SOLVING STONEHENGE: The New Key to an Ancient Enigma. Anthony Johnson. 288 pp. Thames and Hudson, 2008. $40.
The great Neolithic monument of Stonehenge gets more rather than less important with the passing of time. In the past couple of decades, interest in Neolithic monuments in general has intensified, with the academic literature awash with ideas about the symbolism of these constructions and how people might have experienced them, adding to the work previously done on their social context.
Although many people might straightforwardly conclude that an undertaking on the scale of Stonehenge must have been an expression of concentrated power within Neolithic society, the claim cannot be conceded without thinking about the long processes of inspiration, discussion, mobilization of labor and periodic reenergizing of all those involved that must have accompanied such enterprises and indeed made them possible. The challenge for archaeologists can slide from simple detection of the presence of power to analysis of the ways in which social preeminence could be asserted and maintained for what was all too often just a brief interval.
So research into the ways in which monuments “worked” is crucial. How did people approach and move around these great assemblies of earth, timber and stone? Did they do so freely, or were they directed? What did interventions in nature on this scale signify, and what meanings could be projected by the materials used in their construction? How were tradition and innovation respectively regarded? Leaders or would-be leaders must have had tricky paths to negotiate.
In recent years, research specific to Stonehenge has likewise intensified. We have seen the Stonehenge Riverside Project, led by Mike Parker Pearson and colleagues, which involves study of several key sites and locations close by, including the great henge, or enclosure, of Durrington Walls, 3 kilometers north of Stonehenge. Pearson’s group has also worked in the 2008 season at Stonehenge itself, re-emptying one of the
35 previously excavated Aubrey Holes
(56 backfilled pits arranged at regular intervals in a ring just inside the circular bank and ditch that enclose Stonehenge).
The Riverside project is driven by the overarching hypothesis that Stonehenge represents a “domain of the ancestors,” which is separate from the “domain of the living” that is represented by (among other places) Durrington Walls and its newly discovered houses and feasting remains. Both at Durrington Walls and at Stonehenge itself, midwinter may have been the key season: a time of death but also of renewal, when the living and the ancestors could be reunited.
Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, in a separate project, have spent several years making better sense of the principal source of the smaller “bluestones” found at Stonehenge, which match dolerite outcrops in the Preseli Hills of southwest Wales. In 2008 Darvill and Wainwright made a small excavation within Stonehenge, investigating the outer bluestone setting. Their big idea is of Stonehenge as a place of healing.
Meanwhile, in 2007 Jim Leary and colleagues of English Heritage (the country’s Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission) did further work on the great mound of Silbury Hill, some 20 miles to the north of Stonehenge—work necessitated by the dramatic collapse of the old tunnels through the mound. That intervention, thanks to formal Bayesian modeling of radiocarbon determinations by Alex Bayliss of English Heritage, is establishing a much more precise estimate for the start of Silbury Hill, at around 2400 B.C. (All of the B.C. dates noted in this review are radiocarbon dates that have been calibrated according to international standards.) It may well be that the mound was constructed in a series of episodes.
Questions of date are crucial. Bayliss and colleagues have formally compared the dates of Silbury Hill and Stonehenge, and Parker Pearson and colleagues have made estimates as well. The major stone phases of Stonehenge were begun either around 2600 B.C. or, in another reading of the radiocarbon dating evidence, around 2400 B.C. In either case, those were stirring times, with more at stake in ancient politics than simply the development of the individual sites, stunning though these may be in their own right.
And finally, the Stonehenge Riverside Project has begun to reexamine and date (according to preliminary reports in the summer of 2008 in the press and in popular journals) the cremated human remains that have been found in the ditch that surrounds the monument and in the Aubrey Holes—physical features that belong to the very first phase of Stonehenge, going perhaps as far back as around 3000 B.C. Could the remains be those of some kind of elite, or even a royal dynasty? And does their deposition overlap with the building of Stonehenge? We shall see.
Into this dynamic research situation comes the independent contribution of Anthony Johnson, the author of Solving Stonehenge: The New Key to an Ancient Enigma. He adds his skepticism about an elaborate role for Stonehenge as astronomical observatory or indicator; many others also now regard with considerable caution the claims made by Alexander Thom and Gerald Hawkins in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, Johnson redraws our attention, as Thom and others such as Aubrey Burl did a generation or so ago, to the laying out of Stonehenge.
