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Timewatch and the mystery of Stonehenge: Debate

Updated Tuesday 23rd April 2013

How do you set about understanding the motivation of people who lived thousands of years ago? That was the task for Timewatch.


Storm over Stonehenge Creative commons image Icon ~Orion--13 under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Copyright The Open University


John Farren: Hello there. I’m John Farren. I’m the Editor of the BBC’s flagship history series Timewatch. In this podcast we’re going to explore some of the historical issues raised by the Timewatch programme on Stonehenge. In the programme we explore a new theory which might at last solve the riddle of the stones and explain why Stonehenge was built. With me in the studio to discuss this I have Professor Tim Darvill, a doyen of Stonehenge from Bournemouth University and proponent of the new theory, along with historians Stuart Mitchell and Susie West, both from The Open University.

Personally very excited about this programme, I can’t remember us ever being on the One O’Clock News and the Six O’Clock News before. So Tim, you developed this theory along with Geoff Wainwright. I suppose I should sort of explain a little bit about how we heard of the story, we read in the newspaper. Can you remind me how long ago that was that you first?

Tim Darvill: Yes, well it was a couple of years ago that we started to put this out into the public domain after we’d spent about five or six years working on this aspect of it. But in fact the interest that Geoff and I have in Stonehenge goes back a great deal further than that. Both of us have been working on the Stonehenge as a site for best part of twenty years or so, and a lot of it to do with the construction of the Visitors Centre, rerouting of roads and all these kind of things. And it was that which really galvanised our thinking that we’d got to understand the monument a bit more than we do at the moment. The attention has been focussed on the heritage aspects of it and yet actually most people visit Stonehenge to try and understand something about the monument as a place, and we were rather bereft of information on that.

John Farren: I’d been doing the job, I suppose, then for about four years and every four minutes someone would say, “Why don’t you do Stonehenge?!” And I must admit that it’s one of those great, fantastic, emotive words and monuments, but I kind of kept thinking, my heart kept sinking every time anyone proposed it because there didn’t seem to be anything to say. And what kind of absolutely astonished me, when I read your stuff, was there is something new to say, and it’s very, very coherent.

So we decided that we would commission our producer, Dave Stewart, to work with yourself and Geoff and examine your theory. And your theory in a nutshell is that Stonehenge is a place of healing, so we hit upon the wizard wheeze of taking some of the bones that have been disinterred over the last hundred years, examining them for signs of acute injury. And it wasn’t a bad programme, I have to say, but it wasn’t kind of earth-shattering. And then right at the end, well you tell us what happened next.

Tim Darvill: Well the nice thing was, there was a golden opportunity to do a small excavation at Stonehenge and really provide some new evidence and new information which would help not just the understanding of Stonehenge but actually help us with some of the issues that we’re tackling in the programme. We’ve come to realise that we’ve actually got to do things at monuments. We’ve actually got to open them up. We’ve got to get new information. We’ve got to bring to bear all the scientific archaeology that we can now do on these sites, and English Heritage had come to recognise that.

And so I think we’d probably knocked on the door at the perfect moment and they said well yeah let’s think about it, let’s talk about it, why don’t we do something and as a piece of keyhole surgery we’re not going to disturb a huge amount of the monument. We could get a tremendous amount out of it - which as the programme shows we did - and here’s the possibility. So it all came together at absolutely the right moment I think.

John Farren: So the first dig in fifty years, great for you, news coverage across the planet. Ten million people watched the dig live online, great for me. And now we’ve finished the programme. So what do your peers make of your theory now?

Tim Darvill: I suppose the work falls into two camps: those who like the idea of supporting it and those who don’t. I’m pleased to say that it seems to me that the camp which does like the idea is rather more substantial than those who don’t but, and this is the important point, we’re not claiming that Stonehenge is only about healing. What we’re suggesting is that one of its roles, during part of its life, is to use the blue stones in a way, which we believe that they are originally considered by Neolithic people, to promote the idea of healing, to promote the idea of wellbeing, to act as, if you like, talismans, good luck charms, ways of seeing the world in a slightly different way.

And here we’ve got to put ourselves back into an earlier mindset. We’re talking about something which has probably got to cater for the soul as much as it’s got to cater for the body, and therefore, if you like the wrapping up of the healing possibility, of an oracle, perhaps, or of a way of making people better as part of a much bigger temple complex, which is also used in the service of their religious beliefs, is something which is completely compatible with how we understand prehistoric religion, how we understand prehistoric wellbeing in those sorts of contexts.

