Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Shhhh. Stonehenge was simply a megalithic BIRD PERCH for SKY BURIAL of the dead.

Summary: This blogger’s hunch, indeed, growing conviction that Stonehenge, Avebury and other Neolithic sites were purpose-built for what is euphemistically called "sky burial" of the dead  (er, by scavenger birds)  has been met with a wall of silence (or nearly so).

Is it because of the manner in which the case has been presented – as a protracted series of multiple bite-size instalments over many postings, starting 4 years ago?  Has one painted oneself into a corner, through deploying a superfluity of words spread over too long a time?

My own speech bubble reads: "Standing stones were bird perches - for 'sky burial' of the dead."

Or is the answer much simpler: is  “sky burial” simply a taboo concept, especially when referred to by its more scientific or explicit synonyms – excarnation, defleshing, or as I prefer to call it, AFS (avian-facilitated skeletonization) ? And not just in the popular press, but the internet (blogosphere, wiki, Google and other search engines) too, and even by academia,  present day archaeologists especially, at least in their press reports? 

Nope, Maybe it was not I who did the painting  into the corner. Sky burial is strictly taboo, at least in the UK...  

(One, who shall not be named, recently began a  108 page pdf by explicitly ruling out "excarnation"  at a well-known stone circle then failing to make any further reference to it). The exact words were:"...  the practice of excarnation is no longer a tenable interpretation" .

But what AFS, aka sky burial, is the  explanation for ALL standing stones  circles and avenues in Britain and further afield (e.g. Carnac in Brittany, those concentric stone circles  in the Golan Heights*, the T-shaped "pillars" or as I would say "free-standing posts" (ideal bird perches) in SE Turkey etc etc?). 

Ought the idea not be at least flagged up and addressed fairly and squarely, instead of being consigned to occasional asides and footnotes, as if something  unspeakable that warrants scarcely a mention?

" notable for a mention of the taboo term in the headline, but trumpeted as "gruesome sky burial". 

1. Some 4 years ago, taking a break from a new but strenuous project involving the enigmatic' Turin Shroud, this blogger’s interest returned to an older longer-standing interest – the unsolved mysteries of Stonehenge, SilburyHill and Neolithic sites in general.

Without going into detail, there was a sudden falling of scales from eyes. “Sky burial” and possibly other more “barbaric” means of disposing of the dead were practised in Neolithic Britain, probably well into the Bronze Age. What’s more, the relics of those practices adorn (or in some cases litter) the countryside to this day, in the form of  Stonehenge, Avebury  and scores of smaller other circles of standing stones. Yet one would not know that from reading the tourist literature, media reports or even press releases from our leading archaeologists. While all make reference to standing stones as sites for what loosely is described as “burial” of “cremation” (being vague, often infuriatingly so, as to what  precisely, was being buried or cremated  

It is exceedingly rare to see an mention of “sky burial” or the more explicit terms , i.e. “excarnation”, far less “defleshing”. With scarcely a single exception,  the ‘mysterious’ stone circles, enclosed within equally "mysterious" “henges” ie. a combination of ditch and bank, either with the ditch on the inside (a genuine henge) or on the outside (a faux henge, as per Stonehenge), appear with no explanation whatsover except to say that the real henge configuration cannot play a defensive role. Yet I am the one repeatedly challengef to prove my case!  (Reminder: science is not algebra or geometry - a proposition is falsified, not proved).

But what if the standing stones were the signature of routine resort to that practice, namely that they served as perches for scavenging birds? 

There, I’ve said it, and if I’m not mistaken I’m the first to have said it, here and on my specialist Neolithic blogsite. And the response?  Largely zilch. It’s been presented formally on ancient-origins and Neolithic portal websites, attracting little more than yawns or minor quibbles (“  “) from other commentators (A-O's editors being a notable exception – a constant source of encouragement! Thanks to Liz especially!).  It’s been transmitted to leading lights in archaeology, usually eliciting no more than  a “hmmm,  interesting”, but no considered response. It’s been flagged up to contacts in the media, again, usually no response. I even contacted a news agency, which while not giving me an immediate  brush off has stalled,  asking for evidence to back my case, to which my reply has been “First, join up the dots, as I have, then look at received wisdom on standing stones, seen as little more than “ritualistic” decoration of the countryside, or at most a symbolic tribute to the dead, with few if any tangible human remains, bar some “cremated bones”.  Why not ask, nay demand, that the purveyors of received wisdom, peppering their prose with “ritualistic” provide evidence for that view, some might say cop-out,  and, more importantly, provide  grounds for excluding a utilitarian role for standing stones, especially as ‘outdoor furniture’ designed specifically to appeal to scavenging birds?

