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I had never seen a hole playing for Temple.
May 19, 2013 10:14 PM   Subscribe

Structural Archaeology
Geoff Carter's radical view of building in the ancient world, especially the archaeology of the lost timber built environment of Southern England. It is new research into of prehistory of architecture
With the ultimate conclusion that Stonehenge is the remains of a roofed shelter.

Though the site is structured into separate blog posts they read more like chapters in a book and I suggest starting at the beginning and reading through rather than hopping around.
posted by Mitheral (76 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just got the title. Well played.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 10:23 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is really interesting. I wish I had the knowledge necessary to evaluate it.
posted by Leon at 10:46 PM on May 19, 2013


If Stonehenge is really just the remains of an ordinary building, then how do you explain the following:

No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains
Hewn into the living rock... Of Stonehenge

Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell
Where the banshees live and they do live well
Stonehenge! Where a man's a man
And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan

Stonehenge! 'Tis a magic place
Where the moon doth rise with a dragon's face
Stonehenge! Where the virgins lie
And the prayers of devils fill the midnight sky


Because you can't.
posted by item at 11:02 PM on May 19, 2013 [46 favorites]


Based on his CV, it looks like this is his way of getting his PhD dissertation out there in a publicly accessible format, so big kudos to him for that! However, while I don't have the background to examine his claims too closely, it sure feels like this guy may be well on his way to crank-dom.
posted by barnacles at 11:08 PM on May 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Though I gotta add: I'm still gonna read the whole thing, because it's mighty fascinating, so thanks for sharing the link!
posted by barnacles at 11:09 PM on May 19, 2013


then how do you explain the following

Personally, I simply understate the hugeness of the object and imagine a dwarf crushing it. Works every time. And now, to get me coat and actually read the article.
posted by sysinfo at 11:10 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is fascinating! I've no idea if it's true, but he's saying that iron age Britain was a significantly built environment. It wasn't just small wattle and daub cottages, they had fairly large timber framed buildings. The ultimate height of their buildings was constrained by the size of the oak trees they used for interior posts, which is why the buildings didn't get much higher than two stories. Given that constraint, they went for width instead, constructing buildings that covered more and more area, culminating in giant wonders like Stonehenge.

He even muses that Westminster Hall (built in 1097 AD!) was the ultimate expression of this quest for a maximum amount of interior space with a minimum of support.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:25 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nigel gave me a drawing that said 18 inches. Now, whether or not he knows the difference between feet and inches is not my problem. I do what I'm told.

Also getting my coat.
posted by Ahab at 11:29 PM on May 19, 2013


Whoa, this makes a lot of sense. I mean, I have no background to evaluate his argument, but it seems very clear and straightforward that such a structure would be a building, or that large roofed buildings would leave such evidence.

His argument, summarized:
There is no archaeological evidence that these structures were not buildings, only a prejudice in existing narrative. However, a lack of structural understanding and appropriate research to resolve the issue cannot serve as argument that these particular assemblages of postholes are the product of a unique, unprecedented, and undocumented religious ritual created to explain ‘Timber Circles’. Nor is circularity sufficient ground to infer a simplistic relationship with the Stone Circles of earlier periods.

posted by suedehead at 11:39 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


A little like this, but much lower and filled with concentric rings of posts.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:52 PM on May 19, 2013


But I'm a bit unclear if his model of the roof is complete or donut-shaped. Stonehenge might have been too big to roof over completely.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:00 AM on May 20, 2013


What use would the extraterrestrials have for a timber-roofed shelter?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:24 AM on May 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


What use would the extraterrestrials have for a timber-roofed shelter?
I don't know about the extraterrestrials, but the human slaves that had to wash and wax the UFOs every friday afternoon before their alien masters went out partying may have come up with them as a labor saving device. If you park the overlord's UFO in a covered garage, then they don't need to be washed so frequently.

Yeah, that's right. Ancient aliens didn't teach us squat, we had to invent all that on our own!
posted by b1tr0t at 12:40 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hmm, yes, definitely a bit crank-y.
So who am I? I am the archaeologist who came in from the cold, chilled world of commercial server rooms, bringing with me nearly twenty years of research. I sought shelter in my local university, only to find that my knowledge is of no value, because I have no value -- I do not attract funding -- I am worthless. Which is pretty much how I was treated; it’s not that they did not believe or understand theoretical structural archaeology -- they could not even be bothered to listen, even after I gave them all my money, so I hit upon blogging as the only way forward for my research. This way I get a self-selecting audience, who are most welcome to join in and comment, and no money changes hands. ...
I study postholes, site plans, and the archaeological reports where they are found. I consider them to be evidence of the built environment, and thus central to our visualisation and understanding of the past. The more I have studied, the more my view has diverged from the ‘conventional view’.

