Those Mystical Henges

As I stated in The Supernatural and Stonehenge, it is “incredible that ninety percent of the area surrounding one of the most famous megalithic sites in the world has remained largely unexplored.  No wonder there are so many different theories and arguments about who built Stonehenge, why it was constructed, and how it was used.  If archaeologists have not even explored the immediately surrounding area, our lack of knowledge — and the proliferation of wild speculation — becomes more understandable.”

My sense of astonishment received reinforcement while reading Maev Kennedy’s recent Guardian article “Was Marden Henge the Builder’s Yard for Stonehenge?”  It appears that archaeologists are finally searching the areas surrounding Stonehenge and looking for more than just monumental features:

Marden in Wiltshire has been puzzling archaeologists for centuries. It is set almost exactly half way between two of the most famous and tourist-choked sites in Britain, Stonehenge and Avebury, but it is far larger than either.

This is the first excavation since Geoffrey Wainwright, former chief archaeologist at English Heritage, explored one small corner of the site in 1969. What stunned the archaeologists when they started work three weeks ago was just how much is left.

Once your eye is in you can see it: the sweep of the ditches, the belt of trees hiding some of the earth bank, which still rises to three metres in some places, the stain in the grass marking the lost barrow and its massive surrounding moat, and the wholly unexpected discovery – the second, smaller henge, so close to the modern houses that the roots of two trees at the foot of a back garden are actually growing into its bank.

The neolithic buildings were not where others have looked for them, on the level in the centre of the henges, but on top of the bank.

“We’ve all been looking in the wrong place,” Leary said, “there will have to be a major rethink about other henges. And it’s actually almost terrifying how close to the surface the finds were – there’s also going to have to be a major review of our management plans for other sites.”

Given these recent discoveries and new ways of asking questions or forming hypotheses, we can look forward in coming decades to much more information about Stonehenge, all of which will contribute to our understanding of why Stonehenge was built and how it was used.  The fact that so much of the area around Stonehenge remains unexplored and unexcavated is great news for current and prospective archaeology graduate students in Britain.

My favorite observation regarding the new finds is quintessentially English: “We’re gobsmacked really,” said site director Jim Leary.  Towards the end of the article, Leary adds this poignant observation:  “A completely artificial division has been made in the past between domestic and religious, recreation and ritual.  We’re going to have to rethink all that. It’s not one thing or the other, it’s everything mixed in together.”

He is quite right about this; the categories of secular/religious are modern and non-natural.

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