Wiki? Don’t ask. I’ve had previously run-ins with wiki “editors” over their insistence that claims have to be backed by published, peer review work, while merrily flagging up current affairs topics that appear in the popular press, relaying whatever ideas and assumptions accompany those articles, often from journalists etc with no special knowledge or even interest. Submit one’s own edit?  Talk about entering a lion’s den... That’s even assuming one is willing to announce oneself with the required  ~~~~ ( “4 tildes”).  Sorry, wiki, but you really need to work on de-nerdifying your site if you wish to attract more input from newcomers. Or is that the idea of  the ~~~~  (to repel them, to keep the editing a secret garden)?

As for search  engines, hoping they might help publicize one’s conclusions, at  least to those who key in “Stonehenge” without or without “new theory” etc, words fail me. One is far more likely to be given links to hotels within a 20 mile radius, or  be regaled with news of the forced relocation  of a polystyrene foam version in the US.

The suspicion is now hardening that there’s a deliberate attempt generally to suppress the “sky burial” angle, or as I would say, original insight, by media, academia, tourist boards, search engines, historical websites, private individuals.  It’s considered taboo. Enter (stonehenge sky burial )  into your search engine and look at the returns – probably me and one other – the erudite and articulate KenWest MBE, (whom I’ve previously acknowledged as a rare kindred spirit, eeeven if we we do not concur on all the details, notably my view that the seagull  - or as Ken prefers to call it, simply “gull” - is the most likely facilitator in our  breezy corner of Europe  with its maritime climate in which vultures are rare sightings).

SO what does one do? Where do we go from here? Has the blogosphere failed? Or is it my approach that is wrong?

Yes, it’s probably the latter. Why? Because I use the internet as a worksheet, a progress report, while working towards a solution in small incremental steps. Some say I leave my readers exhausted – or maybe just plain bored. Yes, I probably do if the truth be told. It took 4 years of research and over 300 postings to arrive at my white flour model of the Turin Shroud.  Glazed eyes across cyberspace?  Yup, probably. But what if it’s THE  solution, the hard -won truth? What if “sky burial”, aka excarnation aka defleshing, or, as I now prefer to call it, AFS (avian-facilitated skeletonization), correction, semi-skeletonization, followed by end-stage fuel-efficient cremation, is basically what Stonehnge etc WERE FOR?  What if that was considered the only realistic, reliable, year-round option in Neolithic times, one that could confidently allow for release of an otherwise bodily-entrapped soul?

First response, understandable, is to declare AFS to be a barbaric, and thus no part of our history, least of all heritage,  correction, visible monumental heritage.  Tut, tut. How can tourist  honeypots like Stonehenge continue to be  promoted  as lucrative operations on the back of mystery, precocious construction expertise etc if all along they were simply to expedite a "barbaric practice?

Maybe we need to re-evaluate and then, dare one make so bold, to  RE-EDUCATE.

The first step is to turn things on their head , to start with the proposition that AFS was standard practice - not just in Central Asia, the Middle East, continental Europe but Britain too, the principle being the same while precise technologies differed, and then ask ourselves, is it really barbaric? 

Is it the means of converting a body to a skeleton the problem ? Or is the thought that someone  - even a  member of a ‘closed order’ of funeral specialists - is seeing it happen at close quarters. Would our views on cremation be different if  contemporary crematorium personnel had to monitor it visually,e,g  via a heat-refractory quartz glass iwindow? 

What about organ transplant surgery, especially from the dead to the living?  That too might seem barbaric at first sight were it to be witnessed at first hand by someone with no forewarning as to what was about to happen. Does it become any more or any less barbaric once the purpose is explained, once the motives are seen to be beyond reproach, a trade-off between aesthetics and utility, ie. life-saving medical/surgical intervention?

I shall now do profiles in future postings on a number of Neolithic site sin Britain and further afield, focusing to start with on those  that have attracted the most media attention, with much touting and repetition of the word “mystery”, “ritual” etc,. I shall be   looking  in detail at the likely link in each instance with AFS, correction, AFSS/cremation.

Reminder: that's avian-facilitated semi-skeletonization, followed by end-stage cremation.

Will there be details I’ve overlooked, ones that are damning to the theory on the table (nope, I refuse to deploy hypothesis, given it’s the only substantive proposal thus far with an inherent practicality and logic, lacking only in aesthetic appeal and thus shunned by fainter hearts – or lack of intestinal fortitude)? If so, rely on this blogger to flag them up. Indeed I shall regard “negative evidence” as gold dust, that being the sine qua non of the scientific method – falsifying , or attempting genuinely to do so,  one’s own or others’ models of reality, whether called hypotheses or theories. 

