Stonehenge snake oil?

Update Nov 08: It turns out that the excellent website (and book) Counterknowledge.com have come to similar conclusions on this one. They’ve recently posted news from the main competing team (via the Telegraph) that debunks this stuff. Better yet, they called it themselves back in April! And best of all, the healing “hypothesis” has made it into their nominations for the Counter Knowledge Award 2008! Nice one chaps, although that’s some pretty stiff competition they’re up against. And now, my original post from September, which seems tardy now!:

There’s a new theory about Stonehenge in town, and it’s a doozy. Professors Timothy Darvill and Geoff Wainwright believe (emphasis on the “b” word) that Stonehenge was a centre for healing. This is based upon the first new excavation at the site in 50 years, but the actual evidence has yet to be spelled out. On the face of it, it’s a pretty extraordinary claim in terms of being specific. Complicating the matter is that the dig was funded by BBC Timewatch, meaning that as far as the Beeb were concerned, this was going be THE definitive and singular interpretation of what happened at Stonehenge, reinforced with exaggeration and flashy CG (which by the way, WAS rather good). The major drawback of TV-funded work (and this was true of the recent “Dino Mummy” Discovery Channel prog) is that you see the sensationalistic flashy hyperbole first, before the real meat of the work is written up. It’s tough to tell how much the filter of the media may be skewing what’s really being claimed.

In this case, though, I see that at the Open University forum, both Darvill and Wainwright have been baited into replying to some sceptical posters. I was hopeful that they would cut to the chase. I don’t think they have. Forgive my criticism, Professors (and these guys are real, experienced, respected archaeologists), but if you step out of academia and into the popular sphere (TV and now the internet) you have to expect a little non-peer review! Firstly, I wasn’t too impressed to see that Darvill’s first response amounts to “let’s see YOU do any better”.

But there is more of substance. My assessment is that this is the package of evidence that’s being put forward;

Evidence;

  • People seem to have travelled to Stonehenge locally and from abroad (granted, something of great importance was certainly happening there)
  • The bluestones came from a long way away (South Wales, though whether from one site has yet to be established)
  • There are three times as many chips of bluestone from this new dig as sarsen stone (surely this is evidence that the chips were NOT thought special – were left behind)
  • Chips of bluestone were found in the nearby grave of a man who’d been shot in the back and unceremoniously buried with fragments of bluestone.
  • Other burials in the region of the henge contain pieces of bluestone (see below).
  • One quarry site in Wales has later (medieval period onwards) folkloric connections with healing due to the springs there (note that there are springs all over the region and indeed the UK).
  • Stonehenge has similar connections (controversial source being medieval writer Geoffrey of Monmouth)

Speculation (i.e. unproven assumptions);

  • The quarry site(s) contain springs used in healing practices, one (at least) with cup and ring marks on a rock at its head (
  • The Amesbury Archer burial (of a very sick and very important man less than 5 miles away) is directly associated with healing ritual at Stonehenge.
  • The volume of stone chips means that they were being used/taken as amulets for healing. (So why where they left behind in such numbers?).
  • The man shot and buried was trying to steal stone chips from the site (if so, why where they left on his body?)
  • Bluestone chips in graves like the man who was shot (there are others apparently) are all from Stonehenge.
  • Bluestone chips in graves were retained for healing reasons.
  • Some chips of bluestone were shaped a talismans/amulets (highly subjective)
  • Because Stonehenge was used for healing in the medieval period, it was in the Bronze Age also (non sequitur).

I think there is enough in the public domain now to suggest that this hypothesis is very interesting, but largely speculative. It seems to be built on the pre-supposition that the healing centre idea is the case. The importance of the bluestones is beyond question, but the evidence for a specifically healing role is thin. For me, the reliance upon Geoffrey of Monmouth and in fact folklore in general is the most worrying. This monk was writing what was essentially fiction, albeit based upon “real” folklore as far as anyone can tell.

Among his wild claims was that the wizard Merlin and some giants had moved Stonehenge from Ireland! This is taken by some as evidence that some truth is to be found in the folklore, since received wisdom is now that the bluestones (NOT the larger stones) were moved from a long way away (Preseli again). This could easily be a conincidence based upon the striking nature of Stonehenge and its apparent alien nature with respect to the landscape. The locals didn’t know who built it, so it must have been moved from a foreign land by non-humans! This need have no bearing on any actual quarry site in Wales.

Geoffrey of Monmouth writes over 2500 years after Stonehenge was abandoned. To suggest that anything of the folk memory of the purpose of the site still exists is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. Most critically for this new hypothesis (since Darvill himself says this is the strongest piece of evidence), Geoffrey does NOT specify the bluestones. In fact, he says;

“…not a stone is there that is wanting in virtue of leechcraft”.
(History of the kings of Britain, c1136)

You could explain this away as corruption of past knowledge I suppose. But the fact that medieval people thought of mysterious standing stones as magical and healing says nothing about their original purpose, which may have evolved beyond recognition or even been totally forgotten and reinvented as something else. Yes, it may have been a continuous folk-memory or meme, but the connection itself is just not there and the claim that it is requires evidence. That level antiquity of continuity (with evidence) is unheard of (I stand to be corrected). You might as well claim that a local legend of a giant being buried in a prehistoric barrow is borne out if excavation then happens to show a burial of a 6’8″ man. Depending upon how useful you see folklore in interpreting the reality of the past, you might even say it’s like using modern Neo-Pagan religious activity as evidence of Druidic involvement in antiquity – another coincidence (and one inspired by a false folk-memory as started by an antiquarian!).

