Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- due for publication on June 1st 2018. After that, it will be available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
To order, click

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Before the Beaker hordes........

Further to the post about the Beaker hordes, I am quite intrigued by Prof MPP's argument that in the centuries around 5,000 yrs BP, Britain saw a sort of "Neolithic cultural high point" which coincided with the building of Stonehenge and all those BBQs at Durrington Walls, with sturdy wanderers arriving from all over the UK.

This is what we see on the BBC web site:

Archaeologist and study co-author Mike Parker Pearson, from University College London (UCL), said Neolithic Britons and Beaker groups organised their societies in very different ways. The construction of massive stone monuments, co-opting hundreds of people, was an alien concept to Beakers, but the Neolithic British community "has that absolutely as its core rationale".

"[The Beaker people] are not prepared to collaborate on enormous labour-mobilising projects; their society is more de-centralised," said Prof Parker Pearson. "We don't have a good expression for it, but the Americans do, and that is: nobody is willing to work for 'The Man'."

The Beaker folk seemed to favour more modest round "barrows", or earth burial mounds, to cover the distinguished dead. The group is also intimately associated with the arrival of metalworking to Britain.

Prof Parker Pearson commented: "They're the people who bring Britain out of the Stone Age. Up until then, the people of Britain had cut themselves off from the continent - 'Neolithic Brexit'. This is the moment when Britain re-joins the continent after 1,000 years of isolation - most of the rest of Europe was well out of the Stone Age by this point."

So the Neolithic British community had the construction of massive stone monuments "absolutely as its core rationale" ?? I just do not believe that, since this is not supported by the evidence. Sure, there are lots of Neolithic stone monuments around, including cromlechs, stone alignments, stone circles etc. But were whole communities devoting their lives to building with big stones? No -- the great majority of their time was spent, then as now, on finding food, keeping warm and keeping the weather at bay. Family life, sex, hunting, gathering, making fire, tending animals, and (maybe) growing things were the priorities, and rituals including burial ceremonies and putting up stones happened now and then, involving some local traditions and some learned from other groups scattered about in nearby territories.  I don't believe all this political unification stuff and the wacky theories about the long-distance transportation of ancestor stones, totems or symbolic "megalithic gifts." As I have said many times before, if the transport and presentation of big stones from distant places was a feature of "high Neolithic culture", why are there not megaliths at Stonehenge that have come from all points of the compass?

Indeed, the new work suggests that the Beaker people moving in from the east around 4,500 yrs BP took over a landscape that was not exactly derelict -- but neither was the community in residence particularly vibrant.  So -- a culture in decline.... with Stonehenge as a last hurrah?  Maybe this explains why the monument was never finished?  The builders ran out of energy and they ran out od people.  

There are strong hints of this creaking civilisation in the new work.

Stonehenge -- the last hurrah of a dying culture?


In Britain the puzzle remains of what happened to the pre-Beaker population: people who had no metal tools but were capable of stupendous communal projects such as the construction of Stonehenge and the giant artificial hill of Silbury.

“It’s not necessarily a story of violent conquest,” Armit said. “There is some evidence of a declining population and increased growth of forests, suggesting that agriculture was in decline. We could be looking at climate change, or even an epidemic of imported disease to which they had no resistance. But we certainly now have the evidence that they were replaced – and they never came back.”

Other evidence:

What triggered the massive genetic shift remains unclear. But a paper published in PNAS journal last year suggested a downturn in the climate around 5,500 years ago (3,500 BC) pushed Neolithic populations into a thousand-year-long decline.

Dr Steven Shennan, from UCL, who co-authored that study, told BBC News: "In Britain, after a population peak at around 3,500 or 3,600 BC, the population goes down steadily and it stays at a pretty low level until about 2,500 BC and then starts going up again. Around 2,500 BC the population is very low and that's precisely when the Beaker population seems to come in."

The reasons behind this slow population decline were probably complex, but the temporary downturn in the climate caused a permanent change in the way people farmed. One possibility is that the over-exploitation of land by Neolithic farmers applied pressure to food production.

Plague question

But disease may also have played a role in the population shift: "We have some intriguing evidence that some of the Steppe nomads carried plague with them," said Lalueza-Fox.

"It could just be that the plague went with these migrants into Britain and the Neolithic population had not been in contact with this pathogen before."

So it appears that around the time that Stonehenge was constructed (around 5,000 yrs BP) there was a population decline, a reduction in farming activity, and an expansion of woodlands and forests.  This is not the sort of context in which MPP's story of bluestone quarrying, stone transport and political unification would have made any sense at all.  The manpower resources were just not there.