I have tried being polite and deferential, and nobody listened. But postholes are my field, and some rather strange people have parked their flabby intellectual backsides on my turf, which is unfortunate, but mostly for them.
But that's all right by me, because his post #24 created a big question mark for me in regard to some archaeology elsewhere, and which I must now investigate with the literature I have at hand ...

So, thanks, Geoff. I'd probably be on the side of the folks disagreeing with you if I was more heavily invested in English archaeology, but I still appreciate you raising the questions you're raising!
posted by barnacles at 12:44 AM on May 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


Ylvis will be disappointed
posted by jeffburdges at 12:55 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Stonehenge Was Ancient Rave Spot
posted by homunculus at 3:22 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because you can't.

Nigel gave me a drawing that said 18 inches. Now, whether or not he knows the difference between feet and inches is not my problem. I do what I'm told.

According to a leading expert interviewed by National Geographic, Stonehenge was built by one (very strong) man named Duncan.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:10 AM on May 20, 2013


I wonder if he mentions the Sanctuary near Avebury, and thus also near Stonehenge.
It is a series of concentric circles which was clearly a building.
posted by vacapinta at 4:23 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The questions raised on this blog are really interesting but I do not know enough about archaeology to have a solid sense of how many of this man's ideas are any good, how many of them are original, or better yet, how many are both. However, I do know enough about cranks to tell you that this dude is at least edging close to the box.

The practice of crankery represents a reversal of something fundamental to the honest practice of science, where it is all about finding ways to feel smart - smarter than everyone else - whereas as good scientists are constantly finding new ways to feel stupid - pushing themselves to the edge of knowledge where they know nothing and no one can help them. To do good science you have to feel stupid constantly, and really, you almost have to love feeling like an idiot - perhaps like Sam Harris loves feeling like he is drowning. Hell, its not just about having to constantly acknowledge your ignorance in order to constantly learn new things; in my lab I say horrifically stupid stuff all the time, but its ok because I make sure to only say potentially stupid shit to really smart people who have my back and can tell me how stupid they may or may not be. Just at the end of this last week my boss, one of the smartest people I've ever met, said something obscenely stupid that would be revolutionary about one of the things he has studied for decades if it were true but forgot something trivially obvious, thankfully I was there to point out the trivial thing and we could think about what it might look like if we found a system we the trivial thing were not an issue before resolving to keep an eye out for it.

Science is by its nature a community exercise, we all need people who can tell us when we've stepped off the clue train, we all need people we can be constantly learning from, and we all need to be conspicuously ok with that so that people will be ok with doing those things for us. This guy's blog reads as almost like an excuse to shoot of jabs at unnamed people who have wronged him somehow by ignoring or disagreeing with his ideas but this pretty aggressively misses the point and strongly indicates very good reasons why they might not want to professionally associate with him. He seems to delight in how he does not have people to bounce potentially trivially stupid ideas off of, which indicates that he is bouncing them off of us - people who wouldn't necessarily be able to recognize the stupid.

The people he is not naming know who they are and having something as toxic and unanswerable as this blog in public can't possibly help them, or anyone really, get his ideas taken seriously.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:28 AM on May 20, 2013 [19 favorites]


From one of his comments on someone else's blog:
Gusti; You have just summed up 20 wasted years of try­ing to explain archae­ology by ima­gin­ing how dead people per­ceived the world.

