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Thursday 29 December 2011

The Cursus Great Pits

David Keys has drawn my attention to this piece published online on the Independent web site.   It's a longer version of something we discussed on this blog a while ago.  What interests me in particular is the "great pits"  in the Cursus and the proposed link with the heelstone.

Secret history of Stonehenge revealed  
Ancient site may have been place of worship 500 years before the first stone was erected

David Keys

Independent, Saturday 26 November 2011

Extraordinary new discoveries are shedding new light on why Britain’s most famous ancient site, Stonehenge, was built – and when.

Current research is now suggesting that Stonehenge may already have been an important sacred site at least 500 years before the first Stone circle was erected – and that the sanctity of its location may have determined the layout of key aspects of the surrounding sacred landscape.

What’s more, the new investigation – being carried out by archaeologists from the universities’ of Birmingham, Bradford and Vienna – massively increases the evidence linking Stonehenge to pre-historic solar religious beliefs. It increases the likelihood that the site was originally and primarily associated with sun worship

The investigations have also enabled archaeologists to putatively reconstruct the detailed route of a possible religious procession or other ritual event which they suspect may have taken place annually to the north of Stonehenge.

That putative pre-historic religious ‘procession’ (or, more specifically, the evidence suggesting its route) has implications for understanding Stonehenge’s prehistoric religious function – and suggests that the significance of the site Stonehenge now occupies emerged earlier than has previously been appreciated.

The crucial new archaeological evidence was discovered during on-going survey work around Stonehenge in which archaeologists have been ‘x-raying’ the ground, using ground-penetrating radar and other geophysical investigative techniques. As the archaeological team from Birmingham and Vienna were using these high-tech systems to map the interior of a major prehistoric enclosure (the so-called ‘Cursus’) near Stonehenge, they discovered two great pits, one towards the enclosure’s eastern end, the other nearer its western end.

When they modelled the relationship between these newly-discovered Cursus pits and Stonehenge on their computer system, they realised that, viewed from the so-called ‘Heel Stone’ at Stonehenge, the pits were aligned with sunrise and sunset on the longest day of the year – the summer solstice (midsummer’s day). The chances of those two alignments being purely coincidental are extremely low.

The archaeologists then began to speculate as to what sort of ritual or ceremonial activity might have been carried out at and between the two pits. In many areas of the world, ancient religious and other ceremonies sometimes involved ceremonially processing round the perimeters of monuments. The archaeologists therefore thought it possible that the prehistoric celebrants at the Cursus might have perambulated between the two pits by processing around the perimeter of the Cursus.

Initially this was pure speculation – but then it was realized that there was, potentially a way of trying to test the idea. On midsummer’s day there are in fact three key alignments – not just sunrise and sunset, but also midday (the highest point the sun reaches in its annual cycle). For at noon the key alignment should be due south.

One way to test the ‘procession’ theory (or at least its route) was for the archaeologists to demonstrate that the midway point on that route had indeed a special relationship with Stonehenge (just as the two pits – the start and end point of the route – had). The ‘eureka moment’ came when the computer calculations revealed that the midway point (the noon point) on the route aligned directly with the centre of Stonehenge, which was precisely due south.

This realization that the sun hovering over the site of Stonehenge at its highest point in the year appears to have been of great importance to prehistoric people, is itself of potential significance. For it suggests that the site’s association with the veneration of the sun was perhaps even greater than previously realized.

But the discovery of the Cursus pits, the discovery of the solar alignments and of the putative ‘processional’ route, reveals something else as well – something that could potentially turn the accepted chronology of the Stonehenge landscape on its head.

For decades, modern archaeology has held that Stonehenge was a relative latecomer to the area – and that the other large monument in that landscape – the Cursus – pre-dated it by up to 500 years.

However, the implication of the new evidence is that, in a sense, the story may have been the other way round, i.e. that the site of Stonehenge was sacred before the Cursus was built, says Birmingham archaeologist, Dr. Henry Chapman, who has been modelling the alignments on the computerized reconstructions of the Stonehenge landscape

The argument for this is simple, yet persuasive. Because the ‘due south’ noon alignment of the ‘procession’ route’s mid-point could not occur if the Cursus itself had different dimensions, the design of that monument has to have been conceived specifically to attain that mid-point alignment with the centre of Stonehenge.

