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Saturday, 4 September 2010

Was Stonehenge a Folly?

Been engaging in a good debate on the Modern Antiquarian Forum, and thought I might share this post:

I have tried not to enter the discussion on WHAT STONEHENGE WAS FOR, but it's appealing to think of it as a puzzle, or an enigma, or a riddle, or even a folly. Maybe the builders themselves didn't know what it was for -- and there was just a powerful ruling clan who wanted to build something wacky as part of its attempt to establish its power base and to try out building techniques? Maybe they were VERY clever and knew that once it was built or partly built, for thousands of years thereafter people would expend vast amounts of energy and brain power trying to work out what the hell was going on...... and in the process invest the builders with spiritual, mathematical, astronomical and organizational skills that they never actually had. Brilliant!

Well, follies are generally built by eccentric people as a means of self-glorification. They have to have the cash and labour resources to do the job, and some handy land available, but otherwise (apart from the planning system) there's nothing much to prevent them from giving expression to their fantasies. Another feature about follies is that they are often not finished, because cash runs out, or the locals get upset about all this self-aggrandizement, and refuse to cooperate by withdrawing their labour or in other forms of sabotage. Stonehenge fits the bill precisely!


Barrie Foster at History Unlimited said...

On the other hand ... a recent theory from scientists at Mainz and Halle-Wittenberg universities. They suggest that the Nebra 'Sky Disk' (the earliest known representation of the night sky) was discarded as worthless after the Thera eruption obscured the skies for many years. Further: that the end of construction at Stonehenge was due to the same event and for the same reasons. More than one author has suggested that the transition from collective burials to single interments in the west may have marked a transition from the worship of underground to that of celestial gods; and also that the celestial alignments, however crude, that can be found in megalithic landscapes may have had a practical use for agriculturalists. Both of these functions would have been rendered obsolete by the Thera dust cloud. As far as I am aware, construction at Stonehenge ceased around 1600 BCE. The Thera eruption has been radiocarbon dated at between 1645 and 1600 BCE; and dendrochronology suggest a more precise date of 1628 BCE. Interestingly, some archaeologists have disputed the dates provided by science and favour later dates based on typological comparison with Late Minoan 1A - another example of reluctance to abandon an established mindset?

This is great fun. Keep up the good work.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Hi Barrie

Yes, this is interesting. The Santorini eruption around 1628 BC was very large, but not exceptionally large. The whole caldera didn't blow out at the time -- that seems to be a composite feature dating from many eruptions. There seems to be some doubt about how extensive the ash cloud was, and what impact there may have been on global climate. I suppose one always needs to be careful about finding event A and event B and assuming a cause / effect relationship between the two. But you may be right -- it would be good to see more details from the study.

Barrie Foster at History Unlimited said...

This is the link to the original news article. You might be able to find your way to more detail from here. But perhaps I was just being mischievous ...