You can say it was a tim­ber build­ing with a stone load bear­ing wall, and pil­lars in the cen­ter; I can prove it empir­ic­ally and I can model it. How­ever, as most aca­dem­ics are expert in all the things that archae­olo­gists never find — they would not know a build­ing if it fell on their head.
It is just a build­ing, like Wood­henge, Dur­ring­ton Wall, the sanc­tu­ary and Mount Pleas­ant. and I chal­lenge any­one to pro­duce evid­ence to the contrary.
As a former archaeologist, I will state for certain: definite crankery.
posted by The Michael The at 4:34 AM on May 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


In those countries like Netherlands and Germany, where they understand their archaeology, their narrative of the Neolithic is about agriculture, in Britain it is more often expressed in terms of the perceptions, beliefs, rituals, personhood, and cosmologies.
In a clear case of counterfeiting in the knowledge economy, New Archaeologists are employed in publicly funded Universities to teach students what they know about the things we don’t have any evidence for.  Sadly, anyone who claims that they know how prehistoric dead people perceived the world either is mentally ill or a fraud, and quite possibly both.
I would just say that my experience with English archaeology departments differs strongly from his experiences with them. It's especially odd given that England is home to some really great experimental archaeology reconstructions and projects, few of which are based in ritualistic aspects (though many of them do delightfully involve the history of beer.) Postholes are also not the only kind of source of scientific analyses that you can use to work through the environment of a site. No incorporation of pollen analyses from north of Hadrian's Wall or other biological sampling?

I quite like the Ford Mendeos in his visual reconstructions though.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:43 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Whenever people's reactions to a story are "Well, this bit that I know about is wrong, but these other bits are really interesting and I had never heard of them" you can be pretty sure that the underlying story is nonsense.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:12 AM on May 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


See also
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:26 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is no archaeological evidence that these structures were not buildings...

What would such evidence consist of? A big sign that read "Please do not roof--NOT A BUILDING"?

I think we'd all do well go back to my very simple theory with great explanatory power that posits Stonehenge was a kind of prehistorical dental drill. There is no archaeological evidence that these structures couldn't drill teeth, after all.
posted by DU at 5:32 AM on May 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think this is a great conclusion but I would have also argued that Stonehenge could be a logical starting point for a roughly linear extrapolation of extremely gradual improvement of construction ability from then to the present day draftiness of English construction. Based on my quickly worked out model there should be non-drafty homes in England around 2047AD.
posted by srboisvert at 5:37 AM on May 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


If all borderline-cranks were this interesting to read crankery would be a more reputable intellectual hobby, perhaps about on par with having a regular column in the local paper's editorial section.

Thanks for posting this, picturing a heavily-built, rustic-timber-lodge world in that era is worth the price of admission, whatever its underlying veracity.
posted by hoople at 5:42 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


All these Spinal Tap references have reminded me--there's a bus that I'll take into central London sometimes when I don't feel like dealing with trains or the tube, and it passes by Druid Street.

Every single time, I mutter to myself "Druid Street. No one knows where it was, or where it was going...".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 5:43 AM on May 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


In those countries like Netherlands and Germany, where they understand their archaeology, their narrative of the Neolithic is about agriculture, in Britain it is more often expressed in terms of the perceptions, beliefs, rituals, personhood, and cosmologies.

I'm not an archeologist, but I have read academic archeology books about neolithic Britain (or parts thereof), and it was all agriculture, or roads, or salt-making, or settlement patterns, or drainage systems -- basically the same as the Dutch prehistory I've read, and all things that leave clear physical evidence.
posted by jb at 5:48 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


SOOO, this is why I've been missing my +1 cultural bonus.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 5:56 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am disappointed that he couldn't extend his reasoning to a landing pad for alien spaceships, because those are wicked cool.
posted by bukvich at 6:11 AM on May 20, 2013


Stonehenge Was Ancient Rave Spot

I thought that was just something later invaders used the site for?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:14 AM on May 20, 2013


How does he explain the secret underground room that once housed the Pandorica?
posted by Thorzdad at 6:17 AM on May 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


it was all agriculture, or roads, or salt-making, or settlement patterns, or drainage systems

So, so many articles that delve into the exciting archaeology of drainage and ditches. ("Soil micromorphology and chemistry"? Be still my fast-beating heart!) I mean there IS quite a bit about ritual and to be honest I'm not a huge fan of doing the archaeology of ritual landscapes, but there's a lot more literature out there than just a focus on the religious aspects of sites. Sometimes you get ritual evidence IN postholes. I assume his objections are more with very focused publications like this one, but it doesn't make sense to throw the ritualistic artefacts out with the spoil heaps as it were.

For more fun with ye olde monuments in Britain, the Heathrow excavations have turned up some interesting stuff. There's also this adorable little map.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:20 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is just a build­ing, like Wood­henge, Dur­ring­ton Wall, the sanc­tu­ary and Mount Pleas­ant. and I chal­lenge any­one to pro­duce evid­ence to the contrary.

