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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

Hidden Landscapes: Stonehenge

Stonehenge is one the UK’s most visited tourist attractions – and one of the world’s most enigmatic ancient monuments. People come from all over the world to stare at the iconic stone pillars and wonder how, and why, they were put in place.

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The site may be instantly recognisable, but there is far more to it than first meets the eye. As archaeologists study this area, mystery after mystery unfolds. But a coherent story may be beginning to emerge.

That has been particularly true over the last decade. Researchers have been studying not just the monument itself, but the area around it, hoping to find clues in this intriguing landscape of prehistoric monuments.

Underground imaging and excavation have revealed that Stonehenge was once part of a complicated network of structures: ancient burial mounds, unknown settlements, processional routes and even gold-adorned burials. The finds paint a picture of a far more mysterious and elaborate Neolithic and Bronze Age world than previously thought.

One such project that looked at Stonehenge in this holistic way was the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, which ran from 2010 to 2014. Underground radar and magnetic imaging techniques revealed that Stonehenge lies at the centre of a complex web of structures covering an estimated 4.5 square miles (12 sq km). The project caused a media frenzy in 2015, when scientists announced the finding of a potential ‘Superhenge’ at nearby Durrington Walls – a huge 500m (1,640ft) diameter stone circle.

However, this frenzy was short-lived. When excavating the site, the archaeologists didn’t find any stones. Instead, they found that timber posts once stood here. After they were removed, the holes were filled with chalk and then covered in earth to form a henge bank. On radar scans, the gaps in the loose chalk had looked like stones.

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Today, Durrington Walls is a field surrounded by banks.

Despite this setback, UK lead for the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project Vincent Gaffney stressed that the project revealed hundreds of new features and many sites never seen before. “Following this survey, we know not only where things are but where they aren’t as well,” said Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford.

These kinds of surveys are key, Gaffney said, because they allow archaeologists “to investigate all areas of land equally, and not just the monuments we know. This allows us to interpret the evidence in a more sophisticated manner.

“What this has revealed is a completely unknown monumental phase of Durrington Walls. In between the Neolithic village and the massive earthwork was a massive ring of posts somewhere between 4-6m (13-20ft) in height – a minimum of 200 and perhaps as many as 300. This is completely new and would have been missed entirely without the survey.”

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Modern stones mark where the pillars of Woodhenge, another ancient monument in the area, would have been

The finding of another huge monument in the area has changed the way archaeologists look at the development and history of the region. “Increasingly, I would suggest that we are beginning to see the mosaic of blank areas and monuments as suggesting processional movement,” said Gaffney.

In other words, the landscape was used in religious or ceremonial processions related to the monuments.

Mike Parker Pearson of University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, who led the Stonehenge Riverside Project from 2003 to 2009, thinks that the posts at Durrington Walls were put up with the intention that they would be taken down soon after. “They may only have stood for a matter of months before they were replaced by the henge bank and ditch,” he said. “Their purpose seems to have been to mark the perimeter of the great village, by now abandoned. So perhaps the posts were a monument to the people who lived here while building Stonehenge.”

Whatever the monument was used for, it shows that Stonehenge isn’t alone in this landscape. Understanding the significance of Stonehenge depends on understanding everything else around it as well.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project found that Stonehenge was built in two phases. The first – a ditch, bank and circle of bluestones – was built 500 years earlier than previously thought, more than 4,500 years ago. The second phase, when the larger, iconic outer circle was erected, came about 500 years after the first.

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The area, however, was occupied beginning around 9,000 years ago, suggesting it had significance long before Stonehenge was built.

Twenty miles (30km) away lies the less well-known but just as significant site of Avebury, home of the largest stone circle in Europe. But the Neolithic reach of this area extended even further – such as into Wales, where prehistoric Britons procured the bluestones for Stonehenge’s inner circle.

Meanwhile, Parker Pearson says, it seems that the big stones at Stonehenge came from the Avebury area.

This suggests that these significant Neolithic landscapes – Salisbury Plain, Avebury and the Preseli hills in Wales, another area rich with prehistoric monuments – were linked. And holding that link together was Stonehenge.

Parker Pearson suggests that the Welsh bluestones were the first to be put in place at Stonehenge, and that it was the monument that they came from that was important. The stones would have been considered to be ancestral symbols of western Britons, he said, and “bringing them to Salisbury Plain was an act of unification of the two main Neolithic peoples of southern Britain.”

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Outcrops of rock in the Presili hills, Wales

Even today, the Preseli hills are dotted with dolmens (ancient tombs). “The density of dolmens reveals that this was an important region (both politically and spiritually) some 700 years before Stonehenge,” Parker Pearson said, making it “possibly a leading territory within western Britain in the centuries before 3000 BC.”

But even if we agree with the theory that bringing the stones from Wales was a symbolic and even political, act, it presents another mystery: how did prehistoric Britons move those huge stones?

Some suggest that people didn’t move the stones at all, and that instead, glaciers transported the stones across southern Britain. But the finding of two ancient stone quarries in Preseli ended that debate for the most part.

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Excavations at the Craig Rhos-y-felin quarry, shown here, revealed that the bluestones were quarried and transported to Stonehenge

Scientists also have experimented with ideas of how to transport the large stones 160 miles (260km) from Wales. According to Parker Pearson, they discovered that moving small megaliths like the bluestones, which mostly weighed 2 tons or less, was not actually that difficult – even with just dragging the stone on a sledge.

In another recent finding, archaeologists discovered the cremated remains of people buried at Stonehenge. The Stonehenge Riverside Project’s 2008 excavation retrieved about 58 burials, including at least nine men – and 14 women. As it is thought that anyone buried at Stonehenge had elevated social status, this therefore poses questions about the role of women in the Neolithic period.

