One thing’s for sure, Mike Parker Pearson won’t be bouncing up and down on Jeremy Deller’s inflatable replica of Stonehenge this summer. The title of Deller’s artwork, Sacrilege, couldn’t prove more appropriate. As Professor Pearson establishes once and for all in his (literally) groundbreaking new book, Stonehenge has a very curious connection to the dead.
In 1918 the Office of Works rather hastily entrusted the restoration of Stonehenge to the amateur hands of an archaeologist named Hawley. “Archaeology has been likened to a historian reading the last surviving copy of an ancient book and then tearing out and burning every page”, Pearson says. Hawley’s involvement was a bit like this.
Until recently, many scholars believed that a wooden structure, like those known to have stood in Durrington Walls, down the River Avon, originally occupied the site at Stonehenge. Chipping away at a rare patch of rubble Hawley had missed in one of the chalk pits (called Aubrey Holes), Pearson and his team of archaeologists have attempted to overhaul that possibility, suggesting that the ground was compressed in such a way as to prove that Stonehenge was only ever made of stone. The eureka moment sprung from a surprisingly simple hypothesis: stone is made to last, wood will perish. Stone, in other words, is ripe for commemorating the dead, wood a material for the living.
Though much remains untouched, Stonehenge, which dates to as early as 3000BC, has so far offered up from its chalky soils the cremated burials of over 60 humans. Pearson and his team have also unveiled a handful of remains, dating from the point when the Brits, admitting European influence, switched to burying their dead (after 2400BC). Piecing together this evidence, Pearson presents a compelling reinterpretation of the significance of this landmark monument in time and space.
Dispelling many of the myths that have fogged the bare essentials of the site for centuries, Pearson has produced a clear and intriguing argument for viewing Stonehenge as the final resting place for elite, local males of the third millennium BC. With scientists still at work on the human remains from his many years of excavation, that story is still an evolving one.
Although his main concern is with a construction associated with death, Pearson does a remarkable job of bringing back to life the hitherto unknown inhabitants of Durrington Walls. The two places, he proves beyond question, were part and parcel of the same Stone Age network, among which early Briton was never just all beard and brawn. He was a masterful architect, Pearson shows, and a hearty eater. Pig teeth, cow bones, bits of beaver, were all uncovered from the Durrington Walls area, helping to characterise it as an important place of celebration in the shadow of Stonehenge itself. The connection between life and death, he convinces, was of primary importance to the builders, and inhabitants, of the monument.
Stonehenge has both the taste and the content of an authentic archaeological log-book, and without doubt will become an essential academic source. What sets it apart is the almost pain-staking patience with which Pearson is prepared to break down even the most complex of scientific processes. He has somehow convinced me, probably unwisely, that if left to excavate a field, I’d have a fair idea as to where to start.
Stonehenge by Mike Parker Pearson is published by Simon & Schuster (£25.00)
Merlin says ” A truly great read”
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Merlin @ The Stonehenge Website