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