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Saturday, 5 November 2011

Unfinished business



When I suggested a while back that Stonehenge was never finished, and that the builders simply ran out of stones, there were howls or rage from some quarters -- as if I was committing sacrilege against the prevailing belief in the immaculate conception.  Since then, of course, Field and Pearson have said virtually the same thing with respect to Stonehenge, and I suspect that more and more people will come to accept that the builders of Stonehenge ran out of ideas and ran out of stones -- and eventually walked away from something that looked a bit of a shambles.

I was reminded of this when looking at the material relating to the Stones of Stenness.  This is what Graham Ritchie says:

The Stones of Stenness, Orkney

ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/arch-352-1/.../107_001_060.pdf
The Stones of Stenness, Orkney
by J N Graham Ritchie

In the Discussion:    "............although there is little doubt that the builders of the circle originally planned a ring of twelve stones, the fact that only six stones or stumps now survive in situ (nos 2, 3, 4, 8, 10 and 11) makes the geometrical elucidation of the plan unclear. The evidence suggests, however, that an ellipse was intended.
It is impossible to be certain whether the complete plan was ever carried out, for, although
there is no doubt where there are existing stones or stumps or clear historical evidence of the
existence of a stone (no. 6), in the case of two holes there is no clear evidence that the hole or
space was ever filled (nos 9 and 12). The interpretation of the stone no. 7 is also a problem;
in the case of no. 9 it is perhaps unlikely that the removal of an upright would be accompanied
by the total withdrawal of the packing stones. There is of course even less evidence for the
presence of stone no. 12. Rather similar problems have faced MacKie in the interpretation of
the circle at Cultoon on Islay (1976a). Here some fallen stones were without adjacent sockets,
and a number of stone holes had no adjacent stone; MacKie suggests that, because of a change
of plan, the site had been abandoned in the course of construction, one socket having been
deliberately filled up (comparable perhaps to stone hole no. 9 at Stenness).


I wondered, on the basis of this, how many other UK stone circles might have been abandoned in an unfinished state, and in no time at all, I uncovered the following.  Also incomplete:  Priddy Circles (Somerset), Sillagh Ring, Naas, Ireland;  Ring of Brodgar;  Rollright Stones;  Callanish;  Mitchell's Fold;  Arbor Low;  Hurlers Stone circle;  Studfold Gate;  Gamelands;  Lacra...........etc etc.....

Now the obvious interpretation of all this incompleteness is that in every case the builders have run out of stones, or else had incomplete technical skills or manpower for finishing the job they they set themselves.  And again, a logical conclusion has to be that they did NOT want to look for stones beyond the immediate neighbourhood, but simply used what was at hand.  Another logical conclusion is that the circles or alignments were simply put up in the places where the stones were.

Reacting to all this incompleteness, Colin Richards and Mike Parker Pearson and others have turned this problem on its head, and are now arguing that the builders of these circles may not have even WANTED to complete them;  and that the real point of what was going on was the ACT of quarrying and moving the stones, as part of some ritual or other.  So the circle (whether completed or not) becomes something insignificant -- the really significant place is the QUARRY from which the stones were taken.  That's where the magic was.  And if the stones have come from multiple sources, then by definition there must have been multiple magical sites .... and the stones have probably been collected up as tokens, tributes, totems,  or as symbols in a cult of ancestor worship.

This is what's called "covering all your bases" --  brilliant!  However much of a shambles a ruinous stone circle or other megalithic monument might be, you can still interpret it as a work of genius, built by people with incredibly sophisticated belief systems and highly developed rituals.

So you think I'm being a bit ungenerous and cynical here?  How right you are......





Colin Richards:   
"Rather than being built solely as ritual or ceremonial centres it may have been the actual acts of construction that provided the main social focus. This effectively shifts attention from the completed entity (the stone circle) to the process of building and the events that surrounded this process. It is suggested that these great monuments are actually composite in nature and rather than being built to be used they were used in their building. Certainly, with the great stone circles each stone quarried, moved and erected constituted a huge amount of effort on the part of large numbers of people.
Just imagine the gathering of hundreds of people to both watch and participate in the dragging of a massive single stone. Undoubtedly, this would have been a great social event in its own right because we have to realise that these stones were, in many cases, larger than had ever been moved before.
But could the 'circle' be a place where over considerable time many different groups brought stones, with each completing sections or adding to those of others? If so, the stone circle could truly be described as a microcosm (see Bradley 2000 for a variation on this theme).
By thinking about stone circles in this way the 'finished' or 'completed' form diminishes in importance. Instead, prominence is attached to the types of stones forming the circle, from where these were derived and how they were quarried and transported."


