Sunday, June 08, 2008

New Theories on Stonehenge

The current issue of National Geographic Magazine features an article on new archaeological findings related to Stonehenge. I read it in a doctor's office this week (an upside to my down time??) with keen interest, because I had heard this 17 minute discussion about the project on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

National Geographic Channel aired a 2 hour special on the subject as well. Stonehenge has always fascinated me, being both interested in history and Britain. And now, in the last 4 years some new discoveries provide new clues and treasures and filled in parts of the story of Stonehenge.

My first view of Stonehenge, I believe came in high school when an English teacher showed us Roman Polanski's Tess (based on Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles) with Nastassja Kinski. Tess flees there and is found at Stonehenge, which is beautifully filmed by Polanski, at dawn as I recall.

Mike Parker Pearson and he theorized that if Stonehenge is a temple to the dead (instead of a temple to the sun), then maybe there is a temple to the living. And so he began to look.

Stonehenge was built around 2,500 BC and is 4,000 years old. Each stone weighs 45 tons. The monument is made of sarsen stones, one of the hardest and coarsest stones, and the closest source is 25 miles away in Marlbourgh Downs, north of Stonehenge. Note that transport of these stones, predate the invention of the wheel and there are no domesticated animals to help with the pulling. The rocks are vested with meaning, perhaps even soul and spirit.

There is another related site, called Durrington Walls, a mile and a half away, across the Curcus. The Curcus is a road that is about a mile and a half long. Burial sites are on the south side, the side toward Stonehenge. But there are none to the north. Which led archaeologists to believe that the land around Stonehenge was considered sacred and related to the dead.

Durrington Walls is a vast circular earth work, known as a henge. Durrington Walls is twenty times the size of Stonehenge, and is surrounded by a circular ditch that is 18 feet deep and 30 feet wide. It is basically the site of a wooden henge, the other half of an extraordinary ancient complex. A complex including roads, burial sites, as well as the two henges - one of stone and one of wood.

Durrington Wells as a henge of wood is thought to be a temple to life, as wood doesn't last forever. Evidence of this structure was discovered in 1967, but it assumed to predate Stonehenge, a sort of pre-trial run. But in fact, they co-existed at the same time.

In 2004, archaeologists began to dig and in 2005 began to find houses, well preserved, unlike anything otherwise found in England. the remains indicate a large village, with well over 1,000 houses. It is the lost city of the builders of Stonehenge.

This is the largest stone age village found in northern Europe, with a population in the thousands. The team finds thousands of human remains; they are not finding of farming activity which indicates something unusual about the community - that it's not a permanent, full time settlement.

They are believed to have gathered to mark the longest day of the year - the summer solstice. The henges are aligned to the sun, and mark the seasons.

You can see a bird's eye view of the Salisbury Plain including Stonehenge, Durrington Walls, the Curcus and all here. Here's more on Stonehenge, the cemetery of cremation burials, over 240 remains, buried over a period of over 5 centuries, an average of one person buried every 2 years. That suggests that those honored with burial there were royalty or ruling dynasty class.

National Geographic Channel rebroadcasts Stonehenge Decoded on June 12th at 5 pm.

The recreations are stupid and distracting - grunts masking as language, complete with subtitles. The acting ancients' painted faces evoke Mel Gibson's bravehearts - not quite, but nearly (faces painted white instead of blue). The producers create false drama by having one of the 45 stones slide down an incline during one of the recreations, and the ancients are depicted mercy killing a crushed man.

And, of course, they all look like Anglo-Saxons, never mind that the Angles and Saxons didn't invade and enter Britain until the 5th and 6th centuries B.C.E. (They came from what is now Denmark). What should they have looked like? I don't know, but that's the point - we don't know what they looked like or sounded like.

The show could have been down in closer to an hour without the recreations and repetitions (there are too many of those too). Not how I would have done it, but the information underlying is fascinating nonetheless.

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