A large portion of this post made up the first of my two assignments for the iVersity MOOC, hosted by the University of Buckingham. I have made significant and substantial additions to the content partly because I had more to say than the word count allowed and because some of it is more relevant to a Pagan audience in contrast to an open course. I should also point out that this post was hosted on my WP blog after the close of submission and peer grading.
Understanding Stonehenge – a personal perspective
Stonehenge is a monumental construction which dominates an equally monumental landscape but the scope and scale of its construction often overshadows the surrounding ritual landscape. This is because it is a visible and tangible connection to the past in comparison to other monuments in the area which can appear to the layman mere bumps in the ground, or are so vast that it is not possible to understand their scale on ground level. Stonehenge has also featured in the history and folklore of the British Isle and this strengthens the sense of isolation within the landscape as sources do not refer to any other monument, not matter how visible, in the area. For these reasons Stonehenge appears highly within the social consciousness of the people of Britain, and is emblematic of the ancient cultures of the Isles when viewed from abroad.
What I find most impressive about Stonehenge is its place within the landscape and the interconnectedness of the monument with other sites within the area. Recent archaeological excavation and survey of the Somerset levels have widened the view on the Stonehenge landscape, encouraging us to re-examine the standing monument directly as well as its relationship to other monuments. In turn, the realisation that the splendid isolation of the monument is an illusion leads us to new discoveries about the society that built Stonehenge.
Stonehenge is connected to a number of different sites directly either through a series of avenues and the river Avon or by shared construction material. Sites such as Bluestone Henge, Durrington Walls and Blick Mead all co-exist within the landscape of Stonehenge and have begun to influence our interpretation of the Stonehenge as more work is done to understand them. Most notably Stonehenge is connected to Durrington Walls, a settlement and henge site 2 miles north east of Stonehenge along the river Avon. Excavations have shown that the connection is not one that would have initially been expected based on traditional interpretation of the Stonehenge site.
Excavations at the monument completed by Sheffield University showed that not only was Durrington Walls a settlement site during the same period of time as the earliest stone phase of construction at Stonehenge but that it continued to be used as a wooden henge monument after the settlement was abandoned. As the Riverside Project progressed excavations showed that a substantial Neolithic track way linked Durrington Walls to the River Avon and, by extension of the river and its own Avenue, to Stonehenge. Combining anthropological observations from our own existing cultures as well as observations from Madagascar Mike Parker Pearson posits that the connection of the monuments were connected in serving a community with a focus on worshiping the ancestors as well as the movement of the seasons.
Combined with the age of pigs slaughtered at Durrington Walls and recent reinterpretation of the importance of the Winter Solstice alignment versus the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, the construction materials used indicate that not only did our Neolithic ancestors use different materials to represent the living and the ancestor but they marked the transition from one state to the next. In particular he notes that, contrary to popular interpretation, the mid-winter solstice sunrise/set was the focus of the monument marking both the shortest day and the point at whilst the sun would strengthen and the transition of those who had died in the preceding year into the realm of the ancestors.
Parker Pearson states that, like our own preference for marking recent burials with wooden crosses and confirming them at a later date with a stone memorial, our Neolithic ancestors celebrated the living at Durrington Walls and the ancestor at Stonehenge. The theory suggests that as well as celebrations at Durrington Walls, which involved conspicuous consumption of pork which had been especially fattened for the occasion, a procession was held from Durrington Walls down river to Stonehenge to celebrate either sunset or sunrise on the Mid-Winter Solstice.
The association of Stonehenge and Durrington Walls in a connected landscape holds particular interest for me as a member of the modern pagan community. Stonehenge is a popular focus for pagans, in particular at the Summer Solstice. The longest day of the year is the focus of much celebration and festivities but is that really reflective of the monument? The reborn sun after the long winter heralding the return of warmer days and the growing season, so important to life amongst only relatively recently settled farmers, would have been much more worthy of note to the Neolithic people. Without the sun they could have no life, and its return had much more weight and meaning than the death of the sun.
