Monday 27 May 2013

Merlin and Stonehenge: Stones from the West

Part IV

It is indeed a remarkable coincidence that the modern account of the construction of Stonehenge is reflected in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century legendary history which claimed  the rocks of the Giant's Dance were foreign to Salisbury Plain almost 900 years before modern science identified the source.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth's account, as a fitting monument to the British nobles murdered by Hengist's Saxon's, Merlin's suggests that they should send for the Giant's Dance in Killaraus in Ireland. Aurelius burst into laughter, and said, "How is it possible to remove such vast stones from so distant a country, as if Britain was not furnished with stones fit for the work?"   Does Geoffrey's account of the Giant's Dance being brought from Ireland portray an ancient memory of a Bluestone monument brought from south-west Wales?

Merlin dismantling the Giant's Dance,
from Wace, Roman de Brut. Egerton 3028
The oldest known depiction of Stonehenge is from a manuscript of the Roman de Brut by Wace in the British Library, copied in England between July 1338 and June 1340. It is often described as showing a giant helping Merlin build Stonehenge while ordinary people watch on amazed. But the illustration's place in the manuscript suggests that it is actually Merlin dismantling the Giant's Ring in Killaraus. Curiously, Wace is the first author to mention the Round Table, a name used for many prehistoric Arthurian sites.

As the most magnificent Neolithic structure in Europe, Stonehenge requires no introduction, however, for clarity, I will recap on the composition of the monument. Enclosed within a ditch and bank is a circle of 56 Aubrey Holes, today identified by white discs in the grass. Next, working our way toward the centre of the monument, is a now incomplete ring of huge sarsen megaliths, topped by lintels, thought to have once formed a continuous ring of 30 stones. Within this sarsen ring is a rough circle of smaller stones, known as bluestones, the largest estimated to weigh about four tons. Next is the massive horseshoe arrangement comprising five sarsen trilithons, three still erect, the largest estimated to weigh around 50 tons, graduating in height toward the direction of the mid-winter sunset. Within this arrangement is a horseshoe setting of finely worked bluestones, mirroring the sarsen settings; circle, horseshoe, graduating in height towards the same point.

Several of the bluestones show evidence of having been part of a previous structure, similar to the lintel topped sarsen trilithon arrangement at Stonehenge; stone 150, now lying flat in the Bluestone Circle and partly overlain by stone 32, possesses two well-made mortices, about 41 inches apart between centres, evidently used as a lintel; the other, stone 36, is one of the finest worked bluestones at Stonehenge. It was discovered in 1929, exhumed in 1954 by Richard Atkinson for further examination and then reburied. This stone also possesses mortices with clear signs of erosion caused by windrock during its life as a lintel on a trilithon arrangement.35

Bluestone 36 - exhumed in 1954
The spacing of the mortice holes on stones 150 and 36 do not span any of the known bluestone settings at Stonehenge. Neither do they permit a trilithon structure to be recreated using the surviving bluestone uprights from the horseshoe that have traces of tenons on top, most of this dressed away, and must have formed uprights in some other bluestone trilithon arrangement. Two other bluestones warrant our attention; the broken stump, 66, has a projecting tongue; while stone 68 has a grove running down its entire length. Did they once fit together? 36

Where did this elegant Bluestone monument stand? 

Bluestone chips discovered in 1947 by JFS Stone between Fargo Plantation and the west end of the Cursus inspired the theory that a circle of bluestones once stood there but archaeological investigations have failed to find it. However, it now seems an earlier bluestone monument stood in the opposite direction on the west bank of the river Avon. In 2009 excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project (SRP) discovered the site of a small monument comprising 24-26 stoneholes, of similar size to the Stonehenge bluestones, at the far end of the Stonehenge Avenue at West Amesbury and may mark the disembarkment point of the bluestones on a water-borne journey up the Avon past the barrows at Hengistbury Head in Christchurch harbour. SRP named this putative monument 'Bluestonehenge'.37

The monument was initially dated to around 2,900 BC from a chiselled flint arrow head found at the site. Around the same time, or a little earlier, 56 bluestones would have stood in the Aubrey Holes as the first stone monument at Stonehenge marking the first burials at the monument, fuelling the romantic notion of two bluestone monuments linked by the Avenue.

