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Friday, 22 June 2012

On Stone Age politics



This item on the BBC web site is no doubt based on a Sheffield University press release, timed to coincide with the publication of the latest MPP book. These ideas about political unification and so forth seem to me to be fantastical, but quite in tune with the modern style of archaeology, in which fact and fantasy are blended together in such a way that it becomes difficult for those of independent mind to sort out what sort of factual basis there is for all the speculation.

I'm not surprised by the MPP /SRP "conclusions" (which should really be called "suggestions") since they were aired in last year's controversial lecture in Newport which I criticised heavily in this blog.

Anyway, here is the report, for what it is worth......

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Stonehenge was built to unify Britain, researchers conclude
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22 June 2012

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-18550513

Building Stonehenge was a way to unify the people of Stone Age Britain, researchers have concluded.
 

Teams working on the Stonehenge Riverside Project believe the circle was built after a long period of conflict between east and west Britain.

Researchers also believe the stones, from southern England and west Wales, symbolize different communities.

Prof Mike Parker Pearson said building Stonehenge required everyone "to pull together" in "an act of unification".

The Stonehenge Riverside Project (SRP) has been investigating the archaeology of Stonehenge and its landscape for the past 10 years.

In 2008, SRP researchers found that Stonehenge had been erected almost 500 years earlier than had originally been thought.

Now teams from the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Southampton, Bournemouth and University College London, have concluded that when the stone circle was built "there was a growing island-wide culture".

"The same styles of houses, pottery and other material forms were used from Orkney to the south coast - this was very different to the regionalism of previous centuries," said Prof Parker Pearson, from University of Sheffield.
"Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labour of thousands to move stones from as far away as west Wales, shaping them and erecting them.

"Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification."

Stonehenge may also have been built in a place that already had special significance for prehistoric Britons.

'Centre of the world'
 

The SRP team found that its solstice-aligned avenue sits upon a series of natural landforms that, by chance, form an axis between the directions of midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset.

"When we stumbled across this extraordinary natural arrangement of the sun's path being marked in the land, we realised that prehistoric people selected this place to build Stonehenge because of its pre-ordained significance," said Mr Parker Pearson.

"This might explain why there are eight monuments in the Stonehenge area with solstitial alignments, a number unmatched anywhere else.

"Perhaps they saw this place as the centre of the world".

Previous theories suggesting the great stone circle was inspired by ancient Egyptians or extra-terrestrials have been firmly rejected by researchers.

"All the architectural influences for Stonehenge can be found in previous monuments and buildings within Britain, with origins in Wales and Scotland," said Mr Parker Pearson.

"In fact, Britain's Neolithic people were isolated from the rest of Europe for centuries.

"Britain may have become unified but there was no interest in interacting with people across the Channel.

"Stonehenge appears to have been the last gasp of this Stone Age culture, which was isolated from Europe and from the new technologies of metal tools and the wheel."

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

Soooo. The trilithons are like giant staples holding the land together?
PeteG

Jon Morris said...

"Stonehenge appears to have been the last gasp of this Stone Age culture, which was isolated from Europe and from the new technologies of metal tools and the wheel."

That is a quote to remember. Does anyone know if it is MPP who said this? (the BBC site is a bit vague)

Thanks in advance!

Jon Morris said...

Found the quote after some research. It was MPP. Here's the full quote:

"All the architectural influences for Stonehenge can be found in previous monuments and buildings within Britain, with origins in Wales and Scotland. In fact, Britain’s Neolithic people were isolated from the rest of Europe for centuries. Britain may have become unified but there was no interest in interacting with people across the Channel. Stonehenge appears to have been the last gasp of this Stone Age culture, which was isolated from Europe and from the new technologies of metal tools and the wheel."

Press Release

sciencebod said...

If Stonehenge was to serve as a monument to the United Tribedom of Great Britain, surely there would have been some inscriptions on the standing stones, celebrating the various contributions to this marvel of the western world.

Stonehenge we are told was a Mark2 version of Woodhenge. Why then the mortise and tenon joints - those trilithons are hardly likely to blow down in the night.

Stone is fire-proof, and M&T joints makes it difficult to pull down. So far from being a monument to national unity, I would suggest that it was a prime target for raiding parties, and designed to withstand being attacked and dismantled.

So I for one do not see Stonehenge as a forerunner of the Union flag, set in tablets of stone... far from it. Something was happening there that probably does not bear with thinking about...

Figure out what the lowlier Woodhenge was for, not ignoring utilitarian reasons, and you are probably on your way to explaining its more durable replacement.

Colin Berry, aka sciencebod

BRIAN JOHN said...