I feel that the recent work done in the area suggests that not only would a more authentic approach be to place greater emphasis to celebrating the sun rise of the mid-winter solar event but the inclusion of the wider landscape would bring greater connection to the people of the past. The reborn sun not only marks the beginning of the new solar year but the point at which spirits are transported from the “place between” into the Otherworld of the Ancestors. As the Sun transitions between one state to another so does the spirit world, brining meaning and understanding to human lifecycles in relation to the world around us.
On a personal level, I am possible sensitive and receptive to the ideas that Parker Pearson brings. As well as many of his hypothesis fitting with my own interpretation of monuments that I have researched and visited the Winter Solstice holds a particular meaning for me around remembering the ancestors. Whilst Samhain remains an important time of communication and visitation with the ancestor my Winter Solstice celebrations have been around the rebirth of my ancestors in to spirit ever since 2006. The returning light of the solstice sun brings with it not only the reborn sun but the reborn spirits of my ancestors, for individuals I hold a remembrance of their life and importance to me and the candle lit represents not only the strength of the Sun but the strength of their spirit. As my practice evolved I looked at my wider family background and it became a time that I contemplated other passed relatives both by blood and by marriage.
On a more general level I find it interesting to see how modern pagans approach and interpret new theories and discoveries about Stonehenge, and equally how modern day scholars are looking to modern day practices, both here and abroad, to inform their work. Parker Pearson’s use of anthropology as a method of interpreting the stones is a new approach to the monument, and reflects and increased movement within archaeological circles to use reconstruction of not only technology but mind set when looking at landscapes and technology. Even taking the imperfect nature of any form of reconstructionist mind set into account, approaching landscape and technology from this point of view allows us to take a step closer to understanding our ancestors and the things they have left behind.
Of Festivals and Festivities
A very wide demographic attends the Summer Solstice celebration at Stonehenge. As well as members of various communities under the umbrella heading of ‘pagan’ many people who attend the Glastonbury Music Festival will also take time to visit the stones to view this spectacular alignment. This means that not everyone attending Solstice do so with the understanding of Stonehenge as a site of special and religious importance. Alcohol and drugs have been a massive problem for organisers in the past, as has littering and chipping of the stones amongst other forms of vandalism.
It would be unfair to lay all of these problems at the feet of festival goers however as the Winter Solstice brings its own fair share of damage to the Stones. There are many within the Pagan community that lack the insight and understanding of ancient sites and the issues of preservation. Equally, just because someone is pagan doesn’t mean that they aren’t ignorant in relation to who is responsible for picking up the rubbish. Furthermore, drug taking is not unheard amongst Pagans, nor is the use of alcohol to achieve altered states of consciousness.
Much work has been done by organisers, English Heritage and those participants who have a social conscious to combat these problems however it is a long hard slog. The site is one of special reverence to the people of Britain and it should be treated in a manner that befits it.
Even were we to remove the “party scene” element we would not remove all the problems. In recent weeks there have been increased calls for action to protect the site from zero tolerance to ticketing. There is some quick mathematic support for a move towards ticketing more generally, as evidenced by the bloggers at Heritage Journal, and a zero tolerance approach might be the only logical way forward to avoid the monument being ‘blessed’ with whatever fluid, bodily or otherwise. The truth is that unless there is an element of personal responsibility amongst all those attending more extreme protective measures might be implemented and no one wants that.
Regardless, we need to remain informed about Stonehenge and its landscape. I think that there needs to be more disclosure about the effects of the Solstice celebrations on the site, it is one way of combating on going damage to the site. There needs to be a realisation that there is a need to behave responsibly to ensure its preservation by self-policing and cleaning up after ourselves. As the statements about annual vandalism show, there is already a strong presence at the Summer Solstice, less so at Winter, which attempts to combat damage to the site but still it occurs.
It’s important to note that this applies to any ancient site which is opened up to the public in order that celebrations can be held. Digging into banks and ditches or excavating at the base of standing stones in order to leave modern offerings or chipping of rocks to take a part of the monument home is simply not acceptable. By doing so the perpetrator damages a monument that has existed for thousands of years for essentially selfish reasons.