Feature Articles Standing, walking and sailing with stones
Henry Lincoln’s son makes a pilgrimage across the British Isles, underlining how little we know about its megalithic past. Islands in Amnesia?
by Philip Coppens
In “Mankind in Amnesia”, Immanuel Velikovsky argued that “virtually every aspect of human behaviour, every pattern in human history, and every article of human belief, if examined and illuminated in the light of the thesis of this book, reveals how human thought and action have been shaped and moulded by repressed collective memories of cosmic catastrophes that befell our ancestors as recently as one hundred generations ago.”
Whether or not such “cosmic catastrophes” existed, is at present unimportant; fact is that we are indeed a species suffering from amnesia – worse, that it seems that we are unwilling, unable or not interested in integrating our ancient past, the remnants of which are literally around – if not on – every corner.
All over Western Europe, and even more so in Great-Britain than elsewhere, and even more so in Ireland than in Great-Britain, one can hardly open a map and not be confronted with the remains of the Bronze Age: giant megaliths, whether they are standing stones, dolmens, stone circles, cairns, etc. are everywhere. But despite their omnipresence, few people know anything about them, except for Stonehenge or its Irish equivalent Newgrange being the two most popular, yet also the most atypical legacies of a civilisation where no-one really knows anything about. Indeed, when walking through Stonehenge today, one could just as well be walking on the surface of Jupiter, for we know about as much about that surface, as we know about the purpose of Stonehenge. The few things we know about these sites – namely that some megalithic complexes are aligned to solar or lunar phenomena – has been so hyped up by both archaeologists and amateurs alike, that it seems as if we know “enough” if we can find some type of orientation within these complexes. As comforting as that thought might be, it is, alas, totally untrue. So, in recent years, a number of people have begun to try and look at the greater picture. Authors like Alastair Moffat, Barry Cunliffe and Peter Marshall have all followed an identical approach; all have focused on the Atlantic coast of Europe, from the Orkneys in the North, via Ireland, Cornwall, the Atlantic coastline of France, Spain, Portugal down to Morocco, to argue that this was a land that “faced the ocean”, from the northernmost stretches of Europe down to northern Africa. These various communities shared common features, largely by the fact that in those days, transport by ship was far easier than overland – the land largely covered by unending woods. Marshall actually sailed the seas in his own boat, though when reaching Gilbratar, sailed into the Mediterranean, to end his journey in Malta.
But as well-intended as these books are – to map the megalithic civilisation – older books will tell you that there were just as many megaliths – in fact more – in inland France, especially around the Sens-Troyes area, and that megaliths have been found practically all over the world. Hence, as good intended as it is to focus on the Atlantic coastline, it is yet again a pars pro toto. And… as comforting as that thought might be, it is, alas, totally untrue. The problem is that the megalithic sites are now largely either surrounded by urban settlements – or that urbanisation over the past century simply resulted in the annihilation of these sites, this in itself being but the most wave of onslaught they have seen, thus assisting our amnesia.
Indeed, the “problem” of megaliths is that they are everywhere. And at a time when archaeology is afraid to break down modern borders and go against the isolationist stance it continues to endorse no matter what, it is a challenge none are willing to accept. Instead, Stonehenge and Newgrange continue to be seen in isolation. Thus enters Rupert Soskin and Michael Bott, who try to impart in “Standing with Stones” the obvious fact that it is time that we look at the megalithic culture as a whole, and not take sites in isolation, but visit, study and try to understand what they mean. And for that, they set off on month long journeys that would take them from Lands’ End to the Orkney Islands, via Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man and, of course, several other sites in England and Scotland.
Hence, when they visit Newgrange, Soskin points out that the structure visited by thousands each year is actually a monstrosity, a fake, at least on the outside; that there never was a gleaming white quartz façade, and that the concrete plinths were added to support the weight of the mound, whereby the famed entrance was designed for modern tourists, and not at all to be historically accurate. He labels its outwards appearance a “1970 piece of nonsense”. Soskin is the son of Henry Lincoln, a man familiar with ancient mysteries and who has largely tried to steer the mystery of the enigmatic priest Bérenger Saunière away from the priest, towards a mystery of Rennes-le-Château and its surrounding landscape, which in his opinion is linked with geometrical, prehistoric designs on that landscape. Lincoln’s thesis is far removed from basic, visible observations in the landscape, but that verifiable approach is precisely what Soskin and Bott are applying in their documentary. And they even made a clear decision to stay away from “objective truths”, i.e. the revelations that some people have had when visiting these monuments, and which often lead to intriguing theories, but, again, take the part for the whole.