That's not to overlook  the more positive approach, indeed obligation, which is to show one’s model has predictive utility.  Granted, that’s more by way a counsel of perfection where archaeology is concerned, where there’s been 4,500 years or more for evidence to be erased from the record by natural processes, whether by human agency or the common earthworm.

Here’s a prediction: suppose one were to model the cremation of whole body versus semi-skeletonized remains using Neolithic era technology (open wood fire). Suppose one finds differences in the appearance of the end result, e.g. the ratio of carbonized organic matter to mineral (calcium phosphate etc).  I predict that the cremated remains at Stonhenge etc will match  more closely those of the largely excarnated remains. They will be more completely mineralised, with less carbonized material, the carbon having had more exposure to higher temperatures and having burned off.

Sites will be examined in this carefully-chosen order. The last, an afterthought, has  I freely admit has been chosen to build a case that points to evolution and progressive refinement of the “sky burial” mode of corpse disposal (and perceived soul release), using timber posts, not stone.But then the standing stones at Stonehenge were preceded  chronologically by timber posts in a variety of locations and arrangements (hardly "architectural", hardly "ritualistic".

Sites with standing stones for special attention as purpose-built for taboo "sky burial" with notional bird perches in all instances.

A. Gobekli Tepe, Turkey
B. Golan Heights (Israeli-occupied Syria).
C. Carnac, Brittany
D. Ring of Brodgar, Orkney
E. Arbor Low, Derbyshire,UK
F.  Avebury, Wiltshire, UK
G. Stonehenge, Wiltshire,UK
X.  Not shown on map, surely the 'clincher': Seahenge, Norfolk, UK  (perfectly-preserved timber posts,in place of standing stones)

The first and last, will  appear here in a day or two on this posting, the others over the next few weeksas new postings.

Update: Thursday May 19th

I just tried to post the following as the primer comment to my own site (with an apologetic note re the remalfunctioning new widget -affecting other bloggers' sites too I see), only to be told on hitting Send that I had exceeeded a 4,096 character limit! Why was that not flagged up at the start?

Here it is again, unedited, here in the main posting, despite  being over-long already:

I shall prime my own Commnents (and attempt to kick-start that imported "Latest Comments" widget back into action)  by restating the gist of the current posting, in particualr the disappointing response thus far to my ideas re the 'universality' of sky burial in the Neolithic era. I shan't pull my punches:

No instant putdowns from any of the following to my proposal that Stonehenge and Avebury were excarnation sites (and Silbury Hill too, as an adjunct for ritual interment of the heart and/or other soft, non-bony tissue).


Ancient-Origins. No putdowns.
Neolithic Portal. No putdowns,  though some minor flak and quibbles.
(Stonehenge and Ice Age -  scarcely consulted, accepting its interests are peripheral to the purpose of Stonehenge)

 Leading archaeology academics:   ProfD, ProfG, ProfL, ProfP, (by email with summary and/or links to my postings). No putdowns. One expression of interest only.

No interest (indeed, no acknowledgement) from 2 major media outlets, both of whom invite suggestions online for “new stories”). Procrastination  and stone-walling from 1 especially proactive story-seeking news agency over lack of “evidence”.

“What evidence do you have of your theory? It's not to say that I don't believe it could be true, but for the national papers to be able to write about it, there has to be some official backing/evidence etc.”
Reply:  what is “official backing and evidence”. Since when has the world of ideas required that final seal of approval before being allowed to engage with the public domain, and who precisely has the final say?

Are we saying there’s no place for the amateur, gifted or otherwise? What about retired science professionals, not just with an extensive bibliography of their own peer-reviewed work, but years and years of unpaid hours spent refereeing the papers that others submit to peer-review? Are they deemed to be amateurs as well? Is this how our liberal arts-dominated media treats the scientific community – with ill-concealed indifference bordering on contempt, failing to comprehend the constant exercise by science and other professionals of  patient enquiry, self-restraint and indeed occasional self-censorship?

Yet the media routinely give archaeology academics, operating at the interface of the liberal arts and science,  free rein to articulate airy-fairy ideas that are invariably site-specific, based on fragmentary evidence, with no wider applicability. Contrast that with my unifying idea, dare one say paradigm,  that the diverse architecture at numerous different sites  from Seahenge in Norfolk through Avebury and Stonehenge to sites as far away as the Orkneys, Brittany, Turkey and the Golan Heights was designed specifically, i.e. purpose-built  for excarnation, specifically to attract and retain scavenging birds, that preliminary excarnation  was the accepted norm over much of the Neoithic/Bronze Age world. But that simplifying overview now needs I am told to win “official” backing or evidence, whatever that is.  Yeah, right... Is there a form that one can fill out and send to a particular address?  Central or East London postcode? Group Think House?