Without getting too obsessed with what Stonehenge was for, I'm not at all convinced by this idea of Stonehenge being a "high point" of megalithic culture. There are equally impressive structures in Ireland and Brittany -- admittedly very different in form -- but arguably showing just as much mastery of working with stone. One might just as well argue that Stonehenge was an aberration or a strange sort of "dead end" --- and I have examined earlier on this blog the idea that it was a folly....... I am still rather attracted by that idea.

sciencebod said...

But has anyone ever described those other "equally impressive" structures in Ireland, Brittany etc as iconic? I've visited Carnac, and yes, it's impressive, perhaps more so than Avebury, but iconic, the way that Stonehenge is iconic?

Robert John Langdon said...

Sadly MPP has only half the unification story as trade with Italian Jade axes and Baltic Amber have shown.

Moreover, Stonehenge would be a multi-story monument as was Woodhenge. Jeff Carter's blog shows illustrations. So you can not compare it to other single story monuments elsewhere.

RJL

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, of course Carnac has been described as iconic -- and it is more impressive in many ways than Stonehenge. So are the extraordinary mounds with chambered tombs inside them. So how impressive is Stonehenge by comparison? Don't forget that many visitors who go to Stonehenge for the first time (and who are not swept away by all the hype) are distinctly underwhelmed by what they see.....

Tony H said...

I suppose this Unification theme blends rather well with the pastoral scene about to be unveiled at the Olympics. Oh dear, and MPP's language does sound rather triumphalist in terms of the mega-watt effort involved in moving all those thousands of tons of stone from west Wales etc etc. Shades of the birth pangs of the British Empire, with Scotland, Wales and even the Orkneys presenting a united front. You know it makes sense?

Anonymous said...

“Building Stonehenge was a way to unify the people of Stone Age Britain, researchers have concluded.”

How does that stoned circle square off with the facts on the ground that Stonehenge was never completed?

Shouldn't someone inform MPP and his editors of this obvious flaw in their political theories of Stone Age politics?

thinker

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thinker -- I agree with you. Whatever the intentions of the builders might have been (political or otherwise) the evidence on the ground does indeed suggest that the project was never finished. Even EH seems to agree with that these days. So the "political conclusion" has to be that the grand project demonstrated how shambolic and disorganized the "unified" tribes of these islands actually were.......

chris johnson said...

Amazing Sheffield University lend their name to this stuff.
Perhaps they have physicists who believe in time travel, geologists who believe in stonehenge as an island, and mathematicians teaching that 2+2=42. Likely they run degree courses in homeopathy and crystal healing.
It is truly a wonderful world when you study science at a red-brick university like Sheffield.

Jon Morris said...

It's perhaps debatable whether or not Stonehenge was finished. However, Mike Parker Pearson is an acknowledged, and possibly the foremost, archaeological expert on Stonehenge at the current time.

In the release, he unequivocally states that Britain was isolated from Europe, metal tools and [knowledge of] the wheel at the time of Stonehenge's construction. As a lay-person, it appears to me to be reasonable to assume that this represents the current, and most informed, state of knowledge about this monument.

I must get round to reading his book!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Jon -- your faith in the wisdom of professors is touching indeed. If I had a quid for every time I have heard a professor pronounce something as demonstrably true which was demonstrably crap, I would be a very rich fellow.

Jon Morris said...

It is truly a wonderful world when you study science at a red-brick university like Sheffield.

I agree: In particular, Mappin Street is a great location with good facilities and easy access to the town. It was and is a great place to study.

Jon -- your faith in the wisdom of professors is touching indeed.

Thanks Brian, though I probably wouldn't phrase it quite like that: They have done a 10 year study to come up with the conclusions and there are multiple universities involved, so I think it can be automatically accepted as 'best present knowledge'. As far as I know, there are no mainstream archaeologists contracting the study.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not sure I would be quite as dismissive as Chris about the merits of reading science in Sheffield. I'm sure there are excellent departments and science lecturers there -- maybe the trouble is that archaeology seems to think of itself as a science when it patently is not. It employs scientific techniques, sure, but from what I have seen the mind-set of archaeologists is very different from that of scientists working in the fields of geology and glaciology, for example. Far too much fantasising, far too much acceptance of ruling hypotheses, and far too little respect for observation and the assembling of facts prior to hypothesis formulation. Sorry -- I generalise too much. Some archaeologists are very cautious and show great respect for the discipline of data collection and analysis --- but others (including learned professors whose lectures I have sat in on) rush far too quickly into speculation and fantasy when they would have been better advised to shut up. But there you go -- the philosophy seems to be "follow the money, chaps...... while the going is good."

AMG said...

The fact that Stonehenge was never completed, surely supports the hypothesis that politicians were involved in its planning and construction???.

It could even signify the earliest known appearance of the management/business consultant?. The previous earliest recorded example, being an expert in fire prevention at the library of Alexandria.

Jon Morris said...

As far as I know, there are no mainstream archaeologists contracting the study.

