Were there ever any sacrifices at Stonehenge?

2 03 2017

The mythology of Stonehenge is deeply tied to the Druids.

Stonehenge sacrifice

The Slaughtering Stone

This is because some historians in the 17th century felt that the monument represented a temple and that it had been built by a pre-Roman society. As the only pre-Roman society that they knew of was the Ancient Britons and because the Romans had spoken of a priesthood called the Druids, it was obvious to them that Stonehenge was a Druid Temple.

This turned out to be the wrong conclusion, but the idea stuck.

druids_inciting_the_britons_to_oppose_the_landing_of_the_romansOne thing that everyone thinks they know about Druids is that they performed human sacrifice – that information comes to us from Julius Caesar in his accounts of the Gallic Wars of 58BC to 50BC, but he may have been exaggerating the ferocity of the Gaulish tribes to increase the prestige of his victories.

The famous imagery of a Wicker Man stuffed with prisoners and set alight comes from these writings.

Certainly the Druids were a problem for the Romans, being the closest thing to a centraldruid-human-sacrifice authority held in respect by the many tribes and with the notable ability to raise opposition to the invading armies.

Other classical writers wrote that the Vates (part of the priestly class) used to slice open the guts of a victim and read auguries of the future from the twitching entrails on the ground, while a Druid presided over the ceremony.

By the 19th century one recumbent stone at Stonehenge had acquired the name “The Slaughtering Stone” because the hollows on its upper surface fill with rainwater that turns red – supposedly from the blood of the victims sacrificed upon it, but in fact due to iron in the stone and particular algae on it.

human_sacrifice_druidAs with so many other myths, this bloodthirsty idea has stuck.

So far so gruesome, but when it comes to Stonehenge is there actually any evidence of sacrifice being carried out there?
We have records of four bodies having been found within the area enclosed by the henge bank and ditch earthwork.

Of these burials, two are missing entirely: the one found in the centre of the stone circle is long lost and the whereabouts of the partial burial from the henge ditch on the eastern side is also unknown (the excavator believed it not to be ancient).

The other two are more interesting – one was found close by the southeastern side of the monument just outside the stone circle in 1923 and the other was found in the ditch to the west of the main entrance in 1978.

The southeasterly burial was that of a man who had been decapitated from behind with a sharp bladed instrument, probably a sword – the evidence is in the cut marks through his 4th cervical vertebra and below his jaw – and then unceremoniously stuffed into a grave hole not quite big enough for the body. This is certainly an execution but it dates to between 600AD and 690AD, the Anglo-Saxon period.

The final burial is very interesting. When discovered, the body was in a neatly prepared grave (rather than a hurriedly scraped hole) and accompanied by what appeared to be grave goods – a stone “bracer” or wrist guard to prevent his bow-string hitting his wrist, and several flint arrowheads. The young man buried in the grave was dubbed “The Stonehenge Archer”.

On closer inspection it became clear that the tips of these arrowheads were embedded in the bones of the body, so he was the Stonehenge ArchEE, not the ArchER. He had been shot in the back, at least three times from different directions, and the coup de grace had been delivered when he was face down on the ground – the final arrow pierced his body and ended up in the back of his breastbone. The victim was killed between 2400BC – 2140BC.

800px-stonehenge_archer_-_salisbury_and_south_wiltshire_museum

Does the care taken in preparing his grave, coupled with the prestigious position of it next to the entrance, mean that he was a ceremonial sacrifice?

Perhaps.

For now, this remains the only clear evidence of a violent death at Stonehenge during the time when the monument was almost certainly in active use.

The Stonehenge Archer’s remains are now on display at Salisbury Museum.

Article by guest blogger and local Stonehenge historian Simon Banton

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Was #Stonehenge a ‘Mecca on stilts’?

18 03 2015

Structure supported a wooden platform to get ‘closer to the heavens’, claims expert 

  • Historian Julian Spalding has provided a new theory on Stonehenge
  • He says the stones were pillars used to support a raised platform
  • This would have had people of importance upon it, with others below
  • A ramp or stairs would have led to the top of the platform
  • But the wood has long since rotted away, leaving only the stones behind 
Historian Julian Spalding has provided a new theory on Stonehenge. He says the stones were pillars used to support a raised platform during ceremonies. As shown in this illustration, steps or a ramp would have led to the top of the platform, where figures of importance would have stood, perhaps addressing a crowd below.  Copyright @Daily Mail

Historian Julian Spalding has provided a new theory on Stonehenge. He says the stones were pillars used to support a raised platform during ceremonies. As shown in this illustration, steps or a ramp would have led to the top of the platform, where figures of importance would have stood, perhaps addressing a crowd below. Copyright @Daily Mail

Whether it was a Druid temple, an astronomical calendar or a centre for healing, the mystery of Stonehenge has sparked endless debate over the centuries.

