Saturday, April 30, 2016

How Britain came to possess Stonehenge, Avebury stone circle, Silbury Hill etc - in just 350 words.

Yes, here in just 10 main points, 350 words (max) is my new theory for how and why Britain came to acquire  Stonehenge, Avebury, Silbury Hill, i.e. a wealth of Neolithic-era henges, standing stone circles etc.

Specialist site for one of this science blogger's longer-term research interests. See also Shroud of Turin.
Main points:

1. In the Neolithic pre-copper, pre-Bronze age era, approx. 4,500 years ago or more, there were no metal tools to dig graves for the dead – only antler picks.

2. There were no metal tools to cut down trees to supply timber for cremation on funeral pyres - only flints.

3. Consequently, defleshing of the dead was standard practice, aka ‘excarnation’. It was seen as releasing the imprisoned-soul, leaving relatively clean bones for storage and veneration.

(Update: Friday May 6: see my latest posting with its proposal that the term "excarnation" be replaced on internet forums and media outlets generally with "skeletonization".)

4. The preferred means of excarnation was "sky burial" – exposing the bodies to scavenger birds.

5, Britain has few if any vultures. A substitute had to be attracted. It was probably the “seagull”, better described simply as the gull, with a voracious appetite and propensity to forage and indeed nest and reproduce far inland. 

6. A way had to be found for attracting gulls to an excarnation site, and encouraging them to take up residence.

Gulls are not fussy eaters (seen here at rubbish dump)
7. The first sites were man-made scars in chalk uplands, either linear of circular, made by digging out the chalk and heaping it up at the edge of the ditch. Seagulls were attracted to the artificial  “white cliffs”, visible from afar.

A man-made henge (artist's impression). Gulls would feel at home, perched on that "cliff top". The standing stones were a later de luxe feature.

8. The tops of the “cliffs” provide perches for the gulls with some early warning of the approach of predators (foxes etc).  Those “man-made” cliffs are what today we call “henges” etc (“cursus” too).

9. The next step was for the guardians of excarnation sites to install tall timber posts, moving the perches closer to the centre of the henge or cursus, closer to the laid-out offerings.

10. The final step was to replace the timber posts with standing stones, durable bird perches, no more, no less.

The rest is detail, like:

 (a) adding lintel cross-pieces onto Stonehenge to extend the perching area, like:

 (b) initially preferring igneous Welsh bluestone over local sarsen sandstone (easier to keep clean), like:

 (c) building  barrows to house excarnated bones, with or without a final ‘cleansing’ cremation, like:

 (d) building Silbury Hill in small instalments, maybe as a repository for a token soft-tissue interment (probably the heart?).

See previous postings on this and my “Sussing Stonehenge site (see home page banner above)  for how these ideas evolved organically via small incremental steps. Sadly, from a time-and-motion study perspective, they did not arrive in a sudden flash of inspiration.

Update: Tue May 3

Have just placed this comment on the splendid Ancient-Origins site, regarding  its recent coverage of the 'mysterious' Korean dolmens. (How silly of me to have overlooked dolmens thus far, given they can be seen as key intermediaries between single standing stones and Stonehenge's lintelled trilithons - think transition from bird perch to bird table!):

  • Reply to: Looking for the Origins of the Mysterious Dolmens of Korea   1 hour 24 min ago
    Comment Author: Colin Berry
    Oops. This handy feature on Korean dolmens seems to have led to what optimistically might be called the Rosetta Stone of stone circles!
    Simply googling (dolmen sky burial) led to a 2011 article in Popular Archaeology detailing the work of Dr.Rami Arav on a series of concentric circles assembled from loose basalt stones in the Golan Heights with a single dolmen at the centre.
    Spot the parallels with the henges of England with excavated ditches supplying chalk banks on which birds can perch. Spot the links between standing stones bridged by cross piece lintels (dolmens or geometrically equivalent but megalithic Stonehenge trilithons) making a bigger and better perch for birds (“bird table” in effect).  Then compare what Arav has to say regarding excarnation (via sky burial”) and what I have said in my most recent posting:
    Yup, I think it’s no exaggeration to state that Arav’s stone circles with central dolmen are the Rosetta Stone which point to excarnation being international common practice in the pre-Bronze Age – from England, to the Middle East to Korea!
    Excuse me while I pick up all the scales that have recently fallen from an ageing pair of eyes! When’s English Heritage going to stop introducing Stonehenge in its tourist guide as a “temple”, channelling thought and speculation  into scientifically-unproductive channels? Always look first for a utilitarian role first where Neolithic re-arranging of heavy stone is concerned – especially when megalithic...
Have just discovered that the Golan stone circles/dolmen were the subject of a Mail feature just 6 months ago.

One of the 10 comments to date accuses the writer of "gruesome, baseless speculation" presumably a reference to the brief (very brief!) mention of sky burial.
One suspects there's a lot more of that kind of sentiment out there. It's understandable I guess, but is a sad reflection all the same on the lack of scientific objectivity that exists out there...


Patty Hankins said...

The photograph of the seagull on the post against the orange sky is my copyrighted photograph. I do not have a record of licensing this photograph for use on this blog. Please contact me at to arrange for a license for this image

sciencebod said...

I have just spotted the above comment (it apparently having evaded the email notification of new comments). The offending image has been removed.