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Thursday, 3 July 2014

Were the earliest megalithic stone settings simply imitations of nature?


The Devil's Den, Clatford Bottom -- built because this was exactly where the big stones were?


I have been looking again at David Field's chapter from this book on Avebury.  I have made some earlier posts about his comments (in 2010) but have been struck again by how straightforward and practical his interpretations are.  No mystical mumbo-jumbo here -- just entirely reasonable analysis and interpretation of the situation as he sees it.  And the interesting thing is that he seems to interpret most of the motives of the early builders of stone settings as strictly utilitarian -- if there are lots of stones jumbled together in a particular place, either clear them away or use them for something.

As I have said before, this seems very much in tune with my assertion that Stonehenge was simply built where the stones were.  And it also explains why the landscape around Stonehenge is relatively "stone free" today --  they simply used up all the stones they could find (sarsens and "foreign" stones) and when they were all used up, the building work skidded to a halt........

Another interesting thought relates to the past occurrence of sarsens in such great abundance in some areas that they were piled up on top of one another, some teetering in precarious positions.  So might the early use of capstones on dolmens have been an imitation of nature?

It's also tempting to think that these jumbles or piles of stones might not have been strictly periglacial, as Field assumes, but may be even the last traces of moraines?  Long ago Maskelyne speculated that there might have been a moraine at or near Stonehenge.... and although Isobel Geddes and Helen walkington (in the same book) assert that there is no evidence of glaciation on the Marlborough Downs, nothing in this life is certain........


The Avebury landscape: Aspects of the field archaeology of the Marlborough Downs

by Graham Brown, David Field, David McOmish and Deborah Cunliffe

Oxbow Books, 2005,  240pp, 91 b/w illus, 15 tabs

8. Some observations on perception, consolidation and change in a land of stones.
David Field

The incidence of sarsen stones on the Marlborough Downs is outlined and methods of clearance and destruction outlined. Implications of prehistoric removal of stones, the land and vegetation and the way in which boulder dominated land might be perceived are also considered.


David Field on minimisation of effort:  "Many of these monuments may originally, however, have been constructed in areas of dense sarsen accumulation and there are implications in terms of the practical engineering involved in monument construction and in the way that these places were thought of by early travellers and settlers. The lack of boulders lying around parts of the landscape is entirely a result of cultural activity over several thousand years."

David Field on dolmens in stony landscapes:
"Why was it necessary to construct such dolmens? The Devil's Den, a massive capstone placed on two uprights situated just above the floor of Clatford Bottom, was not constructed as a prominent isolated feature in the countryside. On the contrary, it was hidden away on the floor of a valley that, records suggest, contained one of the densest concentrations of sarsen boulders in the area; so dense in fact that it was allegedly possible to step from boulder to boulder (Brentnall 1946). The monument would have been largely camouflaged by the sheer concentration of natural boulders. By the middle of the 19th century, however, most of these had been cleared away leaving Merewether to lament that it was now surrounded by nothing but turnips (Merewether 1851a, 74).
Conceivably the process began in imitation of groupings of stones that were present as natural phenomena. Groups of naturally occurring boulders formed into mounds, or even placed boulder on top of boulder by periglacial action. Brentnall (1946, 427), for example, recorded the presence of naturally occurring boulders 'heaped on each other' in a plantation west of Overton Delling. Set amongst such a density of stones, the dolmen could hardly be described as monumental. It would not be distinguished unduly from the naturally placed clitter all around it, except by the area of removed boulders immediately about it.
A further example once lay on the valley floor of Temple Bottom, Rockley. This was also situated amongst an enormous accumulation of sarsen, though like Clatford Bottom it has long since been cleared, a process evidently already under way when Smith (1884, 195) visited the site."

David Field on Avebury:
"The origin of the stones in the Avebury stone circles is often considered to derive from one of the accumulations that still exist on Overton or Fyfield Downs to the east of the site, each stone being dragged a distance of several kilometres up and over Hackpen Hill. Such suggestions are merely a response to where boulders can be found in abundance today. However, as noted above stone was certainly available locally and may have been present on the site itself. There is no reason for the stones to have been hauled such a distance. Local accumulations of sarsen are or were certainly present here and it is likely that the valleys were once covered with boulders even though only isolated examples now survive. The farmer of land east of the West Kennet Avenue confirmed that a ridge c1.0m high and 30m wide `consists of a seam of sarsen that runs through the field' (Barker 1985, 21). Thus the land for this massive construction would need to be cleared first and any boulders within the immediate vicinity removed. Given this scenario the stones for the circle may well have come from the immediate vicinity of the henge, some potentially from the interior."


Constantinos Ragazas said...


How can we distinguish capstones placed by Nature from capstones placed by people? They all look the same to me!


BRIAN JOHN said...

Some dolmens are very crude, and others are quite sophisticated. I think we might trust the archaeologists who have excavated sites, and have found traces of cremations and other burial traces, not to mention walls and forecourts etc. There is more to life than what thinks might look like......

Constaninos Ragazas said...


”There is more to life than what thinks might look like......”

Too philosophical to make sense of the meaning of this. Sounds like a cop-up to question!


BRIAN JOHN said...

Sorry Kostas. Typo. meant to say this: ”There is more to life than what things might look like......”

Meaning you don't just go on outward appearances. You go and do a bit of digging, and see what turns up, if you want to get your interpretations more or less right.

Constantinos Ragazas said...


”Meaning you don't just go on outward appearances. You go and do a bit of digging, and see what turns up, if you want to get your interpretations more or less right.”

”BRIAN JOHN said...
Another thing which allows fertile imaginations to run riot in the archaeological community is the shift towards process and away from form. So both Colin R and Mike PP now argue that the final form of Stonehenge, or Callanish, or whatever, was not the important thing. THE REALLY IMPORTANT THING WAS THE PROCESS OF BUILDING, INVOLVING STONE SOURCING, QUARRYING, HAULAGE ETC -- WITH GREAT SIGNIFICANCE FOR THE STATUS OF THE LEADERS, SOCIAL COHERENCE, POLITICAL SYMBOLISM ETC.”

Is this why archeologists dig?


BRIAN JOHN said...

Good point, Kostas! Let's be charitable and say that maybe it's why SOME archaeologists dig......