Stonehenge revealed: Why Stones Were a “Special Place”

22 06 2013

Lead archaeologist at Stonehenge discusses his team’s discoveries in new book

The eerie megaliths of Stonehenge have inspired speculation for centuries.

Druids—and sometimes aliens—have been suspected of planting the 4,500-year-old stones. Is Stonehenge an astronomical calendar or a place of healing or a marker for magical energy lines in the ground? For a long time, no one really knew, though some theories were more grounded in reality than others.

Each year revelers like these travel to Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice. Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic

Each year revelers like these travel to Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice.
Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic

But now, we may be a little bit closer to understanding the monumental Neolithic site. Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson and his colleagues at the Stonehenge Riverside Project, whose research was funded in part by the National Geographic Society, spent seven years excavating Stonehenge and its surroundings. This month, Parker Pearson published the project’s findings in a new book, Stonehenge—A New Understanding: Solving the Mysteries of the Greatest Stone Age Monument.

National Geographic writer Rachel Hartigan Shea spoke with Parker Pearson about what he and his colleagues discovered and how modern celebrants greeting the summer solstice at Stonehenge may have gotten the wrong day.

What got you first interested in researching Stonehenge?

Well, I have to say I didn’t actually have any interest at all in Stonehenge. I was working with Ramilisonina, a Malagasy archaeologist. He comes from a megalith-building culture, so I thought he’d be interested to see Stonehenge. I took him to take a look, and he said, “What do you mean you don’t know what it’s for? It’s obvious.” Then he said, “Mike, have you learned nothing in all of our work together with standing stones in Madagascar?”

He explained to me it was surely built for the ancestors. In Madagascar, they build in stone for the ancestors because it is a permanent medium—permanent like the ancestors—whereas they live in wooden houses because those will perish just like human life will end. I laughed initially and said, “Well, I don’t think that’s necessarily really going to have anything to do with Britain 5,000 years ago.”

But I realized that actually we did have timber circles very close to the stone circle of Stonehenge. That was quite a bombshell for me.

How were the excavations that you worked on at Stonehenge different from previous excavations there?

I think the important thing was not to dig just at Stonehenge but to actually investigate the wider landscape around it and to begin by looking at this area of the timber circles close by. It was there that we found that the place of wood had indeed to do with the living. (See Stonehenge pictures.)

When we came back to Stonehenge and dug there, we recovered some 60 cremation burials inside Stonehenge. What we now know is that Stonehenge was the largest cemetery of its day.

Ramilisonina’s ideas about a place in stone for the dead and a place in wood for the living started as a theory but has actually become a fact as a result of our investigations.

The timber circles were located at a site called Durrington Walls. How was that the place of the living?

At Durrington Walls, we have two of these great timber circles—a bit like Stonehenge in wood—at the center of an enormous village. From where we’ve excavated, you’re looking at a fairly dense settlement of houses.

We discovered that they’d been feasting there on a very large scale. We estimate that about four to five thousand people may have gathered there at the time they were building Stonehenge. (Take a Stonehenge quiz.)

We also know that there were seasonal influxes into the settlement at Durrington Walls. Through analysis of the age patterns on the teeth of pigs, we can see that there are particularly high points in the slaughtering patterns. The pigs had given birth in spring, and what we’re seeing is a culling in the middle of the winter.

Here we are on the summer solstice, but this evidence suggests that people were gathering in large numbers at the winter solstice. We’ve been getting it wrong in modern times about when to gather at Stonehenge.

So Stonehenge was built to commemorate the dead?

Stonehenge wasn’t built in order to do something, in the same way you might build a Greek temple to use it for worship. It seems much more likely that everything was in the act of building—that you’d construct it, then you’d go away. You’d come back 500 years later, you’d rebuild it in a new format, and then you’d go away.

I think we have to shake off this idea of various sorts of priests or shamans coming in every year over centuries to do their thing. This is a very different attitude to religious belief. It’s much more about the moment. It’s about what must have been these upwellings of religious—almost millennial—belief, and once the thing is done, then everyone disperses and goes back to their lives.

What do the summer and midwinter solstices have to do with where Stonehenge is located?

One of our discoveries in 2008 was on the avenue that leads out of Stonehenge. As you are moving along the avenue away from Stonehenge, you are looking toward where the sun rises on the midsummer solstice. If you turn 180 degrees and look back toward Stonehenge, that’s where the sun sets on the midwinter solstice. Underneath the avenue, we discovered a natural landform, formed in a previous ice age, where there are grooves and ridges that by sheer coincidence are aligned on that solstitial axis.

Right next to this landform are pits dug to hold posts that were put up 10,000 years ago, much older than Stonehenge. Another archaeological team has discovered down by the river next to Stonehenge a huge settlement area for hunters and gatherers, which seems to have been occupied on and off for something like 4,000 years before Stonehenge itself was ever built.