The other problem with starting with the folklore as these two seem to have done (the healing hypothesis was first put forward on the same basis by archaeologist Lesley Grinsell in the 1970s) is that you’re working ass-backwards. You’re dreaming up a story, and then setting out to prove it. This is fine in the pure sciences, where properly designed experiments will prove or disprove a hypothesis, but in the ephemeral world of archaeology, what’s needed is an open-minded approach, taking the evidence on its own terms and not over-reaching into the realm of fantasy. Look to historical sources to flesh out the archaeology by all means, but contemporary and reliable ones!

All I could take from this programme and hypothesis, with any confidence, is the possibility that the bluestones maintained special significance of some sort during the lifetime of the site. In the Open University forum thread Darvill does expand on the bluestone evidence, claiming that there is (presumably stratigraphic) evidence for the bluestones being “preferentially broken down” over the centuries. This is more like it. But “for use in healing rituals” would be only one, speculative, interpretation as to why. Darvill also points out that chips of bluestone are found in other burials in the area;

“…including the three pieces associated with the man buried in the Stonehenge ditch at c.2300-2200BC…Other findspots include pieces from the top of Silbury Hill, near the West kennet long barrow, and inside Bowls Barrow where is was probably incorporated within the chamber filling. Our list currently includes a couple of dozen pieces.”

Again, more like it, but sufficient evidence to lend weight to the “Neolithic Lourdes” hypothesis? I still don’t think so. All it shows is that bluestones are significant in some way. And why do these guys go on in that forum thread to plead with laypeople for more evidence of buried bluestone chips, if they are so confident in their work?

Assuming a contemporary healing tradition at a Preseli quarry and at Stonehenge, there is the problem of the geological evidence. The stones are not all of the same composition, and do not all come from the one quarry site (Carn Menin) that the archaeologists have settled on. Some geologists maintain that the stones are likely to have arrived in the region of Stonehenge via glacial movement – making the healing connection totally redundant. The problem with this is that no local deposit still exists, but even assuming human transport, this evidence adds a major complication – that the builders would have to have selected certain stones from certain sites in Preseli, regardless of their suitability for construction. Perhaps this was because certain spots had special healing springs next to them, but where is the evidence for this? We were shown one springhead with cup and ring marks, with no evidence to suggest that a Stonehenge bluestone came from that particular location, and that was it.

Finally, many of the pieces of bluestone surviving (and which are from the same source as the Stonehenge bluestones) have been fashioned not into a shape conducive to use as a healing amulet, but into weapons! This does not exactly support the idea of particular stones having intrinsic healing power. If anything, it would be site that would confer such power – making the idea of moving the stones away from their supposedly sacred healing springs rather pointless (just my opinion there).

In all, I don’t think Darvill and Wainwright have provided evidence that the idea of magical healing is any more significant than any other interpretation, nor that it can be shown to be one function of many (plausible though this seems given our lack of knowledge of prehistoric irrationality). At this point, I still agree with Mike Pitts when he says “as far as I’m concerned, it’s a fairy story“. To the Profs’ credit (and the media’s shame), they do point out that they don’t discount the work of others which shows continuous funerary use of the site. But let’s have more evidence, and less sensation.

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4 Responses to “Stonehenge snake oil?”

  1. quillofporcupine Says:

    Hello, enjoyed your blog about Stonehenge, which popped up when I was checking the dubious matter of the association of burials with chips of bluestone… Good heap of scepticism required

    I’ve linked to your blog, but as a new blogger am not sure if there’s an etiquette (like asking first) so I hope you don’t mind… Don’t know if this appears on the page for all to see? If so I will delete it if I can! Steep learning curve this blogging.

  2. bshistorian Says:

    Well thank you! I’ve just been tweaking it, actually, and it’s still a bit stream-of-consciousness. But hey, if you got something from it, that’s mission accomplished.

    Of course I don’t mind! I often worry myself that I’m not observing the right netiquette, but you can’t go wrong with links, I think.

    I’ll be sure to check yours out! Best wishes.

  3. sarsen56 Says:

    What an Interesting blog. People may like to know that the very first excavations at Stonehenge were probably motivated by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fabled ‘healing baths’. In the early C17th the renowned doctor William Harvey ( he of the circulation of the blood) and Lord North (advocate of the potency of healing springs) dug at Stonehenge. Logically this would have been an attempt to discover if there was any truth to Geoffrey’s story.

  4. Stonehenge unhinged. « The BS Historian Says:

    […] Just a quick update to a previous post, thanks to my recent (well behind the times) discovery of the rather awesome website (and book) […]

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