thinking about archaeology

Bluehenge

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.

22 responses

  1. Hi Mike – thanks for the mention. I’m in full agreement about the difficulties posed by a non-vertical shot. I attempted to compensate by trying to match the position of the camera from within the cad program I was using, but I really don’t think it made all that much difference. Unfortunately I missed the BA article, but that does mean that we came to our conclusions independently – which can’t be a bad thing. Apparently another reconstruction is to be released next month, as part of the long anticipated Bournemouth Uni/Google ‘Seeing Under Stonehenge’ project. I’m reliably informed that this reconstruction will be based on the site plan. The results – and comparisons – will be interesting.

    September 14, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    • mikepitts

      LIke everyone then, we called it a “circle” in British Archaeology

      September 15, 2011 at 7:25 am

  2. Pingback: Bluehenge (via Mike Pitts – Digging Deeper) « The Heritage Journal

  3. geocur

    Maybe should whisper that Bedd Arthur in the Preselis is an ellipse and aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise .

    September 15, 2011 at 9:32 am

  4. geocur

    If Bluestonehenge was aligned to either the solstice setting or rising sun and accepting the view was clear then for the rise it would be aligned 55 degrees and set 227 degrees .Due to the differing heights in horizons in either direction these orientations are not 180 degree apart .The sun set orientation does roughly follow the course of the river but as the river changes direction quite dramatically close to point near the monument the sunrise direction is a long way of it’s course .

    September 15, 2011 at 11:15 am

  5. Hi Mike, you might find the video clip on this blog interesting. Shows a blue stonehenge made from the excavation plans.
    http://worlddiggersday.com/Lawrence_Shaw/?p=80

    September 16, 2011 at 6:04 pm

  6. Pingback: Bluehenge, Woodhenge and the Horseshoe – a connection? | Digital Digging Blog

  7. geocur

    Because the horizon at Blustonehenge is quite different from the flatter Stonehenge /Woodhenge horizons any possible solstice alignment at Bluestonehenge might be considered to be more salient , particularly if the axes of all the monuments are similar . If Henry’s model is close to the actual axis the 55 degree sunrise alignment appears more likely and the sunset alignment less likely .

    September 19, 2011 at 1:33 pm

  8. Black Shuck

    I don’t like the wood/life stone/death theory, and do not see “Bluehenge as a sort of wood/death thingy”; what evidence do we have that the site at the river Avon held the soft and flaky poorer quality bluestones, the unworked rhyolites and tuffs, rather than the finely worked spotted-dolerites we find in the Stonehenge inner horseshoe? Come to think of it, what evidence is there that “Bluehenge” actually held bluestones at all?

    September 19, 2011 at 9:20 pm

  9. geocur

    Two bluestone fragments iirc .

    September 19, 2011 at 9:34 pm

  10. Black Shuck

    “One last note on the subject. While archaeologists seem agreed that the pit ring found by the river Avon near Stonehenge probably contained bluestone megaliths (feature, this issue), contrary to reports also to be found on the web, to date no actual bluestone has yet been found in the pits.”
    – Phase 2, British Archaeology, Issue 110, Jan / Feb 2010 [http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba110/news.shtml#inbrief]

    September 20, 2011 at 4:30 pm

  11. Sonofherne

    @ Geocurr. Apparently the “bluestone” fragments found at WA henge were recently subjected to petro chemical analysis. They are not bluestone!

    September 24, 2011 at 11:18 pm

  12. geocur

    Thanks sonofherne , I assume petrographical analysis . It doesn’t negate the bluestone suggestion but does weaken it . Any idea what they were if not bluestone ?

    September 25, 2011 at 12:09 am

  13. Due to the huge amount of points/variables that could be considered to be salient at Stonehenge it is easy to appear to have discovered yet another potential astronomical alignment but seeing as there has been some reent interest re.”alignments ” here I thought it worth mentioning a previously unconsidered (afaik ) part of the monument relating to astroarchaeology . Between the northern ditch of the Avenue and the Heelstone are a linear arrangement of post holes excavated by Hawley in 1923 and generally described as the postholes at “A” .They are undated but predate the Avenue as it overlies two of them ,there could also be more as the area to the west has not been excavated and to the east is the Heelstone ditch . As the horizon is relatively flat and of similar height in both directions of the orientation ,unlike the Bluestonehenge horizon , the decliantion provided is for both Summer solstice sun set and winter solstice sunrise . Considering the main alignmnet at the monumnet this is a bit of a surprise and of course does not indicate any necesary intentionality but is noteworthy .If anyone wants the data /figures do ask .

    george

    October 12, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    • Black Shuck

      Can you expand on this point a bit more please George. I always understood that the earliest alignments at Stonehenge were lunar. The re-alignment of the axis to solar events a later development. Interesting that the postholes at “A” may have both lunar and solar alignments as CA Newham interpreted these postholes as temporary sighting devices for tracking the moon’s Metonic cycle. The Heelstone marking the mid-point between the moon’s travel from major to minor standstill over the 18.61 year period. The causeway entrance was modified so the banks aligned with these standstill positions and set the positions of the entire Metonic cycle.

      October 14, 2011 at 2:36 pm

  14. Another oval that seems to have been ignored is Coneybury Henge ,although despite the oft repeated claims it is not aligned on the solstice .

    George

    October 14, 2011 at 11:03 am

    • Black Shuck

      It is also claimed that a stone pit at Coneybury henge may once have held a bluestone.
      Seems like we have ovals and bluestones all over the place.