This seems to misunderstand the nature of historical explanations at the very least.

There are lots of henges and megaliths throughout Europe, but nothing quite like Stonehenge. If a henge the size and complexity of Stonehenge was "just" a building, then why aren't there more?

The notion that Stonehenge was partially or fully roofed over isn't absurd, but the insistence that it was just a building is an instance of trying to read certainties into the record that aren't there.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:30 AM on May 20, 2013


What would such evidence consist of? A big sign that read "Please do not roof--NOT A BUILDING"?

His argument is more sophisticated than that. He is saying that the burden is on others to prove that Stonehenge is a ritual site for an ancient religion, and that given that nobody knows much about the religious role of Stonehenge except by extrapolating from the structure of Stonehenge itself, they have a bigger burden, whereas it's a more direct thing to say the stones are building supports, because identifying support structures for buildings, which people throughout the world have used, requires a less burdensome claim than hypothesizing an entire religious tradition that there are no records of.

I don't agree, but I'd say this is something less than crazed ranting.
posted by mobunited at 6:35 AM on May 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


How does he explain the secret underground room that once housed the Pandorica?

There's no basement in the Alamo, Pee Wee.
posted by resurrexit at 6:52 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is pretty interesting. I am not a trained archaeologist but have some experience with the field. He appears to be a real archaeologist, but is a mixed bag of audacious theories and workaday practice. Almost no publications, but blogs widely. He appears to have a doctorate, though his training was some time ago. So I'm not sure if I can think of him as a "crank" (I guess I perceive cranks as people who are without formal training and so unable to evaluate their own ideas against a professional framework), but more as a maverick, or if that's too glamorizing, perhaps what might be termed a "hack" or at least someone who ended up on the outside of an academic wagon-circling. I can see how someone with a data-modeling background would be frustrated with the hypotheses of archaeologists, and he seems very invested, in general, in pointing out archaeological assertions for which there just is no evidence, even in places like Pompeii, but which are very common. And I can understand how true it may be that his methods are not "listened to" within the field, because archaeology remains ridiculously un-digitized across the field (it's even worse than history in that way). His ideas are interesting. It would be great to see some evaluative responses by archaeologists with more recent training in some of his specialty areas, but I can also understand why they might not want to engage with the content at all.
posted by Miko at 6:58 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


this is something less than crazed ranting.

Oh, it isn't at all crazed ranting. OTOH, he definitely has a giant axe to grind—"I blog because my PhD at Newcastle was blighted by 'post-processual' archaeology - many universities have paid academics to make up beliefs, religions and cosmologies to explain complex archaeological structures"—and his certainty seems to rest almost entirely on the strength of his CAM model.

Interesting, but I'm skeptical.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:59 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]



If Stonehenge is really just the remains of an ordinary building [...]


Joined with wooden elements does not equal "ordinary." The amount of labor to build Stonehenge makes it significant regardless of how much timber was joined with it.

The bias towards studying what survived to our day shows in many more ways. The Native Americans had to have used boats to spread through the Americas as quickly as they did after crossing over from Siberia. But none survived. Hunter gatherer sites leave far more evidence of the hunting (i.e. bones) than of the gathering (i.e. tiny flecks of vegetable matter left in nooks in the stones used to grind it) and so we get this silly paleo diet craze. Nowadays we have the means to do far better, and we should use them.
posted by ocschwar at 7:24 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hunter gatherer sites leave far more evidence of the hunting (i.e. bones) than of the gathering (i.e. tiny flecks of vegetable matter left in nooks in the stones used to grind it) and so we get this silly paleo diet craze.

The identification of crops and food sources is a Big Deal in archaology - we most certainly do have a good idea about the plants our distant forbears ate.

The "paleo diet" as currently popularized is actually based on the diets of moden hunter/gatherer societies, interestingly enough...
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:11 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm skeptical, too.

It doesn't help that this is about Stonehenge, which (along with the pyramids) inspires a huge variety of assumptions, interpretations, and plain old crackpot ideas. My skepticism radar was already at high alert, and that floating sense of "held down all my academic life" doesn't help. There's a lot of commonly-held knowledge about Stonehenge that is almost certainly not accurate, and I notice that the author tends to refute that knowledge as much as he does the academic mainstream.

