Henges – The Archaeology of Etymology (or vice versa).

Thomas Kendrick made a number of contributions to society. His study of anthropology was ironically interrupted in 1914 by the largest outbreak of tribal warfare in the history of the species. Kendrick became embroiled in the hostilities, entering combat as part of the Warwickshire regiment and rising to the rank of captain. While fighting in France he received a wound serious enough to return him to England, where he eventually gained a masters in his chosen subject. He became an assistant Keeper of the British Museum, and eventually rose to Director. During the rise of Nazism, Kendrick helped house and employ refugees from Germany, and produced a number of books on subjects ranging from Anglo-Saxon art to the archaeology of the Channel Islands. These are all positive contributions to society, and it could be imagined that someone who chose his path with such wisdom and care (or if not, a great deal of luck), would also choose a word to describe a type of monument with equal wisdom and care (or good luck). In this, he fumbled the ball entirely. His selection of word, it has to be said, fails to describe any aspect of the monument type it purportedly defines to an almost heroic degree.

The word and its meaning.

Knowlton Henge

Knowlton Henge. Note the defining lack of reddish orange caudial fins.

Some believe that the earlier name for Stonehenge (stan hencg) is a reference to their resemblance to a gallows, which consisted of two timber uprights and a lintel joining them across the top. Proponents of this version suggest that the name is more properly rendered as ‘hanging stones’. They are entirely right, but for entirely the wrong reasons. Others have maintained that the ‘hencg’ is more properly rendered ‘hinge’, and is a reference to how the lintels are joined to the uprights. They are entirely wrong, but for entirely understandable reasons. The words ‘henge’, ‘hinge’ and ‘hang’ are cognates – they all mean the same thing, and that is ‘suspend’.

The lintels at Stonehenge are suspended by the upright stones, in no more mysterious a manner than a coat is suspended by a coat hanger, or how the roof of an aircraft hangar is suspended by its walls. Walter Skeet writes in the first ever published etymological dictionary;

Hang, to suspend, to be suspended. (E.) The original strong verb was transitive; the weak verb intransitive; they are now mixed up. The weak verb is from A.S. hangian, pt. t. hangode, to hang down (intr); derived from the base of the A.S. strong verb hon (contracted form of hangan), pt. t. heng, pp. hangen + Icel. hengja, weak verb, from hanga (pt. t. hekk for henk*, pp.hanginn); G. hangen weak verb from G. hangen (pt. t. hing, pp.gehangen). allied to L. cunctari, to delay, Skt. cank, to hesitate.

From Walter Skeet’s Concise Dictionary of English Etymology.

Alternatively, in his ‘History of the Kings of Britain‘, Geoffrey of Monmouth invokes a folk etymology to explain how the stones came to be named. According to his version of events, a Saxon warlord by the name of Hengest went to meet a delegation of Britons with whom he was at war, to negotiate a peace settlement. Instead of following the pre-agreed course of events, Hengest decided to bring negotiations to a swift close by slaughtering the opposition. To mark the treachery, Aurelius Ambrosius, king of the Britons, had a memorial structure erected on the spot of the slaughter, and named it ‘Hengest’s stone’. Nice try Geoffrey, but that would be a bit like naming Nelson’s Column after the French sailor that shot him.

What they are.

Very broadly speaking a henge monument is a circular, or near circular bank and ditch arrangement with one or more entrances. The important thing to remember is that with a henge, the ditch is on the inside. It is, if you will, the opposite of a defensive structure, which would have the ditch on the outside. In an attempt to clarify things further, a number of sub-classes were invented to accomodate variations observed in henge monuments. Class I henges have only one entrance. Which is also presumably an exit. Class II henges have two opposed entrances. Or exits. Or both. Class III henges have four opposing entrances. Or exits. Or all four. I mean both. In addition, there are the sub-sub classes which include; Class Ia henges, which have only one entrance, a single bank and a double circuit of ditches (one either side of the bank), and Class IIa henges which have two opposed entrances, a single bank, and two or more circuits of ditches.

And what they are not.

