas, "with all of the evidence from Hicks, Geikie, Judd and Jehu of extensive glacier ice affecting Pembrokeshire and the coasts of the Bristol Channel! Let's shove all of that to one side, and give them a story that will have legs....."

One novelist and one geologist, each intent upon creating a myth, for reasons that did not have a great deal to do with science or integrity.

The other factor, of course, in the creation of myths, is that there must be a favourable context. Myths have to fall upon fertile ground if they are to survive. And of course, like all great myth-makers, Geoffrey and Herbert judged things perfectly. The time, and the public mood, was just right for each of them. So they both got away with utter nonsense, because nobody was particularly inclined to subject their ideas to careful scrutiny. That's OK in the case of a novel -- but it's not OK in serious science. Sadly, about a century after Thomas invented his myth, it is still not being subjected to scrutiny by the senior archaeologists of the UK. They still see it as THE TRUTH, and all of their efforts are devoted not to dissembling the myth, but to elaborating and enlarging it to its current rather grotesque and ridiculous proportions.

4 comments:

Pete Glastonbury said...

are you going to this Brian?
http://www.salisburyjournal.co.uk/news/journalnewsindex/8407609.Experts_gather_to_gather_for_Stonehenge_debate/

BRIAN JOHN said...

Hi Pete
I knew nothing about it. If they had invited me and offered me a free lunch, I might have come! Oh, let them slug it out -- it might be entertaining for those who attend. You going?

Pete Glastonbury said...

£60 plus £15 for the debate? Let me check my diary.....
Na, I'm booked to watch tv.....

BRIAN JOHN said...

I sympathise. Nice little earner though! Maybe they are hoping for lots of media people, expenses paid...