For the sensationalist media, and even for the run-of –the-mill documentaries on the likes of National Geographic, this documentary might therefore seem dull and long-winded. But to some extent, that is the point. Wherever they turn, they are faced with megalithic remains, about which little is known, and which only seems visited as these old stones allow for some good photographs – or inspiration for paintings. But hardly anything is known about these hundreds of sites and hence, only in certain locations, are they able to say, or conjecture, something more than stating the obvious. That in the end we learn very little about the megalithic civilisation, is not at all their fault; instead, the movie acts as a mirror, informing the viewer that hardly anything is known about these thousands of monuments that “litter” our landscape – and how is that possible? Michael Bott notes that “Standing with Stones” was a production ten years in the making: the pair met in 1999, worked on a pilot in 2000, which was filmed in 2001, whereby the actual production occurred from 2005 onwards, resulting in the release of the documentary in 2008.
The pair notes that despite having visited ca. one hundred sites, 95 percent of the sites visited were all deserted while they were there. Yet when it comes to Stonehenge or Newgrange, you find hundreds and hundreds of people just in one place. Pondering why that is, they note that despite the fact that some of these sites are incredibly beautiful, the archaeological information available on them is “pretty dry”, at best, or non-existent at worst; and in some cases, some determination is required to get to these sites, requiring good maps, even if the sites are often apparently near the road. But each time, as the documentary shows, these sites will leave a dramatic impression on the eyes’ retina. Standing with Stones is therefore largely a visual compendium that tries to take in what this culture is; it is a more than two-hour long report of a gigantic road trip, which, as Soskin and Bott agree, left them with more questions than answers – though that is actually the best thing about this production.
Whenever Soskin is able to do more than point out where the stones stand in the land, he tries on occasion to move away from the “it’s all astronomically aligned” debate. For example, in Avebury, he points out the no longer present wooden poles, each measuring approx. one meter in diameter and ponders whether they might have been the support for a raised stage – or artificial forest, so that inside, a hunt could be performed, with spectators watching along the embankments. Elsewhere, he argues that the cursusses might indeed have been used as racecourses. It is, it seems, said tongue-in-cheek, and though his conclusions are likely erroneous, it does drive home the point that we simply do not know.
Soskin is also careful not to fall for pars pro toto theories. For example, he points out how the eastern part of England are indeed largely void of megalithic remains, which might favour the so-called “facing the Atlantic Ocean” stance, but points out that because of geological reasons, it is likely that similar structures were constructed as in the western parts of the island, but that rather than stone, wood would be more predominantly used. Of course, as famous as Stonehenge is, let us note that virtually next door, there is Woodhenge and Soskin points out what one can often find in very dry archaeological text books, but nowhere else: that these megaliths were not just a construction of stone, but also incorporated wood – which has since (after more than 4000 years) rotted away.
Indeed, we need to look at stone circles with new eyes; we need to add the timber that was incorporated into the site, which would give a context to relate to how these people used such sites. And when we do, all of sudden, our common understanding of the megaliths becomes a misconception. Hence, much if not most of megalithic Britain remains unexplained. At Land’s End, there is the unique Ballowal Barrow, whose purpose remains unknown. Several other megalithic stones have drill holes, which some have tried to explain as the remnants of abandoned 18th and 19th century attempts to break these structures down. But at Castleruddery in Ireland and Fernworthy in Dartmoor, Soskin is able to show that the presence of five drill holes in a flat-lying stone, somewhat removed from a larger megalithic complex, cannot be an accident and strongly suggests these holes had meaning – posing science with yet another challenge it should take up.
At Bryn Celli Ddu in Wales, Soskin realises that the central, freestanding pillar has not been seen for what it is: it is not a stone as such, but a fossilised tree trunk which, furthermore, reveals signs of incisions left there by Man. Noting that fossilisation of wood normally is said to take twenty million years, he notes that under certain conditions, it can nevertheless take as little as 5000 years. Hence, he wonders, did our ancestors chance upon this fossilised tree trunk, and decide to incorporate it in their megalithic structure? Noting that wood was as important to them as stone, a tree that made the transition to stone must have been seen as very important to them, and worthy of being enclosed within the sacred precinct that this structure likely was. Thus posing yet another task to the archaeologists. So what do we take with us from this documentary? First of all, that of all the sites, the producers’ favourite site is Callanish, where, by coincidence, they arrived at the moment of a full lunar eclipse – which meant that the pair were actually not alone there, but had a tremendous gathering of almost half a dozen people, witnessing an event for which Callanish seems to have been constructed thousands of years ago: charting the path of the moon. Millennia ago, Callanish was likely known by the ancient Greeks as an important temple, but it is clear that two millennia onwards, though the temple is still able to perform its stellar tasks, a star it is no longer.
