A few days ago, I came across an observation in a lengthy essay in The Guardian that was so good and so insightful that I still find it hard to believe it had not been made long ago, or that I had not encountered it or a close variant before now. The words that so impressed me were, “We tend to think of heretics as contrarians, individuals with a compulsion to flout conventional wisdom. But sometimes a heretic is simply a mainstream thinker who stays facing the same way while everyone around him turns 180 degrees.”
In the years when I used to write lengthy essays of my own about Stonehenge on a regular basis, I learned to pay heed to quiet, distant voices that were straining to be heard before I wrote in depth about one aspect or another of Stonehenge in prehistory. Something about the wording of the quote I’ve reproduced above led me to do the same thing once again and a minute or so after I’d paused and listened, I was drawn to the opening two paragraphs of a full length book on Stonehenge I’d written in 2004 or thereabouts, which I chose to let lie in my archives and which I’m sure I’ve not looked at for at least a decade. The words in full are as follows:
MAN, MYTH AND MAGIC
“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane”.
The archaeologists tell us that Stonehenge ‘fell into disuse’ sometime around 1,600 BC, then it is supposed that any knowledge of its original purpose vanished within a few generations as the local people lost interest in the monument and its history, then moved on to the contemplation of far more important matters. Three and a half thousand years or so after this vast store of information apparently disappeared without trace into the void, there is an unprecedented degree of interest in the stone circle, which annually attracts around a million visitors. As well as the curious pilgrims to the windswept ruins, many other seekers after knowledge devote their attention to the stones, scrutinizing the layout and the heavens above for some clue as to their original purpose.
Some people see alignments with celestial bodies, some write of temples of the dead, some see solar and lunar ‘motifs’ in the precise setting of the stones and at least one person has noticed a face that they take to be that of the original builder, carved on the side of one of the huge uprights. A happy few see the ruins as the place where the Druids carried out their bloody rites or else gathered in their robes to greet the sunrise on Midsummer’s Day, while others scratch their heads in bafflement and gracefully concede temporary defeat. Among these people is Andrew Lawson, formerly Chief Executive of Wessex Archaeology, who commented in 1996 in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, “It is difficult to say why Stonehenge is placed where it is – it is not next to the river, not the highest hill, not the deepest valley. It may well be that there was some significance to the place going all the way back to what Mesolithic peoples did there.”
Brief excerpt ends.
I worked at Wessex Archaeology in the early years of this new millennium, before Andrew Lawson vacated the post of Chief Executive there, and I spoke to him several times about any connection between the ruined monument on the plain and the people who had dwelt there, long before the earliest known incarnation of Stonehenge took shape.
I do not recall these conversations word for word, but they always centred around the fact that in the 1960s, when the car park for what was then the new visitors centre was being built, archaeologists discovered a series of Mesolithic pits, which have been written about exhaustively by myself and others for some years. The photo below, courtesy of my friend Juris Ozols of Minnesota, shows his daughter Lija and his son Chris in 1990 standing on one of the white circles marking the spot where one of these pits was located, while another of the three white circles is just visible in the background.
These pits caused a sensation, because the archaeologists were certain that they had once held pine poles roughly two and half feet in diameter and perhaps twenty feet tall, which had rotted in situ and which may have loomed over the surrounding landscape for eerie centuries before they eventually crumbled and fell. There is much else to be said about these strange structures, but perhaps the most interesting and pertinent point is that they were put in place during what we call the Mesolithic era, around five thousand years before nearby Stonehenge came into being.
No such monumental structures were known to have been raised by the people of this period in Britain. A study undertaken in January 2009 by my late friend Alex Down showed that one of our ancestors, with eyes at a height of 1.6 meters standing at what is now Stonehenge, would have been able to see one of these posts if it stood taller than roughly 1.5 meters. The girth of the posts suggests that they could have stood a great dealer taller than that, so unless there was a screen of some inordinately tall vegetation between the observer standing at what is now Stonehenge and the posts in what until recently was the car park, the posts would have been clearly visible to them, possibly for hundreds of years.