(Rethinking the great stone circles of Northwest Britain)
http://www.orkneyjar.com/archaeology/dhl/papers/cr/index.html

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

I see you have included Arbor Low (Peak District, Derbyshire) amongst your list of unfinished stone circles. Arbor Low's stones are all flat to the ground. Seems the local lads ran out of energy. If not, why did they not erect them?

Or were they pulled down in more recent times? Someone out there may have a good idea of this.

Incidentally, it hasn't stopped BBC's Countryfile programme showing the Arbor Low circle from the air on the opening credits before each show! Gosh, perhaps it was meant to be VIEWED from the air!

Geo Cur said...

Brian , as mentioned a while ago the incompleteness of the Sarsen circle was accepted from at least the 1740’s , maybe the assumption that it was intended to a complete circle is mistaken , likewise ,due to the description of the bluestone and sarsen horseshoes we also assume they were complete but maybe they are incomplete ellipses . Like towns , many monuments evolve over long periods , from decades to millennia , what was built in the Bronze Age would be far different from the intentions of the original builders .What we see today at some monuments is the culmination of different cultures imposing their ideas and architecture on a site that may have began as a Mesolithic midden then a mortuary enclosure then a Long Barrow . Stonehenge is no different , starting with the ditch and finishing up with the Y and Z holes 1500 years and there is always the possibility of some as yet undiscovered Mesolithic activity .
As we can’t be sure what was intended for a particular monument we can’t say it is necessarily incomplete .I don’t understand why you chose some the incomplete monuments i.e. the Priddy circles are henges not stone circles and despite the recent damage couldn’t be described as incomplete ,Callanish and Rollright , Hurlers , Mitchell’s fold etc . apart from the possibility of stones being robbed what’s missing ?
If you do have a plan is it likely that you will start building only to discover that you have ran out of stones ,surely you will build according to what you have and if it is necessary to get others they will always be available with a bit of effort and that would apply to all the examples above .

BRIAN JOHN said...

Geo -- doesn't look as if we are disagreeing on anything much here. For the alternative view, see Johnson, Wainwright, Cinliffe, Renfrew, Darvill, Parker Pearson, Castleden etc etc etc....... and of course English Heritage.

As with the follies on the eighteenth-century estates, we can always, I suppose, look at a ruin and say "Ah yes, it was MEANT to look like that...."

Tony H said...

Agree with you, Geo Cur. Here we are, living in 2011, we have no idea how a site that may have started to become significant to Mesolithic folk way back when,gradually took on competely different resonances through the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.

Anonymous said...

One and even two 'unfinished' monuments is forgiven. But so many? Any completed?

Can this be more of “The Stuff of Nightmares”?

Kostas

Geo Cur said...

It is arguable that there are "finished" monuments e.g. Long Barrows and passage graves that have been backfilled and a closing stone put across the entrance , and some recumbent stone circles where the placing of the recumbent is the final architectural act apart from much later insertions of burials etc .
It might help not to think of monuments as being like a contemporary building with a preset plan that is carried out and then completed , many evolve like towns , orthostats are moved/ dismantled , axes changed , rock art defaced , ditches backfilled ,new forms attached to older forms etc . Some were in use for short periods others for millennia .

Anonymous said...

Geo,

Is there anything that cannot be explained by 'human intentionality'?

That's the problem! Or you don't see it?

Kostas

Geo Cur said...

Kostas , do you really believe Mt Everest is not man made ?
Rather than make sweeping statements why not be specific ?
Agency does the work intentionality only provides the spur .

Alex Gee said...

Sadly the Priddy circles are even more incomplete now.

In the Summer, approx one third of one circle was bulldozed level with the ground.

Geo Cur said...

Alex ,that is what I was alluding to in the "the Priddy circles are henges not stone circles and despite the recent damage couldn’t be described as incomplete " comment . A bloke has been charged recently too .

