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AWMM’s Secrets of Stonehenge

Dr David Gaimster and Professor Mike Parker Pearson. Photo supplied.

Secrets of Stonehenge revealed, NZ Herald, 1 February 2023

New technology suggests epic journey part of Stonehenge’s origins.

It must have been one of the most amazing human migrations of all time – hundreds of people, oxen and 20-tonne rocks making a 200km journey to the Salisbury Plains and building one of the most enduring mysteries in the world: Stonehenge.

This astonishing journey is part of the construction of Stonehenge, completed over hundreds of years, and comes to life in the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s “Secrets Of Stonehenge” exhibition. It is currently wowing audiences after new technology shed more light on Stonehenge’s origins and two of the key questions surrounding the ancient structure built about 2500 BC – how and why?

The exhibition is curated by Mike Parker Pearson, Professor of British Later Prehistory at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and Fellow of the British Academy – who has been directing research on Stonehenge since 2003: “After centuries of speculation, we are finally reaching an understanding of Stonehenge: who built it, when, how and why,” he says.

That sentiment is echoed by the museum’s Chief Executive, David Gaimster, who says: “Everyone who comes out of this exhibition has had their imagination fired – and they nearly all come out asking more questions. Stonehenge’s mysteries haven’t all been solved yet, not by a long way, but this exhibition shows how far we have come with modern technology after centuries of study and speculation.”

Gaimster says the strongest light in the exhibition shines not so much on Stonehenge itself but on the people from the late Neolithic, early Bronze era who built Stonehenge after an epic journey. Even today that journey has the capacity to make people shake their heads in amazement, in much the same way as they do when contemplating the almost unbelievable human effort that went into building Egypt’s pyramids.

Photo supplied.

Parker Pearson’s work on Stonehenge’s origins and the journey to get many of the giant stones to their current site have revealed that Stonehenge was a place of intense interest to people who lived 5000 years ago; it was a desired destination.

So much so, says Gaimster, that thousands of people decided to move their community from West Wales about 218km to Stonehenge – bringing their ancestors with them.

“We know that the Salisbury Plains area was a special place even before the monument was erected,” he says. “We also know that the giant stones are representative of ancestors – we see that in many cultures round the world; giant monoliths, in places like Rapa Nui Easter Island.

The Neolithic age was when humans turned from being hunter-gatherers to becoming farmers and Stonehenge has long been identified as being aligned to the sunset of the winter solstice and the opposing sunrise of the summer solstice. “So we know it had huge seasonal significance and the rich plains may well have had such significance for agriculture and farming of animals,” Gaimster says. “They were migrating to a specific environment.

“So it points to a belief system of some kind in the calendrical or seasonal structure of the world. We also know Stonehenge was a burial ground from the many remains found and the stones relate to ancestors.”

So that is part of the “why” some people, thousands of years ago, decided to move to the Salisbury Plains, taking their ancestors with them. The “how” is astounding – giant teams of humans and oxen and hide ropes the thickness of cables were used to drag giant sledges over the terrain.

There were no wheels and no rollers. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of people involved, as this was a whole community moving itself 200km away – a journey that would have taken months. There is evidence this community is possible to have included children, indicating a permanent move of whole families.

Some of the hammerstones used to shape the large sarsen blocks were so small that that it’s thought children were involved in the shaping of them.

Gaimster says Pearson’s work on Durrington Walls, close to Stonehenge, shows where that community lived: “While Stonehenge was the domain of the dead, Durrington Walls was for the living, the people that built Stonehenge.”

There is also plenty of evidence of people gathering at Stonehenge for giant feasts, judging from the bones of animals found from those times. Gaimster compares it to a giant barbecue, marking the winter solstice and the new year ahead.

Photo supplied.

But it is also clear that Stonehenge’s first form, built around 3000 BC, looked very different from its second incarnation 500 years later, when it took the form in which it broadly appears today. It also became, he says, a pilgrimage; DNA and other new technology has identified the remains of people from all over Europe.

It could compare roughly to today’s religious pilgrimages, like the Hajj and the 800km of pilgrim’s trails in the Camino de Santiago walk that includes France, Portugal and Spain. Gaimster also compares it to modern music festivals, like Glastonbury in the UK.

“However, it is much more significant than that,” he says. “Stonehenge was used for 2000 years – that’s a very long time; far longer than any of the mediaeval cathedrals in Europe.

“And we have yet to detect all Stonehenge’s secrets. We still don’t know, for example, why they built the trilithon structures [the two standing stones with a third stone laid across the top]. If it was just about the solstice, they just needed standing stones – not the carefully crafted monuments they have produced.”

So Stonehenge continues to fire the imagination – but Gaimster says the “Secrets” exhibition helps explain more than has ever been explained before.

Secrets of Stonehenge is on now at Auckland Museum until Tuesday April 25.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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