It appears Bluestonehenge was dismantled around 2,470–2,280 BC, a date obtained from an antler pick found in the henge ditch at the site. Around this time Stonehenge underwent a massive rebuilding programme, when around 2,500 BC the sarsen circle and trilithons were erected, with again further reconstruction around 2,200 BC. The bluestones  from the 56 Aubrey Hole were rearranged in the two settings within the sarsens, i.e. the Bluestone Circle and Horseshoe, together with an estimated further 26 bluestones from somewhere else, possibly Bluestonehenge, providing a total of around 80-82 bluestones, the number usually said to have stood in the final configuration at Stonehenge.38 The numbers add up, but the evidence of the previously worked bluestones (mortice spans) does not and, contrary to reports, to date no actual bluestone has yet been found at West Amesbury.39

Insana Substructio
Such was the mystery of the stones of Stonehenge that the first antiquarians suspected they were artificial and not natural; “fine sand cemented together by a glewy sort of matter.40

John Leland, 16th century antiquarian to Henry VIII, does not include the site of Stonehenge in his 'Itinerary', but elsewhere repeats Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story but with the variation that Merlin obtains the stones from a place on Salisbury Plain and not Ireland.41

The sarsen stones are from a local source but the 'bluestones' have long been known to be foreign to Salisbury Plain and the name is used today, rather unsatisfactorily, by geologists as a generic term for all the non-local stones at the monument. For many years the source of the bluestones at Stonehenge baffled eminent Victorian investigators such as Maskelyne, Cunnington, Teal and Judd. However, in 1923, Herbert Thomas from the Geological Survey published a paper in The Antiquaries Journal in which he claimed to have sourced some bluestone types to rock outcrops from Carn Menyn in the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales. Thomas went on to speculate that the transportation method to Salisbury Plain was human, but not all agree:

“Stonehenge is composed of two types of stone, a consistent group of heavy sarsens from the Avebury region eighteen miles to the north; and an inconsistent muddle of much smaller dolerites and different stones from the Preseli mountains of south-west Wales 140 miles directly to the west. There is continuing controversy about the method by which the bluestones reached Salisbury Plain. There is almost none about the sarsens.42

Richard Atkinson proposed a journey by sea for the bluestones, embarking from Milford Haven, following the South Wales coastline along the Bristol Channel, up the Severn Estuary, then down the Bristol Avon and finally the short distance overland to Salisbury Plain. Alternatively, he suggested, they could have followed a longer route along the south-west coast of England, rounding Land's End and journey up the Hampshire Avon, past Hengistbury Head to Amesbury. Atkinson carried out successful experiments with rafts.43 The route and method certainly seem plausible. Anyone doubting the capabilities of Neolithic man is referred to studies of Prehistoric trade routes.

The seaborne bluestone routes
Recent petrological studies have confirmed that the bluestones did come from the Preseli Hills in South Wales but not all from Carn Menyn (Carn Meini) as proposed by Herbert Thomas. Indeed, ongoing studies by Dr Richard Bevins, Keeper of Geology at Amgueddfa Cymru, and Dr Rob Ixer, University of Leicester, have identified the rock outcrop from certain types of Stonehenge bluestone, some of the rhyolites, as Pont Saeson to the north of Mynydd Preseli. It is unlikely that they would have transported the Pont Saeson stones in a southerly direction up slopes and over the Preseli Hills to Milford Haven when they are much nearer the River Nevern (Afon Nyfer) which skirts the northern slopes of the Preseli Hills before discharging into Newport Bay and the Irish Sea.44

Irish in South Wales
An Irish influence has existed in South Wales since prehistory as attested by the portal dolmens, such as Carreg Samson, near Trefin, and Pentre Ifan, near Newport, reminiscent of the megalithic monuments of Ireland. There appears to have been an axe-factory  at the eastern end of the Preseli Hills producing polished stone axes of spotted dolerite of such high quality that they were in demand as far afield as Antrim and Salisbury Plain. Furthermore, Preseli was on the trade route of the gold mined from the Wicklow Hills, Ireland, to Wessex.

This ancient trade route persisted and later Pembrokeshire lay on the pilgrimage route of the Celtic saints who travelled between Ireland and Rome and the Holy Lands. During the 4th century an Irish tribe, the Deisi, from County Meath in Ireland, migrated to Pembrokeshire under their leader Eochaid Allmuir, and established a royal dynasty which was to rule Demetae (modern Dyfed) in south-west Wales for some five centuries. The medieval Irish narrative The Expulsion of the Déisi, from the Cycles of the Kings, provides the Deisi with a mythical noble origin as the heirs to a dynasty expelled from Tara. Evidently there is some doubt over the historicity of this account, but it has been suggested that the term “déisi” is interchangeable with the Old Irish term, “aithechthúatha” meaning "rent-paying tribes" or "vassal communities", which may well be the origin of the Attacotti who are reported attacking Roman Britain in the mid-4th century.45

What did Geoffrey know?
Geoffrey’s account seems to have been based on an earlier tradition of the transportation of the stones from a site across the sea after battling the Irish. Yet again, we find Geoffrey's story seems to contain a remarkable set of coincidences:

  • There is clear evidence that the bluestones at Stonehenge formerly stood in a trilithon arrangement at an unknown site, as the span of the mortices do not match any known bluestone configuration at Stonehenge, the Aubrey Holes or Bluestonehenge; this arrangement must have been dismantled from some unknown location before their use on Salisbury Plain.
  • Significantly, Geoffrey has Uther's forces battling the Irish in Pembrokeshire over the removal of the stones; the Irish tribe known as the Deisi established a dynasty in South Wales and may have been raiding Roman Britain as the Attacotti in the mid-4th century.
  • Remarkably, Geoffrey has the stones of Stonehenge coming from oversea from Ireland; at least some of the bluestones must have been transported via the Irish Sea.
  • And finally, Merlin, according to Geoffrey, the architect of Stonehenge, was born some 20 miles from the bluestone site at the town of Kaermerdin (Merlin's fortress), modern Carmarthen, named after him; as a native of Pembrokeshire he would have had intimate knowledge of the Giant's Dance.