The starting point for our enquiry was quite simply what makes Stonehenge unique? Well, what makes it unique is the presence of those blue stones. They are the catalyst as it were. They are the starting point for something developing on that site which is completely different to anything else in the British Isles and completely different to anything else in Europe. And from that moment on, therefore, something happens there.

John Farren: Before I pass things over to my learned friends who’ve got a number of questions for you, I have to ask, I mean I can’t remember a Timewatch where we made more versions. I mean the editing process, it’s like all writing is rewriting. We often re-edit programmes but we must have made something like fifteen completely different versions of this programme and in the end thought, we’ll just stop there because we’re never going to get the definitive story of Stonehenge, just as we’ll never get the definitive film. But I have to ask you, are you happy with the film?

Tim Darvill: I’m really happy with the film, John, because I think it encapsulates the strength of the argument as a central theme that is a monument which has some special properties, and those properties are about healing. And I guess part of your problem in editing it down was that actually we could have multiplied the number of sections and vignettes to go into the programme many times over by talking to other researchers, by looking at other sites around about, and we would just continually stack up this material. So I can well imagine you had a difficult job choosing the particular sets of arguments to put together because there’s a whole load more which we could have used.

John Farren: Stuart, you’re a historian. We’re dealing here with prehistoric archaeology, so over to you. How happy are you with the level of certainty, for example, that we project in our findings?

Stuart Mitchell: It’s a curious thing. I suppose watching this as really a member of the lay audience, I have absolutely no specialist knowledge of archaeology whatsoever and I think it works extremely well. But, of course, the problem is with this particular period of history, in inverted commas, is that the evidence that we have is not of the same quality and the same level as I would be used to dealing with in the sort of 18th, 19th Century onwards. Nonetheless, I think the way in which the programme builds up its evidence and uses other fields of research, to support its central thesis, is extremely impressive.

I mean we have forensic scientists in there. Seems to me that you’re building on some existing evidence to place sort of a symbiosis to say well yes Stonehenge may have had a religious function but it’s much more than that, it is also perhaps even principally a centre of healing, but it served a number of different functions throughout a ritual year.

Tim Darvill: You’re exactly right. I mean people go to visit Stonehenge expecting to find the answer with a capital T. But they won’t and they can’t because Stonehenge has a very long life to it. It starts way back in earlier prehistory, it gets its ditch and bank around about 3,000BC, it gets cremations added to it, it becomes a burial site for perhaps 400 or 500 years, and it’s abandoned and neglected for a short period, and then they use it as the site to build this new stone circle with these stones brought from somewhere else, from Wales. And at that point it takes on a new life. It becomes a new monument, as it were, and it becomes the great structure that we eventually see in decayed form out there in the landscape today.

You could bring in the analogies from a medieval period when Stonehenge becomes elevated from being a parish church to a cathedral, and that elevating process is actually all about the wealth that it acquires, the prestige that it acquires, the interest that it acquires, as a result of having these stones, which in the medieval analogy would be the bones of a saint or some great miracle that happened nearby and suddenly gave this place new impetus.

John Farren: That’s an intriguing way of putting it because in a sense one of the key questions that’s thrown up by the programme, which unfortunately the programme just doesn’t have the time perhaps to answer, is why Salisbury? Why that area of the country? You’ve sort of partially answered that just then by suggesting that Stonehenge becomes almost like a brand. There are lots of different ancient monuments scattered around the whole of England and presumably then Stonehenge and the community around Stonehenge decide to make this into a prehistoric tourist attraction.

Tim Darvill: Yes, great, that’s absolutely right, and at that early stage it was one of many monuments across the British Isles and probably across Europe which were local shrines, which were local focus for attention. Perhaps people from thirty, forty miles away would come to it after it gets this reputation, after it develops this sort of new set of meanings, people come from literally hundreds of miles to visit it, and it lifts it to an altogether new scale, and that’s what makes it attractive. Of course that’s what makes it attractive today. It’s so unique, it’s so unusual that people from not just old Europe but the whole of the world now want to come and visit Stonehenge and have a look at it.

John Farren: And how sudden is this becoming?

