thinking about archaeology

Archive for September, 2011

And summer returns

Here are some photos to mark the weather, two in the garden and one of the mist burning off in the dawn: you really don’t expect England at the end of September to be so very warm. Salisbury Cathedral is not, sadly, at the bottom of the garden, but it still makes a nice late September view.

Richard Hamilton (1922–2011)

My school art teacher Ernest Constable first showed me Richard Hamilton‘s iconic “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?”, but I thought this was fun. And if the artist really did sign 5,000 prints, he certainly put some work into it, even above the “many weeks” it was said to have created the digital picture. We saw him on TV making the work in a BBC QED film in 1993 , with new-fangled technology such as an Apple computer and a Kodak digital camera. We were invited to write in for one of the prints (posted out for free, by second class mail I see now looking at the envelope with the address at which I then lived). You felt you were part of the work. And even in this, images of war, famine and other political references help give the lie to accusations that his art was dumb.



Here’s an interesting thing that raises all sorts of questions about the Stonehenge Riverside Project’s discovery of a stone circle by the river Avon in 2009. Henry Rothwell told me about his attempt to put digital megaliths in excavated empty pits of the ring – and thereby he and Adam Stanford realised they seem to be on an oval, not a circle. Which, as he says, echoes the layout of the bluestone oval at Stonehenge – or, perhaps more significantly, the layout of Woodhenge. The image above is from his website, with the stones laid over a photo of the dig by Adam; stones outside the trenches, and two in, are interpolated.

It looks obvious when you see it, as it does in this same photo that I doctored for the feature in British Archaeology that the excavators Mike Parker Pearson, Josh Pollard, Julian Thomas and Kate Welham wrote for me. I put red spots over partly or wholly excavated pits – which are bigger than the spots – and yellow ones over hypothetical pits (you can compare this with Henry’s reconstruction). An important caveat is that, judging by the visible baulk sides, this photo is not entirely vertical, so even if the ring was circular, in this view it would appear to be slightly flattened. But let’s go with it.

Why does it matter whether it’s oval or circular?

The quick answer is that most rings of this type, which seem to mark out ritual or performance spaces, are circular or roughly so. Both Stonehenge (one oval) and Woodhenge (several) are distinguished by ovals, so if Bluehenge is oval it then shares that distinction with its neighbours, and the link between the three sites is strengthened.

And where does that go?

All sorts of things occur to me, but here are a couple.

1. Stonehenge does has an oval of bluestones (much of which has now gone above ground), but on the admittedly patchy evidence we have, it looks in plan as if it started out as an open horseshoe which was then closed over with a few stones on a different occasion (though the current official version is the opposite – it started as an oval, and the end was later removed). Woodhenge has six large and clear complete ovals of postholes. IF Bluehenge was a complete stone oval, then in that respect it’s feels more like Woodhenge than Stonehenge. We could then take that further by suggesting that perhaps the softer bluestones could have symbolically stood in for a half-way house between the sarsens of Stonehenge and the wood of Woodhenge (the bluestones may be hard, but mostly not as hard as sarsen, the main component of Stonehenge; geomorphologist Brian John has made much of how neolithic people would supposedly not have selected the bluestones themselves as so many were soft and flaky). So then if you like the wood/life stone/death theory, Bluehenge is a sort of wood/death thingy, halfway between the two sites and separated from Stonehenge by land (the Avenue route), from Woodhenge by water (the river Avon). Perhaps a reason for preferring “Bluehenge” to “Bluestonehenge” (courtesy of David Derbyshire).

2. A corollary of being oval, rather than circular, is that you have an orientation. Stonehenge and Woodhenge are famously aligned on the midwinter/midsummer solstice axis, which almost everyone agrees is probably significant. So what of Bluehenge? It seems to be aligned roughly parallel to the river, and at right angles to the axis of the Avenue. Is it blocking the Avenue, or the reverse – acting as a portal for movement along the river/Avenue route? If the latter, does that tell us something about axes of movement at Stonehenge and Woodhenge? If the former, does that put Bluehenge at the centre of the whole landscape arrangement?

3. And it occurs to me as I write that the Stonehenge “oval” consists of 24 stones; the horseshoe has 19, and there are five across the end, one either side and three in a group in the centre. However you do the sums, that’s closer than any other arrangement of stones at Stonehenge, there now or gone, to the 21 stones in Henry’s model.

The point is, if Bluehenge was an oval, it matters to how we think about it. Which makes finding out what really does happen to the rest of it under the ground important.

Operation Nightingale

Yesterday I was out on Salisbury Plain, enjoying a bit of wind and rain and open space, to see a little project that may become big. It’s the brainchild of Diarmaid Walshe (a sergeant with an archaeology PhD). As part of their rehabilitation process, soldiers from 1 Rifles injured in Afghanistan are digging an archaeological site. And it’s no ordinary site: they’re on the vast mound of rubbish that reshaped the hill at East Chisenbury around 700BC, a deep spread of black earth so rich with animal bones and artefacts that excavating it is like turning over a decayed museum store. We don’t understand it. But sometimes there is more to archaeology than just understanding the past.