What’s more, if that is so, the Stonehenge Heel Stone location had to have been of ritual significance before the Cursus pits were dug (because their alignments are as perceived specifically from the Heel Stone).

Those two facts, when taken together, therefore imply that the site, later occupied by the stones of Stonehenge, was already sacred before construction work began on the Cursus. Unless the midday alignment is a pure coincidence (which is unlikely), it would imply that the Stonehenge site’s sacred status is at least 500 years older than previously thought – a fact which raises an intriguing possibility.

For 45 years ago, archaeologists found an 8000 BC Mesolithic (‘Middle’ Stone Age) ritual site in what is now Stonehenge’s car park. The five thousand year gap between that Mesolithic sacred site and Stonehenge itself meant that most archaeologists thought that ‘sacred’ continuity between the two was inherently unlikely. But, with the new discoveries, the time gap has potentially narrowed. Indeed, it’s not known for how long the site of Stonehenge was sacred prior to the construction of the Cursus. So, very long term traditions of geographical sanctity in relation to Britain’s and the world’s best known ancient monument, may now need to be considered.

The University of Birmingham Stonehenge area survey - the largest of its type ever carried out anywhere in the world – will take a further two years to complete, says Professor Vince Gaffney, the director the project.

Virtually every square meter in a five square mile area surrounding the world most famous pre-historic monument will be examined geophysically to a depth of up to two metres, he says.

It’s anticipated that dozens, potentially hundreds of previously unknown sites will be discovered as a result of the operation.

The ongoing discoveries in Stonehenge’s sacred prehistoric landscape – being made by Birmingham’s archaeologists and colleagues from the University of Vienna’s Ludwig Boltzmann Institute – are expected to transform scholars’ understanding of the famous monument’s origins, history and meaning.


Jon Morris said...

It's very interesting.

But the University of Birminham haven't as yet released the coordinate data showing the location of the pits. The detailed mapping information, but without coordinate information, used to be on Mike Pitt's site but was removed.

In particular:

"they realised that, viewed from the so-called ‘Heel Stone’ at Stonehenge, the pits were aligned with sunrise and sunset on the longest day of the year – the summer solstice (midsummer’s day). The chances of those two alignments being purely coincidental are extremely low."

This is a problematic because summer solstice alignment to the East will be different to that of the West because of the hill ridge of Durrington and Larkhill.

It's also problematic in that it begs the question as to why someone would build an alignment in a location that they know will not have a true horizon.

Geo Cur said...

I sent the below to Mike Pitts web site at the time ,although had flagged up problems about it right at the start despite being led up the garden path by an ill informed "spot" for one of the pits from “Heritage Daily “ . I avoided most of the huge problems with the ideas of procession and stuck to what was falsifiable David's article changes nothing about the data or extreme nuttiness of the ideas even if based on accurate calculations which they are not .
“Thanks Mike and the Birmingham team for the data that really is helpful and clears things up. It was apparent that something was not working out from the text available on Saturday but without co-ordinates not so easy to say exactly where the mistake lay . Heritage Daily didn’t help by giving one of the pits sites as the same for last years “Henge “ .
Assuming the pits are contemporaneous with the cursus i.e. 3630- 3670 BC then the declination for solstice rise and set and that time was 24.05 degrees and the azimuth for sun set at the Solstice as seen from the heel Stone would be 309.5 degres . Looking at the GE image the azimuth for the Heel Stone to western pit alignment is 312.6 degrees (a convenient mark is the south western edge of the field that contains the “Cursus Barrows “ ) which is three degrees further north than the sun ever actually gets to . The alignment towards the solstice sun rise is accurate and the resulting distance between the two points is within a couple of metres of exactly 2 Km . the mid way point is thus within a metre over 1 Km ,this point when extended due south as suggested for the final leg of the procession does not lead to the centre of Stonehenge but a point 210 metres east of the centre of the monument .
I have stuck to falsifiable data but problems with the conjecture about alignments involving non intervisibility and painfully slow processions all based on two pits that are undated ,unexcavated and too big to have held timber posts or megaliths might take up too much room . “ If anyone wants the data required to do the calc do ask , it is limited , as the teams have not released anything at all except for some pics ,but it is good enough to show they are wrong .
Sorry about the length of this .