Tim Darvill: We can now situate it, as we explored in the programme a bit, Stonehenge in the context of what’s happening in, let’s say, 2300, 2400BC, and we realise that there’s an explosion of new cultural traditions at that period. It coincides with the occurrence throughout much of Europe of this particular distinctive kind of pottery, beaker pottery, now as it’s known, and it’s probably not the pot which is important here but it’s the events and activities which went around the use of that pot. It may even be something about what is inside the pot, and we find this pottery right across north-west Europe.

It’s also appeared when metalworking moves into north and western parts of Europe. It’s the period when there are contacts over very wide areas, and it’s that, I suppose, that critical moment which allows something like Stonehenge to become known in a world where previously communications were quite difficult. Suddenly, bang, Stonehenge can be spread by word of mouth, by people riding horses perhaps across large areas of Europe. And anything as important as a place which has a reputation for healing people, I think that reputation must have spread pretty quickly amongst populations. And just, as in medieval times, we’ve got to remember it doesn’t have to work, you only have to believe it’s going to work, and this is perhaps the kind of crux of the argument here. It’s about faith. It’s about belief.

John Farren: If there is this Pan European culture, and clearly Stonehenge is not only helping to facilitate that, I think perhaps that’s partly proved simply by the presence of the blue stones at Stonehenge because the labour-intensive effort that would have been required to bring those, this is not the work of a couple of men, this is a gang party of workers who would have had time to come, to break off from their normal farming duties to go to Wales and to organise the transport of those stones to the henge itself. And that’s really interesting to me because it suggests that there is an economy that’s developed in that particular part of south-west England which is remarkably sophisticated. Is there anything you would like to add to that?

Tim Darvill: Everybody recognises that moving eighty-odd blue stones from south-west Wales across the Salisbury Plain is a big job. On the one hand we’ve got to have an economic system, if you like, a support system, a subsistence economy which can allow that to go on. Well, farming’s been going on in Britain for, well, something in the order of fifteen hundred years by this time. But it’s very small scale. It’s effectively gardening. Just around about the middle part of the 3rd millennium BC we see an intensification, a scale of agricultural activity across southern Britain which leads us to think that the sorts of surpluses that you would need to despatch people off to Wales to bring stones back are beginning to accumulate, are beginning to be available.

In other words, there’s enough agricultural production to give these folks the opportunity to do some other things than simply subsidence farming in their gardens. Because people are using conspicuous consumption of their new-found economic wealth to do things which look a little bit bonkers really. To build things like Silbury Hill, to build things like Avebury, you know, these are the super-huge monuments which involve huge amounts of effort, time, people, organisation, resources, to do, and in a normal world you probably wouldn’t do them but there’s this sort of competitive edge which begins to develop. To despatch a crew of people to go off and get eighty stones of special importance from Wales and bring them back to Stonehenge, I think has to be seen in this context of doing things which are a little bit unreal if you took a purely rational look at what was going on. But they had the opportunity to do it. They were competing, if you like.

In a way, I think the Stonehenge folks hit the jackpot because they franchised their monument with something which was sufficiently special that it actually had if you like, a long-term benefit. Avebury doesn’t last much longer than the period they built it and used it. Silbury Hill, once it’s sealed up, it’s sealed up, that’s the end of it. These are huge undertakings but they have relatively short lives. Stonehenge, once it’s built, once those blue stones if you like, start to become known, the power starts to spread, the idea of it starts to spread, it lifts off and it gets rebuilt several times over. I mean we can’t think our way into the mindset of these folks to know why they took it down a couple of hundred years after they first built it, but they did, and they rebuilt it and they continued rebuilding it for several hundred years on afterwards. That’s not something we see at other prehistoric monuments of this same period. So I think they hit the jackpot.

John Farren: Well, they certainly did which brings us seamlessly on to Susie’s area of interest which is Stonehenge as a heritage site. I mean it is, without a doubt, I guess, Susie, our number one heritage site. Why do you think that is?

Susie West: Well, I suppose if I was an accountant I’d be very happy because we know that it’s the biggest player in the heritage economy I think. Certainly English Heritage who manage the site offer a standard guidebook, and it’s an absolute best seller, and in fact revenue from Stonehenge floats an awful lot of other heritage sites. So that the sort of bottom line view, for some reason it makes an awful lot of money.