Google quickly filters out i.e. censors my postings from main category non-narrowed down search – most recently within 30 mins of its crawler/algorithm allowing this latest one to be listed under search term (Stonehenge)  Past Hour only, (then failing to appear under Past 24hrs, Past Week etc. That’s despite my postings being the only new thinking to appear on the web that day, that week, etc etc. That kind of negates the whole point of publishing a blog to the internet, as my sitemeter demonstrates all too clearly.

Wiki: I gave up on wiki a long time ago. It has pretensions to being a free  encyclopaedia of strictly peer-reviewed knowledge, while freely under its Byzantine “Talk” and “Edit” acting as judge and jury over embryonic new thinking that has not yet reached the stage of formalised investigation and peer review. (In any case, the detailed findings of most peer-reviewed publications exist behind a pay wall, with, one suspects, most of the cited papers being unread, merely flagged-up, leaving the internet the vital default medium for getting new ideas into the public domain, but which wiki then attempts, Google-like, to filter and block.)

Generalization: where the internet is concerned, all new ideas that don’t come out of California are deemed potentially dangerous ideas, to be suppressed until such a time as they are deemed to be safe for public consumption, read smug, self-satisfied, globally- outreaching corporatist profit-repatriating e-commerce.

As the nameless wit once observed: "All generalizations are dangerous (including this one)."

12:35: First, here's some light relief. This item has just appeared in the London Evening Standard (free newspaper, help yourself at tube stations!):

London Evening Standard, May 19, 2016

Link to article:

This blogger managed to get in with the first comment!

Have discovered I missed two responses to my Big Idea re Stonehenge etc on the Neolithic Portal site (having failed to spot  the somewhat inconspicuous tab at bottom that showed the comments ran over onto a second page). I'll copy my hastily-penned holding response to my own Comments thread here, by way of 'maintaining the archive'. Again, it's uncomplimentary to Google Search (creepy controlling Californians).

Update Friday 20 May late afternoon

Have just had a very useful and friendly exchange of emails with UCL's  PhD student, Barney Harris,  organizer of next week's lifting project in Gordon Square, London. He has given permission for me to reproduce it here.

                                                 Subject:  Gordon Square project

Hello Barney

So how did things go yesterday? Successful or not?

Did you see my comment (only 1 so far) on the Evening Standard?

(Link to Standard) 

So what do you reckon on the feasibility of enclosing the monolith first in netting, then attaching multiple handholds of different lengths? Might that not be a space-efficient means of mustering 40  (or more) lifter/transporters per tonne of stone?

Kind regards

Colin Berry


Hi Colin,

The experiment is this coming Monday. I think there'll be some more reporting on it so keep your eyes peeled to hear how it went.

I did see you comment -  interesting - and yes, nothing to prevent this technique being used for small loads in Neolithic Britain. In fact, a similar approach has been used in recent times to lift and shift large stones in Mexico (see image).

(B/W image from  Mexico, 1955 shows use of long timber poles, bridging many shoulders  (some two dozen men at least) lined up both sides of a 1.5 tonne block, the latter slung in some kind of netting it would appear, being used to support and transport it.)

This image is from the paper listed below. If you're interested you should take a read of it - still very relevant many years on.

Heizer, R.F. 1966. Ancient Heavy Transport, Methods and Achievements Science 153. New Series: 821–30.

Sadly what's lacking is not the devising of new ways to move and lift stones but archaeological evidence that confirms one method over another.

All the best, 

Thanks Barney

Apols for not reading the Standard article more closely. I may look by on Gordon Square on Monday, camera at the ready.

Yup, I  should have guessed that the netting idea had been deployed previously. I have to say it sounds more like appropriate Neolithic technology than some of the other ideas one encounters (ballbearings in grooves etc). Thanks for the handy link.

Is it OK if I copy your reply to my blogsite, and maybe to Brian John's as well (I tipped him off yesterday re your project, and said I'd emailed, so it would be nice to be able to say you'd responded)?

I'd have thought the chances of finding archaeological evidence to support one or other mode of transport of bluestone from Wales, or sarsens from closer to hand, were pretty remote.  But I personally am warming to low tech human lift-and-carry transport of igneous rock from Wales, having a rationale for that particular rock in the context of my excarnation scenario (igneous rock easier to keep clean) so like the idea of selectivity (choosing the nearest igneous rock, even if west Wales, not counting  glitzy Dartmoor granite - not to everyone's taste).  Brian J's glacial transport ideas appealed initially, but I'm seeing too many flaws, like why isn't Salisbury Plain littered with a much greater diversity of Welsh stone....?

