The stone monument on Salisbury Plain is recognizable around the world and has been something of a mystery for centuries. A new book in History, Mike Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge: exploring the greatest Stone Age mystery, gives us a look at his work on the Stonehenge Riverside Project and clears up a few bits of the mystery. Pearson’s use of first person in this book turns it into a story on two levels: the modern-day project alongside information about life in the Stone Age. Indeed , he helps us learn as much about managing a large-scale project at a famous site as about the Neolithic sites studied. As with Barry Kemp’s The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, this is the story of an archaeologist and the work, as well as of a site itself. However, where Amarna allowed Egyptologists to learn about a moment in time, the seventeen or so years the city was occupied, Stonehenge’s active history spans many more years, with its ties to ‘its surrounding landscape and to the people who built it’ (p. 3). Pearson reminds us that Stonehenge is in reality many monuments built over centuries (p. 341).
Pearson’s project, including the first new dig at Stonehenge in twenty years, combined above-ground surveys with digging. One dig took place at Durrington Walls and revealed the Late Neolithic houses there, some with surviving stone furniture and beam slots for beds. The importance of these findings are brought home by Pearson’s seventh chapter, ‘Was this where the Stonehenge builders lived?’.
Pearson’s sixteenth chapter that explores ‘Why Stonehenge is where it is’ stands out for its discussion of the blend of the natural world with the construction of the henge. The entrance to Stonehenge is at the end of a pair of natural ridges, a fact that Pearson explains is not unusual for Neolithic monuments, which frequently used natural features in their construction. However, what is amazing is that these natural ridges align on the solstice axis (p. 244). If you were looking for a way to mark the passage of the sun, the discovery of ridges facing the right direction would certainly encourage you to build on that spot! ‘Such a place might have been regarded as the centre or origin of the universe. It would certainly have been worthy of celebrations involving the transport of Welsh bluestones and, later on, huge sarsens’. (p. 245) (Chapter 17 tackles those enormous stones from Wales and how they may have been moved by sea to the Salisbury plain!)
But how old is Stonehenge? That turns out not to be a simple question, with the monuments built in stages that may have stretched from 3000BC to 2280BC. The trilithons, or two stones holding a third, were erected during what Pearson calls the second stage of Stonehenge in Late Neolithic Period between 2620 and 2480BC, with the bluestones added to the site in the third stage, or between 2480 and 2280BC, in the Copper Age.
Pearson is careful to remind us that Stonehenge must be studied in context and the realisation that the Stonehenge World Heritage site covers over twenty-six acres with several Neolithic sites and Early Bronze Age barrows on the grounds makes it clear that those stones on the plain are not the only evidence of a civilisation a few thousand years old. Mysteries remain around the site and Pearson leaves many questions for future archaeologists and geologists to answer.