The ditch, the Aubrey Holes, the four Station Stones that were once set just inside the surrounding bank as if on the opposing vertices of an octagon, the iconic sarsen stones standing in their linteled circle and the trilithon horseshoe, the bluestones in their comparable settings, and even, to some extent, the enigmatic later concentric circles of Y and Z holes—Johnson finds the layout of all these features to be careful, highly accurate and symmetrical. He argues that the prehistoric surveyors, although they may have used pegs and cords to lay out the site, understood not only arcs and circles but also how to set out squares, how to create octagons within circles by using a combination of squares, and how to subdivide the circumference of a circle (so that the 56 Aubrey Holes could be measured off at repeating distances).
Understanding the geometry of squares and circles allowed the builders of Stonehenge to achieve impressively regular proportionality between the different elements of the stone monument as a whole, Johnson argues. The side of a square dropped over the inner face of the sarsen circle, for example, is half the length of the square contained within the supposed Station Stone octagon. The sarsen trilithon horseshoe could have been established with precise symmetry relative to the surrounding sarsen circle by use of intersecting circles laid out from different pegs along a shared axis.
Similar knowledge, Johnson claims, must have underlain the laying out of the astonishingly regular, in some cases curved, designs on the gold lozenges that were made in the region during the Early Bronze Age, although those are a little later in date than Stonehenge itself. Johnson further speculates on the significance of the numbers 56 and 30, the latter being the quantity of sarsen uprights in the great sarsen circle: He is inclined to relate both numbers to the lunar cycle.
In a nice final twist, Johnson suggests that the whole creation could have been offered to the gods as an unmatchable gift of human ingenuity, to be left as an inviolable sanctum. As a parting thought, he raises again the possibility that the creators of Stonehenge came into contact with the knowledge held by civilizations in the Near East. However, earlier in the book Johnson argues that the principal context for the monument is the phenomenon archaeologists call the Beaker complex.
The Beaker complex refers to, among other features, graves and burial mounds that contain objects made of copper and gold, and often ceramic beakers, which are found in Britain beginning around 2400 B.C., and in other parts of Europe as well. Amesbury, 5 kilometers east of Stonehenge, is the site of one such grave, which contains the remains of the Amesbury Archer, a man who lived around the time that Stonehenge was built and whose tooth enamel suggests that he grew up in northern central Europe. Another grave, containing the remains of seven people, was discovered at Boscombe Down, 6 kilometers from Stonehenge.
Thom’s work in the 1960s showed that prehistoric people could lay out many different shapes apart from circles, including ellipses and egg shapes. Thom claimed that simple Pythagorean triangles were used, but most scholars were not persuaded. Johnson’s book is therefore not breaking fresh ground here. It is, however, a useful reminder of the complexity and accuracy of the Stonehenge layout. He makes a convincingly plausible argument that the sarsen circle had to have been a prefabricated construction in order for its lintels to have curved properly and to have fitted with their neighbors and the upright stones. However, the builders seem to have been much less anxious about precision, and perhaps more concerned to create deliberately differing textures, in other dimensions of the monument, such as the varying surfaces of the sarsen uprights.
It would take a reviewer much more mathematical than myself to judge Johnson’s more ambitious arguments decisively, but I worry that his ideal solutions are an overelaborate explanation of challenges that could have been met with the simpler methods of laying out with cord and peg, pacing and eye (or in the case of Early Bronze Age goldsmiths, simply by hand and eye). The great stone phase at Stonehenge may have been set up before the Beaker complex came into existence in Britain. Because local timber buildings provide a good precedent for circular form and stepped profile, there seems no need to invoke connections with the Near East. (That kind of argument was used in the 1940s by Christopher Hawkes, and in the 1950s by Richard Atkinson, to support the idea that Mycenaean knowledge was behind the construction of Stonehenge—an idea that has since been rejected, because Stonehenge has been shown by radiocarbon dating to have been constructed before the Mycenaean civilization came into existence.)
I myself, however, have speculated in print that the great mound of north Wiltshire could have been in some way inspired by awareness of the first pyramids. In any event it is wise to keep an open mind on the ways in which knowledge and ideas could have traveled and been developed in the world of the third millennium B.C. Johnson’s principal hypotheses would enhance either of the big current models noted above, but those stand without the veneer of the geometrical sophistication that he argues the site displays.
Alasdair Whittle is Distinguished Research Professor in the School of History and Archaeology, Cardiff University, and a Fellow of the British Academy. He has written extensively about Neolithic Britain and Europe, and is the author of Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation of New Worlds (Cambridge University Press, 1996).