Stonehenge was Circular: Who Would have Guessed? Sept 5, 2014 2:17:43 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Sept 5, 2014 2:17:43 GMT -5
Dry spell at Stonehenge reveals secret that has eluded archaeologists
One of the many mysteries of Stonehenge may have been solved, not because of a scientific breakthrough or painstaking research, but after a maintenance team's hosepipe turned out to be a little short.
Archaeologists have long argued over whether the ancient monument was once a perfect circle or if it was always, as it is now, an incomplete ring.
When a hosepipe used to keep the grass green in hot spells failed to reach a broken part of the circle, unsightly brown patches began to appear. Custodian Tim Daw was fretting over the blemishes when he realized they matched the spots where stones would probably have stood if the monument had been a complete circle. It was a "lightbulb moment,” Daw said. "I was standing on the public path looking at the grass near the stones and thinking we needed to find a longer hosepipe to get the parched patches to green up. I remembered that the marks were where archaeologists had looked without success for signs that there had been stone holes. I called my colleague over and he saw them and realized their possible significance as well. Not being archaeologists, we called in the professionals. I am still amazed, and very pleased, that simply looking at something that tens of thousands of people had unwittingly seen, can reveal secrets that sophisticated machinery can't."
The professionals duly took charge. Aerial photographs were hurriedly commissioned before the rain could come and remove the brown patches, the scorch marks on the western side of the Wiltshire site were mapped and some of the brown patches indeed tallied with where stones would have stood if the circle were complete. Other brown patches corresponded to recorded archaeological excavations, included trenches dug by the engineer William Gowland in 1901. That some of the patches matched the site of the trenches supports the theory that they indicate disturbed ground.
The patches were spotted last summer, but the conclusions have just been detailed in a report by Daw and other English Heritage staff published in the latest edition of the journal Antiquity. The report points out that, despite being one of the most intensively explored prehistoric monuments, Stonehenge continues to hold surprises. It also highlights the value of continually surveying the site from the ground and air.
Susan Greaney, senior properties historian for English Heritage, said the accidental discovery was "really significant" and added: "It shows us just how much we still have to learn about Stonehenge. It's great that people who know the site really well and look at it every day were able to spot these parch marks and recognise them for what they were." According to Greaney, what might have happened to the missing stones remained a puzzle. They could have been removed and used as stone for local houses or even roads. But the lack of a decent-sized hosepipe means the idea that the circle was deliberately left incomplete can probably be discounted.
There are no plans to excavate beneath the brown marks, but English Heritage, which manages Stonehenge, may deliberately fail to water parts of the site next time there is a hot spell in case other mysteries can be solved.
Stonehenge was circular? Well, blow me down
It is often hard to make sense of archaeological stories in the news. Are we, the public, being patronized by a profession that assumes we’re completely ignorant and must be spoon-fed information that doesn’t add up to much? Or has archaeological science wandered so genuinely far from common sense that it sees news in what may, to interested outsiders, look blindingly obvious?
At the very end of the summer silly season comes the “news” that Stonehenge may have been a complete stone circle after all. People who work at the site noticed something that has passed professional archaeologists by: traces of two vanished stones. Though they had watered the rest of the site throughout the hot summer, their hosepipe was too short to reach an outer section of the enclosed area on Salisbury Plain. As the ground dried up, the Stonehenge staff saw distinctive parch marks that turned out to be tell-tale signs of the lost megaliths. This is a great day for amateur archaeologists. Enthusiastic, untrained eyes have discovered something really significant.
But how exactly is it significant? Here, we are told, is apparent evidence that Stonehenge was built as a circle, not as a crescent-shaped enclosure. It is excellent that such evidence has been found. But is it really a surprise? Most people outside the archaeological profession do actually tend to imagine Stonehenge as a circle. It’s famous for being, y’know, a circle of stones.
I am not just being a philistine here. We can deduce the circular nature of Stonehenge from solid evidence that is visible to everyone. For one thing, Stonehenge is not just the stones. Around the surviving megalithic structure is a circular ditch and bank that defines the entire site as … that’s right, a great big circle. Why would this circularity be abandoned when it came to putting up the stones? It’s the case against the stones’ arrangement being circular that needs proving, not the other way around. The common sense assumption has to be that this was a circular structure.
The wider context of ancient Britain backs up that assumption for Stonehenge is not the only stone circle raised in Neolithic Britain. The village of Avebury in Wiltshire is surrounded by a vast stone circle as well as a huge circular earthwork. There’s no question the stones at Avebury form a circle. So do those at Stenness, Orkney, at the other end of the British Isles. These “henge” monuments and others around Britain are so consistently circular that the existence of circles must surely be part of their meaning. The geometric feat of mapping out a circle, presumably using pegs and cord, was no mean achievement for a pre-literate people. Many prehistoric mounds like Silbury Hill near Avebury are also circular. Are all these cosmic circles meant to mirror the shapes of the sun and moon as they look to the naked pre-scientific eye?
Stonehenge is full of mystery, but the suggestion that it was not a complete circle of stones was surely always a bit eccentric. Apparently some researchers have nevertheless argued just that. So, the sensational evidence that Stonehenge was a circle is proof of the bleedin’ obvious, and of the sometimes perverse theories that people come up with in the face of this ancient enigma.
Source: Steven Morris and Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, September 1, 2014.