Geo Cur said...

Jon ,I didn't want to mention the posting then removal of the higher res pics as it smacked of a suggestion of "conspiracy " , I'll give them the benefit of the doubt .They were useful but even better would be the release of the co-ordinates /grid refs in the datum of their choosing centred on the centre of the pits and we can then give an even more accurate refutation.
Just over a year ago the Trefael cup marked rock was being described in the media by “several astronomers that the distribution of the cupmarks may represent a section of the night sky that includes the star constellations of Cassiopeia, Orion, Sirius and of course the North Star.” There was silence when I pointed out the flaws in the argument followed by personal stuff typically lacking in data , recently the interim report was published , no mention of the astronomers or the representations .Like the “ henge “ discovered in Fargo Field will this Pit “alignment “stuff go the same way ?

Anonymous said...
Email if you still want copies of the maps

Jon Morris said...

"but even better would be the release of the co-ordinates /grid refs in the datum of their choosing centred on the centre of the pits and we can then give an even more accurate refutation."

Yes, we know that some of what has been said in the publicity releases that went out to the newspapers must be incorrect. I hadn't thought of the conspiratorial angle: The lack of release of coordinate data makes them look flaky rather than conspiratorial?

Jon Morris said...

Brian, on another topic, do you know what the rates of decay to a natural angle of repose of natural chalk are? Chalk in lumps is about 35-45 so I'm assuming that a 30 degree repose in 3000 BC would be more or less the same as it is today?



BRIAN JOHN said...

Not sure you can talk of a "natural angle of repose" for chalk or any other rock type. It all depends on the interaction between the nature of the rock and the nature of the environment. If there is downcutting going on, then you can get steep slopes, and if sedimentation is dominant, then slopes will be shallower. But landscapes are multi-faceted, with features of many different ages juxtaposed. The old WM Davis ideas of maturity and old age in landscapes are not used much these days.

Jon Morris said...

Hi Brian

It's an engineering term we use, usually for granular materials, to show what angle any material will naturally lie at if you were to pour that material onto a spot on the ground. For granulars, the natural angle will fairly quickly be reached if some other agent causes it to have a higher angle than the natural angle.

But if you cut into the chalk of the downs, you create an unnuatural angle: It's the rate of weathering away in the downs that's of interest. Long story: related to Stonehenge, email me if of interest.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, this is an interesting one -- I'm familiar with the idea that surface gradients of piles of stuff (angular boulders, angular or round pebbles, sand, silt etc) will vary, with the general principle that the larger the fragments the steeper the angle that can be maintained. But in nature you almost always have a regolith of some sort, and even on chalk slopes you might have a steepish slope with bedrock exposures at the top of a hillside, then with a zone of broken fragments, and then gravels / sands //and finally silts and clays in the bottom of a coombe. Overall result -- a concave slope, with each segment of it responding to particle size, moisture levels and downslope mobility. Generalisations? Rather difficult...

Jon Morris said...

Rather difficult...

Yes, falls into the too difficult to bother trying to work out I think.

Thanks Brian

Tony H said...

Since this Brum Uni work depends in part for its theorising claims upon the so-called peri-glacial stripes - seemingly identified by Charly French, friend of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, as running away from the Heel Stone along the 'path' of the later-created(?) Avenue, I will mention that more about this Charly (or Charles) French may be found by entering the following keywords into your Search Engine:-


He has worked with Francis Pryor on prehistoric projects in East Anglia, for example. This McBurney Lab. appears to be part of the Dept of Archaeology at Cambridge Uni.

Does he speak the same language as Brian and other geomorphologists?

Geo Cur said...

