Stonehenge

The most recent discovery about Stonehenge. From the National Post:

Stonehenge bluestones were dragged 240 km over land from quarry in Wales, study finds

‘You could actually see the hole left from where the stone pillar had been removed. Just amazing’

Stonehenge: one of the wonders of the ancient world, but also the elusive megalith that leaves scientists and people ruminating on its purpose. Discoveries by a team of archeologists and geologists suggest the transportation of the bluestones from the Preseli hills in Wales to Stonehenge in England was an effort to unify tribes of prehistoric Britain.

In the team’s excavations, they pinpointed the exact origins of the bluestones that line the inner and outer perimeter of the sarsen trilithons — the tall, three-stoned structure that people usually envision when thinking of Stonehenge.

The location of the quarries, where the bluestones originate, now nullifies a pre-existing theory that suggested they were transported by sea from Milford Haven to the Salisbury Plains. Nearly 5,000 years ago, the Neolithic humans dragged the bluestones 240 km over land, according to the study published in Antiquity.

More at the link.

The Origins of Inequality

New Humanist magazine asks, “Are we city dwellers or hunter-gatherers? New research suggests that the familiar story of early human society is wrong – and the consequences are profound.” The authors take issue with the familiar story about how the members of hunter-gatherer bands enjoyed a certain social and political equality, but the invention of agriculture, and especially the rise of cities, represented a fall from Edenic grace. Essentially, the existence of surpluses allowed some people to exploit them, and set themselves up as kings (this is the kleptocratic theory of the origins of the state). 

But archaeological evidence throughout Europe keeps turning up graves of Paleolithic people who were clearly richer than everyone else, including one from 15000 BC showing “stunning signs of honor: bracelets of polished mammoth-ivory, a diadem or cap of fox’s teeth, and nearly 3,000 laboriously carved and polished ivory beads.” So it looks like hunter-gatherers had hierarchies too. Yet we do not find “fortifications, storehouses, palaces – all the usual trappings of emergent states.” The authors note that:

A wider look at the archaeological evidence suggests a key to resolving the dilemma. It lies in the seasonal rhythms of prehistoric social life. Most of the Palaeolithic sites discussed so far are associated with evidence for annual or biennial periods of aggregation, linked to the migrations of game herds – whether woolly mammoth, steppe bison, reindeer or (in the case of Göbekli Tepe) gazelle – as well as cyclical fish-runs and nut harvests. At less favourable times of year, at least some of our Ice Age ancestors no doubt really did live and forage in tiny bands. But there is overwhelming evidence to show that at others they congregated en masse within the kind of “micro-cities” found at Dolní Věstonice, in the Moravian basin south of Brno, Czech Republic, feasting on a superabundance of wild resources, engaging in complex rituals and ambitious artistic enterprises, and trading minerals, marine shells and animal pelts over striking distances.

The authors note that Plains Indians and arctic Inuit also practiced this sort of seasonal state construction, and that:

archaeological evidence suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways: shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year, on the proviso that they could not last; on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable….

Rather than idling in some primordial innocence, until the genie of inequality was somehow uncorked, our prehistoric ancestors seem to have successfully opened and shut the bottle on a regular basis, confining inequality to ritual costume dramas, constructing gods and kingdoms as they did their monuments, then cheerfully disassembling them once again.

Thus might Stonehenge* or Newgrange have gotten constructed without a permanent kingship, priesthood, and bureaucracy to commandeer all the surplus food and direct all the surplus labor. This issue came up this year in class. I mentioned the ziggurat of Ur and the Giza pyramids as evidence of the power of the state. I then showed Stonehenge and suggested that it too must point to the existence of powerful kingship. One student asked, “How do you know they didn’t just get together and build it because they wanted to?” – and I had to admit that she had a point! If some king directed its building, surely we would have the remains of a neolithic palace somewhere. So I had to modify my position – not all monumental architecture points to kingship. I would say that it does indicate economic surplus and (probably) religious motivation. And I’m sure that someone had to be in charge of the actual construction.

* From the article (emphasis added):

Careful excavation has shown that many of these structures – now plausibly interpreted as monuments to the progenitors of powerful Neolithic dynasties – were dismantled just a few generations after their construction. Still more strikingly, this practice of erecting and dismantling grand monuments coincides with a period when the peoples of Britain, having adopted the Neolithic farming economy from continental Europe, appear to have turned their backs on at least one crucial aspect of it, abandoning cereal farming and reverting – around 3300 BC – to the collection of hazelnuts as a staple food source. Keeping their herds of cattle, on which they feasted seasonally at nearby Durrington Walls, the builders of Stonehenge seem likely to have been neither foragers nor farmers, but something in between. And if anything like a royal court did hold sway in the festive season, when they gathered in great numbers, then it could only have dissolved away for most of the year, when the same people scattered back out across the island.

