Stonehenge Begins to Reveal its Secrets Nov 11, 2015 8:18:20 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Nov 11, 2015 8:18:20 GMT -5
Stonehenge Begins to Reveal its Secrets
AMESBURY, Wiltshire, England – About 6,300 years ago, a tree here toppled over. For the ancients in this part of southern England, it created a prime real estate opportunity – next to a spring and near attractive hunting grounds. According to David Jacques, an archaeologist at the University of Buckingham, mud was pressed into the pulled-up roots, turning them into a wall. Nearby, a post was inserted into a hole, and that may have held up a roof of reeds or animal skin. It was, he said, a house, one of the earliest in England.
Last month, in the latest excavation at a site known as Blick Mead, Jacques and his team dug a trench 40-feet-long, 23-feet-wide and 5-feet-deep, examining this structure and its surroundings. They found a hearth with chunks of heat-cracked flint, pieces of bone, flakes of flint used for arrowheads and cutting tools, and ocher pods that may have been used as a pigment. “There’s noise here,” Jacques said, imagining the goings-on in 4300 BC. “There’s people here doing stuff. Just like us. Same kids and worries.”
About a mile away is Stonehenge. For Jacques, the house is part of the story of Stonehenge, even though the occupants of the Blick Mead home never saw that assemblage of massive stones. The beginnings of Stonehenge were more than a millennium in the future. But Blick Mead, he said, helps fill in the sweep of hunter-gatherers who became farmers and then built Stonehenge and other prehistoric monuments dotting the English countryside. “This is the first unknown chapter of Stonehenge,” Jacques added.
Stonehenge has captivated generation after generation. Archaeologists have, over the years, cataloged the rocks, divined meaning from their placement – lined up for Midsummer sunrise and Midwinter sunset – and studied animal and human bones buried there. They have also long known about the other monuments – burial chambers, a 130-foot-tall mound of chalk known as Silbury Hill and many other circular structures. An aerial survey in 1925 revealed circles of timbers, now called Woodhenge, two miles from Stonehenge. “The stone monument is iconic,” observed Wolfgang Neubauer, the director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Vienna. “But it’s only a little part of the whole thing.” Discoveries in the last decade, some via modern technologies like ground-penetrating radar, have revealed more about the people for whom the giant monuments held great meaning.
A Parade of Monuments. The story of Britain begins at the end of the last ice age. In the cold, Britain emptied of people. With so much ocean water frozen in glaciers, sea level was lower and Britain was connected to the rest of Europe. As the world warmed, they walked back until rising waters severed the land bridge.
Around 3800 BC, the first large monuments appeared – rectangular mounds known as long barrows that served as burial chambers. Around 3500 BC, a two-mile-long, 100-yard-wide ditch was dug close to the Stonehenge site, what is known as the Stonehenge Cursus. (Cursus is Latin for racetrack; the discoverer in the 18th century thought it was a Roman racetrack.)
The first stage of Stonehenge itself, a circular foundation ditch, was carved around 2900 BC, and rings of timbers were erected.
About 400 years later came a heyday of henges. (The defining characteristic of a henge is not the rocks or timbers sticking upward, but a circular ditch surrounded by a raised bank. In this sense, Stonehenge today is not a true henge; its raised bank is inside the ditch.) Twenty miles north of Stonehenge is Avebury, with three stone circles, the outermost more than 1,000 feet in diameter, so large that the town of Avebury has spread into the henge; at the center is a pub, the Red Lion, founded four centuries ago.
Closer to Stonehenge is Durrington Walls, a circular earthen structure about 1,600 feet in diameter. Michael Parker Pearson of University College London has excavated houses at Durrington Walls and along the nearby River Avon, and he has proposed this is where the builders lived for the grandest stage of Stonehenge’s construction, which started around 2600 BC. The giant stones, weighing some 40 tons, were moved and carved. He believes smaller bluestones, about two tons each, had been taken to Stonehenge during the initial construction from the Preseli mountains in Wales and now more, larger ones were hauled over.