Anonymous said...

Geo,
... in the context of prehistoric monuments!

I thought that was understood. Hope that helps.

Kostas

Anonymous said...

The archaeology of human thought and intention, wow! What exactly is the material evidence that it was never finished? What we see is simply a ruinous structure, was the Acropolis ever finished, or Tintern Abbey? Looks more like folk are running out of sensible PhD topics. Stonehenge was a sophisticated computer, a Neolithic Lourdes, a royal cemetery, a cenotaph, a seaside temple (oh yes I’m serious try Google) and the latest a great open ‘barrow’; more than complete apparently - but now with missing walls between the uprights. All break the first and fundamental rules… they are theories around which only carefully selected evidence fits, or worse.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Anon, you write

“... they are theories around which only carefully selected evidence fits”


I couldn't agree with you more! Especially the “carefully selected evidence” part.

Though all theories are only “theoretical”, the theory that's more persuasive is the one that can provide 'clear and convincing' explanations to ALL 'facts on the ground'. Not just invent new patches to stitch together a fabricated narrative further.

That's where 'human intentionality' arguments are especially weak, in my humble opinion.

Kostas

BRIAN JOHN said...

Anon, what is your point? You say: "What exactly is the material evidence that it was never finished?" By "it" I assume you mean Stenness? Ritchie assumes that there must have been some sort of pattern in the minds of the builders, and says that the stone gaps and lack of holes where we might expect them suggests that the project was never completed. do you have a problem with that?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- that's a bit rich, coming from you! If ever there was a theory in search of some facts, it's your theory about sheets of ice and sliding stones. Forget about "intentionality" -- let's just think about EVIDENCE.....

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,

Though you may question my hypothesis (fair enough) you cannot question its ability to provide simple, sensible and consistent explanations to all the indisputable 'facts on the ground' (like the concentric designs, outer circular ditches, alignment of avenues, etc. etc. etc.)

As to 'evidence' for a hypothesis? Often it is in the very explanations that it enables!

The 'evidence' Brian is 'out there' in the 'facts on the ground' this hypothesis can consistently explain. This is no less 'evidence' than Copernicus heliocentric hypothesis.

Kostas

Geo Cur said...

Kostas ,I was hoping you would be more specific than just "... in the context of prehistoric monuments! ???
Which prehistoric monuments and what about them ?

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Geo,

Since you asked, I will answer!

Take, for example, the “empty quarter” at the SW section of Stonehenge.

'Human intentionality' would argue that's how the Neolithic builders intended to leave it. Or, the great sarsen circle was really a crescent and the Neolithic people really worshiped the moon and not the sun. Or the builders ran out of stones or just plain got tired or just gave up.

These are made up 'intentions' we attribute to people whose intentions we know nothing about! Since they left no records behind.

Contrast that with the simple, sensible and consistent explanation for the “empty quarter” my hypothesis provides.

If we consider the stones were brought to Stonehenge by Nature on the surface of an ice sheet and at Stonehenge was a meltwater retaining basin, it makes sense that the SW quarter of Stonehenge would be 'free of stones' since the stones were coming from the North and Northwest while to the West of Stonehenge we have the hill. Thus, by natural action the SW section of Stonehenge will not be 'complete'.

Simple, sensible, consistent explanation. Ask me about explanations of other 'facts on the ground' using this hypothesis!

Kostas

Anonymous said...

You really ought to come over from the USA and take a look at Stonehenge, Kostas. It's the North-West part of the monument that may or may not be unfinished, not the SW.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Anon,

I have! I even have photos to prove it!

Though the exact geographical directions may be off, the point to my argument is that the “empty quarter” is empty because the stones could not get to that side of the retention basin from where they were coming and because of the obstruction of the hill limiting access to that section.

My recollection is that the hill was to the West of Stonehenge and the stones came from the North and Northwest. But I could be wrong on this. The argument stands, however!

Kostas

Anonymous said...

Kostas (and I hope EVERYONE is reading this and taking note of this occurrence) I APOLOGISE, YOU WERE RIGHT about the so-called empty sector.My compass and/ or my bearings went a trifle askew. Not sure that has any bearing on how many of us will be won over to your hypothesis, but good luck!

D. Atterbury