thinking about archaeology

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.

Blick Mead datesCurrently 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.

Coneybury pit

Plan of pit at Coneybury henge, from Stonehenge: The Story so Far, by J Richards (English Heritage 2007)

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.

5 responses

  1. G Puckett

    Excellent post, thank you. I’m afraid I’m one of those people who shouts at the television when presenters who have an incomplete understanding of their subject are let loose on the viewer. Not having had a chance to see the programme (I’ll have to wait for a repeat) I can’t comment on the rest of it.

    I understand (I may be wrong) that there is a consensus that the Stonehenge area was ‘of interest’ to Mesolithic populations, since the ‘giant postholes’ were found. This could simply be because the area was intrinsically interesting, not becuase of any continuuity of tradition. I don’t know why Jacques sets up this ‘men of straw’ bit about mesolithic people being wiped out – even in old books I have never come across any such suggestion. The former view was that incomers brought agriculture to the best-suited areas; extant populations in the area copied them and those on the periphery slowly adopted it. The idea that ‘hunter-gathering’ dies out suddenly with the advent of farming is absurd; elements of hunter gathering survive alongside farming, despite the impact of the Enclosures, into the modern period. Early farmers would of course have carried on hunting – why stop?

    I was reduced to helpless tears of laughter by an article in a local magazine which started, in all seriousness, “There is nothing new about foraging – the Romans introduced ground elder and Alexanders nearly 2,000 years ago”. The twin misconceptions, that foraging was an urban hobby and that introducing a crop has somehow nothing to do with agriculture, had completely passed the innocent creature by.

    September 20, 2015 at 11:25 am

  2. mikepitts

    Thanks GP, that’s good. A different (and important) way of telling the mesolithic story is to forget farming altogether, and think about how clever these guys were, how much they knew about the land and its ecology, and what that might have meant to them. There is a universal cultural and political dismissal of hunter-gatherers by urbanised societies that still colours much archaeological thinking about the past. My instinct is that sooner or later we will realise, with evidence to back it up, that mesolithic Britain was a pretty complex place.

    September 20, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    • G Puckett

      I suspect many people have a mental image of thuggish cavemen wandering around vaguely picking berries and clubbing rabbits (yes, I know there aware no rabbits in Britain, it was a joke). “Living off the land” may be a soft option in tropical jungle but in temperate climates the skills and knowledge involved must have been far more complex than those required for farming. Just getting enough calories, staving off hypothermia and arranging the necessary social interaction to avoid inbreeding in a very dispersed population must have resulted in an incredibly rich culture. Because almost all organic ‘kit’ have gone, even archaeologists who should have known better were inclined to address only the element sof material culture (ie stone tools) that they had.

      Even in the last few decades (basically since the rise of plastics), people, including academics, have forgotten the fine tuning of prganic materials which made life possible – the use of different woods for different purposes, for example. I remember one of those ‘reconstruction’ programmes where the “experts” decided that as oak was so expensive, they would use pine for their Roman catapult (!!!!!!) – ignoring the fact that the Romans probably used ash anyway – and of course, it BUST!

      September 21, 2015 at 10:07 am

      • Quite. And with that comes a whole area of encouraging various tree species growth in suitable environments and subsequent trading of such and technological expertise.

        October 17, 2015 at 12:56 pm

  3. I am constantly amused by the naivety of archaeologists about the Mesolithic Period and the inappropriate use of the word and concept ‘hunter-gatherer’ – this dogmatic Victorian term is pure ‘myth and fantasy’ in the same context of another stupid term which is now thankfully becoming outdated ‘cave men’.

    This spring the discovery of wheat from Turkey (probably from the Göbekli Tepe region) in Bouldnor cliff near the Isle of Wight in a suspected boat yard – should have been a ‘wake-up’ call to the ‘experts’ who have clearly misunderstood and incorrectly interpreted the artefacts of the Mesolithic Period. Yet the consequences of this ‘world changing’ discovery has been either ignored, or more likely, not fully understood by the archaeological community. People who travel and trade halfway across the world are not ‘hunter-gatherers’ – they do not wear animal skin furs or spend time in grassy plains with long spears hunting mammoths!!

    Göbekli Tepe blows the ‘simplistic’ outdated models of hunter-gatherers, migration and the ‘agricultural revolution’ out of the water as it has been carbon dated at the 10th Millennium BCE – for if you have boats travelling halfway across the known world you not only carry wheat and other materials, but moreover, you will also carry people and ideas. Eventually, the penny will drop (but don’t hold your breathe) and archaeologists will eventually realise that artefacts found in ditches do not date the ditch (as coke cans found in the bins surrounding St Paul’s do not date the construction of Wren’s master piece!) and that the earlier Stonehenge carbon dates are of huge significance in understanding it’s phases.

    Consequently, the Mesolithic period was without doubt the most significant period in our history with it’s megalithic buildings and a trading civilisation who did not need or rely on farming for its survival.


    September 26, 2015 at 1:29 am

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