As it is, this curious structure or set of structures that was put in place during the Mesolithic stood only three hundred meters or so from the site of what later became Stonehenge. As I pointed out over a decade ago, the posts were situated to the northwest of Stonehenge, roughly on the line of the setting sun on the Summer Solstice, but a connection between the two places was patently obvious, even if no one could conclusively explain the precise nature of this link. This, presumably, was part of the reasoning behind Andrew Lawson’s observation as quoted by The Telegraph in 1996 and it was the equally sound reasoning that persisted among every archaeologist I worked with or spoke to on the matter at least eight years later.
In March 2008, an excavation at Stonehenge by professors Darvill and Wainwright discovered – among many other highly interesting things – pine charcoal that was dated to around 7,000 BC, or to the middle of the Mesolithic. Professor Darvill was quoted in the prestigious Smithsonian in October 2008 as saying “The origins of Stonehenge probably lie back in the Mesolithic, and we need to reframe our questions for the next excavation to look back into that deeper time.”
If I had the time or the inclination, I could readily point out many more intriguing links between Stonehenge and the people who lived nearby during the Mesolithic era, but if they’re not immediately obvious, a search for the connections will surely prove extremely enjoyable for anyone with the inclination to embark on one. For now, it’s inescapable that five years or so after after Wainwright and Darvill’s excavation at Stonehenge, literally tens of thousands of Mesolithic flint artefacts and many other remarkable objects were being brought to light at an excavation overseen by David Jacques at Blick Mead, just over a mile to the east of Stonehenge.
The site has yielded evidence of a Mesolithic dwelling, as well as the remains of many aurochs, the tooth of a dog, the bones of a cooked frog and other wonders, so it is little surprise that the location has been known for some years as “The Cradle of Stonehenge”. With all this and more in mind, one would have expected that those who predicted that Stonehenge came into being as a result of ceremonies conducted upon the site by our remote ancestors who lived during the Mesolithic era would be regarded as visionaries.
However, it is at this belated point that I remind the reader of the quote that so impressed me, concerning heretics and how one of these dissenters is sometimes “…simply a mainstream thinker who stays facing the same way while everyone around him turns 180 degrees.”One might reasonably suppose that the way in which the evidence for a Mesolithic connection with or origin for Stonehenge has accumulated in recent years would mean that everyone with a professional interest in the monument would be hailing the discoveries and ongoing excavations at Blick Mead, but such is not the case.
Not everyone has turned through 180 degrees on this subject in recent times, but one of the most well-established and high-profile professional observers of Stonehenge has scorned the idea of any Mesolithic connection or origin and has consistently written about the excavations at Blick Mead in such a negative fashion that these essays have provoked strong responses online not only from David Jacques, but also from many others who are seemingly baffled as to why any professional should pursue such a course.
In all my many years of reading about and studying Stonehenge, I have yet to learn of an occasion when any two experts were in agreement about the site, so in one way, it’s entirely predictable that we should witness some kind of difference of opinion. However, as more of the monument’s past has been brought to light – if only in the form of literally tens of thousands of Mesolithic flints and indisputable evidence of sustained occupation during the Mesolithic in a spot just over a mile away – one might expect views to increasingly converge on the question of a Mesolithic link to or origin of Stonehenge.
I admit that while there might have been a time when I could have become passionate about this dispute to the extent of getting involved in it, those days are far behind me and I’m confident that the Universe is unfolding as it should. However, despite my well-publicised interest in what one might term the supernatural, I nonetheless subscribe to the scientific method and as such, I cannot fathom how the more solid facts you provide in support of a given premise – in this case, the idea that the origins of Stonehenge lie in the Mesolithic – the less likely that premise is to be true, in some quarters. As I’ve admitted before, I cannot boast of having a Degree in Archaeology, so for me, this matter must remain one of Stonehenge’s more baffling mysteries.
“Only one thing can be stated with certainty about such structures as Stonehenge: the people who built them were much more intelligent than many who have written books about them.”
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1917 – 2008