That said: I find the idea that there were roofed portions of Stonehenge possible, but I would have assumed that they predated the stone structure and were part of an all-wood structure. The site was probably always multi-functional and probably served as a regional gathering place for significant events, and so building an impressive structure there makes sense, and replacing a tall wooden one with a tall stone formation would also make sense in a variety of scenarios.

I kept looking for more evidence in what he was posting. The post charts and the computer models were interesting, but I wanted more physical evidence (remains of roofing wood, indicators on the stone that it held wood) which is a barrier he might not be able to cross regardless of his correctness. Between the weathering of the stone and the impermanence of untended wood , there may be no evidence to find to prove his point, or there may just be no evidence to find at all.
posted by julen at 8:41 AM on May 20, 2013


The other thing that occurs to me is that when you see stone/wood construction, you usually see a system of notches for anchoring timbers. Does he find evidences of fastenings or butt joints anywhere?
posted by Miko at 8:46 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Almost no publications, but blogs widely. He appears to have a doctorate, though his training was some time ago."

If he does have a doctorate he doesn't claim it on his CV, mentioning only two years of doctoral training with a presumably unfinished dissertation, and the smattering of publications he does have are stretched thin across the 70s, 80s and 90s.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:00 AM on May 20, 2013


This seems so reasonable on first glance that I'm surprised it hasn't been addressed in some form or other in the past...

There are lots of henges and megaliths throughout Europe, but nothing quite like Stonehenge. If a henge the size and complexity of Stonehenge was "just" a building, then why aren't there more?

Stonehenge could be the remains of a particularly notable building, but I think the point is, is there such a thing as a "henge" at all, or are henges in general remains of buildings?

What would such evidence consist of? A big sign that read "Please do not roof--NOT A BUILDING"?

If you just look at it with no preconceptions, I think it's perfectly reasonable to think it could be columns of a sort. Maybe the problem is the way he keeps saying it's "just" a building. He could be making this more inviting, saying stonehenge is the remains of a great temple that was even more elaborate than what is left over... Anyway, perhaps there are reasons this has been rejected, but if it simply hasn't been considered, then that's a pretty big gap. It does seem like the most sensible first assumption.
posted by mdn at 9:21 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


But I'm a bit unclear if his model of the roof is complete or donut-shaped. Stonehenge might have been too big to roof over completely.

This example of pre-modern architecture only dates back a few paltry hundred years or so (1600s), but leaving aside whether or not Stonehenge could have been roofed over completely, there may have been practical reasons (like the need to use fire for cooking and heating) for a donut-shaped roof. These pics in particular certainly do bear more than a passing resemblance to the arrangement at stonehenge.

Why exactly have people generally assumed there must have been a more mysterious function for the set-up at Stonehenge? Did those ideas just sort of bubble up from received wisdom and folklore, or are there specific archaelogical/structural reasons for the more exotic ideas about why Stonehenge was built?
posted by saulgoodman at 9:44 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Going by the "12 reasons" page, the claim appears to be that it was a temple, but one with a giant wooden building built around the stones. Which I suppose is possible, but given he's claiming that the stones were load-bearing when there's no evidence on them of cuts or fastenings or other construction modifications, most archaeologists are likely to stick with the palisades theory.
posted by tavella at 9:50 AM on May 20, 2013


Why exactly have people generally assumed there must have been a more mysterious function for the set-up at Stonehenge? Did those ideas just sort of bubble up from received wisdom and folklore, or are there specific archaelogical/structural reasons for the more exotic ideas about why Stonehenge was built?

Well, the (MASSIVE) stones were hauled between 20-30 miles and 160 (!) miles to the site. If it was just a big meeting hall or something, why didn't they just use timber for the frame? Or even more locally sourced materials, rather than moving tons of rocks hundreds of miles? People didn't just do that work because reasons.
posted by The Michael The at 9:50 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


People didn't just do that work because reasons.

Maybe, as stone aged people and thus closely tied to stone, they wanted stones to hold up the central hall. Just because it's a building doesn't mean it DOESN"T have aesthetic and/or religious significance.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:07 AM on May 20, 2013


People didn't just do that work because reasons

Except, the "ritual significance" interpretation kind of is "they did all this work because reasons". If it was a building, there are a lot more potential explanations for why someone would build an elaborate, expensive building (maybe religious, maybe for recreational direwolf-fights, maybe just outspending the other guys in the Big Round Building Cold War, I dunno).
posted by hattifattener at 10:07 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why exactly have people generally assumed there must have been a more mysterious function for the set-up at Stonehenge?

