The Bluestonehenge Reconstruction (II).
I’m rewriting this blog piece for two reasons. The first is that I’ve had some time to reflect on what the ‘discovery’ might mean, and the second is that I managed to delete the original blog entry. Wiped it out entirely. You know, the one whose address all those follow on articles pointed at. Why? Because I’m an ass, that’s why. The ‘discovery’ was a lucky accident. Me and Adam Stanford were working on a smartphone app for Stonehenge and the surrounding landscape. Included in this was the Bluestonehenge discovery made by the Stonehenge Riverside team in 2009.
We wanted to use an honest to goodness watercolour illustration of what the stone circle may have looked like, but the artist whose work we wanted was away on holiday. To fill in, I decided to do a digital reconstruction and see what it looked like. I’d done one before, but that was based around the rough proportions of the dig site, rather than on any clear plan. This time I had Adam’s fantastic Aerial-Cam shot of the excavation in progress. I took the image and geo-located it in Google Earth, before porting it into Sketchup.
The excavators had kindly placed black plastic buckets in the empty socket holes which had once contained bluestones, so nothing could be simpler – make a stone pillar, texture it using an image of a bluestone surface, and plonk the pillars in the bucket holes. Voila. Easy. I now had a nice bluestone circle. I emailed a screenshot over to Adam and Skyped him for his reaction. He made some nice noises, before pointing out that I’d missed a bucket. I looked around and there, over to the right, was a black plastic bucket sitting on top of some freshly exposed chalk. The contrast between the two was so obvious, it was no wonder I’d missed it (whistles to himself, looking at feet).
I still had the various bits of software open so I went into Sketchup and scaled the circle up, expanding it to fit the holes. No good. Way too large. Than I took another good look at the pattern of the excavated holes and thought an oval might work. Better. We went with it. And for no better reason that I thought he might be interested in it, I mailed the image over to Mike Pitts, who promptly wrote about it on his blog. He pointed out that in hindsight it looks obvious, but the important thing about the new configuration is of course that an oval, unlike a circle, has two ends. It can point to something. It can align with something. And though in my original blog post I likened the shape to that of the supposed bluestone oval inside Stonehenge (though not an oval now – more usually described as a ‘horseshoe’ it is thought to have contained five more bluestones, the evidence for which exists only as empty socket holes) that was about as far as I had gone with it. But Mike had also remarked that the layout of Woodhenge was also more of an oval that a circle.
It just so happened that I had geolocated models of Stonehenge and Woodhenge sitting on my hard drive. Purely as an experiment, I loaded Stonehenge up and tried dropping the new oval shaped Bluestonehenge into it. To my genuine surprise the model not only fitted perfectly, but also shared the exact same orientation as the bluestone horseshoe in the middle. Hmmmmmm. I repeated the experiment with Woodhenge. Same result – the Bluestonehenge model shared the same alignment, and fitted between the two innermost circuits – which are also the two most oval circuits of the once timber circle (for want of a better word). A third bluestone oval cropped up on both the comments section of Mike Pitts’ blog page and the Digital Digging Facebook page – Bedd Arthur. Bedd Arthur is an open ended oval – or attenuated horse-shoe if you prefer – on the ridge of the Preseli Mountains in North Pembrokeshire. It’s near one of the outcrops which have, over the years, been identified as the quarries from which the Stonehenge bluestones were taken. I didn’t have a model of this arrangement, and nor could I find a plan of one. Bing maps came to the rescue with a near vertical shot of the stones. Not ideal, but it was all I had to work with – so I contented myself with a rough layout of dots which conformed with the stones on the ground in both shape and orientation. I dropped it onto my Bluestonehenge model. Though the fit wasn’t quite as convincing as before, the alignment was good, the size was similar, but as I said, the shape is rather odd. The similarities were persuasive, but not compelling.
Now. Alignments. This is where people got slightly annoyed with me. The reason for their annoyance is that I can take or leave them. They don’t matter much, outside the fact that if you have a bunch of monuments of the same type and age and they all point in the same direction then it almost certainly wasn’t an accident. This is an important observation. What they point at isn’t so important. In fact the entire second half of my eventual write-up about the new interpretation dealt solely with this point. I cited Ian Hinton’s heroic church alignment research project to demonstrate the fruitlessness of looking for meaning in the orientation of manmade structures. Cutting a long story short, Hinton surveyed nearly 17,50 churches across Britain in an effort to find out why there are variations in their general East-West orientation. The further West he went, he found that the became more oriented to the North East than those in the East of the country. No one knew why. One premise he was working on was that they were aligned to the sunrise of the birthday of their patron saint. Nope. Didn’t work out. Now, ecclesiastical architecture in Britain is accompanied by a wealth of documentary evidence. The tradition which created these structures is thriving. But nobody knows why churches are sort of aligned East-West. Take that problem into the realms of pre-historic study, remove all the documentary evidence, and the thriving tradition, and also the knowledge of what churches are actually used for and you’re on thin ice. We know the solstices were important enough to mark. We don’t know why – our best guess is based on how we feel about those times of year – happy we’re halfway through winter, undecided how we feel about being halfway through summer, but what the hell – it’s nice and warm – let’s light a fire and have something to drink. Any interpretations of a more complex nature are likely to remain conjecture.
Seeing Beneath Stonehenge.
The real test was going to come when the site plan from the actual dig became available. I knew that Kate Welham, Mark Dover and Lawrence Shaw of Bournemouth University had been working on a project called ‘Seeing Beneath Stonehenge‘. This was part funded by Google, and was going to be a downloadable .KMZ tour of the research that had been conducted over the duration of the Stonehenge Riverside Project – the project which had unearthed Bluestonehenge in the first place. When it was released as a download towards Christmas 2011, I was interested to see what their reconstruction would look like, and whether my model would survive being dropped into the actual site plan. Once I’d got the file opened in Google Earth I headed over to Durrington Walls for a look at a Woodhenge model I’d made back in 2008 (2009?) – Lawrence had tipped me off that it would be making an appearance, and it was good to see one of my original experiments had stood the test of time. Then, not without trepidation, I headed over to Bluestonehenge. They gone for the round interpretation, and included the pits from the site plan – as this was the first time I’d seen the actual plan I was interested to see if my oval interpretation had any legs. I screengrabbed it, imported it into Sketchup and dropped my oval model in. To my eyes the interpretation stood (to decide for yourself head over to the full write up ~ Bluestonehenge – Oval or Round?). Please note, I am not suggesting that one interpretation is a more accurate picture of the monument as it stood than the other, but more that both interpretations are equally acceptable as far as the surviving evidence is concerned.
Although it would be great to know one way or another, it’s the discovery that is the most important thing – a stone circle (or oval) at the end of the Avenue? That’s fantastic. And like many aspects of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, once enough time has passed for all the new discoveries to sink in, it will in my opinion be viewed as a turning point for studies in the British Neolithic.
Uncertainty is a constant companion to archaeology, and it’s unlikely that the circle/oval question will ever be settled – half the site was covered in tree, the roots of which will have almost certainly obliterated the remainder of the socket holes. No one knows how much of it is left.
Uncertainty, however, is not such a bad thing – in many ways it’s one of the properties which makes the discipline so stimulating.
For those of you who have yet to experience ‘Seeing Beneath Stonehenge’ the preview video can be seen below, and the file can be downloaded from the Bournemouth University blog.