Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The true purpose of Stonehenge was avian-facilitated skeletonization, aka "sky burial" (which we don't hear from either English Heritage or the UK’s squeamish media).

Stonehenge, Avebury Henge and their stone circles, indeed henges and standing stones generally,  were ALL places designed to attract and retain scavenger birds – the kind that could efficiently skeletonize* the newly dead.

Stonehenge and visitors

The following landscape and monumental features can ALL be seen to have served a common utilitarian purpose unrelated to religious ritual, pagan worship etc – providing the scavenger birds (crows, gulls etc) an elevated place on which they could perch and feed, ensuring they felt secure, safe from predators:

1. Raised banks of the initial henges
2. The standing stones (which many consider were preceded by makeshift timber circles)
3. The crosspieces of dolmens
4. The lintel crosspieces of the massive Stonehenge trilithons.

Yes, put baldly, they all functioned, initially at any rate, as bird perches (single standing stones) or bird tables (trilithons with cross-piece lintels).The dead were probably laid out on the ground in the central area, probably screened-off  (see below) for skeletonization. Alignment of stones with summer and winter solstices? Some think with good cause it was just an accident of geomorphology (more later).

*I prefer the word “skeletonize” to “excarnate”, and especially to “deflesh”. It focuses on the desired outcome, as distinct from the means by which it was achieved. “Skeletonization”  will hopefully give the role attributed here to Stonehenge etc. a better reception in the media than the one seen thus far,  with bandying around of unhelpful adjectives like “grisly”, “gruesome”, “bizarre” etc.

Skeletonization via scavenger birds was simply the Neolithic equivalent of present day cremation. One does not dwell on the details as to how burial or cremation converts flesh and bone to bone only, so why do it for avian-facilitated skeletonization in the low-tech Neolithic era 4,500 years ago when there were no metal tools for digging graves, or lopping branches off trees for firewood?

Skeletonizing of the dead continues to this day, for a variety of legitimate purposes - scientific, educational, forensic etc etc, as the cropped image from the above commercial site shows.

Is it because it’s imagined  (mistakenly) that “sky burial”  (avian-assisted skeletonization) exposes the dead to public view for the duration of excarnation? Why suppose that, given that Stonehenge and Avebury were both enclosed in  (interrupted) circular chalk banks, surviving to this day, laboriously excavated from the adjacent ditch, the henge serving to screen off the central working-area of the site to all but specialist operatives (“mortuary attendants”)?

This will do for starters. At leisure, starting tomorrow (May 4) I shall be adding illustrations showing the supposed developmental stages of Stonehenge which strongly support its role in the first instance as a 'centre for skeletonization' of the newly-deceased. Many will be taken from the splendid site whose Home Page you see immediately below:

Chris Collyer's splendid site.

Second instalment Thur May 5:

Apols for the fuzzy captions. The graphic on the left is an artist's impression of the forerunner of a standing circle (Avebury in this instance)  namely the henge, i.e. a ditch and bank of excavated chalk. Purpose? We're not told, but it can hardly be defensive when the bank is on the outside, not inside. The schematic on the right is a bird's eye view of the corresponding henge installed 25 miles to the south on Salisbury Plain, the one we call "Stonehenge" oddly enough, where in this instance the major bank is inside the ditch. Aubrey pits aka holes? They will be addressed shortly. First let's take a look at a site in the Golan Heights that gives a clue as to the REAL purpose of the Neolithic henge, regardless of relative placement of ditch and bank.

Rujm el-Hiri in the Israeli-occupied portion of the Golan Heights.

Not for nothing has what you see above been called the "Stonehenge of the Levant" (see wiki entry) albeit with less-well established aligment with the solstices, that it was a place of worship, a burial place for the dead, surrounded by hundreds of dolmens (a mirror of Stonehenge's round barrows?) etc etc.  Sound familiar:  no end of speculation, but all somewhat vague and half-hearted, with little or nothing by way of sustained argument. 

