Friday, June 27, 2008

Early Stonehenge Pilgrims Came From Afar, With Cattle in Tow

There's been a lot in the news lately about Stonehenge, the iconic, 5000 year old prehistoric monument in southern England. The June issue of National Geographic featured a photo-laden article about the latest discoveries there, and National Geographic Channel broadcast a program entitled "Stonehenge Decoded" at the beginning of this month.

Both the program and the magazine focused on excavations at Stonehenge over the past several years led by archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University in the United Kingdom and other well-known megalith experts from the U.K. Parker Pearson and his colleagues have concluded that Stonehenge, together with an earthwork "henge" monument nearby at Durrington Walls, constituted a ritual landscape in which the living venerated their dead. In this interpretation, Stonehenge was the domain of the ancestors and Durrington Walls the domain of the living.

In today's issue of Science, I write about the latest results from this dig, preliminary strontium analysis of the teeth of six cattle found at Durrington Walls, where at least 300 houses have been found during the excavations. The analysis shows that the cattle were brought to the area from as far away as Wales, suggesting that the houses were temporary residences for pilgrims visiting the two monuments during special times of the year (most likely the summer and winter solstices.) None of the cattle came from the immediate chalklands area on which the sites are situated. The Science story requires online access, but within copyright limitations I can give you a few tidbits:

The teeth were analyzed by Sarah Viner, a graduate student with University of Sheffield zooarchaeologist Umberto Albarella. Viner, in collaboration with Jane Evans of the Natural Environment Research Council's Isotope Geosciences Laboratory in Nottingham, U.K., looked at the ratio of two strontium isotopes, 87Sr and 86Sr, in the teeth of adult animals. This ratio varies depending on what type of soil the animals have grazed on: Higher ratios stem from Britain's older geological formations, and lower ratios arise in the younger chalklands of southern England where Stonehenge is located (see map). The strontium "signature" is laid down when the teeth are formed in growing animals and does not change later.

And here is a crucial issue:

Yet the discoveries at Durrington Walls are only relevant to Stonehenge if the two monuments are related. That has been unclear because of uncertainties in dating at both sites. Parker Pearson's team now appears to have closed this dating gap considerably: A reanalysis of earlier Stonehenge radiocarbon dates, published last year in Antiquity, puts the erection of the large stones--which weigh as much as 45 tons and were brought from about 30 kilometers away--at 2600 to 2400 B.C.E. An antler pick apparently used in the construction of the earthwork at Durrington Walls clocked in at 2570 to 2350 B.C.E., and a pig bone there was dated to between 2830 and 2470 B.C.E. "Mike needed to get those two monuments closer together in time, and he's done it," says Richard Bradley, an archaeologist at the University of Reading in the U.K., though he notes that some wiggle room remains.

Parker Pearson thinks that Stonehenge's bluestones represented the ancestors of people who came from the site from Wales (the bluestones, weighing 3-4 tons each, were probably transported nearly 400 kilometers to the site by land, sea, and river.) Nevertheless, a second team, led by British archaeologists Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, has proposed the alternative hypothesis that the bluestones were thought to have "healing" powers and that Stonehenge was rather a temple of healing.

The Parker Pearson team will be returning to the area this summer to begin digging at a new site west of the stone pillars, dated to about 3000 B.C.E.--when, as I say in the article, "Stonehenge was still just an earthwork circle and the monument we see today was just a gleam in a prehistoric eye."

PS--You can view some photos of the recent Darvill/Wainwright excavations within Stonehenge's stone circle here. They were taken by Paul Cripps, and the BBC's Timewatch program also covered that dig.

Stonehenge Update (Sept 15): A program about some of the latest work at Stonehenge will be broadcast September 27 both on the Smithsonian Channel and BBC2.

Science Update: A retired radiation expert and a Spanish science writer have sued to stop the Large Hadron Collider, arguing that it could lead to the end of the world. Will they succeed? Will the earth be saved? A true test for the American judicial system.

1 comment:

Richard said...

Putting all of this together is going to be a very complicated bit of business. (I've taken off my cynic's hat for a moment) and it's going to tell us some amazing stuff.