The new work confirms in my mind that the fantasy of the fantastic bluestone expeditions looks far more nutty today than it did yesterday.............

PS. An earlier Nature article presented some of the findings:

and much more detail is now added in the 2018 article.


sciencebod said...

" No -- the great majority of their time was spent, then as now, on finding food, keeping warm and keeping the weather at bay."

Precisely. It was that consideration that prompted me to tack a bit on the end of my current posting that has nothing to do with its main topic - the sarsen so-called 'Heel Stone' (ludicrous name if ever there was!).

There's an entirely different explanation for north-east openings in 'henge' enclosures (regardless of whether the bank's inside the ditch or vice versa). The bank itself served primarily as a wind-break, so the opening was placed at the point that was best protected from the UK's prevailing south-westerly winds, winter gales especially. Forget those ridiculous 'alignments' with the summer or winter solstices. Neolithic folk did indeed have more important things to worry about than marking the shortest or longest day of the year. They had dormant or budding vegetation all around then to know where they were in the cycle of seasons!

Colin Berry, aka sciencebod

Neil Wiseman said...

Hi Brian,
Stonehenge was old by the time the Beakers showed up and the people who built it were in decline. There is evidence which suggests the site had been abandoned. When the Beakers appeared they had no trouble absorbing the indigenous people and set about the rehab of Stonehenge into the monument we see today.

My opinion of whether or not Stonehenge was completed acknowledges evidence from both sides of the argument, but it seems to me that an introduction of robust new blood to the cultural landscape leans toward a finished monument.

A dying society doesn't shape stone. New people do. They take what they find and incorporate it into a monument with a different meaning and purpose. This may also explain why cremation became obsolete and why the West Amesbury Henge was dismantled.

Avebury has no shaped stones. Silbury has none at all. These were constructed by the remnant of the Windmill Hill people. The phased (confusing?) arrangements at Stonehenge indicate a honing of fresh ideas until figuring out the best way to transmit their interpretation. Hence the clean lines of the final four discrete settings.

Lots of time and effort. Old people don't do this. Young people do.
It was the Beakers.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, I like your last comment, Colin. How stupid did a Neolithic farmer have to be if he needed gigantic stone alignments (approximate only -- pointing at solar or lunar "points of significance) to tell him where he was in the cycle of the seasons? There are natural indicators on all sides for anybody with an ounce of intelligence.....

Neil Wiseman said...

Looks like dingoes ate my comment ... again

sciencebod said...

Thank you Brian. It's good to know one's cynicism regarding much of Stonehenge 'archaeoastronomy' is shared by at least one other blogger.

I know yours is not to be seen as an archaeology site as such, more geomorphology, glacial transport etc (even if its owner occasionally strays into that arena!).

But I'm sure mainstream non-astronomy-fixated archaeologists look in from time to time, in which case I'd be interested for an opinion on something I've just come across:

Here's a copy-and-paste (my bolding of a certain passage):

"Based on their knowledge of the site and period, Willis et al. (2016) conclude 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.” Later burials found at Stonehenge are found around the periphery of the site; indicating that the use of the monument changed from a direct association with the recently dead to a more distant understanding of the site as the location for collective ancestors. Instead of it being a burial site, it became a memorial for ancestors, an argument that is consistent with previous interpretations by Parker Pearson (2012)."

What I'd like to know is how one can tell that a site has become "a memorial for successors", purely it would seem on account of the late addition of grandiose feats of construction - notably the sarsen lintels. To the best of my knowledge there is no corroborating evidence whatsoever, the only markings on the stones being allegedly Bronze Age additions of axeheads and daggers.

I shan't mince my words - I think we've been let down by the current crop of so-called "archaeologists" where Stonehenge is concerned, forever insinuating their woolly blue-sky thinking with scarcely a fact to back it up.

I could cite a particular example if anyone's interested, notably the failure to say exactly what they mean by "cremated bone". The technology exists to distinguish between cremated bone that has been initially de-fleshed, as shown by the La Varde studies on Guernsey.

But I've yet to see any mention of that technology in connection with Stonehenge. Why not? Why the (deliberate?) vagueness, ambiguity and mealy-mouthed imprecision?

Is modern archaeology more concerned with research-grant-friendly image manicure than reality? I strongly suspect that to be the case, which if true makes for a sad reflection on the UK's modern publicity-hungry brand of so-called 'scholarship'.