Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Old Dead Gods Of Wiltshire

Stonehenge
© LBI ArchPro, Geert Verhoeven
The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project reveals traces of standing stones beneath Durrington Walls super-henge | Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology

Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England is one of the most important, if not the most important, neolithic monuments in Europe. It was clearly immensely important to those who built it, changed it and rebuilt it over hundreds of years. Clearly too, the site itself was of some importance because it is unlikely to have been chosen at random as it is surrounded by other neolithic sites and monuments.

Some of the stones are believed to have been brought from as far afield as the Preseli Hills in South-West Wales, a journey which probably meant crossing the Bristol Channel, transporting upstream on boats or rafts and dragging long distances over-land to this site. If the site hadn't been important, the monument could have been built elsewhere much more easily.

The manpower needed to do this work had to be supplied and supported by other people who grew food, made clothes and tools, etc. This was an organized, productive and wealthy society; at least wealthy enough to support a non-productive workforce of, presumably fit young people able to do the heavy labour. And it was a settled and secure society. They could not have been the disorganised hunter-gatherer society we normally think of as neolithic.

Now the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute, using state of the art technology to look beneath the surface, has discovered another huge former standing-stone monument hidden beneath a bank and ditch ring at nearby Durrington Walls.

Durrington Walls is one of the largest known henge monuments measuring 500m in diameter and thought to have been built around 4,500 years ago. Measuring more than 1.5 kilometres in circumference, it is surrounded by a ditch up to 17.6m wide and an outer bank c.40m wide and surviving up to a height of 1 metre. The henge surrounds several smaller enclosures and timber circles and is associated with a recently excavated later Neolithic settlement.

The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project team, using non-invasive geophysical prospection and remote sensing technologies, has now discovered evidence for a row of up to 90 standing stones, some of which may have originally measured up to 4.5 metres in height, Many of these stones have survived because they were pushed over and the massive bank of the later henge raised over the recumbent stones or the pits in which they stood. Hidden for millennia, only the use of cutting edge technologies has allowed archaeologists to reveal their presence without the need for excavation.

...

At Durrington, more than 4.5 thousand years ago, a natural depression near the river Avon appears to have been accentuated by a chalk cut scarp and then delineated on the southern side by the row of massive stones. Essentially forming a C-shaped ‘arena’, the monument may have surrounded traces of springs and a dry valley leading from there into the Avon. Although none of the stones have yet been excavated a unique sarsen standing stone, “The Cuckoo Stone”, remains in the adjacent field and this suggests that other stones may have come from local sources.

Previous, intensive study of the area around Stonehenge had led archaeologists to believe that only Stonehenge and a smaller henge at the end of the Stonehenge Avenue possessed significant stone structures. The latest surveys now provide evidence that Stonehenge’s largest neighbour, Durrington Walls, had an earlier phase which included a large row of standing stones probably of local origin and that the context of the preservation of these stones is exceptional and the configuration unique to British archaeology.

This new discovery has significant implications for our understanding of Stonehenge and its landscape setting. The earthwork enclosure at Durrington Walls was built about a century after the Stonehenge sarsen circle (in the 27th century BC), but the new stone row could well be contemporary with or earlier than this. Not only does this new evidence demonstrate an early phase of monumental architecture at one of the greatest ceremonial sites in prehistoric Europe, it also raises significant questions about the landscape the builders of Stonehenge inhabited and how they changed this with new monument-building during the 3rd millennium BC.


Just as with near-by Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow we do not know with any certainty what Stonehenge or this construction at Durrington Walls were for. All sorts of functions have been proposed, from the sublime to the ridiculous; from a celestial calendar to a landing platform for alien spaceships, from a summer solstice festival site to a... well, you name it; it's been proposed. The fact remains though that we do not know, we can only surmise.

But, from a time when people did not live in stone buildings - at least they left no trace if they did - it seems almost certain that these were religious site for major ceremonies and, judging by the convergence of several ancient tracks or hill-top roads, such as the Icknield Way/Ridgeway running from East Anglia which may have been a route for travellers (pilgrims?) from mainland Europe, its importance was more than just local.

It is inconceivable that the area and its monuments didn't have some deep religious significance. It is inconceivable that the power to command and control the workforce and the surrounding peoples didn't involve control of their religion and the allegiance of the religion's priesthood. These were either priest-kings or a governing alliance of kings and priests. The power to command and control must have come ultimately from control of the religion and the invocation of divine power from a god or gods whom the people worshiped and believed in without question.

The reputation of these gods, or the power of this site, seems to have lingered well into Roman times as the British Isles (Albion) was regarded as a mysterious, magical land of giants and fairies

Albion William Blake
Blake's personification of the Isle of Albion
And yet we know not one iota about these gods; who they were, what powers they were believed to have. Were they benign or malevolent? Could they ward off evil and ensure the rains came and the crops grew? Did they create the Earth and make the sun rise every day? Were they god of water or wind, of wood and trees and the wild places; of thunder and lightening? Was whatever ceremonies were carried out at Stonehenge essential to keep these gods on side either with thanks, with pleadings for forgiveness, or with sacrificial offerings?

We don't have a single answer to those questions and, because they left no written records we have no real way of ever knowing.

But as for those god - the gods whose priests could command such respect and power to control a people and tax them sufficiently to pay for the labour of the builders - where are they now?

Once it was fervently believed that these gods did something important; something worth expending immense resources on to ensure they kept doing it, or perhaps didn't do it. The 'evidence' for their existence must have been 'obvious' to these people just as the existence of today's gods is 'obvious' to today's believers and yet there was no more and no less evidence for them than for today's locally popular and culturally inherited gods.

Life continued and the world did not come to an end; the crops still grow, the rains still come and the sun still puts in a daily appearance even though those once essential rituals are never performed, the magic incantations are never cast and the magic hand-signals and ritual gestures remain unperformed.

And so it will be when today's evidence-free gods, whose priests can command the building of today's ritual sites, and whose believers believe must be worshipped to keep them on side with magic incantations and ritual movements, are dead and gone and lost in the midst of antiquity along with those old dead Wiltshire gods.

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3 comments :

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