Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Might Stonehenge have been designed as an easily-spottable feeding station for high-flying seagulls – as perhaps was the nearby “Cursus”?

Birds find the crosspiece lintels of Stonehenge an attractive place to perch.

  It's this blogger's contention that the predilection of birds generally to congregate in large numbers on those lintels was no accident. I maintain that was precisely the intention of its builders some 4,500 years ago (with maybe earlier prototypes with timber posts instead of standing stones). But it probably wasn't starlings or pigeons that were welcome, but more aggressively voracious species (seagulls especially), driving off unwanted competition.

That's because Stonehenge was not built solely as a monument, a self-indulgent folly to dominate the chalk uplands of Wiltshire. It had an important and necessary role to play in Neolithic society in disposal of the dead, at a time when burial was not an easy option (chalk subsoil, no metal picks or spades) and cremation was arguably considered hugely wasteful of scarce timber. More on those details later,

But the idea for Stonehenge in all its glory did not come clean out of the blue. There had been a nearby prototype that I suspect was also attracting birds from afar, despite having no standing stones, merely an elevated bank of chalk, looping back on itself,  next to a shallow ditch from which the chalk had been excavated.

Here's one of those (I suspect) magnificent Judith Dobie reconstructions, discovered from searching internet image files, where one picture is worth a thousand words.

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 That's the nearby site, just half a mile to the north. It's called the  Stonehenge Cursus.(Let's skip for now the reasons why it acquired that Latin name - which was ill-chosen as it happens).

 I've been a bit naughty, and ringed the birds in yellow, they playing such a key role in this narrative, one that has been steadily evolving in ever-greater detail but hopefully SIMPLICITY in the past dozen or so postings, starting 2012.

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The downward pointing red arrow shows the location and size of the Cursus. It's the faint wand-shaped dotted line, running approx west to east. The lower arrow points up to the blue-hatched  area which is Stonehenge. The only reason for showing this is to get across the important point that they are next-door neighbours, something visitors to Stonehenge might not appreciate. Why not?

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Well, here's an aerial view of the Cursus, and one has to look hard to distinguish it from the surrounding farmland. The picture on the right shows its approximate extent. It's long - longer than it may seem in the photo, i.e. 1.7 miles. It would take most folk at least a half hour to walk from one end to the other at a brisk pace,

Why would anyone choose to create such a peculiar feature in the countryside, requiring the shifting of great amounts of chalk, with nothing but antler picks (see the previous artwork)?

By all means consult wiki, the generic entry "Cursus" especially (some 50 or more of which are known!)  but I'm not wasting time, reviewing what I consider to be largely empty speculation, with no attempt to muster secondary supporting evidence.The question as to the real purpose of that gigantic Cursus is one that is wide open to all-comers, so I shall now proceed to make my pitch. It's a natural organic development of the preceding model that has taken in Silbury Hill as well as Stonehenge, the reasons for including Welsh-origin bluestones and much else besides.

It's to do with attracting birds, especially meat-eating scavenging birds. Probably the first that come to mind where both modern and Neolithic southern England are concerned would be rooks, crows, ravens etc, But I'm becoming steadily more enamoured of the idea that the favoured species may have been the gull, aka seagull (whether sea-based or inland), given its voracious appetite and unfussy diet preferences. Let's suppose that 4,500 years ago, inland gulls were a bit of a rarity, that they only penetrated inland if there was a reasonable prospect of finding plenty to eat. How far would they need to come?

The closest sea is Southampton Water (along  which this blogger and wife sailed In the stately and majestic passenger liner "France" in 1972 on our return from 2 years in the States). That's the green line on the map, a distance of approx 30 miles or so as the crow (or seagull) flies.

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They might also come from the Bristol Channel (red line)  but that flight is somewhat longer than the southerly approach. The latter is "easier" to navigate from the air too, being wild-life friendly waterways (Rivers Test, Dun, Hampshire Avon etc ) most of the way and going to within a mile or two of Stonehenge and the Cursus.

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Now here's a Google satellite map of Stonehenge  (red marker) and the Cursus, just visible to the north like a very narrow race track. Our first 'tourist' seagull would see nothing to catch its eye.

 But now consider how it might look (in plan view for starters) after excavating a ditch in the chalk and piling up the chalk one the outer sides to make a bank.

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 That's highly conspicuous as shown in plan view, if not quite what our peripatetic gull would see, exploring the upper reaches of the Avon in search of food, due to the foreshortening effect.  However, at some point on its journey it would see a  highly conspicuous twin track scar across the distant line of the Wessex Downs against the sky, probably from afar (5 miles? 10miles?) Double white lines stand out well from their surroundings, especially when arrow-straight and pure white.

