Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Archaeology, myth and magic

Awe-inspiring construction designed to play with sunlight
There are few sights as awe-inspiring in England as the great circle at Stonehenge, mute testimony of a great civilisation four and a half millennia ago.

Stonehenge is part of a wider area full of neolithic remains, including my favourite, the great circle of unshaped, mismatched stones at Avebury stone circle.

It was during a visit to Avebury some years ago that I was told the story that moved me most about Stonehenge, and about its relationship to another site only a coupe of miles away, at Durrington Walls, sometimes called Woodhenge. As the name implies, it was made of wood which has, inevitably, rotted away leaving only the holes in which the great posts once stood.

Archaeologists have found pottery shards and animal bones in the area, suggesting that eating and drinking took place in Woodhenge – feasting, in fact. That, together with the perishable nature of wood, suggests that Woodhenge may have been a place associated with life, an idea that has been strengthened by more recent archaeology which uncovered the remains of a settlement of nearly 1000 houses nearby, quite a size for the time.

reconstructed by Sheffield University Archaeologists
An avenue (cleverly named ‘The Avenue’) leads from Woodhenge to Stonehenge. Stone feels permanent, like death or the afterlife. So the passage from Woodhenge to Stonehenge seems akin to the passage from life to death and, indeed, bones have been found buried at Stonehenge, but no trace of feasts.

So there’s a highly attractive idea that on the death of a prominent person, his or her body might be brought to Woodhenge, for a celebration of the life well lubricated with food and drink, after which the body would be transported towards Stonehenge, the place of stone and of death, for burial.

In other words, the mourners would accompany the dead on the first steps of the passage from the world of the living to the world of the dead, symbolised by the avenue between the henge of transitory life and the henge of lasting death.

It’s speculation of course, but we’re a society that loves our fiction, aren’t we, whether we read it or watch it. So why shouldn’t we go for a story as attractive as this one? After all, it’s plausible and consistent with the evidence. I for one find its charm quite enough for me to accept it, at least until anyone comes along with any evidence to disprove it.

However, why am I telling this story now?

Because I listened yesterday to the most recent episode in the excellent BBC radio series Beyond Belief, dedicated to the subject of Stonehenge. It reminded me for the story of the passage from wood to stone, as an allegory of life to death. But what really made me want to write about it was another remark by one of the experts.

Stonehenge, as is widely known, was built to align with the sun at key times of year, the solstices and the equinoxes. Archways of stone were set up so the light would shine through them and onto the altar at just the right moment. Pretty remarkable stuff in a society without maps, timepieces or astronomical equipment. I hear many people speaking of these achievements in hushed tones of awe-filled fervour.

So I was delighted to hear Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, say of the construction that it was “very cleverly thought out and rather badly done.” It turns out that the main archway, through which the light of sunset at the winter solstice, they dying light of the dying sun, was supposed to shine, was built in a hopelessly unsatisfactory way: one great stone was found for it, but the other was far too short. It had to be set up in too shallow a hole, but since it had a projecting piece at the bottom, a sort of foot, presumably the builders thought it would hold.

It didn’t. It fell and broke, and down came the horizontal slab at the top. So the key element of Stonehenge, its crowning glory, was destroyed through shoddy construction.

Now that story moves me particularly deeply. It brings those distant ancestors to life, and much closer to our lives today. I can just imagine the contractor talking things over with the high priest.

“Well, it’s not as good as having a proper stone, mind. It’s too short, see, it’ll never hold, not in the long term.”

“But it’ll last a while?”

“Oh, sure, it’ll do that. It’ll see you and me out, I’ll warrant. But – a few generations? Maybe not.”

He holds his hand flat and wobbles it from side to side.

“And what’s the alternative?”

I imagine a sucking noise on the teeth.

“Weeeell... That would mean heading back to West Wales... Finding another stone to match the one you’ve got. Dragging it down here, and you know how long it took for the first one... That’d be adding a few years to the project. And as for the budget! You’d have some explaining to do to the chief...”

The high priest looks aghast.

“OK, do the best you can. Use the short stone. Bury it as deep as possible and prop it up. I’m sure it’ll do.”

Which just goes to show that not a lot has really changed in 4500 years or so.

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