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“It frequently seems that there is always something new from Stonehenge, but I continue to be surprised that we keep finding so much – even in areas that have been studied intensively for years,” said Gaffney. “The latest findings from Durrington demonstrate that new technology doesn’t just find new sites, it dramatically transforms how we understand known sites.

“It also emphasises not just how unique Stonehenge was, but how important the landscape around that monument was – and that we are still just beginning to understand how it developed and what it meant to the people who built Stonehenge.”

Even so, no matter how many new discoveries are made, it seems that Stonehenge will only continue to throw up new questions for scientists and the media to ponder. These Neolithic people had huge skill and ambition.

Such a huge monument erected so perfectly, over many centuries, is not something easy for us to understand in our fast-paced, modern world.

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New Archaeological discovery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Archaeologists have discovered one of Britain’s oldest churches.

The find – on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast – is of great historical importance because the newly discovered ancient church may originally have been built in or shortly after the mid 7th century AD as part of the monastic spiritual epicentre from which much of northern and central England was eventually Christianised.

The archaeological excavation has revealed that the monks chose the most challenging and difficult location to build their church – potentially for politically symbolic reasons.

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The building stood on a totally exposed, extremely wind-blown rocky promontory facing directly towards the great royal palace of the monks’ first patron and benefactor, north-east England’s most important early Christian king, the 7th century St Oswald of Northumbria. The church was constructed just two or three metres from the cliff edge. The location was known in Anglo-Saxon times simply as “The Precipice”.

Also suggesting an early, potentially late 7th century, date is the very primitive ‘pre-architectural’ style of the church’s masonry.

So far, the archaeologists have found dozens of pieces of broken masonry – including crudely-worked window surrounds – in a style suggesting that the mason was more accustomed to working in wood than in stone.

A final potential clue to its age has been found at the extreme eastern end of the church. It is the probable base of what may well have been the original altar installed there by St Aidan in or immediately after he founded the monastery in AD 635.

It’s also important because it is likely to have been a key site at the spiritual heart of the early 8th-century monastic community that made Britain’s most famous early medieval illuminated manuscript – the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The evidence suggesting that this could be the site of one of Holy Island’s original early Anglo-Saxon period churches – perhaps even one built by the founder of Lindisfarne, St Aidan – is complex but persuasive.

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The archaeological excavation has revealed that the monks chose the most challenging and difficult location to build their church – potentially for politically symbolic reasons.

The building stood on a totally exposed, extremely wind-blown rocky promontory facing directly towards the great royal palace of the monks’ first patron and benefactor, north-east England’s most important early Christian king, the 7th century St Oswald of Northumbria. The church was constructed just two or three metres from the cliff edge. The location was known in Anglo-Saxon times simply as “The Precipice”.

Also suggesting an early, potentially late 7th century, date is the very primitive ‘pre-architectural’ style of the church’s masonry.

So far, the archaeologists have found dozens of pieces of broken masonry – including crudely-worked window surrounds – in a style suggesting that the mason was more accustomed to working in wood than in stone.

A final potential clue to its age has been found at the extreme eastern end of the church. It is the probable base of what may well have been the original altar installed there by St Aidan in or immediately after he founded the monastery in AD 635.

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It can be potentially associated with Aidan because it’s believed that changes in English church layout tradition after the mid 7thcentury meant that altars were no longer to be located up against the east wall of the church, but several metres further west.

Interestingly, the building was constructed of gleaming white sandstone that would have reflected sunlight particularly well, giving the impression that it was quite literally radiating the purest white light. The gleaming structure perched on its 20-metre high clifftop would have been clearly visible from the royal palace at Bamburgh as a white building surrounded by sea.

“It is one of the most important discoveries from the early medieval period that has been made in Britain over recent decades,” said Peter Ryder, an archaeologist specialising in medieval ecclesiastical buildings who has been involved in recording the masonry from the newly discovered early church.

The archaeologists have also discovered the massive foundations of what appears to have been a large signalling tower on the same promontory – presumably to enable simple messages to be sent directly to the king’s palace at Bamburgh, some four miles across the sea to the south.

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The eight metre square tower (with walls 2.5 metres thick) would probably have been up to 12 metres high – and would also have been used to communicate with monks living on the Farne Islands, seven miles away. It’s known from ancient accounts that a tower on that promontory was used, for instance, to receive a beacon signal from those monks when St Cuthbert (subsequently regarded as the patron saint of northern England) died there in AD 687.

The buried remains of the newly discovered early church, currently being excavated by the archaeologists, show that the building was at least partially made of stone.

However, it is almost certain that the initial mid-7th century church or (churches) on Lindisfarne were originally constructed purely of timber. We also know that the Lindisfarne monks viewed their earliest timber churches with such reverence that, in the 7th or early 8th century, they encased one in pure lead to preserve it – and later (in the 9th century) deconstructed it or another timber church and took it to the mainland to prevent it being destroyed by the Vikings.

Lindisfarne Priory

It is, therefore, conceivable that the newly discovered stone church on the Lindisfarne clifftop was built in the mid or late 7thcentury as a protective structure around what may have been St Aidan’s original timber church. If that is not correct, then it could be a later Anglo-Saxon stone rebuild of that church, although, on balance of probabilities, the primitive nature of the masonry would perhaps argue against that. Alternatively, it could be that a totally new stone church was built on the promontory in perhaps the early or mid-8th century.

Ultimately, only further excavation and scientific testing may solve the conundrum.

The newly discovered foundations and masonry fragments of the church on the wind-blown Lindisfarne clifftop are by far the oldest Anglo-Saxon structural remains found on the island.

Source.

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