What has the mesolithic got to do with Stonehenge? Not a lot
I’m editing Greg Bailey’s column for the next British Archaeology, and one of the broadcasts he reviews is BBC2’s Horizon film, First Britons. I enjoyed it, some nice film at interesting sites with a strong narrative. As a specialist in British prehistory, I’d take issue with a few details (and one or two larger points), and of course there are very different ways of telling the story. But I didn’t feel anyone who knew nothing about the subject would come away seriously misled.
One thing stuck in my memory that I thought I’d check out before the film comes off iPlayer (which it does in 10 hours as I write). At the end of the film, we see David Jacques walking about in the middle of Stonehenge. He refers to bones of wild animals excavated there. It’s good to draw attention to these, as they are often overlooked – but are strange, and must have meant something. Here is Jacques’ entire delivery:
“In a sense Stonehenge is built on the mesolithic, the foundations to it are in the ditch. We have bones here that are redolent with mesolithic meanings, just the sort of bones that we are getting actually in the Blick Mead spring: wild deer, wild boar, they’re put in strategic places. So this place is chock-a-block full of mesolithic meaning and symbolism.
“People in the neolithic would have needed a past just as much as we do. They wouldn’t have wanted a blank slate, and so stories about ancestors and what they did would have made this place special and vivid.
“On the face of it it looks like mesolithic people were wiped out in some way at the advent of farming. I think it’s much more likely that they did what they’d been really good at in the past, which we’ve got very clear evidence for. They’re really good at adapting, and they’re adapting around a new set of circumstances and situations.”
What are these bones? There are no identifiable mesolithic artefacts at Stonehenge.
In Hengeworld I compared animals bones found at Stonehenge and at Durrington Walls (this was published in 2000/2001, so before the major excavations of the Stonehenge Riverside Project had got underway). Having established a link between cattle and ancestors (bones of large cattle in funerary contexts) and pigs and the living (remains in contexts suggesting feasting), I wrote:
“At Durrington Walls nearly two thirds of the animals were pig, and less than a third cattle. Of the bones saved from the ditch around Stonehenge, the figures are reversed: two thirds were cattle, and less than a fifth pig. But there’s more than that. We saw how radiocarbon dating at Stonehenge revealed the remarkable fact that a collection of bones from the ditch was already some two centuries old when buried. There were two jaws, a tibia and a skull. The tibia (leg bone) was from a red deer. The other were cattle. Even older was a bone found in the pit holding one of the sarsens in the circle – some six millennia. It’s difficult to imagine people looking after ancestral bones for several thousand years, then burying them, but it’s possible; perhaps this old bone had been found in the ground, an ancestral animal from the world of the ancestors. This bone was probably also cattle.
[It may actually have been mesolithic. The date is nearly 1,000 years older than anything else from the site, apart from a recent date for charcoal that is even older and undoubtedly mesolithic (7200BC). See charts here.]
“There is another difference between the two collections. At Stonehenge there were an unusual number of wild animals. Out of nearly 90 cattle from Durrington Walls, there were only three aurochs, the huge wild cattle still present out there in the neolithic forest. From the far smaller collection of bones at Stonehenge there were four or five from aurochs. The size of the bones from Stonehenge also suggested larger animals, probably bulls, were chosen in preference from the domestic herd. Again, there were more wild boar at Stonehenge, animals notorious for their strength and ferocity.
“… the occurrence of immature pig skeletons at Stonehenge is interesting. Parts of four young piglets were found in the ditch, two near the southern entrances with the ancestral cattle bones, and two to the right of the north east entrance (near where the human body was later buried). Only one of these was found in the lowest [primary] silts, the others appearing to date from Phase 2. Nonetheless, the pattern is striking: the animal of life represented by new-borns, the ancestors by large, and often wild, mature creatures.
“If we include all the identified cattle bone from the bottom of the ditch – a row of teeth suggesting a decayed jaw, and a further nine bones – we find these, like the dated bones, are at or near the south entrance. Without radiocarbon, we cannot tell if these other bones are also older than the ditch or contemporary with its excavation – the state of some of them suggests they may not be so old – but either way, the association of the south entrance with cattle is reinforced.”
There is a contemporary neolithic context for wild animal bones at Stonehenge, that reaches back to the long barrows of the earlier neolithic. And it’s not just pig and cattle (and all those red deer antler used as digging tools). Also from the ditch there is a bone from a wolf, and part of the skeleton of an immature fox.
There is likely to have been more. These identifications were made in 1995 by Dale Serjeantson from what survives from William Hawley’s excavations in the 1920s, and it’s more than likely that even at the time not everything there was saved. We could learn so much from some new vary careful excavation of another segment of ditch.
Currently there is no evidence that mesolithic people were at Blick Mead after 4250BC (most of the carbon dates are between about 7500 and 4750BC, see feature in British Archaeology May/Jun 2015/142). The mesolithic era ended at 4000BC. The ditch around the stones at Stonehenge, where the animal bones come from, was dug in 3000BC, a thousand years later.
Full marks to Jacques for drawing attention to the animal bones at Stonehenge. And it seems likely that, as he suggests, part of what was going on at Stonehenge was connecting to tradition and memory. But do we need to invoke the mesolithic?
A thousand years is a long time. We don’t today consciously base our rituals around things that happened before the Norman Conquest, ignoring all that went on since; our version of Christianity is something that developed in the past few centuries, at most, and our world is one that traces many of its social roots to the time of the industrial revolution. And we can read about what happened a thousand years ago: in the neolithic, the past was a matter of personal memory, which seems unlikely to have been rich with anecdotes about mesolithic hunting. We need to explain the bones at Stonehenge. But we don’t need the mesolithic to help us do that.
A pit was excavated in 1980 by Julian Richards at Coneybury henge, closer to Stonehenge than Blick Mead, that contained huge amounts of early neolithic debris, radiocarbon dated to around 3800BC. Ros Cleal identified parts of at least 41 separate pots, and there was an extraordinary collection of animal bone. Most of the remains identified by Mark Maltby were cattle (masses of butchery waste) and roe deer, but there were also red deer, pig, beaver and brown trout. Some of the cattle bones in the upper pit fill were big enough to have come from aurochs. We are more likely to find understanding of the animal bones at Stonehenge in finds such as this than the mesolithic.