It's the concrete views of US-based archaeologist  Dr.Rami Arav, a kindred spirit, expressed in Popular Archaeology back in 2011  that are one's that need to be flagged up (my bolding):

In an article published in the November/December, 2011 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Dr. Rami Arav, long-time co-director of the Bethsaida excavations northeast of the coast of the Sea of Galilee and Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, has proposed that the site was built for both funerary purposes and as a means for "excarnation", the removal of flesh from the bones of the deceased for placement in ossuaries, or bone boxes, by the ancient Chalcolithic inhabitants of the area.  He begins his argument with a description of these small clay ossuaries discovered in the hundreds at various archaeological sites dated to Chalcolithic times.  Unlike the mortuary practices of the Jews in the Jerusalem area during the First Century B.C and First Century A.D., when the deceased were allowed to decay away to their bones for a year in rock-carved cavities in burial caves before deposition of the disarticulated bones into ossuaries, there is no evidence indicating how the earlier Chalcolithic peoples of the Rujm el-Hiri area reduced the bodies of the deceased to bones for placement in their ossuaries.  He suggests, based on the anthropological record of excarnation or "sky burial" practices of various cultures and civilizations, as well as his interpretation of archaeological finds at various sites, that the flesh of the bodies of their deceased were permitted to be consumed by birds of prey, specifically vultures, which can divest a body of its flesh within hours.  He points, for example, to the ancient Zoroastrian dokhmas, or "towers of silence", whereby vultures would eat away the flesh from the bones of the dead placed on raised platforms, at least partly as a means of protecting the soil environment from pollution by decaying bodies.  He suggests that the concentric walls of Rujm el-Hiri, which were built at progressively lower heights toward the central tumulus, allowed for vultures to easily view the laid-out bodies from their perches atop the walls.  After the vultures did their work, the bones could then be freed of their flesh and disarticulated and placed in ossuaries, many of which were designed like houses or miniature granaries or silos.
Note the close correspondence between a circle of heaped stones in the above photo, and the heaped-up chalk of the typical henge in Wiltshire. Were that the only correspondence, the case for both having a role in 'skeletonizing' of the dead would be weak. But EACH site offers supportive evidence for such a role that few if any have attempted to account for in those other narratives to do with pagan rituals, worship, cults of the dead etc etc. Arav has pointed out that the heights of the 5 concentric stone circles decreases towards the centre, ensuring that perched vultures are always  assured of an unobstructed line of sight. Well spotted, Dr.Arav. So what can Stonehenge offer that can match that kind of persuasive albeit circumstantial evidence?

Well, there's the placement of the bank inside the ditch at Avebury, allowing proximity and clear view. But there's only the one henge, not a concentric series. However, there's something that the Golan site does not offer, which is an alternative choice of perch locations, superior ones to the crests of chalk banks one might feel, namely timber posts, later to be followed by standing stones, for which no coherent explanation has been offered other than "ritual".

Ah yes - timber posts. They get a tentative mention early on (and at plenty of other sites close to Stonehenge, the appropriately named Woodhenge especially, about which more later). Here's another artist's impression from the Chris Collyer site:

Yes., it's strongly suspected that  the so-called Aubrey Holes (or pits) named after their 17th century discoverer first had timber posts at the start of their chequered history, as shown above. Now why put in timber posts? They are hardly architectural features, comparable to the bluestones that followed.

Thinks, what possible purpose might timber posts have served? Might Mother Nature provide a clue, one that exists to this day?

Standing room only (or perching as the locals would say)

 Third instalment: Friday May 6

Today's task will not be easy. I will attempt to summarize what English Heritage refers to as Stonehenge's "timber phase" in its tourist guide.

From "Stonehenge", page 34 (English Heritage). Please ignore my earlier colour-coded highlighting - for personal convenience,

Why not easy? Because on close reading one finds there were at least 3 different timber phases and/or timber locations, each with its own particular complexity and uncertainty.