"Mysterious," isn't a word archeologists would use, probably, but in the case of Stonehenge and, say, Newgrange (and probably others I'm forgetting), an apparently careful alignment of the structures with astronomical phenomena has traditionally led scholars to suggest that they may have been used for ritualistic purposes. The caveat being that no serious scholar is going to hazard a guess at what, precisely, those rituals might have been. In the case of Stonehenge, or of the Stonehenges, since there were several structures on the site over more than a thousand years, the size, complexity, and duration, as well as the number of burials and cremations uncovered at the site, have all suggested that it was something more than just a utilitarian structure.

(Though who knows, Skara Brae was inhabited for 700 years and it was purely utilitarian housing.)
posted by octobersurprise at 10:15 AM on May 20, 2013


The 10th Regiment of Foot: People didn't just do that work because reasons.

Maybe, as stone aged people and thus closely tied to stone, they wanted stones to hold up the central hall. Just because it's a building doesn't mean it DOESN"T have aesthetic and/or religious significance.
I don't think they realized they were "stone aged people". They didn't have access to a lot of modern archaeology texts, AFAIK.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:15 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


On the other hand, there are structures such as Kennet Avenue which is a 2.5 km line of stones, connecting two other sites. So those stones are just stones (right?), not supports for anything.
posted by vacapinta at 10:21 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


English Heritage has a nice round up of information and publications on Stonehenge, including the site's history (and its use and reuse as an area with a variety of monumental structures) and a history of research on and publications about Stonehenge. The article The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project is quite recent and has an interesting bibliography. The University of Birmingham (connected to the latter article) has looked in more detail at the alignment of the ceremonial areas and celestial connections; an earlier press release is here.

I don't think there's ever been a lot of evidence for habitation or domestic use or production areas near Stonehenge either, but I could be wrong.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:25 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


People didn't just do that work because reasons.

Well, it looks like there was a moat around the perimeter of the thing--isn't it possible they were trying to construct for durability/fortification?

Just spit-balling here, of course, but couldn't it be this was something akin to a castle, that was intended to withstand attack from hostile outsiders and so constructed to be as durable and fire-resistant (since fire was commonly used in battle) as possible?

Maybe there were practical rather than mystical reasons.

If it's true that "there's no evidence on them of cuts or fastenings or other construction modifications" then that might be a better objection.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:30 AM on May 20, 2013


as The Michael The said, the amount of person-hours involved in the construction indicates immense cultural importance. 5 ton stones were moved 160 miles, and 30 ton stones 20+ miles. The length of time it was built and used over indicates that it wasn't simply a single ruler showing off his power. And the alignment matching astronomical phenomena has led to the theory that it was specifically ritual rather than purely civic. If the two could even be separated at the time.
posted by tavella at 10:31 AM on May 20, 2013


saulgoodman, there would be no reason to move 5 ton stones from Wales to build a fortification, and the design would be a terrible one for such.
posted by tavella at 10:33 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, it isn't at all crazed ranting. OTOH, he definitely has a giant axe to grind—"I blog because my PhD at Newcastle was blighted by 'post-processual' archaeology - many universities have paid academics to make up beliefs, religions and cosmologies to explain complex archaeological structures"—and his certainty seems to rest almost entirely on the strength of his CAM model.

I'm guessing what happened was:
his advisor:l "Dude, I'm not going to sign off on this thesis unless you make up 20 pages about what the henge-builders were thinking"
him: "GAH! WTF?"
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:36 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


You could say many of the same things about the Pentagon (it's particular design was chosen for all sorts of weird, quasi-mystical and cultural reasons), but all the same, it's still a building with a utilitarian function. The astrological/ritual stuff might be central or not--for many centuries, the belief-systems in feudal China guided people to take astrological concerns into account for all sorts of things--the keys songs were performed in during certain times of year were governed by all sorts of mystical stuff about being in harmony with the universe and partly determined by astrological considerations, but that doesn't mean a building designed with regard for star charts in accordance with such beliefs had to have an exclusively ritualistic significance.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:38 AM on May 20, 2013


saulgoodman, there would be no reason to move 5 ton stones from Wales to build a fortification, and the design would be a terrible one for such.