When visiting the recumbent stone circles of Aberdeenshire, they note that the moon and the position of the altar stones play with one another, as archaeologists have been able to confirm. Then, they wonder that if we add once again the timber walls that were likely worked into the circle, than the “altar” would actually be a giant window, functioning very much like a cinema screen, a type of Stone Age Cinema, in which not the Flintstones, but the moon’s spectacle is portrayed through the window to the viewers inside. In short, it would be similar to the solar display of e.g. Newgrange, but rather than nesting the phenomenon within an earthen mound, it would be housed within a timber hall.
On the Orkneys, megalithic settlement of Skara Brae and a local museum offer insights into the personal life of these builders. Indeed, like so many others, they query why the Orkneys, with the Ring of Brodgar, had the third biggest stone circle in Britain – on such a small, far-off island. Rather than query whether transoceanic contact might be the answer, they offer that perhaps the local fish trade might be a possibility, but realise that – once again – we simply do not know, though it is clear from the remains at Skara Brae that these were not savages; indeed, it is a house worthy of the Flintstones, and also showing that when it comes to interior design, little has changed in 5000 years.
They also underline that some of the circles and other structures might be linked to sporting events, adding that this suggestion might upset certain people, but that competition and sport is indeed as old as mankind – and the birth of the Olympic Games is still identified as the first historic event of ancient Greece. But though today’s megalithic structures could indeed be the remains of some prehistoric Olympic Village, what is lacking from this possibility is largely why anyone would want a stone boxing ring, or why boxing rings would be aligned to stellar phenomena. So what does the documentary teach us? First, it confirms that in Britain, there are apparently three large concentrations, where the complexity of the monuments rose far beyond those of other areas: Wiltshire, Cumbria and the Orkneys. That across Britain, there were certain small-ish communities, but that these communicated over long distances, even beyond Britain. The local variations in design are variations on a theme and it is clear that there was indeed such a thing as a megalithic civilisation – even though some people do not want to hear this conclusion.
This shared culture in the film is perhaps best expressed by the known archaeological fact that axe heads from Great Langdale have been found not just across the British Isles, but even in continental Europe. Why would a culture attach a specific importance to specifically this stone, and import/export it from the Lake District? It is a most important question that no-one has been able to answer, and science – to their detriment – seriously has failed to address.
An important clue as to what these stones might specifically be remnants of, might have been learned on the Isle of Man, where the Tynwald and its processional road shares some parallels with similar structures elsewhere on the British Isles – but where they are no longer used. Indeed, noting that in the past midsummer solstice was often linked with divine kings – kingship itself linked with the sun – these ancient monuments might have been royal residences, where the kings and rulers performed certain ceremonies… and whereby certain feasts and festivities – including sporting events? – were held to entertain the gathered masses. Then, as now, there were local rulers, with slightly larger general assemblies, reporting into national assemblies. And it might just not be a coincidence that the three “centres” of megalithic Britain are one in the south, one in the north, and one in the middle. Coincidence, or evidence of a clear social organisation? One part of the documentary addresses William Blake’s Jerusalem, whereby it is pointed out that the Rollright Stones were indirectly involved in something that the British see as their alternative national anthem. Blake’s love for the megaliths was derived from the work of William Stukeley, himself a friend of Isaac Newton, who claimed to have had a life-changing experience when visiting this monument. Stukeley “realised” these megaliths were the remains of an ancient religion, led by the druids, and destroyed by the Roman-Catholic wave that swept over the British Isles afterwards. When Blake next wrote “Jerusalem”, it was largely written as his desire to rekindle the druidic culture in Britain. That flame is partially lit, but like the flame at the start of “Standing with Stones”, its light so far has only been able to shed some light in the darkness.
Today, druids annually gather at Stonehenge, but it is a shame that it – both the gathering and Stonehenge – is seen as a pars pro toto, for it gives a skewed view of history. Megalithic Britain was so much more. And rather than a religious gathering on the summer solstice, it seems that it was equally a political, and social gathering, held on various sites across the British Isles. And though Stonehenge was important, it is clear that the moon, with sites such as Callanish and various other “Nine Stones” displaying clear lunar connotations, were equally important.
As such, “Standing with Stones” is but the first stone in a series of punches which is hopefully going to create a domino effect, largely like Chevy Chase knocking over Stonehenge. And though this might have brought us to the National Lampoon family, it is clear that we are far away from understanding the Flintstones.