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Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Stonehenge -- process and purpose

Silbury Hill and Stonehenge -- powerful religious symbols?  Or just strange places built by engineers having fun?

The latest book on Silbury Hill -- being sold flat out by EH on the Today programme, and no doubt to the rest of the media as well -- seems to make the point that the famous mound went through so many different phases of building that there may not have been any coordinated or deliberate "purpose" to it at all.  It sort of just grew....... with every generation having a go at it, and making it a bit bigger than it was before.  So the PROCESS became more important than the purpose.  If there was a purpose (and people don't build things without a purpose) it may have varied with each generation -- and I like to think that the builders had no religious or symbolic purpose at all, but maybe wanted to build something which would simply impress neighbouring tribal groups.  "Yah boo sucks -- our mound is bigger than yours.  So there!"  Children and grandchildren all continued in the grand tradition of showing off, and maybe there was a sort of resigned sigh that went up from the tribe every decade or so, when mound-building time came around, as they carried on something started by great-great grandfather.  Maybe they groaned:  "God knows why we are doing this, but in honour of his memory, we'd better just carry on with it."  So they concentrated on the techniques or the processes of transporting loads of rubble onto the mound, stabilising slopes, maintaining a pleasing conical shape etc etc... just because they wanted to demonstrate that they were capable of doing it.

For a long time I have had a similar idea about Stonehenge.  The builders were so short of stones, and so indecisive, that they moved stones around all the time, with one temporary stone setting following another.  Then, when they ran out of stones completely, ran out of energy, and started to lose interest in the Stonehenge project (if it could ever have been called that) the whole thing ground to a halt.  It's not at all outrageous to suggest that during all these phases of pottering about, the builders were more obsessed with processes than they were with purposes.  How do we set very large stones in the ground, and how do we stabilise them? How do we extrapolate from woodworking techniques (with mortise and tenon joints, tongue and groove fittings etc) into working with very hard stones?  How do we get the lintels up onto the sarsens?  How do we get them to stay there once they are up and roughly in position?

OK -- the builders of both Silbury Hill and Stonehenge may well have been mathematical geniuses, and spiritual to boot, but that doesn't alter my view that these monuments have more to do with engineering experimentation than with the worship of ancestors or with planetary alignments.


Kostas said...


I have seen such round conical earthen mounts in Macedonia too. They are called Macedonian tombs. Are these related by men or by nature? What do you think.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Not having made a special study of all this, I think I have come across references to conical mounds in many different places and climates, all presumably built independently by cultures that had little or no contact with one another. Cultural diffusion or parallel development? I suppose that tribal groups that were minded, in the good old days, to build something spectacular, might well have come up quite independently with methods of building big piles of spoil (or stones) on the pyramid / conical mound theme. My instinct is not to read too much into them -- but I dare say others will see them as temples or mounds built to appease the gods.....

Anonymous said...

WHY do you "like to think that the builders had no religious or symbolic purpose at all, but maybe wanted to build something which would simply impress neighbouring tribal groups"?

Why do you find it hard to credit prehistoric people (just like us in most ways) with the capacity for a purpose inspired by spiritual thought? Surely you studied and taught Human Geography as well as Physical Geography/ Geomorphology/Glaciology?

BRIAN JOHN said...

You are perfectly right, Anon. I was being devil's advocate! Of course I studied human geography (and taught it!) and am fully aware of the capacity of human beings to ponder on great -- even spiritual -- things and to be motivated by some "higher" purpose in their projects. The great cathedrals are I suppose a case in point. But when you dig deeper you find that Durham Cathedral, for example, was in part built to the glory of God and in part as a political statement, demonstrating the wealth and power of the builders and designed to impress and even intimidate the locals and even folks from further afield who might wish to challenge the authority of church and state.

I do think that certain people go much too far in pretending that our Neolithic ancestors were modern people in fancy dress -- we don't actually know how their minds worked. If some were motivated by something spiritual, the point I'm trying to make -- with due irreverence -- is that others were just as likely to build things as follies or as symbols of their political or economic power. Am I upsetting sensibilities by suggesting this?

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, in view of my last comment, to get another chance to see the film "The Englishman who went up a HILL and came down a MOUNTAIN" recently.Apparently based upon a story heard about the real village of Taff's Well (Ffynnon Taf), the villagers of fictional Ffynnon Garw build an earth cairn or tump on top of their hill to make it high enough to be considered a mountain. After at first opposing the scheme, the Reverend Jones grasps the symbolism involved in restoring the community's war- damaged self-esteem by this communal great endeavour to enable the hill to reach the mountainous height of 1002 feet, and gives his blessing to his Parishioners carrying out the work on the Sabbath- even finding an appropriate Scripture (in Psalms)to back him up!
Think you would enjoy this gently amusing film more than once, Brian, full of good Welsh actors, and great Welsh scenery.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, I've seen the film ages ago -- very gentle and entertaining, as I recall. Of course people will invoke spiritual matters in defence of a certain position if such a thing will help their cause -- see my post on the Battle of Preseli on 17 August. It was a very handy thing to help stop the War Office from taking over the Preseli Hills as a gunnery range to have assorted reverend gentlemen trotting out the line that Preseli was a great spiritual heartland / source of the bluestones / key part of the ritual world of our Neolithic ancestors etc etc -- even if it was all a load of old cobblers. When you are fighting a battle you use every weapon at your disposal!!