Tony , The alignment from the Heel Stone to the point on the horizon where the sun is seen to rise circa 3100 BC on the summer solstice is one of salient alignments for the Brum idea as it should cross the point of the eastern pit . That particular alignment has some relation to the periglacial stripes which are said to echo the orientation of the Avenue but I doubt the stripes maintain as accurate an orientation as the ditches of the Avenue and as such are only of interest in their general orientation which was seized upon by MPP and chums and not really germane to the Brum idea which involves one procession on the orientation of the Cursus and another ,not at right angles to that orientation but due south midway between the pits finishing up supposedly at the centre of the unsighted pre stone monument ,with no previous indication of anything follwing this route discovered by geofizz and more importantly actually ending up nearly 180 metres to the east of the monument i.e. even outside the ditch .

Geo Cur said...

I think it may help to point out just how simple it is show how the Brum idea is flawed without resorting to too many figures , astronomy or trig . One point we can be sure is the midway point between the two pits as this is said to be due south of the centre of Stonehenge and obviously at some point on the cursus between the two ditches .Once that is established we can then calculate either the point of the eastern or western pit(s) as they are supposed to be on the alignment of the solstice sun set and rise circa 3100 BC . The eastern one is simplest as according to the now removed maps the pit did indeed look like it was relatively close to the suggested alignment .If we then measure from the eastern pit to the centre point , we merely have to add the same distance to the line from the centre point to find the point of the western pit .When we do we find a point on the Cursus nearly 380 metres too far west from the point where the solstice sun set alignment “line “ would cross and nowhere near the point suggested on their removed plan . By applying the same logic but this time starting with the western pit we obviously the same kind of discrepancy .This of course avoids having to discuss the problems with the non falsifiable claims ,which potentially could take many dull hours .

Tony H said...

GeoCur & Alex Gee

I now find, by trawling the keywords haul for CHARLY FRENCH; McBURNEY; GEOARCHAEOLOGY; etc, etc that:-

The founder of the McBurney Laboratory for Geoarchaeology, one Charles McBurney, had an interest in rock art and cave archaeology. Charly French also is involved with cave archaeology.

Grant said...

I just stumbled across your site. One thing that has always puzzled me about the so-called alignments of certain stones with the position of the sun or other celestial bodies at solstices, equinoxes, and other "special" occasions, is that the Earth's pole of rotation changes by about 1 degree every 71.6 years. An alignment that worked several thousand years ago would be off by several tens of degrees. Or am I missing something?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Grant -- I fear that this is not a field of expertise for me. But my impression is that the astro-archaeology people do know about these gradual shifts of axis and have built all this into their models.

Jon Morris said...

An alignment that worked several thousand years ago would be off by several tens of degrees. Or am I missing something?

If the alignment is to stars, then that could be correct: Our axis 'wobbles' by 22.5 to 24.5 degrees and it also rotates. So potentially the position of a star could be 49 degrees different. Because of the way we view alignments at the horizon, the effect of this change could be to modify the viewed angle by anything between 0 and more than 49 degrees.

However, if we're talking about the sun or the moon, it's a different story because our axis is defined by rotation about the sun (and the moon by its rotation about us). So in the sun's case, the actual change in angle is only the difference between the 'wobbles': ie about 2 degrees. This works out as an alignment change of up to about 4 degrees depending on when the alignment occurs.

sciencebod said...

I was once given a thorough telling-off on this site by a fellow conmmentator for introducing my allegedly barmy ideas into otherwise focused topic discussions. Far be it from me to repeat the crime a second time. Suffice it to say that the approximate east-west orientation of the Cursus, with a tilt towards the south-east, might have been decided upon by an unknown Neolithic site surveyor for an entirely different reason. It was to do with efficient disposal of the dead, not requiring burial or cremation (both of those being problematical we're told by the knowledgeable Ken West). It's all set out on my sciencebuzz site posted just a couple of days ago. Some here might describe it as a flight of fancy, correction, scores, maybe hundreds of flights each day, most coming probably from the direction of the south/south-east...

Nuff said.

Colin Berry