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Saturday, 28 June 2014

More about that old jerry-built shambles...



Followers of this blog will be familiar with the idea -- articulated by Rob Ixer and myself, among others -- that Stonehenge was a bit of a shambles, built by people whose ambitions or aspirations were truly spectacular, but whose surveying and building skills were questionable.  See the following:

http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.se/2012/01/stonehenge-and-importance-of-heroic.html

http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.se/2013/08/stonehenge-complete-or-incomplete.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-f4c3F9iEaY

http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.se/2013/03/how-smart-were-our-neolithic-ancestors.html

http://www.thedolectures.com/brian-john-dispelling-the-stonehenge-myth/#.U66JR6jT_LI

http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.se/2012/01/stonehenge-breeding-ground-for.html

http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.se/2009/11/stonehenge-disloyalty.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wEvLWkTBEc&feature=channel

I have also questioned other assumptions about the skill of the Stonehenge builders in my book, which, to the eternal credit of EH, seems to sell quite well at the visitor centre. On the other hand, the archaeology establishment has so vigorously promoted the idea of the "immaculate Stonehenge" and the extraordinary skills of our ancestors that it's rather difficult for them to change direction so soon after the completion of all those wonderful new displays and PR materials.


So it's refreshing to see that Prof Ronald Hutton, in a lecture the other day at the Chalke Valley History Festival, agreed with the line that Stonehenge was and is a bit of a shambles.  The Western Daily Press picked up the story, and now the mainstream media are onto it as well -- today there is coverage in the Daily Mail and the Bangalore Mirror (I kid you not!), not to mention other papers as well.  Here is the Daily Mail piece:

=========================================

'Stonehenge was a botched job by cowboy builders': Leading historian claims landmark is only half finished - but is still a triumph

• Professor Ronald Hutton: It was 'unique and possibly failed experiment'
• Builders 'insane enough to work enormous stones as if they were wood'
• Professor claims they put 'one broken bit on top of the other broken bit'
• He was speaking about it at the Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival

By David Wilkes

27 June 2014
Cowboy builders botched Stonehenge and may have never even finished it, according to a leading historian.

Professor Ronald Hutton described the prehistoric wonder on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, as ‘a unique and possibly failed experiment – as much a triumph as a disaster’ in a talk at the Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival.

It is a triumph, he said, ‘because the darned thing’s still there and it’s the most famous prehistoric monument in the entire world’ built by somebody who was ‘insane enough to want to try the experiment of working enormous stones as if they were wood’.

‘They pulled it off but they had some bad times along the way,’ said Professor Hutton, an expert on paganism from Bristol University.

‘When they put up one of those great sandstone blocks in the outer circle, it slipped when it was being put in its hole, fell over and broke in half.

‘If you were a decent bunch of builders what you’d do then is, after a great deal of screaming and complaining, chuck the two broken bits away and bring another one intact and do it properly.

‘They didn’t. They put one broken bit on top of the other broken bit, jammed a lintel on top and hoped they’d stay together. They didn’t, they fell over quite soon after.

‘So these people are working under pressure, they don’t have the resources or the time to get another stone. This is the heart of the disaster that Stonehenge ended up being.

The avenue that leads into Stonehenge is aligned directly on the mid-summer sunrise so that two of the stones frame the sunrise ‘like the sights of a camera or gun’.

But Professor Hutton said the ‘even more stunning effect’ at the mid-winter sunset was lost – because of another mistake by the builders.

He said they built a trilithon – two massive upright stones with a lintel on top – but one of the uprights was not rooted deeply enough in the ground.

‘At some time, that stone skidded out,’ said the professor.

‘It fell headlong across the altar stone, knocking the altar stone to the ground and breaking in half itself. That massive lintel tumbled down and still lies where it fell. They never tried to fix it.

‘So Stonehenge was built by cowboys. It is on the one hand one of the greatest building successes in the story of the human race and from another point of view one of the greatest catastrophes.’
===========================

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2671664/Stonehenge-built-cowboys-lasted-well.html#ixzz35vIIym1Z

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So have we seen the last of this sort of thing?  Somehow I doubt it....




20 comments:

BRIAN JOHN said...

As Geo reminded us a few years ago: "John Wood the architect who did a very accurate survey of the monument in the 1740's writing about the missing lintels over stones 2,3, &5 " These and amny more questions will show us that the whole Work was never compleat " Flinders Petrie was of a similar mind .

So this wonderful new revelation by Ron Hutton is almost 300 years too late........ and it certainly ain't a revolutionary idea. But then everything reported in the media about Stonehenge has to be hyped up to the eyeballs.....

beeman said...