We think that long before Stonehenge this location was already a special place. These hunters and gatherers may have been the people who first recognized this special feature in the land where the earth and the heavens were basically in harmony.

This interview has been edited and condensed.
Full Article: : http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130621-stonehenge-summer-solstice-archaeology-science/

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Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge News Blog





Stonehenge gathering marks summer solstice.

22 06 2013

Summer solstice: thousands descend on Stonehenge to greet longest day

‘Reincarnated king’ among 20,000 revellers gathered at ancient monument to watch sun ascend over misty Wiltshire plain

Summer Solstice at Stonehenge

They came in their thousands. Some worshipped, others partied. Many were there simply to enjoy the atmosphere of the summer solstice at Stonehenge.

More than 20,000 people were at the ancient monument to greet the sunrise at 4.52am at the start of the longest day of the year. After a warm, moonlit night the mist and mizzle descended, making it impossible to judge the moment when the sun rose over the Wiltshire plain without an accurate watch.

But it did not matter much. “I’ve had a lovely time,” said Belle Gay, a 21-year-old pagan from Exeter who was on her first pilgrimage to Stonehenge. “It doesn’t concern me that we couldn’t actually see the sun rise. That’s how nature is – you can’t control the elements and that’s why it’s all so special. It’s such a beautiful, peaceful place.”

Arthur Pendragon, who claims to be a reincarnation of the once and future king and is a poster boy of the pagans at solstice, was keen to make peace his key message

As the sun ascended, invisibly, he called for peace in the east, west, north and south. “That’s what it’s all about, we want peace and fairness for all,” he said.

Pendragon, who sports long white robes, set about knighting new followers to his druidic order, the Loyal Arthurian Warband, which he described as the political wing of the religion. “We’re the ones who get into trees to stop roadbuilding and take on people like English Heritage over access to the stones. We’re sworn to fight for truth, for honour and for justice.”

It was a busy time for the king. Overnight he had also carried out around a dozen “handfasting” ceremonies – the pagan equivalent of weddings. Husband and wife vow that they will stay together “for a year and a day, eternity and beyond or for however long love will last”.

The 21st century is proving a good time to be a druid or pagan. Almost 60,000 people in England and Wales described themselves as pagan in the 2011 census.

Professor Ronald Hutton, a leading expert on paganism based at Bristol University, said he believed there were at least 100,000 practising pagans in Britain. He pointed out that only a million Church of England devotees go to mass every Sunday, “so paganism matters”

Rollo Maughfling, who answers to the grand title archdruid of Stonehenge and Britain, said he believed the religion’s green credentials were attractive to many younger people. “More and more people, especially younger ones, are being attracted to our way of doing things,” he said. “People realise that we see the divine in nature and that is attractive to more and more people in these troubled times.”

Steve Harris, 20, from Manchester, had different priorities. “I’ve lost my mates,” he said. He admitted to having drunk an evil-sounding mixture of lager, cider and brandy as well as having smoked “something a bit herbal”.

He had been dancing away the early hours in the stone circle, where drummers took turns in keeping the beat going through the night. “We danced for a few hours, we drank for a few hours. Now I think I may have missed my lift.”

Harris said he intended to stay “pretty sozzled” between now and next week when he would be at Glastonbury. The solstice at Stonehenge used to be a staging post for many hippy types heading to the music festival but Glastonbury and Stonehenge have changed over the years. Gone are the ugly clashes between revellers and police that resulted in the stones being closed at solstice.

In the 14 years since so-called managed access has been taking place, tensions have eased and the head of Stonehenge for English Heritage, Peter Carson, said he had noticed a greater variety of people attending the solstice. “We’re getting more families coming and more overseas visitors. Not everyone is happy at the access but there is much less hostility.”

By this time next year major changes at Stonehenge will be complete. On Monday, one of the roads that runs close to the stones will be closed and by this time next year it should be grassed over as part of a project to restore one of the key approaches to the site. A new visitor centre is to be opened in December.

Meanwhile Wiltshire police were delighted with the night and morning. Superintendent Matt Pullen said: “Solstice 2013 has been a great success, with approximately 21,000 people celebrating in the positive, friendly atmosphere as they waited for sunrise. This year there have been a lower number of arrests compared with previous years, 22 were taken into custody mainly in relation to drugs offences.”

As the sun rose higher (and, oddly, the temperature dropped) Steve and Debbie Jones, who had made the trek from Hertfordshire, were pushing their one-year-old baby, Stan, in a buggy away from the stones. “We’re not pagans, we’re not hippies, we just wanted to come and have a look,” said Steve. “It was a lovely evening, warm, peaceful, memorable. We’ll come back.”

This article was by  guardian.co.uk,

Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge News Blog








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