As the guy at National Geographic responsible for keeping track of a bunch of scientists, I never know who or what I'll engage with each day. It could be dinosaurs for breakfast, poisonous frogs for lunch, and Inca gold for dinner. I'll post the highlights here as I encounter them. If you have questions or comments about archeology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, or any Society-funded projects, this is the place to post. I'll check things out and invite experts to weigh in on postings from time to time.
Stonehenge Mystery Solved?
Posted May 30,2008

Stonehenge_2Years of guesswork have not produced satisfactory explanations for Stonehenge. Is that about to change? Art courtesy of Library of Congress.

Mike Parker Pearson and Julian Thomas, both NGS grantees, announced today that new dating of burial remains at Stonehenge support their idea that the "first and foremost" purpose of the place was for burial, perhaps of royalty.

In 2007, the same team announced the discovery of a huge settlement at Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge. Their report suggested that these were the people that built Stonehenge. The new dating helps support their idea that Stonehenge was a vast ceremonial landscape, including the settlement, focused around a mortuary function.

Just weeks ago, however, Timothy Darvill and Geoff Wainwright announced that they knew what Stonehenge was for. It was a center for healing, a "prehistoric Lourdes," Wainright was quoted as saying. In a conversation I had with Parker Pearson, he quipped that if it was a healing center, then perhaps it wasn't a very good one, since there were quite a lot of burials there.

The cover story in June's National Geographic explores both of these hypotheses.

I first encountered Parker Pearson when I was writing a children's book called "Bury the Dead." He worked with me as a consultant and I recall how impressed I was with his insight into burial archaeology world wide. Science isn't a horse race, but if I had to bet on a hypothesis, I would bet Parker Pearson and Thomas are right about it being first and foremost a royal burial ground.

What do you think? Burial ground? Healing center? Observatory? Something else?

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (19)
Filed Under: archaeology

Comments

Kate C
May 30, 2008 1AM #

Perhaps I had some cynicism bestowed upon me as a child, but these kinds of stories always make me think of one of my favorite books growing up: "Motel of the Mysteries" by David Macaulay.

If you haven't read it, the story describes a futuristic world in which an archeologist discovers a 20th century motel, and determines that it MUST have been a site for religious ceremonious and royal burials. Quite funny.

I suppose building Stonehenge must have taken a great deal of effort, so it probably was an important place. And with ancient bodies surrounding, it could have been a burial site. Or... maybe it was just a cheep (and perhaps dangerous) place to stay for the night. :)

I've just read Kate C comment about archeology matters and, as a concern adult and responsable medic I've been wondering on history and anthropological issues for about almost my whole 52 years of living. It's funny, but it's becoming easier for me to try to seek simple answers for simple tasks, such as wonderings about our ancients. Our brain, no matter how much it have grown in...to say something, 20,000 years ? Is about the same in complexity, considering the unsolved mysteries of it. Thus,trying to twist reality of things to make them look more complex or interesting is going to take us to an endless corridor of enigmas and lead us to nowhere. So, as prays a good all saying we have here in México: Drunks and children always say the truth and, let me tell you Kate... Talking about science "fiction", you make more sense to me than most of all the weird theorys I've been hearing and reading all this years.
Thank you very much for this valuable space ! @:-}

Hans Muus
May 30, 2008 1AM #

Re; If the stones could speak ...
I may be the last person to underestimate the ingenuity of our forebears, but beds, boxes and hinged doors made of neatly cut planks, as it were straight from the sawmill - in a Neolithic village? And how sure are we that women then as in the 1950's were wearing dresses, and the men pants? 'Five to six perent of these populations showed massive blunt-force trauma to the crania [...] This was eaually the case between male and female,' one expert is quoted. Doesn't this suggest a sex role equality that seems to be absent form the drawing 'Hearth and home'?

chris sloan
May 30, 2008 1AM #

Re: Muus's comment: According to Parker-Pearson, the intention was to show more of a split log and plank look. And, again for Parker-Pearson, "Dress is a complete guess. The trauma stats come from the previous
millennium. For the later 3rd millennium, there is much less trauma recorded in British Beaker burials (2400-2000 BC)."