Its a wonder there's anything left of Stonehenge at all considering how long it has been there.

Relative to other structures in the UK it is of course one of the longest surviving so 'jerry-built' is an unscientific description (strange you should promote this considering your affinity for evidence based assertions).

BRIAN JOHN said...

Of course the expression is non-scientific, Beeman. But everybody knows what it means -- and I make no apology for using it. I have argued ever since the start of this blog that the aspirations of the builders were much greater than their actual skills. There's plenty of evidence on the ground to support this view! Stones of all sorts of sizes and shapes, irregular spacing, stones falling over, stones being used over and again in different settings, suggesting confused priorities or indecision, or -- most significant of all -- a lack of stones. So they fiddled about with the stones that they had. It's all on this blog -- nothing new.

Tony said...

Slightly off - topic, but the same, Chalke Valley, south Wiltshire, History Festival that Prof Hutton was addressing, featured on local BBC radio, with the station interviewing an archaeologist responsible for erecting a Saxon house on site this week.

But on the topic of the inner circle at Stonehenge, I challenge anyone who stands in there, surrounded by the gigantic, carefully smoothed megaliths, some complete with trilithons, and not be totally awestruck. You'd have to be particularly cynical and/or absolutely unimaginative not to be. There is simply nothing to compare with this structure in NW Europe. As Hutton says, "It is on the one hand one of the biggest building successes in the history of the human race....."

By the way, what have human beings ever constructed that may be regarded or described as being perfection? Even when their structures seem impeccable, no doubt imperfections are revealed in modern - day analysis.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Agree the stones ARE impressive when you stand among them -- if allowed by all those fierce security people! And of course you have to admire the ambition of the builders. But it's good to have somebody like Hutton making the point that it is all a bit shambolic -- and if truth be told, it is less than impressive from a distance. It looks small and rather insignificant, lost in a boring landscape. So I'll continue to bang on about the facts that it was built where the stones were (or maybe where the Altar Stone was), probably as a folly, by people whose ambitions outstripped their technical abilities, and that the whole enterprise skidded to a halt when they ran out of energy and ran out of stones.....

Jon Morris said...

So I'll continue to bang on about the facts that it was built where the stones were (or maybe where the Altar Stone was), probably as a folly, by people whose ambitions outstripped their technical abilities, and that the whole enterprise skidded to a halt when they ran out of energy and ran out of stones.....

Interesting ideas Brian

However, given its age and the construction materials available, the structure would have been seen to be more “perfect” by its builders than any modern equivalent would be today. I think you would be quite surprised to learn how many modern buildings would be classified as follies based on that analysis.

But there seems to be so little interest in the subject that expertise reported in tabloids is rarely actively questioned: Perhaps this is because the study of History is considered to have little or no value to society?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Agreed, Jon. Stonehenge might well have been greatly admired (or even revered, if you are into sacred things and reverence) by those who saw it at the time of construction or shortly after. I use the word "folly" to mean something built as a demonstration of power, with no particular purpose other than self-aggrandisement or showing off....

On the matter of incompleteness, of course the top archaeos are now hedging their bets by more or less admitting that Stonehenge never did look like the "immaculate" version of the textbooks, and that it was always incomplete, and that completeness did not matter. The thing that mattered, according to Colin Richards, MPP and others, was the community EFFORT involved, giving rise to social coherence etc etc burble burble.....

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not sure that society values history less than it did. You shouldn't take the media too seriously. The press always was shallow, and preoccupied with wacky people and wacky stories, here today and gone tomorrow. On to the next "amazing revelations" about Stonehenge.....

Jon Morris said...

On the matter of incompleteness, of course the top archaeos are now hedging their bets by more or less admitting that Stonehenge never did look like the "immaculate" version of the textbooks, and that it was always incomplete, and that completeness did not matter.

Who knows? Unless you know what the design intent was (folly or not), you have no way of knowing whether or not the builders would have considered it "finished".


The thing that mattered, according to Colin Richards, MPP and others, was the community EFFORT involved, giving rise to social coherence etc etc burble burble.....

If their work is entirely dependant on voluntary effort, perhaps they would come to believe that other societies, and the perhaps the rest of society in general, also work this way?

It's a nice idea but perhaps a little disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life. Almost everyone else in the rest of society needs to see some benefit to be persuaded to do something (money, food, survival, not being killed etc). The people in charge also need to see a significant benefit (either to themselves or their people): Find the specific benefit of building something that has the design features of a 'Stonehenge' and the design intent automatically follows. Once the design intent is known, it's easy to tell whether or not it was 'finished'.