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I've used some 3D-rendering software(Image J)  to get an oblique "birds-eye-view of the Cursus, Ignore the exaggerated 3D!

The proposition here is that the Cursus was deliberately designed to attract attention from on high (either from the heavens, the destination of souls destined for "sky burial", or more mundanely, passing birds, gulls especially. Yes, we are talking here about "excarnation"  aka defleshing, which gets scarcely a mention on mass-media reporting of Neolithic sites, though the Birmingam/Vienna "Secret Landscape "  magnetometer-scanning project briefly alluded to in connection with the so-called"House of the Dead" on the edge of the Woodhenge site. (See posting immediately preceding this one, in which I dispute its identification as a house, while concurring - enthusiastically!- with the archaeologists that it was indeed an excarnation site, albeit open air - no roof- designed to attract scavenging birds).

The major search engine has suddenly ceased listing my current blog postings, for reasons that can be deduced from reading the previous posting. For that reason, I shan't delay in posting this one, incomplete though it is. A blog is after all a "web log", a diary, a 'work in progess'.   If  that's just one of the reasons why the search engine downgrades it, giving precedence to slick material posted for commercial gain - or preliminary angling/softening up of an e-commerce sales prospect - then it's time to stop relying on the search engine as a channel of communication, and rely more on direct contact. I shall flag up this new posting on a round-robin email, with just a handful of key recipients for starters.

So what will come next? Answer: lichens. The lichens on Stonehenge might, just might, help to support a role for seabirds, gulls especially, as agents of inland excarnation. Each individual item of evidence may be negligible in itself, but  becomes noteworthy if slotting into a coherent narrative, as I believe excarnation has become - essentially a common denominator- with explanations for Silbury Hill, Welsh igneous bluestones etc (see previous  postings on this and my specialist Neolithic site),

Apols. My newly installed widget for "Latest Comments"  has failed. Shame. Can't understand why Google (who own Blogger) don't provide it as standard, thus requiring one to seek third-party assistance .I guess Google is too busy turning its search engine into a glorified trade directory, to say nothing of gathering personal data on us all, to be bothered with such things.

 Late addition: those lichens (as promised).

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Time now to introduce some curious details re the liches at Stonehenge. I quote from the tourist guide to English Heritage:

“ A lichen survey at Stonehenge in 2003 found that there were 77 different species growing on the stones, several of which are nationally rare or scarce. Although it is hard to date lichens , as new growth is constantly replacing old, it will have taken hundreds of years for this range of species to become established on the stones. The lichen types at Stonehenge are broadly similar to those at the nearby stone circle at Avebury, but with some interesting exceptions.
 Buellia saxorum, a type of lichen that specializes in colonizing sarsen stones and which is widespread at Avebury, is totally absent from Stonehenge for no apparent reason.  Equally surprising, many of the lichen species found at Stonehenge usually grow only on exposed coastlines. It is possible that the prevailing winds at Stonehenge, blowing in from the Atlantic, may have encouraged those species to grow, but again, specialists have not been able to find a convincing explanation, so not all the mysteries of Stonehenge are archaeological.”

Yes, English Heritage, the prevailing wind explanation might explain Stonehenge’s curiously salt-tolerant lichens, but if  that’s the case, why are they not present at Avebury, a mere 25 miles or so north as the crow (or seagull) flies?

Might it be that the two sites attracted (or were designed to attract) different types of bird visitor, and that one brought more salt with it than the other. Like gulls, those highly adaptable gulls that seem so adept at comining or switching between different lifestyles, depending on where the food supplies are most abundant at any particular time.

Now there's something exceptional about gulls and some other species:

Briefly, gulls are able to drink salt as well as fresh water. Reason: they have special salt-excreting glands above the eyes. They excrete the excess salt from those glands which runs down to beak in liquid drops or trickles, which they then shake off. (See images below, added as an afterthought).

So, the seagulls brought seaside lichen on their bodies, deposited some on the stones. those lichens were not only salt-tolerant, but accustomed to salt, indeed thrived on ot, and regular visits by gulls, whether "seagulls" or inland dwellers kep that particular type of lcihen alive.

So the working hypothesis is that Stonehenge, seeded so to speak with  salt-tolerant lichens and regular supples of salt, continued to attract sea birds from some 30 miles away, as did its nearby predecessor, the Cursus. After a while, some may have made the excarnations sites of Wiltshire their regular home.

