Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Thursday 29 March 2018

Stonehenge always was a bit of a mess

Stone plan at Stonehenge, from Field et al (2015).  I suspect that we will hear more about that little mound, and about the North Barrow on the inside of the embankment......

We have done two previous posts on the contents of the big paper by Field et al on the Stonehenge stones:

David Field, Hugo Anderson-Whymark, Neil Linford, Martyn Barber, Mark Bowden, Paul Linford, Peter Topping, , Marcus Abbott, Paul Bryan, Deborah Cunliffe, Caroline Hardie, Louise Martin, Andy Payne, Trevor Pearson, Fiona Small, Nicky Smith, Sharon Soutar and Helen Winton (2015). Analytical Surveys of Stonehenge and its Environs, 2009–2013:

Part 2 – the Stones.
Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 81, pp 125-148


Non-invasive survey in the Stonehenge ‘Triangle’, Amesbury, Wiltshire, has highlighted a number of features that have a significant bearing on the interpretation of the site. Geophysical anomalies may signal the position of buried stones adding to the possibility of former stone arrangements, while laser scanning has provided detail on the manner in which the stones have been dressed; some subsequently carved with axe and dagger symbols. The probability that a lintelled bluestone trilithon formed an entrance in the north-east is signposted. This work has added detail that allows discussion on the question of whether the sarsen circle was a completed structure, although it is by no means conclusive in this respect. Instead, it is suggested that it was built as a façade, with other parts of the circuit added and with an entrance in the south.

From p 134 onwards, the authors concentrate on interpreting the stones.  From the outset, they demonstrate a refreshing degree of common sense, and refuse to be drawn into the business of simply approving ancient myths simply because they happen be be in all of the EH guidebooks!  So immediately they go on the record and state that almost everything about the site -- the number and location of stones, their shapes, sizes and arrangements, the number of gaps and broken stones etc -- militates against the idea of the "immaculate Stonehenge".  They appear to be in no doubt at all that the monument was never finished -- and they cite chapter and verse to show that it was a good deal more crude than most authorities would have us believe.  There is an impressive amount of detail in the text, coming from the laser survey, and ground penetrating radar work, and physical measurements and observations on the stones.

They quite like Ashbee's idea that maybe the "semi-finished" Stonehenge was made of both stone and wood:  "In the absence of ‘missing’ stones, Ashbee invoked the use of wooden uprights and lintels in order to account for a complete circuit. This idea of mixing materials may seem strange from a modern western archi- tectural perspective but undoubtedly Stonehenge need not have conformed to the Jones reconstruction and, in view of the unexpected feature of an upturned tree-bole at Seahenge, for instance (Pryor 2008), the Ashbee suggestion may have merit."  The authors examine the evidence regarding standing sarsens, geophysical anomalies, lintels, fallen stones, gaps, parch marks and "irregular" or "inconvenient" sarsens, and draw the same conclusion from each line of evidence -- namely that this site does not look at all like the remnant of a finished monument. 

Like Petrie (1880), E. H. Stone (1924, 5, 73) commented that an ‘examination of the stones at Stonehenge would appear to show that the builders were unable to obtain sufficient material of suitable quality and of large enough size to properly fulfil their requirements’, while Atkinson could only conclude that the builders ‘were hard put to find sufficient blocks of the requisite size to complete the circle’ (Atkinson 1979, 38). ........... Implicit in this is that the north-east sector was constructed first and the south-west built almost as an afterthought, or at least added subsequently.

For the moment, the evidence that the sarsen set- tings formed a completed circuit remains ambiguous. Parch-marks indicate that Stone-holes 15, 17, and 18 were almost certainly present (Banton et al. 2014) and a circuit therefore intended. Whether stones were erected is another matter....

Taken together, there is little evidence to support the notion of a circle completed to a ‘planned norm’. Instead, like many chambered tombs, there appears to have been a conspicuous façade which was given a considerable degree of structural prominence (Tilley 2007, 200–1). Elsewhere there is irregularity and variability, but it is this very uncertainty that may provide insight into the processes involved at the site.

The work on the bluestones (p 140) is a little disappointing, and concentrates on GPR anomalies and irregularities in the stone arrangements.  The authors suggest that some of the bluestones might have been set in pairs, but they do not go far into the presentation of new evidence.  The final section of the paper is to do with rock art, and the authors report on a number of new carvings of axes and daggers which have not been identified before.

In their conclusions, the authors state:  If, as seems potentially the case, some of the sarsen is local to the site, or derives from a variety of locations and thus not all the subject of a long and difficult journey, it is possible to start investigating and dis- cussing the varied biographies of individual stones.

They also say:  It may even be that the newly discovered mound within the stone settings (Field et al. 2014) provided a focus for the earliest activity here. Whether natural or artificial, situated in the south-east quadrant of the stone settings it provides a new research focus and invites investigation into origins, site development, and the search for earlier arrangements – perhaps even single monoliths such as the menhir-like Stone 16 or alignments incorporating the Altar, Slaughter, and Heelstone, as much as the nature of use of the major stone settings.
Ever so gently, they conclude: is acknowledged that some perceptions of the monument have become fixed in the public imagination largely as a result of Atkinson’s extensive media work during the 1950s and 1960s and the countless magazine articles that it spawned.

The authors are relatively kind to Parker Pearson, Darvill and the other senior archaeologists who have carried on with the grand storytelling traditions at Stonehenge (I suppose they had to be) -- but there is no hiding the frustrations of David Field and his fellow authors, who clearly want to see real science done at Stonehenge, combined with pragmatic and straightforward interpretations of the things that can be observed on the ground and under it.  Let's hope that they prevail, and that we will now see an end to this over-long episode of fantastical narratives involving healing stones, petrified ancestors, political unification and astronomical obervatories.

And maybe the biggest message of all -- there is no reason to think that any of the stones at Stonehenge were carted in from a long way off.


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