But a large part of the fun of Stonehenge, and all the other monuments, is not knowing why they did it (and what the benefit there was to them in doing what they did). If there is no known benefit to us in having a knowledge of that History, or even history in general, then perhaps not knowing is a better option?

Myris of Alexandria said...

The blessed Greeks when they built their greatest buildings intentionally made a mistake, an upside down tile for example, so as to avoid the sin of hubris.
Hubris, something not unknown to us here in Alexandria.
M.

Beeman said...

Well, it's good that you make no apology for being unscientific Brian - I suggest you consider this next time you pen another rant about how you're so tired of archaeologists doing the same.

It's clear that by promoting the opinion of a 'jerry-built' Stonehenge you feel it strengthens your core assertion that the monument was built 'on the fly' and therefore probably from glacial erratics gathered from the landscape.

Please explain how irregular shaped stones is in the least bit related to an incomplete or confused construction process. As pointed out by subsequent commented neither you, or I, have a clue about the original intentions or desires of those that built the monument.

The trilithons alone have endured approx. 4000 years of exposure to natural and cultural forces. Countless seismic and climatic events, countless periods of looting, vandalism.

As you may know during the Victorian period visitors complained that their enjoyment of the henge was marred by the incessant tapping of chisels as people chipped away souvenir fragments of rock for their mantelpieces.

The question therefore of whether the current state of the stones is a good indicator of what they looked like when built is absurd. As the recently revealed parch marks show there were clearly a number of very large pits dug roughly where the stones would have been given the shape the circle. Where those stones have gone in the intervening 4000 years is anyone's guess, but surely it's now time to accept that they were probably there? It doesn't totally undermine your argument.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Tongue in cheek, Beeman...... learn to recognize it when you see it. And you accuse me of penning rants! Everything I write is carefully considered and expressed in measured language, except when I'm upset about the performance of the Welsh rugby team.

Myris of Alexandria said...

The original Jerry built comment should be read in its context. In a prescient penultimate paragraph Dr Ixer in the 1990s, encapsulated the man versus ice dilemma.
Read the original and substitute Rhosyfelin for dolerite to obtain the full deja vu feeling.
I wonder if he would write that paragraph now, I know he would write the following one.
It is on-line at academia.edu.
Petrography and provenance or something similar.
M

BRIAN JOHN said...

Have the archaeologists been getting at you for disloyalty to the cause, Myris? Ah, political correctness rules......

Myris of Alexandria said...

Ah no! nobody can get to me, pensioned off here, in the stacks of the Great Library.
I am not certain many archies would want me alongside them and know many who would, most definitely, not, want that.
Like Kostas I am fiercely loyal only to the TRUTH (unlike Kostas my truth is flexible).

Years ago I started the new Beatitudes- the only one that worked was
"Blessed are the expedient for their lives are comfortable".
M

BRIAN JOHN said...

Spoken like a true mercenary, Myris! Mercenaries are survivors -- when the going gets tough, you can hop off and join the other lot.

Myris of Alexandria said...

Remind me who is flogging their book on this blog and who gives away his writings.
M

BRIAN JOHN said...

Myris, all academics since the beginning of time have "given away their writings" and "flogged their books." Including MPP, Colin Richards, Tim Darvill -- and, I suspect, your humble self.

TonyH said...

Regarding the constant return to the Ixer/John expression, "Jerry - built old shambles".

I would remind bloggers that the great 20th Century singing duo, Simon & Garfunkel, started out from adolescence as "Tom & Jerry".

This was an allusion to their relative size, one being almost 12 inches taller than the other.

As their fame grew, they metamorphosed into the beloved Simon and Garfunkel.

It would be nice if we accorded similar respect to Stonehenge..... "That old Garfunkel - built old shambles" might do for starters.

TonyH said...

Brian said, 30 June 06.52 hours:

"..and if truth be told, it is less than impressive from a distance. It looks small and insignificant, lost in a boring landscape."

Compare Diarist John Evelyn, writing exactly 360 years ago today, after time spent in Salisbury Plain:

"Now we were arrived at Stonehenge, indeed a stupendous monument, APPEARING AT A DISTANCE LIKE A CASTLE; how so many and huge pillars of stone should have been brought together, some erect, others transverse on the tops of them, in a circular area rudely representing a cloister or heathen and more natural temple, is wonderful".

Thanks to PeteG for drawing our attention to the above anniversary diary item today (see one of the Posts nearer July 22nd).