Well, maybe so, but is there evidence they had any better designs available at the time?

These are all good points though. I'm not nearly qualified enough to have a set opinion either way, but it is an interesting line of thought, if possibly bogus.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:40 AM on May 20, 2013


The distance that the stones were moved from Wales suggests that the effort to move them included cooperation from every community between the origin and the destination. No way these were moved if there was any opposition whatever, so everyone on the route must have been cooperative and most likely took part in the effort. No matter how this was organized, it indicates that the site was important to people who lived far from it.

The ancient world is replete with astronomical alignments. The first means of measuring the seasons is a tall pole, and a record of where the shadow falls. (Alternatively, an alignment between a point on the horizon and the measuring marker.) Once begun, such a record would be kept permanently, and as the patterns of movement between moon and sun emerged over decades, they would be noted and marked with ever more permanent means.

Although the alignment to the midsummer sunrise gets all the attention at Stonehenge, it falls directly opposite the midwinter sunset, which would be a more important date to ancient farmers. Sunsets are easier to observe in winter than sunrises because clouds and mist will usually obscure the horizon on a cold morning. I believe the alignment was to midwinter and the midsummer alignment is merely an artifact of that.

I have no opinion about roofs, but I agree that the structure started with poles marking important alignments, made more permanent as time went on.

I often picture in my mind the genius who designed and directed the final phase of construction. As the last stone slid into place, he said, "YESSS! That's just what I had in mind!"
posted by Repack Rider at 10:57 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


The distance that the stones were moved from Wales suggests that the effort to move them included cooperation from every community between the origin and the destination.

As I understand it, its not really settled how or whether they were moved by men at all. They did not find a quarry site.

And there certainly is no timeline as to how fast they were moved. This could have been, for example, the house/palace of a line of great chieftains. And perhaps the stones were moved a small distance every year in some sort of community ritual. Ending up where they are today.
posted by vacapinta at 11:02 AM on May 20, 2013


Saulgoodman, there's a more full description of the theories around the transportation of the stones here. There's a really interesting bit about nearby settlements here from the University of Sheffield that I haven't seen before:
The discovery of houses within and outside Durrington Walls suggests that a large area of the valley in which the henge lies was probably covered in dwellings. The considerable quantities of pig and cattle bones, pottery, flint arrowheads and lithic debris indicate that occupation and consumption were intense. The many articulated and unfragmented animal bones are likely to be debris of the wasteful consumption resulting from feasting. The small quantities of stone tools other than arrowheads, the absence of grinding querns and the lack of carbonised grain indicate that this was a `consumer´ site. The midsummer and midwinter solstice alignments of the Durrington and Stonehenge architecture suggest seasonal occupation. It is likely that these dwellings were lived in by the builders of the Southern Circle and Stonehenge.
It's mentioned in another press release that “We can tell from ageing of the pig teeth that higher quantities of pork were eaten during midwinter at the nearby settlement of Durrington Walls, and most of the monuments in the Stonehenge area are aligned on sunrise and sunset at midwinter rather than midsummer." That's the kind of evidence that better shows how humans actually used a site, and it helps differentiate between sites like Durrington Walls and Stonehenge.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:06 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, the lack of middens at Stonehenge is one of those big damn markers that This Was Not a Residence.
posted by tavella at 11:13 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Building a henge, are we?"
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:14 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


As I understand it, its not really settled how or whether they were moved by men at all. They did not find a quarry site.

I had long wondered whether the bluestones were moved by glaciers, but there seems to be zero evidence for that. You would expect to find a few "erratics" somewhere between the two sites, but I am not aware that any have been found. You would also expect to find a few from a site other than the very limited origin site so far identified.

Unless there is evidence of glacial transport, and I don't know of any, I think we have to assume that they were not moved that way. That leaves only human activity as the alternative.

It is quite possible that the stones were pried out of the bedrock by glacial activity and moved later, which would explain why there is no evidence (so far) of a quarry.
posted by Repack Rider at 11:19 AM on May 20, 2013


I'm not sure we're going to squeeze more answers out of Stonehenge. The hot place right now is Orkney, especially the Ness of Brodgar.
posted by vacapinta at 11:35 AM on May 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't think they realized they were "stone aged people".