Peter Dunphy
May 30, 2008 1AM #

Great Photos, rest crap!
Total lack of investigation! Never Afred Watkins, "The Old Straight Track"? Explains all the Stone age Alinements of monuments and pathways in Britian. Written when? Oh, the 19th Century. He reckoned based on technical reasons that it all started during the Ice- Age, long before the Neolithic.
The BBC ran a documentary some time ago where two engineers and a team of students made and erected full sized two sarsen stones and a capping stone using simple stone age technology and a lot of ingenuity. The stones were dragged by the students using wetted tree trunks like railway sleepers,(so we know how trhwey were erected, how many man hours were used, (some 50 people on the job).
Transporting 4 ton blocks of stone by water would need boats displacing something like 10 cubic metres say 2x5 metres by 1 metre deep, that is a very big log boat or curaig.
Nothing was said about the extent of megalithic monuments, (Western Europe from South Spain to Denmark and Northern Britian). Rewrite the article, this really bad coverage!
peterdunphy51@gmail.com

David Hetherington
May 30, 2008 1AM #

Peter that was pretty unkind but you forgot to mention the illustration of the "neolithic" hut, (New England Pilgrim father would have been proud of it, complete with iron hinged door, (Oh! whoops, we are only just into the copper age!) and milled wood,(that was a very lame explanation you gave to Hans Muus Chris). Seriously, my friend the Irish Architect Nial Hyde should have been consulted as he has actually built a complete Bronze age settlement in Wexford Ireland for the Irish Government and there is no way a Copper age one could be more advanced than his. My friends, the National Geographic is not just a pretty rag for psuedo-intellectual Dinks and Yupis it is a valid geographical magazine for the informed general public. It is read by many experts in their own fields. Attention should be paid to details. Sending an uninformed writer to do a "scoop" on a subject is simply not good enough! Chris your writing skills are great but if you want to work here you will really have to buck up but I blame the Editor for letting it go to print like that.
David

chris sloan
May 30, 2008 1AM #

Ouch. It appears the artwork showing the homes is not being well-received. We pride ourselves on accuracy and go to great lengths to get things right in both art and text—down to the details, as you say. I didn't write the article, but would be interested to hear why you perceive that "an uninformed writer" was just after a scoop. In your opinion, where did the article fall short, aside from the art?

Susan Gottfried
May 30, 2008 1AM #

"Stonehenge Decoded" made my friends and I laugh hysterically. How insulting can you be? We really needed the ridiculous dramatizations to imagine what might have happened. It was a lot like watching that old movie "Caveman". The people that put this together have terrific imaginations. So do many other people. MOST people don't try to pass off their fantasies as prehistory. The fact that National Geographic is behind it all is equally insulting. I always thought you were more concerned with education than fiction for the sake of entertainment. What a huge disappointment!

chris sloan
May 30, 2008 1AM #

Susan: It would be helpful if you could be specific. Muus has already criticized the "beds, boxes and hinged doors made of neatly cut planks, as it were straight from the sawmill" and "women then as in the 1950's...wearing dresses, and the men pants?" Parker-Pearson has already admitted in this blog that the artist wasn't getting it quite right. Is there more?

I take it you are being critical of the illustrated reconstructions as others in this discussion have been. Are you also critical of the interpretations presented in the article?

I'm curious about this because the art staff at National Geographic doesn't make this stuff up. Everything is done with expert input and all the art is reviewed by experts before printing.