But let's waste no time in making a serious criticism of English Heritage: despite describing Stonehenge from Page 1 as "Britain's greatest temple", nowhere, I repeat NOWHERE, does it attempt to explain why the standing stones were preceded by timber, and/or why timber was considered appropriate for something that was a "temple" as distinct from serving some more mundane role that was then continued in more durable form with stone instead of timber. I say EH is attempting to impose a cramping narrative, which it has no business doing. It's role is stewardship (which most visitors consider leaves much to be desired) NOT the proselytizing of a vague, unsubstantiated  airy-fairy narrative that attempts to impose or prempt alternative interpretations.

But Stonehenge is surely a place for pre-Christian worship of the sun, given the alignment of the the standing stone circles, the Avenue etc?  It's surely a "temple", an unquestionable given?

Nope: Read what the fleeting reference in the EH tourist guide (page 33) has to say (my bolding):

"Recent excavations have provided the first clues as to why Stonehenge is located where it is. The Avenue may originally have been marked by parallel natural gullies created at the end of the last Ice Age, which were visible in the landscape and coincidentally aligned on the winter and summer solstices.  There is also the possibility that the Heel Stone is a rare local sarsen, discovered very close to where it now stands. A combination of these two striking natural phenomena may well have provided the impetus for the work that followed."

Apols for not getting back today to complete the 'timber phase'. Apart from being out visiting old friends with a rural location, a crop of comments has appeared on the Megalithic Portal site addressed to this blogger's theory re Stonehenge, which I'm now inclined to refer to as AFS (Avian-Facilitated Skeletonization). See the site for comments/criticisms and my response.

Yes, AFS (Avian-Facilitated Skeletonization) - the key to understanding the existence and purpose of Stonehenge and similar sites (Avebury, Woodhenge and possibly much further afield). Consider it a more scientific version of "sky burial", again without specifying the precise agent that converts a body into a skeleton.

But if someone has a funeral urn in their modern-day home for preserving the cremated mineral remains of a loved-one, do we immediately round on them for perpetuating an ancient barbaric practice, laced with those terms so beloved of our media like "gruesome", "grisly", "bizarre" etc, with references to "defleshing of the dead"? No. We don't. So shame on our rush-to-judgement media for their attempts to besmirch a Stonehenge-era funeral practice that was closely related to modern day cremation, albeit using unsophisticated biotechnology in place of modern high-temperature technology. Indeed,  I suspect they probably deployed cremation as an end-stage, ie. incinerating the incompletely-isolated skeleton as a final clean-up rather than entire body, it being far more economical and less polluting.

Who said some methods of disposing  of the dead were easier and more aesthetically pleasing  than others? No one that I recall. There are no easy options, and the options in 2500BC were more restricted than they are today.

You just can't get the journalists these days....

Saturday May 7

Change of mind. this posting is long enough as it is, and in any case I've had my time cut out responding to the 10 or so comments thus far on the Megalithic Portal site.

The priority right now is not delving into the complexities of Stonehenge's timber precursors, which attract no interest or speculation whatsoever from mainstream archaeology. It's getting across the basic message arrived at thus far, spelled out on the Megalithic Portal site, namely that what took place at Stonehenge, Avebury and other associations of outer henge with inner standing stones was essentially AFS (avian-facilitated skeletonization, aka sky burial) probably in most instances with a final cleaning up via TFS (thermally-facilitated skeletonization, aka end-stage cremation of bone, largely depleted of soft tissue).

 I shall also be setting out formally the reasons why the new hypothesis/theory fills in numerous gaps in our understanding of the various Neolithic sites. (That's historic, not internet sites). Everything as they say now falls into place (at least for this jaded science bod, long accustomed to being wrong-footed and fed fake narratives - ones that are more by way of lazy or wishful thinking than serious analysis based upon hard evidence).

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