A common mistake (and an understandable one given the origins of the term) is to confuse a henge monument with the stone or timber circles they sometimes contain (or once contained). Woodhenge, for example, has a henge (Class I), and used to have a timber structure inside the henge. Whether this structure had lintels like Stonehenge is unprovable, but it certainly consisted of thick upright timbers which formed a monument much closer to Stonehenge in character than the enclosing bank and ditch could ever be. It is still not a henge, regardless of how much more appropriate the name is for such a structure. Interestingly it has become commonplace to illustrate timber monuments as having lintels, though there is only one monument in the entirety of the British Isles known to be constructed with this addition.

And why a revision may be in order.

Perca fluviatilis. Note the distinct lack of banks and ditches.

The question that remains to be answered is why Kendrick chose the word. As a Keeper and later Director of the British Museum, the importance of naming things cannot have bypassed him. Naming, cataloguing and curating objects and organisms is the primary purpose of the institution. Kendrick’s choice is by anyone’s measure, a spectacularly odd one. To clarify why his choice was spectacularly odd, the words ‘holotype’ and ‘paratype’ are worth exploring at this point. A holotype is an important concept. When a new species of flora/fauna is discovered, it is formally described and named, and it is then decided (perhaps over a number of years) where precisely this new discovery fits in with other known forms of life.

This process combines two disciplines; those of taxonomy and systematics. The holotype is the specimen selected by the describer which displays the representative features of the species described. If it was a European perch (Perca fluviatilis) for instance, it would have between five and nine dark vertical bands on its flanks, its caudal, pelvic and anal fins would be a distinctive reddish orange, and the most forward of its two dorsal fins would bear prominent spines. There are of course an enormous amount of discriminating features in addition to these, but these are the most obvious.

Most importantly, an example of the species which did not bear these features could not in all conscience be selected as a holotype; it would not be representative. The members of the species that failed to attain holotype status have their own title, and it’s not a bad one at that. They are known as paratypes; the para is a nice solution, because within any major shoal will lurk a specimen equal in stature and fin to that specimen chosen as the holotype. Perca was named by Carl von Linné (which he Latinised into Carolus Linnaeus), the creator of the scientific binomial system. As a species name it has remained relevant since 1758 and in all likelihood will remain so for a lot longer. However, should a new analytical technique be developed which removed Perca from its current family, it will be renamed, regardless of how many centuries it has been Perca, and regardless of who decided the original name.

In order to understand the complexities of the relationships between all living things, and keep the record of these relationships relevant, taxonomy and systematics demand such revision. And here’s the rub; as Director of the British Museum Kendrick would have been intimate with this process. And yet not only has he chosen to name a monument type after a unique monument, he has also chosen to name it after the specific component of that monument which, arguably, makes it unique. In doing so he has chosen a holotype for which there can be no paratype. True, binomials aren’t the traditional method of choice when it comes to naming monuments or features, but an alternative which reflects the same amount of descriptive precision is easily obtainable without descending into adsurd levels of detail – there are a large number of monuments that could have leant their names to the monument type. But as it stands, strictly speaking, we have only the one henge monument. And equally strictly speaking, it only just qualifies as one.

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5 Responses

  1. I stumbled on this via your Prometheus review, which I stumbled on via BoingBoing today (Feb 9 2014). Thank you for a glimpse at this – and I’m sure you’re aware of ManhattanHenge – a very calculated borrowing by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, to name an event around a structure, and not the structure itself.

    And of course, Manhattan has more entrances and exits.

    So thanks for a tour through a little etymological eddy. I gotta get back to work now.

  2. Henry Rothwell says:

    Glad you enjoyed it – funny you should mention Manhattan Henge, Christian – http://www.digitaldigging.net/bluestonehenge-oval-round-digital-model/

  1. 02/07/2012

    […] segues neatly into a summing up of henges (though they are not directly related to timber or stone circles, they are found in conjunction […]

  2. 06/11/2012

    […] pick up a trick or two from taxonomy. If you’d like to read it as background, it’s here. It’s nothing too serious – I’m 37% sure it was used as the basis for a question […]

  3. 10/12/2013

    […] The word ‘henge’, incidentally, was chosen in 1932 by Thomas Kendrick, a Director of the British Museum. For someone who had produced major works on prehistory, and was thoroughly intimate with the subject, it was a fabulously peculiar choice in that it almost entirely fails to describe the monument type it was selected to represent. And an internal ditch certainly is an odd feature if your intention is defence. By placing the ditch on the outside of the bank or rampart, you are forcing any attacker to increase a height disadvantage – however if you reverse the situation you are forcing the disadvantage on yourself. […]

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