      October 14, 2011 at 2:38 pm

  15. Hello Black Shuck , my initial comment was concerned with the problem of proving intentionality when there are so many factors that could be considered as salient points for alignments e.g. stones ,sites of stones , posts , entrances etc it is likely that you could find an allignment to anything with a bit of effort . The axis of the monument was clear very early on i.e. centre of the bank and ditch and later Aubrey Holes and entrance causeway at north east and that was certainly solar .
    I havn’t read the Newham book so can’t comment but I imagine that he referring to the undated mass of postholes at the entrance and as the difference between the major and minor standstills is approx 20 degrees this could fit in with the orientations towards the Heelstone . The postholes I was referring to , and I hope that Newham has not mentioned them or this is waste of time , were a line of four NW of the main group and closer to the Heelstone , two were overlain by the Avenue and therefore provide a rough date , it was these that turned out to be aligned on the summer solstice sun set and winter sun rise . No intention is suggested but they are potentially interesting ,if Newham didn’t mention them earlier .
    The only pit I was aware of at Coneybury is the ”anomaly “ which produced quite an early date 4040-3640 cal BC but no sign of any bluestone or fragments of bluestone iirc . Is there another pit ?
    George

    October 14, 2011 at 4:08 pm

  16. Black Shuck

    Hi George, I must get out the booklet and check which postholes Newham is actually referring to.
    In the meantime, the reference to the bluestone pit at Coneybury was in Mike’s magazine British Archaeology, Issue 110, January 2010, [http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba110/feat1.shtml] the very same article that reported on the discovery of Bluestonehenge:
    “Similar numbers of chisel arrowheads to those from Bluestonehenge were found during excavations in the 1980s at Coneybury henge by Julian Richards, where a pit was dated to 3350–2765BC. Interestingly, this pit also had the typical appearance of a bluestone pit or Aubrey Hole at Stonehenge, and perhaps too held a monolith.”

    October 14, 2011 at 7:57 pm

  17. Thanks Black Shuck , that would be good to see which posts Newham refers to .
    And the info on the other pit(s) within Coneybury .
    I note the all important conditional “perhaps too held a monolith “ a single bluestone ?
    The Aubrey Holes , the pits at Bluestonehenge , the pit at Coneybury all may have held bluestones but the evidence is mainly based on dimensions and wishful thinking imo .
    George

    October 14, 2011 at 9:10 pm

  18. Black Shuck

    CA Newham (The Astronomical Significance of Stonehenge, 1972, p.20), writes of a cluster of about 40 postholes situated in the Causeway, immediately outside the entrance, which appear to be arranged in six rows. Newham considered the postholes marked observations of the ‘Stonehenge Astronomers’ who plotted lunar movement and planted poles aligned on successive midwinter full moon risings, each rising appearing over the 18.61 year cycle, the Heelstone marking the mid-swing point. Newham suggests this moon plotting must have gone on over several generations, each row indicative of another cycle = 6 x 18.61.

    Scholars tend to shy away from giving an interpretation of the postholes at ‘A’ and Newham’s observations, however, the normally cautious Aubrey Burl (The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, 2000, p.354), says Hawley discovered 56 postholes at the causeway entrance, “from which the observers recorded the moon’s movements for over 50 years, watching three complete lunar cycles of 18.61 years, until they were certain of the time to hold their midwinter nocturnal ceremonies”. Burl adds that if this interpretation is correct then the henge was laid out after these sightings because the causeway postholes had to be removed. They were replaced by a single line of six heavier posts, a summary of the causeway observations if you like, standing SE-NW, some 20m away from the entrance. Year by year the moon would rise behind each one.

    Anthony Johnson (Solving Stonehenge, 2008, p.113) says that Hawley described them as resembling the postholes found on the causeway and must have appeared early in Stonehenge construction as the Avenue bank passed over the first, and partially covered the second. Declining to conjecture as to their function Johnson states that the postholes at ‘A’ lie some 74m distant from the centre of Stonehenge. He adds that, “importantly, there are other post settings which lie at a similar distance from the centre of the monument”, two of which were found on the eastern side of the Avenue some 80cm apart; the radius of 74m possibly being a significant dimension within the scheme of the early monument?

    And finally, Johnson adds, that Mike Pitts found a hole by the roadside north west, and possibly in line with the postholes at ‘A’, during excavations in 1979-80.

    Maybe instead of a linear alignment for the postholes at ‘A’ we should be looking for a radial placement?

    Hope this helps with your investigations George,

    October 15, 2011 at 2:54 pm

  19. Thanks Black Shuck , it appears , as I had thought , that Newham was talking about the posts in the causeway , these are undated and we don’t even know if they are contemporaneous .The Burl comment is puzzling as the posts are within 20 metres of the entrance but they are four not six and not the biggest posts ,which were to in the entrance , he is also inferring , with no evidence , that the causeway posts pre date those at “A” .
    It’s a shame that there are no references in the Johnson book for the “often complex alignment and sightline theories “ as that comment is more applicable to the causeway posts whilst the four at “A “ being linear can hardly provide a complex alignment . I wonder if he is really thinking of the causeway posts as later he ,p219 he comments again on astro sightlines and here he is obviously referring to the causeway posts and not those at “ A “ .A later mention of the postholes at “A” with the 74 m radius has no mention of alignments .
    Mike’s pit 97 , previously interpreted as a ramp, near the Heelstone was for a stone so not a another post in a radial arrangement . The main concern seems to have been viewing the posts from the perspective of the centre of the monument and /or in relation to the Heelstone while the simple linear orientation of the posts at “A” seems to have been ignored . I’m not suggesting any intentionality just feel these things should at least be mentioned and am surprised it hasn’t been noted previously at least as far as I’m aware .
    George

    October 15, 2011 at 4:18 pm

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