Now, that’s not a very popular view to take, and it doesn’t explain why one million tourists come and see it. They’re not coming to see the money flowing through. But I think we need to remember that in our modern society heritage still has to be paid for somehow by somebody and I think this is, as people who know about the debates that have been raging for and against the proposals that Tim mentioned earlier about re-presenting the monument, thinking about road moving, thinking about formal exhibition centres and all sorts of infrastructure, that can only really happen in today’s economy if the site itself is seen as commercially successful.

John Farren: Tim, you’re an archaeologist. You’re always scrabbling around looking for pots of money, as we all are. You know, did you choose Stonehenge because you think well that’s got iconic value?

Tim Darvill: We chose it because it’s got a fantastic research value. It’s iconic. I suppose nobody could write a prehistory of the British Isles without referring to Stonehenge, and therefore it’s always bound up in our stories and our understandings of prehistory, so in a sense any explanation of that part of prehistory has got to involve Stonehenge. So that’s a part of it. But it has all these interesting challenges. I think I’d kind of argue the other way that what makes it interesting to people, therefore what makes it commercially successful, is that it represents something which is known but not known at the same time.

In other words, everybody can go there with a point of view, with a theory that they’d like to tell you about, with a theory they’d like to sort of test visually in some cases, and people go there with all sorts of things in their mind. But in a way Stonehenge is the ultimate academic intellectual challenge to thinking about the heritage. It is a problem site. We don’t have the simple answer to it and, as I’ve argued earlier on, there isn’t one answer anyway probably. There are many. And we can recognise that and sort of leave it there as something for people to think about. I think that’s why most people go there to sort of challenge their own imagination in their own terms.

Susie West: I think certainly that’s one of the attractions, but that also reminds me that of course many people can’t just turn up and have a look at Stonehenge. And Stonehenge has really become a global site. I mean it is officially a World Heritage site after all. Because in this age of mass communication, it’s a really compelling image, you know. It takes a good photograph and it is very well known across the world. So of the one million people who actually make that, well let’s call it a pilgrimage, almost, there are many millions who perhaps will never make that pilgrimage but still think about Stonehenge as you say.

And that’s the other side of it that Stonehenge has another existence, I think, which is almost a sort of virtual Stonehenge, and in some ways, as you say, it’s the thinking work that a range of specialist researchers and academics do about it. The work I think you’ve been doing is rethinking Stonehenge. You’ve done it in a particularly creative way but you’ve also used tried and tested archaeological methods to go out there, get back on to the site and ask some new questions about it. But the thinking work that people without your expertise can do is equally to use their own imaginations as you say. But you can do that anywhere in the world now so long as you have an image in front of you perhaps. Stonehenge lives there as quite an abstract set of interests.

Now the other thing we haven’t mentioned yet is of course a different set of experts who are very interested in Stonehenge, and those people have what might be called a sort of alternative knowledge. They are perhaps more interested in spiritual aspects of Stonehenge. And again we didn’t really get a chance to explore that in the programme, although of course by implication the holistic approach you were explaining about healing in the Neolithic is very much what a lot of contemporary groups are now really prioritising.

Tim Darvill: What you say is absolutely right. I mean, when we were filming, it wasn’t only John’s cameras that were on us. We had Russian TV on the one side and American TV on the other and Canadian, Australian, everybody was there, in a sense, beaming it back to that constituency you mentioned who visualise Stonehenge at second hand as a detached perspective. One of the things I always enjoy doing is taking people to Stonehenge on their first visit because they almost without exception say, that’s not how I imagined it. And in that sense people’s thoughts about it, people’s imagination about it, does spill out into a huge arena of alternative archaeologies, views of the world, holistic views of the world, if you like, sort of ecological views of the world, many of these things, and the beauty of Stonehenge, I think, is it provides a platform where all those things can come together and be considered.

And Geoff and I don’t rule out any of those interests because they all have a legitimate interest in a piece of prehistory which has survived down to the present day. And in that sense it’s not just a piece of prehistory. It’s a piece of something which is here and it’s now and it’s for us to use. And if it stimulates thoughts in people’s imaginations, if it stimulates thinking about their own life, their own world, that to our mind is what heritage is actually about. It’s about situating ourselves, politically, socially, politically aware, I suppose, in a modern world, and it can ask us questions. It can challenge our thoughts about those things. And Stonehenge has performed in a sense quite a miracle in modern times of being an archaeological site, a political domain and a platform in which many different groups can make their point.

John Farren: It’s bizarre to me that. I mean I have to say that kind of history is something pickled in aspic. Because of course it never was. Stonehenge was a working monument for thousands and thousands of years.