David Hetherington
May 30, 2008 1AM #

Hi Chris,

Uniformed writer. I think Peter Dunphy got the main points in:
1. No reference at all to Alfred Watkins, "The Old Straight Track", the key founding work on Prehistoric Mounds, trackways, stone circles and Beacons in Britian, shows an inadequate grounding in the subject.
2. Lack of reference to work already done by archeologists in the field, such as a bona fide construction of two Sarsen stones and their lintel, massive amounts of astronomic and mathmatical work done concerning this and other monuments. Best source for this would be the BBC who have worked with many investigators to produce very interesting documentaries.
3. The European perspective of these monuments as part of an interelated net work stretching across Western Europe From Northern Scotland to Andalucia in Spain.
4. The implied statement that the Neolithic was introduced into Britian from Continental Europe when the evidence is that the Neolithic first arrived in Western Britian and Ireland from Spian,(indeed the Dolmens at Antiquera in Andalucia Spain are very similiar to Newgrange in Ireland).
5. The genetic evidence is that the Irish and British populations as a whole, (especially the more "Celtic" polulation of Western Britian), are most closely related to the Northern Spanish and Basques rather than to either the French or German populations.
6. There is some place name evidence that the the pre-celtic languages of Britian were of the Basque type. An example is our modern word "Whiskey" which was taken from a gaelic word meaning "water" which is in turn taken from a Basque word meaning "sea" which has also become our modern word "ocean".
7. Also a total lack of knowledge of your own culture mate! Christmas, May-poles, Morris dancers,Mayfair, St John´s fire and Haloween are all ancient rites, as well as a fascination with stories about screaming skulls, ghosts, fairies and witches are still very much part of our culture and evidently these stones were set up at time when they were the most important part. We are still very much "Cels", (the "t" making "Celt" was a greco-roman addition meaning "tribe"), "Gwels""Gaels"or Gauls. By the way I am informed that these words mean "Hi" or "Get knotted" depending on how they are said.
regards,
David

chris sloan
May 30, 2008 1AM #

Thanks, David. You guys are a tough group! OK, so you didn't like the art and you didn't like the story. Are you also down on the interpretations of Parker Pearson and/or Wainright?

Mike D.
May 30, 2008 1AM #

I haven't read the article; but, the tv documentary was incredibly disappointing. I don't need reenactments, which include much that could not possibly be known from the information we have.
I would have liked insight based on discovery.
From the outset, the special informed us that Pearson had a theory and was looking for proof to support it.
WHAT!!??
I'm sorry, I thought this was supposed to be bonafide science, where theories are built upon discovered evidence rather than the other way around.
Now, perhaps Parker-Pearson is correct in his theories; but, from what I saw, there is certainly nothing which points to them without question.
The idea that a person who specializes in a type of archaeology would find proof to support his thoery is hardly surprising.
Now, he did a lot of good in thinking outside the box and locating a lot of new sites to explore. But I hope to god that the evidence supporting his conclusions are a lot more detailed than what was presented in that fairy tale on the National Geographic Channel.
And, if the evidence was/is there, then why not present and talk about that for two hours along with some opposing opinions rather than treat us to a costume drama from imagination land.
Incredibly dissapointing piece of show-biz science.
I don't understand why people producing such television think there audience is intelligent enough to choose that program rather than a crime drama or comedy; but, not so intelligent as to deserve serious critical presentation over BS fictionalized crap.

- Mike

David Hetherington
May 30, 2008 1AM #

I am fine with both as far as they go but they present interesting theories rather than hard fact unlike the unmentioned Alfred Watkins who in the early 20th century, (published 1925), had already linked the whole system of pre-historic monuments and trackways using field work, ordinace maps and photos or like the engineers who showed us how the great stones were transported and erected or the many astronomers and mathmaticians who have explained the alignments very satisfactoraly, (even calculating the date they were last put into place usin their astronomical alignments).

For theories I can mint them too, for instance sacred oak groves might have grown too old and died, were replaced by wooden structures, then by stone, meanwhile astronomy got involved. The stones themselves might have represented parts of the heavens and been linked to certain deities, this in turn became the origin of the knights of the Round table, and hence these tales are actually ancient pagan myths and the world they speak of is a true reflection of life in prehistoric Britian dressed up in christian medieval guise to make them respectable. The greek myth of Atlantis is infact a folk memory of this far away megalithic culture in Western Europe.

