The Quest for the Missing Dead
Stonehenge ancestors reburial issue
As we queued at the turnstile to visit Stonehenge last month we found ourselves standing across the fence from an ongoing Druid protest. We heard many American and Oriental accents, no doubt many of these foreign visitors dismissed the event as English eccentricity, most locking their gaze straight ahead refusing to even make eye contact but one or two onlookers gave an acknowledging nod in the Druid's direction.
As we waited to pay our six quid to see the greatest ancient monument of our national heritage, we found ourselves reading the Druid's “Bring Back the Ancestors” banner. This was of course King Arthur Pendragon of the Stonehenge Druids staging a peaceful picket at the English Heritage visitor centre and running a petition for the return of the ancestors to Stonehenge. Perhaps Arthur hasn't done himself any favours by changing his name over thirty years ago, no doubt providing many with the opportunity dismiss him as a crank in a white robe with a crackpot name and argue that the Druids have no claim on our stone circles. But is his cause really so cranky?
Over 5,000 people of all faiths from around the globe have signed the petition for the ancestors to be returned to their original burial site of Stonehenge. The remains were removed in August and September 2008 when the Stonehenge Riverside Project (SRP), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, under the direction of Mike Parker Pearson, excavated Aubrey Hole number 7 to recover and analyse prehistoric cremations put there by archaeologists in 1935.
The SRP carried out a series of excavations between 2003 and 2008 in the Stonehenge landscape culminating in the much publicised follow-up excavation of the so-called “Bluestonehenge” site by the River Avon last year. In 2008 Julian Richards and Mike Pitts had purposefully targeted Aubrey Hole 7 for excavation to recover the remains from previous excavations in the 1920s, and then re-interred in 1935 when most of the cremated human bone found earlier at Stonehenge was reburied in one pit, a lead plate placed on top of the cremations marking the spot. Recovery of this bone for modern examination was the prime goal of the Aubrey Hole excavation.
The enigmatic circle of 56 pits has been interpreted over the years as holding a ring of stones, a ring of wooden posts, to empty pits and finally back to posts again. For the SRP this was a minor excavation and its only dig within the stone circle providing an opportunity for a secondary target to examine the hole for indications of the feature it supported.
The Aubrey Holes are a ring of 56 pits distributed around the inside of the area enclosed by Stonehenge's earthen bank, named after the 17th Century antiquarian John Aubrey who was one of the first to examine the site with a scientific eye, recording the pits in his plan of the monument in 1666. The Aubrey Holes vary in diameter from 2½ to almost 6 feet and from 2 to 4 feet deep forming an accurate 285 feet diameter circle with a 16 foot interval between centres. The interval error of about 19 inches (less than half a metre) deviation in their spacing across 56 points was no mean feat for such a large circle.
The holes are marked today by white discs laid in the ground surface, counting clockwise from the Slaughter Stone at the north east entrance they are numbered 1 to 56. The pits are thought to date to the earliest phases of Stonehenge, the early 4th and late 3rd millennium, 3000–2935 BC, yet their purpose is still unknown although an astronomical role, even an eclipse predictor, has been proposed.
Aubrey had noticed five circular cavities in the dry ground and noted them in his records. These depressions were largely ignored or more likely went unnoticed by later antiquarians investigating the site. During excavations of the Stonehenge site by Colonel William Hawley in the 1920's his assistant Robert Newall, probing with a metal rod, identified a ring of pits that were subsequently named in honour of Aubrey and his early survey. Ironically, Aubrey was the first to suggest that the Druids were the ones who built Stonehenge - a theory which has since been discounted since Druids were not thought to be present in Britain until 2,000 years after Stonehenge was built, and maybe already in ruin. But others would disagree. The link between druids and Stonehenge can only be traced with an certainty to the last hundred years or so.
Richard Colt Hoare is thought to be probably the first to encounter an Aubrey hole whilst digging around beneath the fallen Slaughter Stone in the early 19th Century. Hawley excavated 25 of the Aubrey Holes in 1920 and then a further seven in 1924. Stuart Piggott and Richard Atkinson excavated a further two in 1950 which brought the total excavated to 35 out of the 56 Aubrey Holes, 21 remaining unexcavated. The Riverside Project was to be the first excavation of an Aubrey Hole in nearly 60 years.
