This fall, a piece of prehistory made a big splash in the
Circle Found near Stonehenge!"
If you simply scanned the breathless headlines, you might assume that a
ring of giant stones had somehow escaped notice for a few thousand years, just
a mile from the mother-of-all-henges.
As a friend asked, "Why didn't anyone spot it until now?"
Courtesy of Kevin Tod Haug. Left to right: Keith Rodgerson (sound), Anna Evans-Freke (associate
producer), Jill Shinefield, Mike Parker Pearson, Gail Willumsen, Mike Coles
For starters, the stones are long gone. For another, the monument is located on the lush banks of the River Avon, prime real estate where most traces of prehistory have been overlaid by lavish country estates. (Apparently Sting owns one.) Luckily, the owners of one idyllic stretch of riverbank (ideally suited for gin-and-tonics on summer afternoons) allowed archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson and his team to dig there. Mike's goal had been to pinpoint the end of the Stonehenge Avenue, a processional pathway that begins outside the entrance to Stonehenge, curves for about 2 miles across the landscape, and dead-ends somewhere near the river. Mike never dreamed he'd find "Stonehenge's Little Sister."
In September 2009, we show up to film the site on the morning after a torrential thunderstorm has swept across the Salisbury Plain. By 9 am, archaeologists and student diggers have bailed rainwater out of the deepest trenches, and everyone is back at work -boots muddied, jeans soggy, spirits intact. I spot Mike Parker Pearson kneeling in the bottom of a ditch, trowel in hand, scraping up clods of sticky clay. He digs with gusto yet great delicacy, parsing out the subtle nuances of color and texture that distinguish signs of human activity in the soil from old rabbit holes. This man can read dirt. He is so clearly in his element that I feel guilty disturbing him. But gracious as always, he gives us a tour of "Bluestonehenge", as his latest discovery has been christened.
Mike's team has exposed a large wedge of the henge -a circular ditch and external bank about 33 feet in diameter. In the center, Mike points out an arc of several large holes that (based on their size and shape) must have held standing stones. To my eye, it looks like a gigantic slab of chocolate cake, with holes where huge birthday candles were pulled out. Extrapolating from this 'slice', Mike reckons the intact circle probably numbered about 25 closely-spaced standing stones. And these were almost certainly bluestones, a type of stone that that's indigenous to Wales, over 150 miles away. Stonehenge also contains many of these 'foreign' bluestones.
So what's it all mean? Mike cautions that he's still waiting on radiocarbon dates, but even now it seems clear that Bluestonehenge was an integral part of Stonehenge. Mike suspects the bluestones that once stood here by the river were eventually dragged up the Avenue and installed in Stonehenge, during a later phase of 'remodeling'. As for the purpose of Bluestonehenge? Mike digs his toe into the ground: "This soil is full of charcoal. Maybe people were cremated here by the river and then their ashes were buried at Stonehenge itself. Not many people realize that Stonehenge was Britain's largest burial ground at that time."
According to Mike's theory, prehistoric people dedicated the area around Stonehenge to their ancestors. We are standing in the sacred realm of the dead. But somehow it just doesn't feel that way this morning, with the sun sparkling on wet grass and the Avon glinting through the trees. And with Sting just up the road.
Publicist Note: An enduring question about Stonehenge remains: how did Stone Age people --without the wheel or the use of metal--move and raise its stones? NOVA's "Secrets of Stonehenge" airing November 16, 2010... features exclusive coverage of an ingenious new experiment, based on an unusual prehistoric artifact.