 Maybe the Cursus and the subsequent Stonehenge were each in their separate ways designed to attract gulls. Why might that be?

Gulls are not only, highly adaptable, but voracious feeders.  Anyone seeing them congregating at they used to at landfill sites prior to domestic recycling bins would be aware of that. They are also opportunist predatory carnivores, attacking live animals like pigeons, even surfacing whales we are told. Might Neolithic man have found a use for this proclivity on the part of gulls, and less aggressive, less voracious species prepared to join in, like crows, ravens, rooks etc. 

Answer, yes, in helping to solve the problem of how to dispose of the dead when living on chalk upland with thin soils overlying chalk.

Burial was difficult with nothing but deer antlers to break up the chalk.

Cremation (of entire body) requires great amounts of dry timber, supplies of which were limited.

Why not let nature help? Enter sky burial, the reliance on scavenging birds to excarnate, i.e. deflesh a body. It may take days or even weeks, but the end result can be cremated with far less timber to produce a small take-away package, and the bereaved relatives can console themselves with the thought that while they have a memento of the physical person, the soul, initially captive within the mortal frame, has  been released to the skies, and indeed heavens.

So here’s the hypothesis is a semi-complete form:

Early Neolithic man, maybe his predecessors too, acquired the art, or should that be science, of sky burial. It required exposing the dead to the elements initially, but that was an uncertain process. Gradually the knack was acquired to attract scavenger birds in sizeable numbers that could effect a reasonably efficient job of defleshing. But attracting birds, and encouraging them to hang around, awaiting the next meal, and the next, was not something that could be left to chance, not whennewly-deceased are arriving daily.

The Cursus solution: one can see the birds, gulls especially, wheeling in the sky to the south, the direction of the sea. Create a prominent straight line gouge, correction, double gouge in the gleaming white chalk roughly east-west across the Downs. Lay the bodies out between the two easily-spotted horizontal tracks. One might even strip away the turf between the two tracks so as to lay the corpses on bare chalk where they are better seen. To begin with, feathered visitors have to be content with perching on the tops of the surrounding chalk bank, but that  was in time seen as something that needed improving upon.  To make a permanent or semi-permanent home at an excarnation site ,birds probably preferred something higher where they had a better view and were less at risk from ground-predators like wolves, foxes etc. Those arrow heads in the wiki entry for Cursus btw may well have belonged to a Neolithic marksman on “fox patrol” or similar, protecting the birds from predators, or indeed the corpses from non-bird scavengers that might be tempted to steal from the site, compromising the principle of SKY burial. Forget archery contests.

The chalk strip with its banks and ditches was Phase 1. The next logical development was to provide better bird perches. Enter the period of (a) timber poles and (b) standing stones, all designed to attract and retain a ‘working population’ of excarnating birds, content to stay put, uninclined to return to their native habitat while there was guaranteed food available on a 24/7 basis.

In short, a narrow chalk ridge oval with heaped up sides was the forerunner of timber and stone circles. The guests were made to feel welcome at  both, but felt more comfortable and secure at the latter, especially as it resembled their natural environment of a rocky shoreline with lots of elevated but flat surfaces for perching. Excarnation Citadel reached its highest point of development at Stonehenge with those trilithons and their massive lintels, starting from humble beginnings less than a mile or so away.

Just spotted:

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 Link to Guardian story re aggressive seagulls attacking and injuring people

More afterthoughts April 28 (this being a webLOG,  I'm allowed to have afterthoughts).

Yup, this is how a gull gets rid of surplus salt if/when it's been imbibing seawater. The salt from those special glands in the head enters special ducts and finally drips off the end of its beak onto the nearest surface - like a Stonehenge standing stone. Result: a localized hotspot of lichen that one would not expect to find 30 miles inland, but on coastal rocks that are exposed to sea spray.

From the Guardian, 14 May 2003  (my bolding):

"Scientists are puzzling over a fine crop of lichens, normally found only at the seaside, flourishing in the middle of Salisbury Plain on the ancient stones of Stonehenge.
There has been excited speculation that their discovery could establish the much debated origins of the stones: the oldest lichens, in the Antarctic, are believed to be up to 10,000 years old, so it is at least theoretically possible that lichens could have survived since the stone circle was built 4,500 years ago. But they suspect a more prosaic explanation. 

"There was some speculation about the stones once being washed in salt water, but these lichens have been found inland before, on church towers on the Isle of Wight and other high places inland, and my feeling that the explanation is that there is just enough salt in the wind at Stonehenge  to sustain them," Peter James, internationally recognised as an expert on lichens, said yesterday.

