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Monday, 30 May 2016

The dead of Stonehenge -- more about bluestone use

Diagram from the article, showing the Aubrey Holes and (red dots) the location of cremated remains

Christie Willis, Peter Marshall, Jacqueline McKinley, Mike Pitts, Joshua Pollard, Colin Richards, Julian Richards, Julian Thomas, Tony Waldron, Kate Welham and Mike Parker Pearson (2016). The dead of Stonehenge. Antiquity, 90, pp 337-356


The assemblage of Neolithic cremated human remains from Stonehenge is the largest in Britain, and demonstrates that the monument was closely associated with the dead. New radiocarbon dates and Bayesian analysis indicate that cremated remains were deposited over a period of around five centuries from c. 3000–2500 BC. Earlier cremations were placed within or beside the Aubrey Holes that had held small bluestone standing stones during the first phase of the monument; later cremations were placed in the peripheral ditch, perhaps signifying the transition from a link between specific dead individuals and particular stones, to a more diffuse collectivity of increasingly long-dead ancestors.

Our research shows that Stonehenge was used as a cremation cemetery for mostly adult men and women for around five centuries, during and between its first two main stages of construction. In its first stage, many burials were placed within and beside the Aubrey Holes. As these are believed to have contained bluestones, there seems to have been a direct relationship between particular deceased individuals and standing stones.
Human remains continued to be buried during and after Stonehenge’s second stage, demonstrating its continuing association with the dead. Most of these later burials appear, however, to have been placed in the ditch around the monument’s periphery, leaving the stones, now grouped in the centre of the site, distant from the human remains.
Stonehenge changed from being a stone circle for specific dead individuals linked to particular stones, to one more diffusely associated with the collectivity of increasingly long- dead ancestors buried there. This is consistent with the interpretation of Stonehenge’s stage 2 as a domain of the eternal ancestors, metaphorically embodied in stone (Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1998; Parker Pearson 2012).

This is an interesting article which re-examines the cremated bone debris in some of the Aubrey Holes and which brings together the radiocarbon dating of many samples. The authors show a strong clustering of cremated bone samples over a five-hundred year period starting around 5,000 yrs BP, and they suggest that the practice of cremation may have come from Ireland, where cremations started somewhat earlier.  The authors repeat the thesis that the cremated remains were placed in the stone sockets of the Aubrey Holes which had previously been occupied by bluestones.  In other words, the old stone sockets were used as a cremation cemetery.  So clearly the authors are agreeing with the hypothesis that the bluestones were present in the Stonehenge landscape, and were being used in stone settings, before 5,000 yrs BP.

However, I cannot see any evidence in this paper to suggest that the 56 Aubrey Holes actually were used in association with an early  bluestone setting -- there is just an assumption that the holes are approximately the right size to have held small monoliths.........  That's not evidence -- it's supposition.

Also, I cannot see any evidence in this paper which supports this conclusion:  Stonehenge changed from being a stone circle for specific dead individuals linked to particular stones, to one more diffusely associated with the collectivity of increasingly long-dead ancestors buried there. This is consistent with the interpretation of Stonehenge’s stage 2 as a domain of the eternal ancestors, metaphorically embodied in stone (Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1998; Parker Pearson 2012). 

A stone circle for specific dead individuals linked to particular stones??  There is nothing here to support that contention.  In fact, it would be easier to argue that the bluestones had no significance whatsoever, if (as the authors contend) they were taken away so that the socket holes could be used for something else.  There is mention of Hawley's observations that some of the cremated bones seem to have been placed in smaller holes adjacent to certain Aubrey Holes (such as AH 7) while they still contained stones;  this is an interesting point, and it would have been interesting if the authors of this new paper had explored it further.

And as for the point about "the collectivity of increasingly long-dead ancestors" and "the domain of the eternal ancestors, metaphorically embodied in stone" --  that is all no less fanciful than the healing stone hypothesis of Darvill and Wainwright.

The point also needs to be made that this article tells us nothing at all about either bluestone transport or the picking up of bluestones in west Wales and elsewhere.  So there is no relevance for the glacial / human transport debate.  But MPP and his colleagues are clearly, in this article, seeking to promote the idea that the bluestones were highly revered -- and of course this feeds into their ideas about why Neolithic tribesmen would have gone to all that trouble in "quarrying" bluestones from their source areas in the far west.  That's the narrative, and they are sticking to it.......


Neil Wiseman said...

Hi Brian,
There are elements in this paper I agree with, but a number of things I don't. Bluestones aside for the moment, if we review the time-span of cremation interments I believe we see that the Aubrey finds are specifically associated with the moon, (because the Aubrey's themselves are), while the ditch and bank remains are associated with the sun. The initial 500 years (pre-Sarsen) saw layers of remains carefully placed within the Holes, then, after a pause, saw the interments interact with locations associated with the sun.

This is indicative of a transition from the late Windmill Hill people to the Beaker Folk. The early monument as designed was moon-based, while the later stone-phase is where the sun comes into play (though both are represented in the separate designs to one extent or another.)

Notice the cluster of remains near non-Aubrey Hole-H, which is very near AH-14 in the SE. This is along the famous winter solstice sunrise line which intersects the Great Trilithon on its way to SS-93. It's also the summer solstice sunset line. It's my belief that these graves were made long after there were any markers — post or stone — in the Holes. Perhaps future excavators will find similar clustered remains out by that Station Stone? So the positioning of remains to certain areas became more important than that of a more general deposition in an available random Aubrey.

I don't believe the Trilithons or the Sarsen Circle had anything to do with death, the 'ancestors', or the past — but with life and the future. That said, I also don't believe that the Blues were associated with death either, in any of their various incarnations. I agree that there's nothing to suggest that a specifically interred individual could have been associated with any particular stone.

Among the mostly re-hashed contentions in Tim Darvill's recent (Pay Wall!) paper is a little gem which alludes to the different types of Bluestones being selected from different locations in Wales for purposes of cultural continuity. Maybe/Maybe not. This would exceed the remit that there were 'people' involved with their meaning. But for whatever reason they were used in the early days — and however they got to the site — I have a feeling that they meant one thing to the early people, and something else entirely to the later, and this difference appears to be diametric rather than tangential.

Theories concerned with the early days of the monument are a dangerous game to play because while the design or purpose was not intrinsically slipshod, the encoding was intentionally local, or at best regional, and so only had to be good-enough. Only later, when the site became 'famous', were the design parameters tightened up, and its various components assigned a specific significance.

The Blues were definitely a big deal within the cultural phasing, but what that was in the earliest incarnation is, at this point at least, fodder only for conjecture.

Best wishes from this side,

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Neil -- I am having a look at Darvill's latest paper, and will do a post soon....

TonyH said...

Thank you for your observations, Neil. I greatly enjoyed reading them, you know far more than me.