How's that? Theory, when unsubstanciated by hard fact is cheap to produce and I can do it as well as the next man.

regards,

David

Peter Dunphy
May 30, 2008 1AM #

Hi Chris,

I did like the quality of the art work and writing, the problem was the lack of deep research that went into the article. This is after all a British national icon, parts of which are possibly the oldest stone monuments in existence, witnesses to the greatest of all stone-age "civilizations", a culture that started with the magnificent cave paintings of western France and Northern Spain and was gradually transformed by contact with other civilizations into the great world wide civilization we now call "The West". You really can't treat this subject too seriously, these are tyhe "roots" of our family tree and I personally feel very connected to the people who built them, just as much as any native american to his ancestral burial grounds, at heart we are all the same, these are our ancestral places.
Regards,
Peter

chris sloan
May 30, 2008 1AM #

I am intrigued by the comment from David regarding "The European perspective of these monuments as part of an interelated net work stretching across Western Europe From Northern Scotland to Andalucia in Spain." Do you see any continuity going further east? For instance, what do you guys think of Gobekli Tepe? It is curious to me that earlier stone circles would be more elaborate than later ones. Thoughts?

Dean Talboys
May 30, 2008 1AM #

The NGS documentary was self-indulgent. Parker Pearson has taken the words of a native from Madagascar to heart and gone out of his way to paint a picture of life in the Neolithic age with very little evidence. There can be no doubt that Stonehenge held as much mystery to people 5,000 years ago as it does today but unless a person dies in situ their skeleton or cremated remains do not provide a date for the construction of the site (I'm sure many a new age pagan would love to be buried there or have their ashes scattered), neither does it suggest original intent. This idea that Stonehenge was paired with a wooden structure stretches archillogical interpretation; no wooden structures have survived, only the position of post holes, so we can only guess the design above ground. However, there is one piece of evidence, mentioned by R. J. C. Atkinson, that provides a date for construction of Stonehenge to at least 6000BC (but probably more like 13000BC). Only when the archeological community come to terms with the fact Stonehenge does not belong to the late Neolithic can any serious investigation begin.

Kitty Cordeiro
May 30, 2008 1AM #

A Google search of the term "megaliths" quickly led me to the website megaliths.net and the author Andis Kaulins swiftly and convincingly states his case that the "classic Stonehenge circle is in fact an ancient astronomical clock and eclipse calculator." I guess now I have less faith that National Geographic is committed on getting the real scoop on things that others have overlooked or not given due attention.

Kitty Cordeiro
May 30, 2008 1AM #

What I find truly mystifying is why you have not even mentioned anything about the propositions put forth that Stonehenge was created for astrological purposes. On his website megaliths.net Andis Kaulins swiftly and convincingly describes how "the classic Stonehenge circle is in fact an ancient astromonical clock and eclipse calculator". His whole article is absolutely fascinating, and evidently has gotten little press, even though I went right to it by Googling "megaliths". Anyway, please do a much better job on your next article about megaliths. It sounds like a exciting subject that needs a real champion.

Peter Dunphy
May 30, 2008 1AM #

Just checked with some Basque friends,they too have Dolmens, Maypoles, Morris men dressed in white with ribbons and sticks, hobbledey horses etc. Our deepest roots seem to be the same. Also there is plenty of place name evidence in Britian to suggest our pre-indoeuropean language was of the Basque type.

As for more primitive circles of stones, there are plenty all over Britian as in Keswick, Cumbria, which are just un cut stones in a circle on a high hill, aligned to others in the area by sight.

I buy totally that these stones were set up to mark the movements of the heavens and the seasons and were started and maintained by the original nattives not by "neolithic" peoples. Infact there is very little genetic evidence for a huge influx of outsiders anyway, the "neolithic" was an influence not an invasion, the peoples of Western Europe being, healthy numerous, strong and warlike.Even the romans had a hard time and never made it into the Basque country, Northern Europe, Ireland, Wales or Northern Scotland except for very brief periods and they had enormous, well equipied, proffesional armies!
Peter

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