No, I don't either, but I do think that they probably at least partially realized the significance of stone in their technology/lives. You often find among the effects of people with stone age technology odd or unusual stones. They don't seem to serve any purpose other than bobbles or ritual objects, but they held enough significance to these people that they were willing to carry them around despite their lack of ability to transport a large volume or weight. In other words, even though these folks had to carry everything they had to subsist on their backs, they still made room for a weird rock, just because reasons.

Stone was their life, and a place made of really, REALLY big stones (rooved or not) would have been important. I don't know if that makes it the paleolithic Vatican or Times Square or Versailles or what, but it was important.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:53 AM on May 20, 2013


f he does have a doctorate he doesn't claim it on his CV, mentioning only two years of doctoral training with a presumably unfinished dissertation, and the smattering of publications he does have are stretched thin across the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Ah yes, that's more in line with the whole vibe of this.
posted by Miko at 12:14 PM on May 20, 2013


As a keen amateur astronomer, as a boy, I agree that too much is made of the alignments - stick 5 poles in the ground at random and I will find you numerous alignments.

Although the site definitely sets my crack-pottery alarms off too, this comment concerning the astrological significance of the positioning of the stones at Stonehenge does strike me as one that might have just a little bit of truth to it...
posted by saulgoodman at 1:38 PM on May 20, 2013


On topic, the 4th edition of Christopher Chippendale's Stonehenge Complete, generally regarded as a solid introduction to the site, has just come out this spring.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:48 PM on May 20, 2013


stick 5 poles in the ground at random and I will find you numerous alignments.

Erecting a pole of any substance with neolithic tools is an arduous chore. No one is going to do that kind of work and position them "at random." Whoever does it, and for whatever reason, the positions will not be chosen at random.

The ancients were far more aware of celestial events than we are. Knowledge is power, and the knowledge that allows someone to predict events gives enormous power.

As soon as seasons became important to people, they started keeping track. Once you start compiling such a record, it's hard to stop. A prehistoric set of marks on a bit of bone appears to be a record of moon phases. I suspect that keeping astronomical records became family traditions among the powerful, spanning many generations, and we know that Stonehenge was built over the course of a couple of dozen generations.

If alignments are NOT "random," and there is no reason for them to be, what is the order that they define? If they align with season-defining (or eclipse predicting) celestial events, chance is unlikely.
posted by Repack Rider at 2:52 PM on May 20, 2013


There could have been many different kinds of structures at Stonehenge over the centuries. (Not to mention the rest of Salisbury Plain.) Maybe the original Henge, aligned astronomically, predated everything else. Then there was an accretion of (comparatively) short-lived wooden structures over the years, culminating in the grand donut with the Henge in the middle.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:12 PM on May 20, 2013


While some of his "mathematical" explanations of annular tie-beam arrangements for very large timber structures seem to verge into crank territory, in general his understanding of post-and-beam British vernacular carpentry and silviculture is sound. His buildings could actually be built with the tools, human labor, and material resources reasonably accepted to have existed in some periods of the bronze and iron ages, at his selected locations.
This doesn't mean they WERE built as he suggests, just that his theoretical reconstructions are plausible as engineering, economic, and practical social solutions. He also repeatedly stresses that his ideas are speculations based on his own theories, and that there are undoubtedly errors.
OTOH, he clearly has a cranky axe to grind with any kind of social-cultural or cultural archeology. One of the problems with cranks is even when they have some fragments of verifiable ideas, they are hardly worth the effort of sifting through the crazy to find them.
posted by Dreidl at 3:25 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Stonehenge Decoded. (Also cued up in somewhat higher quality on my radio station.)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:12 PM on May 20, 2013


You often find among the effects of people with stone age technology odd or unusual stones.

This is also true of my 12-year-old son.

The whole issue of whether or not Stonehenge was primarily a ritual site seems complicated though - even if it started out as just an overgrown lodge or a fortified village, the effort of bringing all those stones from miles away over decades/centuries by large groups of people likely would have become ritualised soon enough. And it probably wouldn't take long for a whole series of explanatory stories to grow up around the whole exercise. Eee, my dad were a foremen on Plinth Seven!
posted by sneebler at 5:16 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


The truth.
posted by brundlefly at 1:30 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


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