Exciting news from Stonehenge
Stonehenge has no shortage of mystery. One of the big ones is the lack of people in the landscape. Stonehenge is clearly the product of a large community, but until now there has been no evidence of these people. The Stonehenge Riverside Project has announced that they have now found a large Neolithic settlement which they’ve dated to around 2600-2500 BC. There are a few things which stand out.
One is that this village was home to hundreds of people. This is tiny by modern standards, but in the sparsely populated Neolithic landscape of Britain this is the biggest settlement known. This is interesting because Stonehenge isn’t the biggest circle. Avebury is much bigger. Does this mean that there’s an even bigger village waiting to be found a few miles to the north? What does that say about the population of Wessex in the Neolithic. There is also the matter of the economy needed to support a large population. This is where the speculation gets really interesting.
Parker Pearson thinks that Stonehenge was a season monument and that this was a landscape occupied in the winter. Some of this is derived from work he has done with a Malagasy archaeologist Ramilisonina. In recent years he’s argued that finds of pig bone at Durrington Walls have also supported this. The pig bones were from pigs killed at nine to eleven months old, which would mean they were killed for winter. I’ve been sceptical of that. If you’re going to salt pork for the winter then you’d kill it around this age anyway. The evidence is consistent with Parker Pearson’s claims, but its not the only explanation. The size of the village potentially could help solve this.
A large population will require extensive agriculture. However if Parker Pearson is right then this village could also have been occupied seasonally. In that case a lot less food is required if the village is largely empty for a lot of the year. This strikes out against a lot of preconceptions about farmers. The big change from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic is thought to be the change from nomadic hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers. However even into medieval times there could be a lot of movement in the landscape on a seasonal basis. For instance taking the herds into the hills during the summer for grazing. In the British landscape there is movement in the Neolithic. There’s a bigger change in settlement between the Early and Late Bronze Ages than between the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. It could be that the Neolithic is still a mobile period when people were connected to landscapes but not tied to them.
The quality of the sites also sounds good. “It is the richest – by that I mean the filthiest – site of this period known in Britain,” Professor Parker Pearson told BBC News. “We’ve never seen such quantities of pottery and animal bone and flint.” That suggests there’s a lot of material but it’s what’s missing that is interesting. Later in the BBC story Parker Pearson says “The rubbish isn’t your average domestic debris. There’s a lack of craft-working equipment for cleaning animal hides and no evidence for crop-processing. The animal bones are being thrown away half-eaten. It’s what we call a feasting assemblage. This is where they went to party – you could say it was the first free festival.” This lack of craft-working is interesting. If there was year-round occupation then you’d expect tools for year-round activity. This would seem to give weight to Parker Pearson’s seasonal occupation in the winter.
If this was a landscape occupied in winter then the puzzle is why does Stonehenge face the midsummer sunrise?
This could be because a line can be looked along in either direction. Given a flat horizon, a view which faces the midsummer sunrise in one direction will face the midwinter sunset in the opposite direction. In this case Stonehenge doesn’t just have a circle. It also has an avenue, a processional way leading to it. If you walked along this way at midwinter at sunset then you’d see the Sun setting into the stone circle as it set. Rather than something just a few people could see from the middle of the circle you have an event which many people could see.
One way is midsummer sunrise the other midwinter sunset. Source – Wikipedia
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the midsummer sunrise was not observed, but would suggest that the reason for building the monument was some sort of midwinter event and the midsummer alignment is a happy coincidence.
No doubt there’ll be more on the web by the time I’ve finished typing this, so I may add more links in the comments. For now if you want to read the reports there’s a report from the BBC, another from National Geographic and the interim archaeological reports are available from the home page of The Stonehenge Riverside Project
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