DNA, executions and Stonehenge: a new British Archaeology

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Isn’t this a fabulous photo? We have some great images in the new British Archaeology, and we had fun with a series of shots showing a bronze age hoard under excavation. But I particularly like this photo taken by someone at Cotswold Archaeology (if you are reading this, let me know who you are!) which I’ve put at the top here. It shows a group of archaeologists excavating and recording some of the graves in an Anglo-Saxon and early medieval execution cemetery near Andover in Hampshire. There’s a relaxed, thoughtful conversation going on between all the protagonists, dead and alive, which is quite fascinating and memorable. If we had unlimited pages, I would have given this a double spread on its own.

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I’m very proud to lead with the feature by David Reich and Ian Armit on the new Beaker DNA study. This is significant stuff, and while there is much still to do and to think about, I suspect we will look back on this moment as a turning point in the way we think about prehistoric Britain in general. Tom Booth reviews Reich’s new book, and Spoilheap picks up on some of the implications.

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I’ve followed the DNA feature with my own round-up of research and excavation at Stonehenge. Unless you’re intimately familiar with that area’s archaeology – in other words, unless you’re actually doing the work – this will hold many surprises, not least for the sheer scale of what’s happening. It was a challenge to write, and I don’t claim even now not to have missed anything.

Buried within it are several ideas of my own, one of which was picked up by Simon de Bruxelles at the Times yesterday, and copied from there by the Mail Online, the Sun and other online outlets. This is the suggestion that there were two large, natural sarsens on the site long before Stonehenge, more or less on the solstice axis. If so, it’s likely they would have had something to do with Stonehenge being where it is.

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The idea is that there are two great pits at Stonehenge, larger than any other and both difficult to explain. One of these I partly excavated in 1979, where we found the impression of a standing stone on the bottom, and Atkinson excavated part of it in 1956 (thinking at the time it was the erection ramp for the Heelstone).

The other is near the centre of Stonehenge. It was written about by Mike Parker Pearson and colleagues in Antiquity 2007, as part of their study of the site’s phasing. It’s a problematic thing, as Parker Pearson argues, excavated partly by Gowland in 1901 and partly by Atkinson on two occasions, in 1956 and 1958. There are two radiocarbon dates from samples that appear to be from the pit, but context details are missing and we can’t be sure exactly where they came from, and whether or not they were in pits dug into the filled larger pit; I don’t think we can trust these to age the big pit, which like that by the Heelstone, remains undated.

Both of these could be explained as filled natural hollows that once contained larger local sarsens. To the north-east, we may be looking at the stone that was dug out and raised, the Heelstone. To the south-west, we can only guess. It’s such a large pit, it might have held the tallest stone, trilithon Stone 56 which now stands at the end of the pit. I suggested Stone 16 as a possible candidate (my second photo below), because of its odd shape.


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There was some discussion about the idea on the Times website, and it was pointed out that I seemed to have inexplicably changed my mind about the Heelstone, having originally suggested the pit next to it held a second stone. In fact, I haven’t abandoned anything I’ve said before, though of course that needn’t in itself be wrong.

From the start we had two theories about the pit: it held the Heelstone which was then moved, or it held another stone beside the Heelstone, which was taken away while the latter was left. Back then I tended to favour the latter, for no particular reason other than that it looked good on the plan (if the two stones were slightly askew), and in the 1970s few of us took seriously the idea that there might have been any significant natural sarsen stones on Salisbury Plain.

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Since then there has been intensive archaeological survey which suggests that there were indeed some – if not (to my mind) anything like enough to build an entire Stonehenge with.  Also significant are two excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project, led by Colin Richards at the Cuckoo Stone (above) and the Torstone, which investigated natural-looking sarsen boulders a few km north-east of Stonehenge. In both cases, they seem once to have been standing, and had beside them hollows that looked like the natural sources of the stones. There do seem to have been at least a few large, natural sarsens half buried on the Plain.

Simon de Bruxelles commented that the idea differed from many other theories about Stonehenge, in that it was testable. He’s quite right.

For the two stones hypothetically long on the site before people, in theory they can be checked to see if they are distinct from other sarsens on site (that would have to be part of a bigger project that hasn’t really yet got off the ground, to source the sarsens in general). The pits too could be examined, with geophysics, core sampling and even further excavation, as well as scrutiny of old excavation records.

Just as important is the bigger picture. If there WERE two natural sarsens on site that attracted very early interest from people, then we should expect to see signs of that interest. To a certain extent we already can, the evidence for which I briefly set out in British Archaeology (and which I will describe in more detail in my forthcoming book about ancient British ancestry).

The earliest dated monument at the site (the circular ditch/bank) was raised in 2900BC. But, as I’ve written about before on this blog, we have older radiocarbon dates up to two or three centuries before this, from wild animal bones and a few human cremation burials. Traditionally archaeologists say these were curated remains, brought to the site from somewhere else in 2900 BC. But just to say that is to raise the notion that there is a mindset that everything started at 2900BC. This is what I’m suggesting we question.

