For the sake of balance I will try to explain why some archaeologists have painted themselves into the corner of their yoga mats, and readers should be warned be there maybe some intellectual cartoon violence, and outbreaks of Kermodian ranting.
People have probably been picking up messages from the Stones since they were first erected, but now some archaeologists have also started tuning into archaeology like postholes, pits, and their content in search of the beliefs and rituals that lie behind them. One aspect is called structured deposition, and it's not just looking for rational behaviour, but belief, in the way things are discarded.
The majority for our evidence for domestic prehistoric ‘activity’ comes in the form of postholes, pits, and linear features like ditches. However, if you ignore the postholes, or mystified them as ritual, this means that you can’t talk about ‘occupation’, because you have no buildings, and this leaves the rubbish open to similar mystification. If people don’t live on the site, they must be in some way nomadic, stopping off to do rituals there, and therefore the fills of the postholes and the rubbish pits may be created as part of this ritual life.
Thus, ritual posts beget structured deposition, and PhDs could be earned searching through the fills of postholes, pits and ditches for evidence of the rituals, and the belief systems underlying the deposition of the materials that turn up on archaeological digs.
In the Neolithic you can’t just dig a hole, take a dump, throw in your trash, and back-fill it, to use someone else’s vernacular; this was a New Age, they were in the throws of a revolution, and redefining their relationship with the earth, [man].
Everywhere else they are getting on with the Bronze Age. Not a million miles away the classical world is emerging, while Britain is apparently still traumatised by the ‘Neolithic Revolution’, and is trying to rebuild their relationship with Mother Nature and gazing at the stars, [man]
Is it something they put in the beer?
I don’t tend to watch archaeology documentaries, I find them distressing, and I was not planning to watch this - but “This Britain is a strange and alien world“, “Age of cosmology “, & “lives ruled by sun and stars” lilted into my consciousness; was is this a new episode of Merlin? No it’s part of a BBC series a History of Ancient Britain
“Britain was in throes of the Neolithic revolution. The first farmers were forging a whole new relationship with the land, a land that was alive with spiritual meaning”
I have to write this down, throes of the Neolithic Revolution, Alive with spiritual meaning , cool.
The wild wood that bordered their land, the boundary between the land and sea, and the mountains that touched the very sky; places like the Lake District, with its valley and crags held a special power, if your understanding of the world was rooted in stone,
I choke on my metaphorical pretzel; “If! If!” I scream at the television.
Hang on there Bonnie Lad; whose understanding is rooted in stone?
. . . then this landscape that seems to shout the very word ‘stone’, must seem especially important, and here in the central fells the message is particularly clear.
Message? What message? Who’s been getting messages?
From whom, the National Park, surely not the Neolithic landscape?
Journeys, writes of passage, the sky, and some stuff about a spiritual journey, transcend my archaeological brain without touching the sides, asI struggle to re-grasp the tread of the narrative, and transcribe into a notebook.
The Cumbrian axe factory reveals a relationship between the people and their landscape and stone itself. This belief system would change over time, it would develop into something much more complex, and for us, enigmatic. Something that represents a whole new age in our history, an age that experts refer to as the Age of Astronomy.
I am now hiding behind my metaphorical sofa; Whose belief system?
And surely it’s Astrology! It probably involved looking at the entrails of animals, get a grip!
. . . .What becomes clear, is that for the people living 5000 years ago, this was a new age bringing a new way of thinking about ancestors, rather it was a new way of thinking about themselves as individuals within an increasingly complex society.
…What we see is a radical change in thinking, that manifests itself in something staggering, the construction of monuments of stone on an unprecedented scale.
At some point in my delirium I wrote down
Where did we fit into time and into the cosmos?
I am loosing the thread again, is this about an out of the body experience? What have they done to prehistory? Neil Oliver sounded like Alan Whicker reporting from the Bronze Age:
““Where do we fit into time and into the cosmos? “ This is the question people are asking themselves today, here in the Bronze Age.”
“ An archer from Amesbury was officially too ill to comment, but his sentiments have been widely reported as . . . .”.
To be fair, it is perhaps not meant to be read, deconstructed, or thought about; more inwardly digested with some suitably Celtic spiritual music, images of misty landscapes, and preferably an Indian head massage. I not against tree hugging, or reading peoples auras; I am open to getting in touch with most things, but I draw the line at other peoples’ ancestors; eves dropping the internal dialogue of Neolithic people is borderline spiritualism, not archaeology.
Neil does not actually enter a trance, and start communing with our ancestors, but what his intellectual picnic in the British countryside overlooks, is that belief and thinking are precisely the things that archaeologists don’t find.
For me, telling us how Neolithic people thought about stone is akin to telling us their favourite colour. Most people can understand that you can’t know much about what people believed or thought thousands of years ago, especially when they have left no records, and thus, creating and retrofitting cosmologies to explain archaeology is a bit weird.
Thus, because people in East Africa have round houses, cattle, and iron spears, for example, they have ticked the same boxes as people in Iron Age Britain, and it is possible to make cross-cultural comparisons, using the Africans to fill in the detail about the Celts. This is why it seemed reasonable that the original Butser roundhouse reconstruction should have a 45° roof pitch, because that’s what they do in Africa; it leaked, because that is not what we do in England.
Northern Europeans building in oak didn’t need advice from Madagascar, N America or Papua New Guinea; it was kind of them to offer, but it’s a long way to come by canoe.
Academic archaeology retreated into the library, locked the door, and tried to excavate the Neolithic mindset, only discover their ancestors behaved as if they had read the same books as them.
References and further reading
'Newgrange' by Geraldine Stout
'Between the Wind and the Water' by Caroline Wickham Jones
'Stonehenge Complete' by Christopher Chippendale
'Stonehenge: A Biography of a Landscape' by Timothy Darvill
'Bronze Age Britain' by Mike Parker Pearson
Harding, D W, Blake I M, and Renolds P J, 1993 An Iron Age settlement in Dorsett: Excavation and reconstruction. University of Ediburgh. Department of Archaeology Monograph series No. 1. & visit