Oops.. typing too fast:
there are no mainstream archaeologists contradicting the study.

Leave out a couple of letters and it takes on a whole new meaning.

BRIAN JOHN said...

AMG -- interesting question: were Stone Age politicians any less incompetent than modern ones? Quite possibly they were affected if not thrown sideways by the same imponderables as today's lot. When asked what he found most difficult about the job of being Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan famously said: "Events, dear boy! Events!"

Anonymous said...

Brian is quite right. It can be very irritating to determine data only to have those data 'stretched', ignored or sometimes intentionally changed (without any notice) to aid Mills and Boon-flavoured archaeology.
One has to 'brace' oneself for this behavoir and just avoid the old grannies.
Did Super-Mac really say that-wonderful. In those days there were huge billboards saying "Britain leads the world in ..."Nuclear Power was one. That was when we were told and believed Windscale was built for supplying electricity (first peaceful use of atomic power) and not for supplying Pu for the Great Shaitan.
Re Library fires. Myris wishes to calm everyone he says every floor has an ample supply of sand buckets-this is Egypt.
GCU In two minds

chris johnson said...

"And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty's heightening"

AMD: business consultancy and archaeology have a lot in common. Plenty of digging and analysis, stirred with gollops of experience, add a teaspoon of politics, and hey presto, a nice story to educate and amuse.

Phil M. said...

The only person to enter Parliament with honest intentions was Guy Fawkes.

Tony H said...

"You can't Accumulate if you don't Speculate: First Law of Wealth Production & Archaeology". A 'philosophy' brought from the U.S.A. during the Renegade Regan era by Margaret & Dennis Thatcher Ltd., and unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Early adherents included Geoffreys Wainwright & Boycott.

Tony H said...

Phil M
What about Otis Ferry?

Tony H said...

"...but from what I have seen the mind-set of archaeologists is very different from that of scientists working in the fields of geology or glaciology, for example"

Presumably, even the geologists and glaciologists working on the DEVONSHIRE upland landscapes have adopted rather unscientific mind-sets, until very recently, based upon the evidence provided in recent Posts on Dartmoor (and Exmoor)???

chris johnson said...

I think there is a bit of a difference Tony, although I am new to the field.

From a stonehenge perspective, the geologists are very conservative academics, very reluctant to speculate without evidence. The archaeologists are keen to have opinions and advance ideas on the basis of minimal evidence.

Stonehenge is unimportant for a geologist and very important for an archaeologist so perhaps this explains the difference. Could be that geologists are equally adventurous in advancing theories that are important to them - e.g. related to global warming.

I think both respect the scientific method.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, I will agree that the work of assorted geomorphologists has been less clever than it might have been. I have been roundly critical of their wimpish tendencies! But the main problem, in the case of the South-West, is that glacial geomorphologists have preferred to work elsewhere, where the landscapes are very much more exciting. A matter of neglect, rather than bad science......

BRIAN JOHN said...

Found this on another discussion site where they were discussing gthe merits of the new MPP book and the ideas on "political unification" as pushed out in that press release. From somebody who calls himself Caliban:

"Other than the observation of the felicitous geomorphology, and the evident astronomical correlations inherent in the alignment of the lithons of the monument, everything other conclusion uttered by this charlatan is the rankest of speculation, appearing
--or so it seems to me-- to be some type of Nationalistic fantasizing or myth-building.

"The purpose of function for which the builders intended the monument(and thousands of others, all about the Isles) remain unknown. There is still considerable doubt even about the actual date of construction. Most of the mystery arises from the lack of written language in the Isles --which is compounded by the relative scarcity of material written about them by literate contemporaries.

"In fact, Britain's Neolithic people were isolated from the rest of Europe for centuries.

"And this statement is so egregiously, aggressively false as to alone be sufficient to invalidate the entire effort of this clown and his coworkers."

Clown? Charlatan? Poor MPP! Thank God we are much more polite on this site....

chris johnson said...

Caliban is fierce but some of this I can empathize with - I too am disappointed about the volume of opinion. Actually MPP is very light touch on both geomorphology and astronomy so I would hardly agree that these are main planks of his thesis.

The press release is peculiar because he does not go on much about the circle of unification in the book. He does advance the thought but not as a unifying theme. Perhaps he has his eye on the opening ceremony for the Olympics, or a high level pitch for more funding. Perhaps he votes UKIP. Perhaps he is simply brainstorming in public which is what I think.

Seems to me there is a lot of evidence for foreign influence when Stonehenge was peaking, although MPP does make a good case for close cultural ties in UK at the time. MPP reminds me of wind-screen wiper thinking, something I am often accused of personally; in other words seeing a broad spectrum of possibilities before arriving at a conclusion. He does not conclude on this nationalistic them in the book; just sketches possibilities, imo..