The One With Stonehenge

Dirty Science by Dr Brenna Hassett

It’s that time again. The holiday season.

Joy. Cheer. George Michael. The northern hemisphere clutches feebly at the last slinking bars of sunlight like someone frantically pacing up and down the hallway at the office Christmas party, looking for mobile reception. CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW, we scream at the disappearing source of ultraviolet radiation we will literally, actually, physically die without because we cannot make Vitamin D on our own[1] and if you don’t have Vitamin D you don’t have calcium and without calcium you, my friend, are walking around on collagen instead of bone, and that is Not Good, a.k.a. osteomalacia, or rickets for the kiddies.[2]

A normal femur (bottom) next to a rachitic femur (top) that was reshaped through pressure on under-mineralised bone during childhood.  Pic: National Museum of Health and Medicine

Yup, it’s December! Which means every archaeologists’ thoughts must turn, once more, to that most seasonal of subjects:

What is the deal with Stonehenge?

Yep. That’s right. ’Tis the season for the booze to be free flowing, and occasions arise for relatives of varying degrees to communicate their (variable) knowledge of archaeology.[3] There is some sort of universal law that, should this discussion happen in the United Kingdom, the subject raised must, without exception, be the particular megalithic monument sat next to the A303 in Wiltshire, just after Amesbury but slightly before the 3rd millennium. Apparently nothing gins up the imagination like a circle of rocks in a field, because, for better or worse, Stonehenge is the bit of archaeology that everybody knows about. It’s everywhere. Even weirder, it’s anything – as archaeologist Kenny Brophy recently found out when he asked twitter to image search ‘Stonehenge’ and a noun of their choice, to see if there was anything that wasn’t about Stonehenge.

Short answer? Not much.

So why are we so obsessed? I mean, it takes a lot of effort to re-stage Stonehenge in jello. Why is it a national symbol, and why do sane adults queue up to see it from fractionally less far away? Why do we care about Stonehenge?

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Is it cause we just don’t get it? Bands have launched entire careers contemplating the meaning of Stonehenge. The ‘It was Aliens’ flimflam man wouldn’t be where he is today[4] if we couldn’t look at Stonehenge and go, well, yeah, sure, maybe. Because none of us know what to do with a Stonehenge today.

Well, that’s not entirely correct. A dedicated group of neo-pagans and outdoor party enthusiasts know exactly what to do, and that is to have a party.

Stonehenge at Winter Solstice Pic: CC by Stonehenge Stone Circle

But obviously, that’s not what people would have done in the past, right? They would have had solemn religious rituals, deep and meaningful sacred bonds with a cosmology we can no longer conceive. Something mystical, probably with Mackenzie Crook in heavy makeup. A construction that impressive could only ever be about something as monumental as life and death, existence and non-existence. There are hundreds of burials across the Stonehenge landscape, and Mike Parker Pearson, who has done more for the dead of Stonehenge than anyone in the last couple thousand years, has an explanation.

Stonehenge sits atop two ridges formed by glacial activity, running roughly parallel to the sun’s transit on the days of the summer and winter solstices. About three kilometres north sits Durrington Walls, semi-permanent home to one of the largest collections of humans to have gathered together during the Neolithic period in which Stonehenge was built and used. At Durrington, there is a woodhenge, or the remains of one, and the big banked enclosure is lined up with the glacial avenue and the rise of the midwinter sun, while Stonehenge’s most famous stones align with the winter solstice sunset.

Stonehenge, then, is a place to come for death. Individual deaths, or the death of the year itself. However, explaining to your third cousin once removed over mulled wine and mince pies that a national treasure is basically a looming megalithic reminder of death is the reason why no one invites archaeologists to anything. But it is true – just look outside. The year is dying.

So what are humans to do? Well, we do what we always do in times of trouble (and, also, not-trouble): have a ritual. As a species, we excel at rituals.[5] Claims for human exceptionality used to rest on our ability to make tools (which we lost to chimps and are now fighting actual crows for) or to have culture (damned apes) but may now have to perch precariously on our so-far uncontested supremacy at superstition. We rule unchallenged in the dominion of finger-crossing, wood-knocking, and heart-crossing. And as the sun slips away at the truly frightening hour of three in the gods-damned afternoon, our only way to counter the terror that it might not be coming back is to try to exert just the tiniest bit of control on an uncontrollable universe. We do it today by drinking steadily and wearing sparkles and a shade of dark green that makes us feel festive but makes us look in collective form like a poorly maintained topiary display. We have a party. We drink and eat like there’s no tomorrow, just in case, this time, there isn’t.

And this, it turns out, is just what the people milling around Stonehenge did. A fascinating recent study has found heaps and heaps of party snacks near the big ‘henge’ sites. Piles of pig bits and cattle bits and broken crockery testify to proper you’re-not-getting-the-deposit-back kind of partying. By looking at the leftovers, we can see that the pigs would have been about nine months old when they were killed, making it a midwinter feast. By analysing the stable isotopes of their teeth (formed early in life) and bones (formed later) and local geography we can see that not only was this a party, but this was an epic party. Those pigs were brought from all across the island; some of them were painstakingly herded almost 300 kilometres so their people could take part in what must have been an incredible gathering. This could have been one of the most important parts of the social calendar for most people – a chance to meet friends and family from far away, eat unreasonable amounts of pig, and do all the other things people do in company in fields in England.

So, even while Stonehenge might be all about death, it’s also about having the biggest party-in-a-field you can possible have, with people from all corners of your known world showing up with a pig or two for the party. In a year where the UK has fraught elections, splintering tribal loyalties, and general goddamn chaos, it’s not the worst symbol to have.

Happy Solstice.

[1] You could also get your Vitamin D precursor from your diet, but between sitting on a sunny beach and choking down the oily fish, I know which I prefer.
[2] If you wish to impress in your next conversation about rickets, make sure to stress the difference between osteomalacia, which is the calcium loss in adult bone, and rickets which is calcium loss causing the bending of bone in childhood before it is fully grown. Adult bones are already set in their shape, but rickety bones can firm up while bent, leading to a lifelong bow-legged stance (and a bunch of other stuff).
[3] No. Dinosaurs.
[4] I’m guessing cryo-storage, deep in the restricted part of Area 51.
[5] This is a lighthearted piece for the holiday season, not a formal definition of the human condition. If you really want to take up the anthropology of ritual, I recommend a) having a bit of a brisk walk to clear your head and b) Durkheim.

Dr Brenna Hassett is an archaeologist specialising in the analysis of human remains as a researcher at University College London and a Scientific Associate at the Natural History Museum London. She has dug on sites across the globe, from Greece to Egypt to Thailand and beyond. She is one quarter of The Trowelblazers group. Her first book, Built on Bones, was published in 2017 and she is currently writing her second, due for release in 2021. She is on Twitter at @brennawalks

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