Before we went to Stonehenge last week, I felt it was important to do a bit of research on the place. It helps to know what it is you’re looking at when you’re there.
Strangely, or coincidentally, or even, as Arthur Koestler would have said, synchronically, there seemed to be a sudden flush of documentaries about Stonehenge on television, all of them claiming to “reveal the truth”. YouTube was, of course, full of stuff about ley lines and crystals and theories about landing strips for alien spaceships.
In my arrogant blinkered way I dismissed these out of hand.
The documentaries, however, contradicted each other. It was clear that no-one knew very much, but that everyone was keen to guess and everyone loved to play with graphics, virtual landscapes and computer-generated Neolithic farmers.
As soon as a documentary has virtual stones rising out of a virtual, and usually stormy, landscape, I switch off. It is no longer a documentary, it is someone’s fantasy.
The fallen stones themselves work on my own wonder and imagination far more effectively than pretend people hunting on a pretend plain. A note for all documentary makers: stop patronising us.
I trawled through the archaeological sources. I searched those places on the internet where you don’t know who wrote it or whether it is quasi-factual or just off-the-scale lunacy. I tried to home in on generally recognised facts, which isn’t easy in these days of digital obfuscation.
I eventually came up with these notes, which served me well on the visit.
The Neolithic period, or New Stone Age, about 3-4,000 years ago, seems to be marked by a change to human burial practices in the Stonehenge area. The early burials appear to be communal rituals. There are a number of large communal tombs near Stonehenge, known as long barrows, which show that disarticulated bones were placed in the tomb, rather than complete bodies, and heads were removed and kept separately.
The Long Kennet barrow showed that many skeletons were jumbled up together before the tomb was closed by huge standing stones.
The earliest part of Stonehenge itself was a circle of bluestones surrounded by a ditch. The bluestones, which weigh many tons each, had been brought to the site from Pembrokeshire in Wales, a journey of many hundreds of miles at a time before the wheel. We still don’t know how or why this was done, although there are numerous ‘experts’ who will pretend they do. Usually with the help of computer graphics!
There is evidence of cremations in the ditch, but there are no bodies. The bluestones are more problematic, however. Why would a stone- age society go to all that trouble? The logistics would have been horrendous.
The bluestones must have been special. My bit of guesswork is that these stones were ancestor markers. Many cultures invest stones and trees with the spirits of their ancestors, and we mark the presence of our ancestors with special stones in groups by our churches.
A body has been found that dates to 2,300 BC, which was the date of organic material found at the base of the bluestones. The grave contained grave-goods, and he has become known as the Amesbury Archer, because they found flint arrow heads with the body. A young male family member was found nearby, identified as family through DNA analysis.
The Archer’s skeleton revealed a badly broken leg, commensurate with being crushed by an accident with a large stone, but that had not been fatal. He also suffered from a dental abscess, which may have been what killed him
Some believe that the analysis of his bones shows him to come from Austria, but others say he was from Wales. The latter seems geographically more likely, and he may have been one of the original people who moved the bluestones, which might explain his leg injury.
In 2,100 BC a new structure was built in the centre of the circle. It was a horseshoe of massive sarsen standing stones and lintels that had been quarried and dressed about 20 miles away. The bluestones (ancestors?) were uprooted and replaced inside the horseshoe of huge sarsen trilithons, which had been quarried and dressed 20 miles away..
Another ring of bluestones was then placed around the horseshoe, and then the whole thing was surrounded by a ring of massive sarsen trilithons in 1900 BC.
In 1976 a body was found in the surrounding ditch. He was a young adult local male, murdered by lots of arrows. One theory makes him a trespasser, another makes him a human sacrifice. His body was roughly buried with no grave goods, but there is no evidence of any other sacrifices, so that explanation seems unlikely, and people who tell you the stones were a site of human sacrifice, healing, or sun worship are just making it up..
The Neolithic was the final part of the Stone Age. When construction began, stone was the supreme technology. By 1,800, bronze was arriving from the continent and was supplanting stone in importance.. People started burying their dead in individual shrines around Stonehenge, rather than in communal barrows or as cremated remains at Stonehenge itself.
Ancestor worship became less important, and the stones no longer represented the dead or the cutting edge of technology.
Although it was hundreds of years in the building, present day analysis of organic remains at the base of the bluestones puts the start of building at 2,300 BC. The heyday of the monument was between 2,100 and 1,900 BC.