May I wish you all a merry Christmas, a happy New Year to follow, and also a happy winter solstice.
Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter, gave a talk on BBC Radio 4 in September about hundreds of male statues that have been excavated in the Middle East. Some are on thrones, some are only heads, usually red-faced with long black hair in ringlets at the back of the neck, and a fringe. They had well-trimmed beards and all have been dated from well before the time of Jesus Christ. The professor has published a book, God: an Anatomy.
My immediate thought was why has nothing like this been found here? I cannot recall any finds of god-like persons before the Romans came here and they had effigies of their leaders, some worshipped like gods. Before the Romans came here, the existing population was producing large open temples such as Stonehenge and Avebury with standing stones and a number of similar, less well known. Earlier we had enclosure ditches where burials or cremations took place, so both these and the stone circles had family, tribal and perhaps religious connotations.
I have recently added a new book to my library of Stonehenge literature, with Stonehenge, an excellent book by archaeologist Francis Pryor, which brings us up to date with the flurry of excavation in the area and covers much of the earlier knowledge, pointing out the flaws.
Francis Pryor includes a useful timeline, relative to Stonehenge, e.g. the arrival of farming in Britain about 4,200 BC at the end of the Mesolithic Period. Following the Early Neolithic period in Britain, the first megalithic tombs were built in Britain, 3,900 – 3,800 BC and then the main construction of long barrows here, 3,800 – 3,600 BC. One well-known long barrow is at West Kennet, near Avebury, 20 miles north of Stonehenge, containing the cleaned bones of a number of various families. It has been suggested that bones of a particular family would be taken out for a ceremony and not always correctly replaced.
In 3,800 – 3,400 BC the construction and use of causewayed enclosures took place in Britain, which Pryor suggests were not always produced in a single event but made by different families or groups digging their individual ditch segments. Pryor then suggests that this may have been the case with the Stonehenge ditch, which shows signs of frequent re-cutting when possibly later burials of family members were added, including cremation remains.
Francis Pryor emphasises that the Stonehenge ditch was its earliest feature, surrounding the site and now only a slight depression in the grass. Radiocarbon dates it from 3,000 – 2,900 BC. It is not completely regular, but has an internal bank, as with causewayed enclosures. The suggestion that the ditch and banks are earlier than the rest of the monument is often not realised. Offerings have been found in the ditch, only to the west of the main entrance, which to Pryor indicates that the ditch cutting was not centrally controlled, but left perhaps to individual families. However he does suggest that the ditch was planned, based on a central point which must have been marked first.
Before any stones were erected at Stonehenge many cremations were buried within the ditch and Pryor says that Stonehenge was one of the largest cremation cemeteries in Neolithic Europe, and by far the largest in Britain, with 63 known cremations and maybe 150 total. Three cremations have provided radiocarbon dates between 3,300 and 2,900 BC. Many cremations were found towards the southern ditch entrance and around the inner ditch bank.
Before erection of stones, a number of post-holes have been found, but not in a circular pattern. Some were large. The post-holes have not been found to contain any stone chips, which seems to indicate that the stones arrived after the posts. However posts across the main entrance suggests that the ditch came before the posts. Other, larger postholes of pine wood, have been found in what became the Stonehenge car park, dated to around 8,000 BC.
Evidence of large-scale feasting has been found near Stonehenge, for example a large pit about 600 metres west of the Stonehenge Avenue, containing the remains of at least ten cattle, seven roe deer, a red deer and one pig. The bones had been buried after the feast, together with many pieces of Neolithic pottery and flint tools, dated at 3,800 – 3,700 BC.
One of the earliest stones erected (and remaining) at Stonehenge was probably the Heel Stone, just outside the main entranceway, which is large and unshaped. It is believed to have had a partner, since disappeared, to mark the entrance from the Avenue, which we now know was created by gullies resulting from glacier melting, coincidently aligned with the solstices. The Slaughter Stone (so-called) was also laid about the same time. Early post holes, noted by Aubrey, and named after him, have been found to contain cremations, dated to about 3,039 – 2,900 BC. These holes number 56 and are regularly spaced around the inside of the inner ditch bank, in a circle. They were shaped to contain bluestones, subsequently removed.
Around 2,500 BC, the end of the Neolithic period, saw the end of the circle of Stonehenge as a cremation burial site. Then came the Trilithon Horseshoe and the Circle, both of sarsen stones. The Great Trilithon framed the midwinter solstice sunset and was intended to be viewed from within the Trilithon Horseshoe. Pryor states that the Sarsen Circle uprights were carefully dressed on the interior and the sides of the vertical stones dressed to give an impression of straight and parallel uprights. Also where the circle straddled the main northeast-southwest solsticial axis the stones were trimmed and straightened to enhance and frame the sun on the longest and shortest days. Station Stones aligned on major moonrise and moonset events, were placed just inside the inner banks of the ditch (2,620 – 2480 BC). Other stones were enhanced by small semi-circular ditches, with mounds, known as the North and South Barrows.
Between the Sarsen Circle and the inner Trilithon Horseshoe a double ring of bluestones was erected.
The area surrounding Stonehenge had more burial mounds than anywhere else in Britain, many since destroyed by farming.
Frances Pryor refers to Stonehenge as a sacred landscape, toiled over for perhaps one and a half thousand years (e.g. 3,000 – 1,500 BC) and since then continually puzzled over! Pryor also suggested that after starting the ditch by possibly family workers, it must have been directed by one or more knowledgeable leaders. Obviously these leaders must have been succeeded by following similar people, again and again. It is suggested that the workforce were pleased to work on Stonehenge as they were inspired by its concept, rather than being slaves.
In recent times there has been even more activity around Stonehenge. One road, which had passed close to the Heel Stone has been closed and removed. There is a proposal for a two-mile tunnel to take the present A303 road near Stonehenge underground to reduce congestion on the A303. The proposal is being fiercely debated, and may be abandoned following High Court deliberations.
Bridport History Society hope to meet again physically at last, at 2 for 2.30 pm on Tuesday 14th December in the Main Hall, Bridport United Church, East Street, to hear ‘Migration – a Journey in Song’ by ‘Rough Assembly’. Members-only, numbers limited to 60 maximum.
We wish you a happy Christmas and a better New Year and, of course, a happy midwinter Solstice.
Cecil Amor, Hon President, Bridport History Society