Their Legacy Remains

The latest from Stonehenge:

Ancient WELSHMEN ‘helped build Stonehenge’ by dragging bluestones 140 miles from the Preseli Mountains before they died, corpses reveal

It is now believed the Welshmen helped to build Stonehenge more than 5,000 years ago after helping to drag the stones from the Preseli Mountains of Wales, some 140 miles (225km) from the Wiltshire monument.

Until now, little was known about the origin of the people who built the ancient stone circle, although the origin of the stones was already known.

According to the University of Oxford research, 10 of the 25 cremated skull bones found at Stonehenge belong to people from ‘western Britain’, most likely Wales.

Because the older ‘bluestones’ used to start building Stonehenge also come from the Preseli Mountains in Wales, it raises the possibility the dead people either helped to transport the building blocks, or were taken to the site from there to be buried.

Stonehenge was built in several stages, with construction completed around 3,500 years ago.

Researchers from Oxford University examined the strontium isotope composition in the cremated bones buried at the site between 3,180 and 2,380 BC to reveal where the ancient people spend most of their lives.

In 10 of the fragments of skull, they found chemicals in the remains were consistent with people from western Britain, a region that includes west Wales – the known source of Stonehenge’s ‘bluestones’.

An interesting find, although it’s anachronistic to call them “Welshmen.”

Newgrange and the Giant’s Causeway

While in Ireland we got to see two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Newgrange (in the Republic, and a “cultural” site), and the Giant’s Causeway (in the North, and a “natural” site). I would have loved to have seen the third, Skellig Michael in Co. Kerry, but access is strictly limited and entails a boat ride across an often choppy sea, and a perilous climb up steep and slippery steps – not ideal for a tour group of 35!

1. Newgrange is the largest monumental structure at Brú na Bóinne (“Palace of the Boyne”), a complex of tombs, stone circles, and other manmade features just north of the River Boyne in County Meath, north of Dublin. Drogheda (the site of a frightful Cromwellian massacre in 1649, and also the site of the famous Battle of the Boyne in 1690) is about ten kilometers to the east of Brú na Bóinne, but we were there to see something much older: a neolithic passage tomb dating from c. 3200 BC, and thus predating Stonehenge and the Giza pyramids. 

From the outside, it’s really just a large earthen mound, with a retaining wall on the front made up of white quartz cobblestones. This wall is the work of one Michael O’Kelly, the main twentieth-century archaeologist for the site and is based on his “best guess” of what it might have looked like in the neolithic. Needless to say, this feature is somewhat controversial.

Things get really interesting, however, when you enter the doorway shown above. You squeeze down a dry stone passageway for about twenty meters, and arrive in a corbeled interior chamber with three side “chapels,” each with its own stone “altar” (designated a basin). The guide claimed that this passageway is original and was never reconstructed – in fact, the entrance was covered and hidden until AD 1699, when a local landowner found it and brought it to the attention of antiquarians.

No photography was allowed inside, so I scan some illustrations.

From George Eogan and Peigin Doyle, Guide to the Passage Tombs at Brú na Bóinne (2010), 2.

This is a view from the interior chamber looking back towards the entrance. The spiral motif is common at the site, but what it actually means is anyone’s guess.

From George Eogan and Peigin Doyle, Guide to the Passage Tombs at Brú na Bóinne (2010), 17.

This is a view of the right-hand side chapel, with basin stone. Apparently cremated human remains were discovered on these stones, but the cremations did not take place in the chamber itself. This has given rise to the theory that bodies were cremated outside, and the remains brought into the chamber for a special ceremony, most likely at the Winter Solstice, then taken out and interred elsewhere (plenty of smaller burial tombs have been found at Brú na Bóinne).

From a postcard.

Why the Winter Solstice? Because that’s when sunlight penetrates to the interior. Here is another view of the entrance – note the “roofbox” over the door.

From George Eogan and Peigin Doyle, Guide to the Passage Tombs at Brú na Bóinne (2010), 20.