"Basically they're as tough as old boots, they can survive in the most extraordinary conditions." 

The work will not damage the stones, and none of them will be moved. Most of the survey is through a minutely detailed examination, using magnifying glasses, of the rock surface, and tiny samples are being removed with scalpels. Mr James, who is a retired deputy keeper at the Natural History Museum, surveyed the Stonehenge lichens in the 1970s and 1990s. This week he has returned as a member of an expert team which is mounting the most comprehensive survey of the stones to date. 

The team has already discovered seven nationally rare, and two very rare species: its list of species is 79 and rising as the examination continues.
Mr James said all the species he had previously noted were still flourishing, but the team was adding many more."


Appendix 1 (verbatim) from 'The Modern Antiquarian'

The Stonehenge Cursus


'Cursus' is older than Stonehenge

Archeologists have come a step closer to solving the 285-year-old riddle of an ancient monument thought to be a precursor to Stonehenge.

A team led by University of Manchester archaeologist Professor Julian Thomas has dated the Greater Stonehenge Cursus at about 3,500 years BC - 500 years older than the circle itself.

They were able to pinpoint its age after discovering an antler pick used to dig the Cursus – the most significant find since it was discovered in 1723 by antiquarian William Stukeley.

When the pick was carbon dated the results pointed to an age which was much older than previously thought - between 3600 and 3300 BC – and has caused a sensation among archeologists.

The dig took place last summer in a collaborative project run by five British universities and funded by the Arts and Histories Research Council and the National Geographic Society.

Professor Thomas said: "The Stonehenge Cursus is a 100 metre wide mile long area which runs about 500 metres north of Stonehenge.

"We don't know what it was used for – but we do know it encloses a pathway which has been made inaccessible.

"And that suggests it was either a sanctified area or for some reason was cursed."

Professor Thomas believes that the Cursus was part of complex of monuments, within which Stonehenge was later constructed.

Other elements include the 'Lesser Stonehenge Cursus' and a series of long barrows - all built within a mile of Henge.

He added: "Our colleagues led by a team from Sheffield University have also dated some of the cremated human remains from Stonehenge itself.

"That's caused another sensational discovery and proves that burial cremation had been taking place at Stonehenge as early as 2900 BC – soon after the monument was first built.

"But what is still so intriguing about the Cursus is that it's about 500 years older than Henge – that strongly suggests there was a link and was very possibly a precursor.

"We hope more discoveries lie in store when we work on the Eastern end of the Cursus this summer.

"It will be a big step forward in our understanding of this enigmatic monument."

The above piece from the Modern Antiquarian was posted by 'baza', 12th June 2008. Note the suggestion that the Cursus could have been a "precursor" for Stonehenge. Snap.

Further reading: from Prof. Mike Parker-Pearson.
Key quotes to follow later (tomorrow):

Thursday April 28: here as promised: 

 Five key quotations from the above  document (my bolding):

                            The results of his latest investigation(2013) reveal that:

1. The first stones at Stonehenge were put up 500 years earlier than previously thought at around 3000 BC. The monument we see today was not the original Stonehenge.

2. There were two Stonehenges. The original Stonehenge was a large circular structure built 500 years before the Stonehenge we know today (the original was built 5000 years ago; the Stonehenge we now know was built 4500 years ago). (ed. this would be a reference to the area of Stonhenge circumscribed by the Aubrey postholes, not to the Cursus)

3. The research team believes that the first Stonehenge was originally a graveyard for a community of elite families, whose remains were brought to Stonehenge and buried over a period of 200 years. The remains of many of the cremated bodies were originally marked by the bluestones of Stonehenge, meaning that the monument began its life as a huge graveyard.

4. Stonehenge, the most important monument in Britain, attracted and unified people from all over the country soon after the emergence of the first true pan-British culture, in Parker Pearson’s view.

5. What we haven’t known until now, is why Stonehenge was built in the middle of Salisbury Plain. Professor Parker Pearson believes that the site was chosen because of a pair of naturally-occurring parallel ridges in the landscape – the result of Ice Age meltwater - which coincidentally point directly at the Mid-Winter Sunset in one direction and the Mid-Summer sunrise in the other. To our ancestors, this must have seemed an uncanny and auspicious sign – and we now know that they chose to build their cemetery at the end of them.