There is even a tantalising date from mesolithic charcoal (more or less the same age as a few great post pits not far from the future Stonehenge site) over 9,000 years old. No mesolithic artefacts have yet been identified, but charcoal is fragile stuff and cannot have come from very far before it got buried. Someone was there long before Stonehenge was thought of, and at least long enough to sit down and make a fire.

It’s important to say that none of this would make Stonehenge mesolithic, a creation of hunter-gatherers rather than farmers. Stonehenge itself does, on current evidence, still seem to be something that began around 3000BC. What I’m suggesting is that when this happened, the site had already been attracting people for probably a variety of reasons. When what we think of as Stonehenge began, that sanctity, that distinctiveness of place, was memorialised and perpetuated through unprecedented deployment of resources and construction – quite probably for new, and ever-changing reasons.


5 thoughts on “DNA, executions and Stonehenge: a new British Archaeology

  1. Dear Mike,

    Thank you for being helpful here by providing a plan of the pits, which is not included in your feature in British Archaeology. I wonder if you could oblige equally regarding the pits ostensibly in “alignment” which you identify as the “carpark post holes” (well known), the pit 1.5km to the north west, and the “…post pit dated to around 8300 BC…” 5km to the south east (page 22, top left). I was unable to successfully locate the latter two from searches at the HER or PastScape.

    As regards the solstitial axis, quote “…If so, it’s likely they would have had something to do with Stonehenge being where it is…”. Logical speculation to some degree, but unproveable one way or the other!

    What we do know is that,

    i) the line you have drawn is not astronomically accurate as the summer-solstice-rise direction to the local horizon, from the “centre” of Stonehenge (see below), is some half a degree offset from the winter-solstice-set direction to the local horizon. The variability from both ends of the central pit to the Heelstone is some two degrees.

    ii) The Heelstone was linked astronomically to the Stonehenge Cursus for the summer solstice via pits at both ends. The precise positions are held confidential, probably as a result of the criticism which followed, although one can get close by consulting various images which remain available or which were once posted – including one posted by you, but subsequently removed!

    iii) The current alignment from the “centre” of Stonehenge to the Heelstone is, however, geodetic rather than astronomical, i.e. it is the same as the geodetic latitude of Stonehenge, suggesting something quite different in terms of both sophistication of knowledge and purpose behind the building of Stonehenge.

    Of course, exactly which “centre” should be used to evaluate hypotheses is a matter of detail of purpose. This is because the Aubrey Circle and its stone successor, as surveyed by Alexander Thom, differ – the most accurate “manual” survey, despite many of the arguments belittling his work and contribution to understanding prehistoric capabilities of our ancestors – with potential significance whenever an alignment is being evaluated. Equally, Cleal et al is incorrect in using the diameter of the Aubrey Circle as 285.6 ft, when it had been clearly surveyed by Thom at 283.6 ft, yet, for whatever archaeological “scientific” reasons, this survey appears to be ignored – in fact as is almost anything to do with Thom!

    Evaluating astronomical alignments requires data both across time and specifically related to the observation location involved. This can appear complicated to lay people – including the vast majority of archaeologists – who are not trained in the science of astronomy and archaeoastronomy, for example this link provides reasonable “working” data from the centre of Stonehenge for independent researchers (mid-Sun calculations):

    I say “working” data because these are derived from “course” sources – albeit still having pretty formidable scientific provenance. This is because academia, which arguably should have produced such information from the highly accurate surveys undertaken, appears to prefer to hold such information equally confidential (cf item ii) above), despite so much of the data resulting from public funding, including Heritage Lottery contributions!

    So yes, your interesting special feature – sincerely commended – points to so much to look forward to, but I wonder a) how much of it will be “locked” away behind paydoors to the more research orientated readers who don’t have the the required affiliations to access them outside of personal, and often at extortionate, cost, and b) how much of it will continue to ignore the contribution of scholarship outside of archaeology, except on a concessionary basis, as and when the discipline of archaeology chooses!

  2. I did enjoy reading the Andover execution ground report as it is about 2 miles from where I am sitting typing this. Always nice the unremarkable town where one lives has one of nine Anglo-Saxon execution sites in the country (number from memory) so we are special! Now alI I want is the local paper to read the article and put it on the front page – or Cotswold Archaeology to send them a press release for the same result. And I love the picture – although for once we know the archaeologists must be better behaved than the skellies given why the latter are where they are!

  3. Dear Mike,
    Thanks for the info. The second drawing in the link points to a “mesolithic pit”, but there is no corresponding “mesolithic” reference in the table that details the actual grid location. Unfortunately you have also missed giving me the location of the pit to the north west. I’ll leave this investigation for the time being due to other priorities, but if you can provide the location of the other pit, at your convenience, I’ll be grateful.

    Having said this, I also think that the previous article by Armit and Reich is very interesting, as well as being directly relevant to archaeoastronomy and the spread of “ideas” rather than people. It’s a particular aspect which I’ve considered, however, it’s a topic of debate beyond the scope of this specific one!

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