A few threads have recently woven together into a little knot surrounding the use of ancient megalithic sites that I feel is worth highlighting. As mentioned in my review of the Psychic Questing weekender (below), the venue this year was Avebury and one of the visualisation exercises we performed was to float back in time and see how whether we could catch a glimpse of the past at this site.
I had rather an odd image come to mind that was of warriors with swords hacking down in what I can only describe as “in an industrial rhythm”. Two groups of men lining up and striking something (unseen) in between with every second man moving in synch (and hence half a turn out of sync with the people on each side of them) – giving a piston-like precision to the strokes.
In fairness I can claim no originality as Andrew Collins had previously been vocal about the possibility of these sites as a focus for death cults or funerary rites so the suggestion had already been planted. Still the image was a striking one and it lasted with me long after the weekend had ended.
[Click on the "Read More" link below to continue.] What had really wound Andrew up was the suggestion (most recently in a BBC Timewatch documentary) that Stonehenge (in this particular instance but the implication extended to other, similar sites) had been “a Neolithic Lourdes”, that’s to say a place of healing. Andrew was strongly of the opinion that the opposite was the case and that the focus was around death and not healing. He laid out his thoughts in a comprehensive rebuttal on his website here.
For my birthday this year (after some not so subtle hinting) I was given a copy of a DVD called “Standing with Stones” which I had seen reviewed by Greg at The Daily Grail. For the usual odd reasons, though, I hadn’t got around to watching it, so when I came back from Avebury, buzzed up with all the stone activity, I excavated it and played it through in a single sitting.
Firstly, I have to stress that this is a marvellous piece of film if you have even a passing interest in megalithic sites. It’s shot beautifully throughout by Michael Bott and the presenter, Rupert Soskin, is a thoroughly engaging guide whom you are delighted to have whisk you around the key megalithic sites in the British Isles. His enthusiasm for the subject shines through and he has clearly studied the sites closely and is consequently able to highlight some fascinating angles that other commentators appear to have overlooked.
At a certain point in the DVD they briefly mention Avebury and have a fantastic CGI reconstruction of the (what were then) 30ft high banks with a slight platform running around the middle. They suggest that this may have been a primitive seating area for spectators to watch what was going on inside the circle. Immediately this rang true to me because one of the first thing that you’ll see anyone who visits the site doing is climb up on the bank and look back down inside the circles. In addition, it would back up Andrew’s idea of there being more of the death cult than the healing about the place.
I decided to write to Michael and Rupert to ask them about this idea of Avebury as primitive colosseum but before I could, I saw that some other academics had weighed into the Stonehenge-as-Neolithic-Lourdes debate. This article appeared only last week in The Telegraph and came down firmly againt the healing centre idea.
When I did get a chance to email the guys at Standing with Stones I received prompt, helpful and thoughtful responses from both Mike and Rupert for which I am most grateful. Mike also sent me the wonderful still from the CGI reconstruction of Avebury which you can see above (click on the thumbnail to see a bigger image but please do not reproduce without permission).
Both of them also referred me to a book by Mike Pitts (the same academic cited in the Telegraph article above) called Hengeworld where there is a brief mention of the theory of henges as arenas. One of the key passages (describing Durrington Walls) goes as follows:
“At the South Circles at the Walls, the quantities of animal bones are so great as to suggest pork feasting on a grand scale. ‘Feasting’ is a contentious word: perhaps there were just a lot of people living inside this superhenge, and over time their rubbish accumulated to give a false impression of large-scale butchery. But it is not just the NUMBERS of meat bones that are striking.
Julian Thomas had a detailed look at the remains, and confirmed the original analysis. Many unfused epipheses (the articulating ends of bones in young animals) were still in place, meaning these bones had to have been buried with the tissue still attached. The absence of dog gnawing indicated this was done pretty quickly. Yet there was little evidence for butchery in the form of flint scrape marks, and many bones had not been split for their marrow. The suggestion was that there was so much meat about that a lot remained unconsumed, and flesh still adhered to bones when they were carefully and immediately buried. Further study has revealed the curious fact that some of these pigs (over 95%), domestic – not wild, were apparently killed by archery. The tips of some of the arrowheads are embedded in pig bones. Pigs do not like to die, and make this fact pretty obvious. There must have been some spectacularly noisy and messy occasions in the vicinity of these large timber rings.”
Rupert also pointed me towards Grahame Clarke as being one of the the first (in the 1940s) to air the theory that the banks were for spectators. Rupert himself has a book coming out in the Spring (also called “Standing With Stones”) which will elaborate on this idea so keep your eyes on their website for more information.
All in all an intriguing combination of events, hinging on the henges. Well done to Andrew for once again not being afraid to challenge the hype and many thanks to Mike and Rupert for their kind assistance. Look forward to seeing the book and the next film, Guys.