 Appendix 2: have just come upon this artist's reconstruction - posted to the Modern Antiquarian website -  of the Stonehenge Cursus produced for the National Trust. It appears to be someone's photograph from an outdoor display board, probably at the site carpark itself, which I've cropped and brightened up:

Hmmm. No lack of imagination there. Shame though about the absence of birdlife... ;-)

Appendix 4:  April 29 2016
So far we've been dealing with a fairly linear scar in the Wiltshire chalk that renders the Cursus visible from afar, at least from the perspective of a bird on the wing, coming up from the south. How would that principle apply if that same bird were to continue flying north for some 25 or so miles, approaching the Avebury stone circle (the largest in Europe)?

Reminder: the Avebury circle of standing stones is enclosed within a henge, i.e. a ditch with the excavated soil having been used to make a bank on the outside. See this handy artist's impression:

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Note that the configuration is the opposite from that expected if the henge had been constructed as a defensive structure, which to impede intruders would have been ditch first, then bank! ( I have the incomparable |Ken West to thank for that observation, to say nothing of his point that "henges", i.e. contiguous bank and ditch, were a uniquely British "invention").

Now let's see how that would look from a bird's eye view, using a combination of Google Earth in its 3D oblique angle view  and MS Paint to create an impression of newly excavated gleaming white chalk:

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(Yup, if you look hard enough, there's even a hint of the four causeways, breaking up what would otherwise be a continuous circle).

Answer: highly conspicuous, even against surrounding  modern scenery with roads, ploughed fields  and settlements.That's Silbury Hill by the way, sitting down at the base of a gentle fold in the Downs, also with some exposed chalk around its periphery.

Note the way the far side of the Avebury henge would probably look slightly wider than the near side, on account of seeing both bank sloping wall and wall of the chalk cut- edge beneath. The asymmetry serves to give some unusual perspective, given one might have expected the nearside to have looked the bolder of the two if judging purely from a distance perspective.

I say that henge was constructed deliberately with the intention of attracting birds to the standing stones.

But not just any old foraging bird. Oh no. A particular species of bird, arguably the closest we have to the vulture. A bird that is at home on the chalky white cliffs of the south-eastern coast of England, one that can be lured 30 miles inland by a glimpse on the horizon of some token man-made cliffs,  fashioned from excavated white Wessex Downland chalk.

Appendix 3:

I shall be rounding of this posting later in the day with some quotes from what  I consider the most seminal paper of them all, Ken West's in the Good Funeral Guide. entitled: Stonehenge: Sky Burial. 

It's one I'd had a subliminal glimpse of some weeks ago while researching a different site (Silbury)  with no interred bones, cremated or otherwise (shhh. don't mention internal organs) and had made a mental note - re-read in detail ASAP.  But I then went and mislaid the link, spending literally weeks searching for it, but could only find Ken's sky burial pdf, almost as good but with crucially less detail on key points. Anyway, it finally turned up again yesterday in a Google search under (stonehenge, sky burial) and is just as good, better even, than I had recalled.

Quotes to follow.


sciencebod said...

Just testing to see if I can re-activate the imported "Latest Comments" widget - by posting a new comment. Will it kick-start it back into action? If not, it will have to go. Pity, and not a little embarassing too, as I had recommended it to Brian John on his Stonehenge/Ice Age site in a premature fit of glee at having found a way round Google's unfathomable failure to provide that widget as standard.

sciencebod said...

The "Latest Comments" widget is working again. What happened was hopefully just a brief hiccup - though it prevented the rest of the margin content from appearing, so will have to be watched closely, and uninstalled if continuing to malfunction.

Here's a comment I've just placed on my 'completed' Shroud of Turin site.

Let's see if it appears under the new widget, which is still under evaluation.

Colin Berry says:
April 29, 2016 at 8:52 pm (Edit)

PS: the henges, as in StoneHENGE and Avebury HENGE – which is an encircling bank/ditch cut into the chalk – a uniquely “British” landscape feature – have been the subject of much speculation as to their purpose. The bank and ditch are in the wrong configuration to be defensive.

I say they were a ploy to attract scavenging birds, probably seagulls from the southern chalk coastline, which could be lured inland by a man-made look-alike cliff face, visible from afar to birds on the wing, albeit a few metres high.

Britain lacks vultures, so voracious seagulls were chosen and coaxed in as the next best thing…

“Might Stonehenge have been designed as an easily-spottable feeding station for high-flying seagulls – as perhaps was the nearby “Cursus”? ”

Shroud of Turin? My task is done. But when time permits I shall go through postings and add a summary, stating how it contributed (or not) to the final conclusion, namely that the TS negative image is a baked-on flour imprint from a real medieval man or bas relief onto wet linen (or something similar in principle).