Now a dramatic new theory suggests that the prehistoric stone circle monument was in fact ‘an ancient Mecca on stilts’.

The megaliths would not have been used for ceremonies at ground level, but would instead have supported a circular wooden platform on which ceremonies were performed to the rotating heavens, according to new research.

Julian Spalding, former director of some of the UK’s leading museums, argues that the stones were foundations for a vast platform, long since lost – ‘a great altar’ raised up high towards the heavens and able to take the weight of hundreds of worshippers.

‘It’s a totally different theory which has never been put forward before,’ he said.

‘All the interpretations to date could be mistaken. We’ve been looking at Stonehenge the wrong way, from the earth, which is very much a 20th-century viewpoint. We haven’t been thinking about what they were thinking about.’

Part of his evidence lies in ancient civilisations worldwide. As far afield as China, Peru and Turkey, such sacred monuments were built high up, whether on manmade or natural sites, and with circular patterns possibly linked to celestial movements.

‘In early times, no spiritual ceremonies would have been performed on the ground,’ said Mr Spalding.

The Pharaoh of Egypt and the Emperor of China were always carried – as the Pope used to be… The feet of holy people were not allowed to touch the ground. We’ve been looking at Stonehenge from a modern, earth-bound perspective.

‘All the great raised altars of the past suggest that the people who built Stonehenge would never have performed celestial ceremonies on the lowly earth… That would have been unimaginably insulting to the immortal beings, for it would have brought them down from heaven to bite the dust and tread in the dung.’

However, he says the wood that would have been used for the platform has long since rotted away, leaving only the stone pillars that support it behind.

Mr Spalding’s museum directorships include Glasgow, which boasts world-class archaeological collections within a complex of institutions that exceed the British Museum in size.

Today, he published his theories in a new book, titled Realisation: From Seeing to Understanding – The Origins of Art, published by Wilmington Square Books.

It explores our ancestors’ understanding of the world, offering new explanations of iconic works of art and monuments.

Stonehenge, built in stages between 3000 and 2000 BC, is England’s most famous prehistoric monument, a Unesco World Heritage site on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire that draws more than one million annual visitors.

It began as a timber circle, later made permanent with massive blocks of stone, many somehow dragged from dolerite rock in the Welsh mountains.

Dolerite has a bluish tinge and is dappled with white spots that look like stars, according to Mr Spalding.

‘These megaliths, weighing between two and four tons each, were transported 250 miles [400km], an extraordinary achievement in those times, which indicates that building Stonehenge was a massive communal enterprise,’ he said.

He believes that ancient worshippers would have reached the giant altar by climbing curved wooden ramps or staircases, moving in the direction of the slowly circulating stars for ceremonies dedicated to, for example, a dead king’s soul or midsummer and solstice celebrations.

His theories have been shaped by visits to ancient sites like the stone circles of Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey, reminiscent of Stonehenge but predating it by around 6,000 years.

Only a fraction of the site has been excavated, and the purpose of its T-shaped pillars is a mystery, Spalding said: ‘These must have supported some sort of raised platform.’

He also points to the Nazca Lines in Peru, vast drawings apparently etched into Earth’s surface more than 2,000 years ago on to a high natural plateau above the villages where they lived: ‘They went up to the sacred place. These lines were a processional way, which followed the movement and shape of the stars.

‘The great mystery of early man was that we all thought the world was flat. Everyone did until very recent times. All the major religious ceremonies, as the Haj still does in Mecca, always ends in a circular motion, going round and round, which imitates the stars.’

Professor Vincent Gaffney, principal investigator on the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project at Bradford University, responded with ‘a fair degree of scepticism.’

He said: ‘At Stonehenge, there are other structures which are clearly designed to be viewed from the ground, along astronomic alignments, and you can see the sky from pretty much anywhere.’

Sir Barry Cunliffe, a prehistorian and Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology, Oxford University, said: ‘He could be right, but I know of no evidence to support it… There are a large number of stone circles around the country which clearly didn’t have a platform on top. So why should Stonehenge?’

But Aubrey Burl, an authority on prehistoric stone circles, said: ‘There could be something in it. There is a possibility, of course. Anything new and worthwhile about Stonehenge is well worth looking into, but with care and consideration.’

Mr Spalding is fully expecting resistance from fellow academics. He draws parallels with the 1868 discovery of magnificent prehistoric ceiling paintings in the Altamira Cave in Spain, by a geologist and archaeologist.

‘He went in there and looked on the ground – because he assumed all the evidence for early man would be on the ground,’ he said.

‘It never occurred to him to look up. It was his young daughter who said, papa look on the ceiling.’

Experts at the time denounced those paintings as forgeries. It was not until the end of the 19th century that they were accepted as genuine.

Read the full article (source) in the Daily Mail

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