These depressions Aubrey noticed have long been suspected of marking the cavities left after the removal of some features such as wooden posts or even small megaliths, suspected of being robbed from the site probably not that long before he had noted them in the 17th Century. Modern popular opinion seemed to favour wooden posts, which would have been of quite a substantial size, over a metre diameter in some cases. But Hawley suspected they held stones, however, bluestone fragments are absent from the lower fills suggesting a primary context prior to the erection of the Welsh orthostats. Finds in the holes' upper fills of sarsen stone chips suggests the holes had been first dug prior to the megalithic phases of Stonehenge. The holes seem to have been refilled with freshly excavated chalk rubble soon after being dug as no weathering has been noted on the chalk sides of the pits, probably dug out and refilled numerous times during the many rebuilding phases on the site. The 56 Aubrey Holes must have housed one of the earliest features at the monument, but by the time the huge sarsen megaliths were erected around 2,600 – 2,400 BC, the holes seem to have fallen out of use.
The three pits that Hawley had found with compressed chalk at the base was indicative of a heavy weight having stood in them, consequently he thought the Aubrey Holes originally held stones. The SRP excavation found evidence not incompatible with this; the the structure of the Aubrey hole had been retained during previous excavations and the base of the pit did indeed still preserve crushed chalk comparable to that seen in stone holes elsewhere, putting the likelihood of the holes having held wooden posts to question.
SRP Director Parker Pearson revived the old interpretation that they had held bluestones noting the Aubrey Holes are similar in size to other pits known to have held the Welsh stones; suggesting that the 'Aubrey Stones' had first been erected soon after the holes were first dug around 3,000 BC. Parker Pearson came up with the romantic proposal that 56 bluestones had occupied the Aubrey Holes and another 24 -26 possibly from Bluestonehenge by the bank of the River Avon, totalling the figure of about 80 – 82 bluestones erected in the Horseshoe and Circle in the final stage of the monument.
In reality owing to the amount of previous and abandoned bluestone settings, the underlying chalk at the centre of the monument has been described as resembling swiss cheese, it is impossible to say how many bluestones were actually erected on the site. If the spacings on the south-east quadrant were typical throughout the Bluestone Circle it would have held 60 - 62 stones. But if the spacings on the north side of the circle are used it would have held only 44 bluestones. Inigo Jones (1621) and John Wood (1740) stated there were 30 stones set equidistant. Stukeley (1723), basing his spacing on the surviving stones, said there was 40. Colt Hoare (1812) agreed but Flinders Petrie (1880) was of the opinion that the Bluestone Circle was never complete.
The Bluestone Horseshoe has only six surviving orthostats from a probable 19. However, if the northern arc of the Horseshoe had originally formed an oval, prior to the stones being removed to mimic the geometry of the sarsen trilithons, there may have been another six. John Smith in 'Choir Gaur' (1771) said there was 13 bluestones in the horseshoe but only put 11 on his plan. Jackson (1869) and Stevens (1916) each gave 15, while James (1867) said 17. Zilwood (1855) stated there were 19 and this is now the generally accepted figure.
Only a very brave, or very stupid, man would be bold enough to offer a total bluestone figure; Hawley himself confessed that he had no “explanation to offer in elucidation of this tangle, and I doubt if anybody will ever be able to explain it satisfactorily.”
Parker Pearson said “Aubrey Hole 7 had crushed chalk on its base indicative of a standing stone. This had been missed by archaeologists twice before: it seems likely that similar evidence still survives in other Aubrey Holes. We propose that very early in Stonehenge’s history, 56 Welsh bluestones stood in a ring 285 feet 6 inches across”. He added “This has sweeping implications for our understanding of Stonehenge.”
The excavation of Aubrey Hole 7 has led SRP to suggest that megaliths were present throughout Stonehenge’s existence. However, this notion fails to explain the absence of bluestone fragments in the primary fills of the Aubrey Holes and complete deficiency of bluestone fragments at the Bluestonehenge site.
In between the rebuilding phases of Stonehenge, the site is envisioned as a cremation cemetery with deposits being placed in the Aubrey holes after the removal of the bluestones in reconstruction work.
Part II: A Prehistoric Cemetery
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