Because early Britons had no written language, the simplest question – Why was it built? – has yet to be conclusively answered. In Pearson’s view, Durrington Walls was the land of the living, symbolized by the timbers of Woodhenge, while Stonehenge was the land of the dead. He believes early Britons gathered at Durrington Walls to feast and then proceeded to Stonehenge to honor their ancestors. Last month in the journal Antiquity, Pearson and his colleagues described fatty acid residues they identified inside of cooking pots. “We’ve got the menu,” he said: beef and pork, boiled and grilled, with a smattering of apples, berries and hazelnuts. “They’re basically eating a very meat-heavy diet.” People came from near and far for the festivities, Pearson said. He said analysis of cattle teeth showed different isotopes of the element strontium, which vary based on the local minerals in the water, indicating the animals had been raised elsewhere and then taken to Durrington Walls.
Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University, who conducted a small excavation at Stonehenge in 2008, has a different idea about the monument’s significance, citing the bluestones, which, he said, were not added to the monument until the second phase, around 2500 BC, and in legend possess healing powers. “Those stones are pretty special,” Darvill said. “Perhaps their significance wasn’t fully understood.” He claimed Stonehenge originally may have been “the land of the dead,” as Pearson asserts. But Stonehenge later became more like a prehistoric Lourdes, where people came seeking healing, he added. “We see Stonehenge more as a place for the living.”
Peering Into the Past. Much more may lie beneath the surface. “We presume the bits we knew about are the important ones,” asserted Vincent Gaffney of the University of Bradford. “What we need to do is to find out really what is out there.”
The idea of using ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers to peer into the ground without digging goes back decades. In recent years, the equipment – particularly the computers to analyze the data – has become cheap enough and fast enough to be widely used in archaeology. Neubauer collaborated with Gaffney to survey eight square miles around Stonehenge and Durrington Walls. “It’s been like an army moving across it,” Dr. Gaffney said.
In September, they announced a surprising claim: Buried in the banks of Durrington Walls are about 90 standing stones, some up to 15-feet-tall. Gaffney said there may originally have been 200, more than twice as many as at Stonehenge. “That tells you the scale of this thing.” If true, that would jumble Pearson’s differentiation of Durrington Walls as the land of the living from Stonehenge, the land of the dead. But he is skeptical of the findings, which have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. He added that a decade ago, he excavated some of those locations and found post holes that had been capped with cemented chalk. The radar reflections had bounced off the chalk blocks, he revealed.
“The smart money is that the stones are not actually stones,” Pearson insists, adding he and Gaffney had discussed their differing interpretations. “We’ll dig a hole next year to resolve the issue once and for all,” he said.
A Place of Mystery. Still unknown is how the Stonehenge area became a revered site. The most intriguing evidence is right next to Stonehenge itself – three big post holes that held tall totem-like timber poles. Charcoal and bones in the pits have been dated between 8000 and 7000 BC. “It raises the issue whether you have a special place already recognized by a people a long, long time before Stonehenge,” Pearson explained. “That is a question one day we’ll be able to resolve.” The post holes are far older than anything in the area except the Blick Mead site and one other newly dated post hole.
According to Jacques, animal bones – mostly aurochs, the big ancestors of modern cattle, but also red deer and boars – date to 7500 BC, overlapping the Stonehenge post holes. The connection between the two is speculative, but this might be where the builders of the Stonehenge totems lived.
The spring is full of flint tools and discarded bones. Jacques paints a picture of Blick Mead as perhaps a precursor of the Durrington Walls celebrations. Fed from underground, the spring never freezes and it may have seemed magical in another way, too. A few years ago, a volunteer – Jacques’s mother – pulled an interesting-looking rock out of the spring and put it in her pocket. A few hours later, it had turned hot pink – a reaction of algae on the rock to oxygen in the air. The algae grows only in certain partly shadowed conditions and those conditions may not have changed much in 9,500 years. “We’re starting to realize this is a special place where special things are going on,” Jacques claimed. He hopes to expand the digs to look for not just a house but a village. “These people are the first Britons,” Jacques observed. “We’ve found the cradle to Stonehenge.”
After the end of the grand construction phase of Stonehenge, around 2400 BC, the monument was altered, but the era of mega-monument building was over. “That’s basically when their world changed,” Pearson said. New people crossed the channel from Europe, bringing bronze and metal-making to the stone age culture. “It’s a very interesting shift,” he added. “In a way, Stonehenge is a swan song.”
Source: Kenneth Chang, The New York Times, November 9, 2015.