Tim Darvill: It must have been an incredibly busy place.

John Farren: Susie, what makes something like Stonehenge worthy of being a World Heritage site or what makes something not worthy of being a World Heritage site?

Susie West: Well, what we’re looking at when we think about World Heritage is really, we’re thinking in capital letters, World with a capital W, Heritage with a capital H, and that’s a clue that we’re getting involved in very high level official processes, the sort of thing that institutions create and deliver on our behalf. So Stonehenge, as an official World Heritage site, has that designation because UNESCO experts have agreed that it meets their criteria, which had been put together by representatives of heritage interests across the world, and that Stonehenge can sit there in a list alongside other major monuments. I always think of the Taj Mahal. It’s one of those, again, I’ve never been to the Taj Mahal but it’s one of those images you carry around in your mind. So there is that iconic quality to becoming a World Heritage site.

But what I’ve hinted at there is that actually World Heritage sites get made because people have put a case together, often rather legalistically, and argued for this status, and it has been judged and it has passed. So there’s a lot of official process going on and it’s very political because these are monuments that really represent the sort of, I don’t know, the top ten of any country’s pick of their best and most spectacular or interesting monuments. So they’re quite recherché, and even though with something like Stonehenge, you know, if you’re on a standard commute around Salisbury you can drive past it and wave at it quite happily, it does mean that it becomes a very controlled sort of site. You might be familiar with some of the disputes that have taken place over who exactly gets access to the stones.

Now a lot of the reasons for controlling access come from the agreement that World Heritage status of any site like this is maintained by very careful management and conservation plans. So obviously we want to protect sites that we think are this precious and interesting. But I think we are in danger of losing something as well if the people responsible for managing sites of this status don’t effectively communicate what it is they’re trying to do on our behalf. After all, if we agree with the claim that these are actually heritage of the world, they are supposed to be there for everyone in the world. That is the idea. They’re not supposed to be closed off and sort of guarded by experts without any consultation at all. And I think the programme really reminds us that actually that might be a slightly 1950s view of how to run a World Heritage site and, as Tim has made clear, there is a lot of dialogue going on now between people looking after the monuments, people with specialist interests in getting better research access to them but also in the various interest groups out there in the community.

John Farren: In the moment of filming or research, what was the most exciting thing?

Tim Darvill: The moment which stands out for me, as I guess for some of the viewers, perhaps, and certainly for the news media at the time, was the first time that we put a spade into Stonehenge. I mean I know both Geoff and I were very emotional at the moment when we picked up our spades and put our heavy shoes on the top of them and pressed them into that turf. Now I don’t think either of us would have said ten years ago that that was going to happen in our lifetimes, and so a fantastic opportunity, and even more important, that two weeks became an exciting voyage of discovery into a set of archaeological deposits in an international icon of an ancient monument which has yielded so much information.

John Farren: So, Susie, was there one moment of wonder that you take away?

Susie West: Oh, only one? Well, it did make me think about my own roots as an archaeologist and just the pleasures of getting out there in the field, as Tim has said. But I particularly liked seeing two senior members of the British archaeological establishment waxing lyrical and patting stones on the Preseli hillside. Just the thrill of being reminded that fieldwork gets you out onto mountainsides and stroking stones. And, you know, if you know what you’re looking for, you can go out there and find direct traces of Neolithic stone tools, cutting into stones, and that’s something very real. So although I enjoyed the lab work and it was fascinating to see the scientific process, it was the outdoor stuff that I really enjoyed.

John Farren: Stuart?

Stuart Mitchell: I think I’m going to be relentlessly urban here and say that obviously the great outdoors frightens me to death. So, in fact, it was the lab work, it was the forensic stuff that really caught my imagination, and I think it showed the enormous potential for different disciplines across humanities and the sciences to coalesce, to come together and to actually produce new quote unquote truths and new development of knowledge, and Timewatch is obviously a wonderful vehicle for then passing that knowledge on to the public in general.

John Farren: We’re all about time travel. For myself, it was that moment of realisation that Stonehenge, that national icon, is in fact part of an international system of trade, four thousand years ago, and there’s no such thing as nationalism.

My name’s John Farren and I’m the Editor of Timewatch. Thank you to my guests, Professor Tim Darvill, of Bournemouth University, and Stuart Mitchell and Susie West of The Open University.


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