And here is how it works: note the upward slope of the passageway, which blocks out light from the doorway, and allows only the shaft of light from the roofbox to reach the central basin stone. The slight zigzag of the passageway also ensures that the light is focussed by the time it gets to the interior. Our guide turned out the lights in the interior chamber and then lit one that simulated the solstice effect, but she said that it was a poor substitute for the real thing. But to experience this, you have to apply for it. The sunlight gets in for a few minutes a day over a period of about five days, roughly Dec. 19-23. They let ten people in per day, and you can bring a friend, meaning that 100 people can experience the Winter Solstice at Newgrange every year. The trouble is that some 32000 people apply! So the odds really aren’t in your favor, although they have started live streaming it over the Internet.

Brú na Bóinne is by no means the only such neolithic site in Europe. All along the west coast, from Spain to Scandinavia, one finds the remains of these monumental structures, usually circular and astronomically aligned, indicating surplus wealth generated by agriculture, political organization to order them constructed, and far-flung communication networks to spread knowledge of building techniques, and trade networks to import construction materials (Brú na Bóinne contains material from as far south as the Wicklow Mountains, and as far north as Slieve Croob in County Down). Alas, they are definitely prehistoric, in that nothing resembling a script has ever been discovered at any of them, so much of our knowledge of this period must remain speculative. 

2. The Giant’s Causeway is a volcanic formation of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns on the north coast of Northern Ireland. Similar sorts of formations may be seen elsewhere on the Earth (the one I’m most familiar with is Devil’s Tower in Wyoming), but they are rare and distinctive enough to be intensely captivating.

The standard theory is that the columns were created some sixty million years ago, when a large and thick lava flow cooled very slowly and, due to the chemistry of the basalt, formed regular polygonal columns. These were hidden deep underground, as the top layer of the basalt, exposed to the air, cooled much more rapidly and thus did not develop the distinctive pattern. Successive Ice Ages, however, stripped away those top layers, revealing the basalt columns and creating what, to a human, is a bizarre, ethereal sight.

But our tour guide, Jamie Kerr of EF Tours, mockingly denigrated this theory. She preferred the original, mythological explanation, and the reason why it bears the name “Giant’s Causeway.” A similar basalt formation may be found in Scotland on the Isle of Staffa, which gave rise to the idea that:

Finn McCool was a giant who, for the most part, lived a quiet life with his family here on the Northern Irish coast. But there were rivals, other giants, and perhaps to pre-empt a challenge from his Scottish neighbour, Benandonner, Finn laid down the gauntlet and then built the Giant’s Causeway so they could meet and do battle.

However, on his way over to Scotland, Finn spied Benandonner in the distance and realised that his rival was much bigger, taller and stronger than he had appeared from across the water. Finn decided he didn’t want to fight Benandonner any more and ran back home as fast as he could – so fast that he lost his boot on the shore.

Finn found his wife Oonagh and explained the terrible mistake he had made. Oonagh, being the brains of the pair, devised the plan of dressing up Finn as a baby and putting him into their son Oisin’s cot, covering him with blankets and wrapping a shawl around his head.

Just then there was a loud banging at the door – Benandonner! ‘Where’s Finn?’ he demanded, ‘I want to fight him!’

‘Calm down!’ said Oonagh, ‘Finn’s out herding the cows… but while you’re here why don’t you let me introduce you to our son Oisin?’

When Benandonner saw the giant baby in the cot he got scared. He thought, if that’s the size of the baby, how big is the father?

Benandonner immediately ran out of the house and home across the Causeway, tearing it behind him to make sure Finn couldn’t follow him.*

The current visitors’ center, which opened in 2012, is architecturally very well done (more at dezeen – check it out). It lies unobtrusively low to the ground, but its walls reflect the Causeway’s geological formation.

After our visit I kept seeing references to the Giant’s Causeway all over the place, and it seems to me it’s a symbol of Northern Ireland. This is a memento on display in the Belfast City Hall Museum. A bonus is that the six-sided columns (and in this case, six columns) can refer to the six counties of Northern Ireland.

I never made this connection, but the Giant’s Causeway is the setting for the cover of Led Zeppelin’s fifth studio album Houses of the Holy (1973). I loved this record in high school! Where’s that confounded bridge?

* From Anna Groves, A Souvenir Guide to the Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim (National Trust, 2016). The funny thing is that in recent times there really was a science vs. mythology dispute at the Causeway: some of the exhibits in the new visitors’ center, when it opened in 2012, gave a Young Earth creationist view of the site, soliciting praise from Answers in Genesis, and condemnation by Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, et al. (Following a review, the creationist interpretation was downplayed.)