Kind regards



Here's a graphic that neatly sums up the response thus far to my new  tell-it-the-way-it-is "model", the one in which AFS (avian-facilitated skeletonization) plays a key unifying role across any number of Neolithic and Bronze Age sites:

See no excarnation, hear no excarnation, speak no excarnation...

Progress report: Sat May 21

Am going great guns with the Big One, scheduled for this coming Monday. It will propose a unifying narrative for 10 different iconic Neolithic/Bronze age sites,
namely that they were all designed and equipped for AFS ("sky burial"), with end-stage cremation a likely postscript, at least for inland sites. Yup, a graphic  (left) has been prepared, which will needless to say appear full size on the next posting. I shall send one final round robin to the dozen or so folk  on my contact list, alerting them to my Go For Broke thesis, one that's been 4 years in the making.


sciencebod said...

Note: the sizeable deposits of cremated bones found at Stonehenge are easily accommodated within my unifying narrative, namely that the site was purpose-built for sky burial,i.e. avian-facilitated skeletonization, bearing in mind that the latter is bound to be messy and incomplete.

What we're discussing is a two-step process: less than complete excarnation followed by end-stage cremation ("purification") of those still insalubrious mortal remains. It sure ain't rocket science! Nor is it after-dinner conversation. It's just history - ours and other folks' too, going back 5000 years and more before there were funeral directors a phone call away.

What is the supposed purpose of cremation in other possible scenarios? Why go to all the trouble of constructing an 'engineering marvel' if it's simply incidental to a Neolithic crematorium - requiring only an open pyre with lots of firewood?

I say the burden of proof now rests with those sceptics who dispute a central role for excarnation at Seahenge, Stonehenge, Avebury, Arbor Low, Ring of Brodgar and adjoining sites, Carnac, Rujm el-Hiri (Golan Heights), Gobekli Tepe(Turkey) etc etc. But there's a problem: none have yet come forward ... Should that not by rights make mine the default hypothesis, the "only game in town" or as I would say, reasonable, commonsensical assumption?

Why is the bar being set higher for this retired academic, and lower for non-retired ones? Many (mercifully not all) never hesitate to convey their airy fairy interpretations to the media, all dutifully reported (I shall eschew ridicule by citing specific examples). But they have failed to construct any kind of case for why Stonehnege was built with those iconic high lintels, which I say were purpose-built bird perches, safe sanctuaries from ground-based predators, real or avian-perceived.

By all means find fault with the detail, e.g. that the most welcome visitor was the gull (probably) rather than less fussy carrion eaters like crows and ravens, the latter arguably indifferent to rank taste or odour. Voracious gulls offered reasonably fresh 'flesh' need little encouraging to converge in vast numbers, wasting no time in going straight to work, probably making an equally good if not more effective substitute for the Continental vulture.

sciencebod said...

Comment posted to Neolithic Portal site an hour or so ago, in reply to site ownwner Andy Burnham:

Sorry. I've only just spotted the second page of comments (yours and Energyman's).

Link to the site:


I'd have responded to the main points raised had I spotted them sooner.

I'm presently about to tack summaries onto my current sciencebuzz posting on why - for starters- I thiink at least 7 of the most iconic Neolithic/Bronze Age sites from Ring of Brodgar, Orkney to the Golan Heights were ALL, without exception, custom-built with avian-facilitated skeletonization aka sky burial in mind (which is not to say that other boxes were not also being ticked, notably solstice alignment, though that may have been initially to 'light up' causewayed henges at the crack of dawn to ensure a prompt start to the business of the day).

The Ring of Brodgar (quasi-henge with ditch, no bank) may have also had a second purpose - as quarry for building stone in handy small prised-up slabs, used for constructing the nearby settlements, as suggested earlier.

"Seahenge", probably the biggest most neglected clue to the chief purpose of the more permanent structures, is almost complete, and will appear later today.

The second big clue is the jumble of cremated bones at Stonehenge and elsewhere from dozens of individuals- easily explained if the final clean-up stage post-AFS.

Why bother to build an engineering marvel at Stonehenge with massive lintels if simply a Garden of Memorial for a crematorium? But lintels make sense as bird perches, at least to those of us for whom excarnation is not a taboo term or concept:

(Link to this site)

Comments welcome on my site, especially as Google is still up to its tricks, trying to filter out what it considers unseemly... Yup, one can be fairly certain it's not just FB who employ those "curators").