Copyright © 2013 Edward Watson


Next: Merlin and Stonehenge Part V: The Raid on the Otherworld

Notes & References
35. Atkinson, Stonehenge, Penguin, Revised Edition 1990, pp.51-53.
36. Ibid. p.55.
37. Mike Parker Pearson, Stonehenge, 2012.
38. Ibid.
39. British Archaeology magazine Issue 110, Jan/Feb 2010, News - Phase 2.
40. Camden, on Wiltshire in Britannia, 1610.
41. John Leland, Commentarii de Scriptoribus Britannicis, published by Anthony Hall in 1709.
42. Aubrey Burl, Transportation or Glaciation? in Great Stone Circles: Fables, Fictions, Facts, Yale University Press, 1999, p.107.
43. Atkinson, op.cit., pp.105-116.
44. 'New Discovery ‘will rewrite Stonehenge’s history' - University Of Leicester, 25 February 2011.
45. Philip Rance, Attacotti, Déisi and Magnus Maximus: the Case for Irish Federates in Late Roman Britain, Britannia 32, 2001.

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Saturday 18 May 2013

Merlin and Stonehenge: The Saxon Execution

Part III

Thou noblest monument of Albion's isle!
Whether by Merlin's aid, from Scythia's shore,
To Amber's fatal plain Pendragon bore,
Huge frame of giant-hands, the mighty pile
T' entomb his Britons slain by Hengist's guile 21

Execution at Stonehenge in the Anglo-Saxon Period
In the 'Historia Regium Britanniae'  (History of the Kings of Britain) c.1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that the British kings Aurelius, Utherpendragon and Constantine son of Cador Duke of Cornwall, were buried within the circle of Stonehenge. Recent archaeology has indicated that the monument may have been a cemetery for an elite group of priest-kings, in concordance with Geoffrey's claims.

Stonehenge was host to many prehistoric cremation burials placed mainly in the Aubrey Holes and the ditch, but there have only been four articulated burials found at the site. Of those only one can be classified as a Dark Age burial, though it must be noted that only the eastern side of Stonehenge has been excavated to date. The skeleton, allocated number 4.10.4 in 1938 by the Royal College of Surgeons, was excavated at Stonehenge in 1923, then lost, believed destroyed in the London bombing of 1941, but relocated in 1999.

On investigating the human remains at Stonehenge Mike Pitts found that much of the Royal College of Surgeons' ancient collection, perhaps as many as 800 individuals, had survived the bombings of the Second World War. Many had been removed from London for safe keeping during the war and then given to the Natural History Museum once hostilities ceased. 22

The grave of 4.10.4, uncovered by chance when Colonel Hawley noticed a hollow sounding patch beneath the turf, during excavations between 1919 and 1926, is one of three more or less complete human skeletons found at Stonehenge by Hawley and all thought lost. The first was found March 1922 in the ring ditch but was discarded by the excavator who felt that 'obviously it was a modern interment' although modern archaeologists might not agree. The third, lying across the central axis inside the stone circle, a significant placing, was found in August 1926, and subsequently lost.

Only one other articulated skeleton has been found at Stonehenge, when in 1978, a man who apparently died from a hail of flint-tipped arrows around 2,300 BC, was found in the ditch. Known today as the Stonehenge Archer, he was buried with a stone 'bracer' or archer's wristguard, and three flint arrowheads. It appears he did not die peacefully; the arrowheads were embedded in his ribs and breastbone. Debate continues as to whether he was a ritual sacrifice or a murder victim. 23

The excavator, William Hawley, initially believed the skeleton 4.10.4 to be of Neolithic date owing to the grave fill, described as 'earthy' which contained no artefacts or stone fragments. Hawley had identified a horizon of debris which he considered was the result of stone dressing, which blanketed most of the site. Anything found beneath this 'Stonehenge Layer' he ascribed to a date before the stones arrived. However,  skeleton 4.10.4 had initially been dated to about 150 AD, the Romano-British period. Richard Atkinson favoured a later date due the nature of the body's extended attitude and the somewhat casual disposal that, he argued, indicated a date not earlier than the Romano-British period. 24

In 'Stonehenge in its Landscape', a study of 20th century excavations, the authors' reverted to Hawley's original argument; the lack of debris in the grave fill indicating an early date in the site's history, i.e. before the interior became littered with Stone fragments.25 However, there appear to be two major periods of stone wrecking which probably started in prehistory up to the Roman period and then from the Middle Ages, c.1250 AD to the 20th century. The lack of stone debris in the grave fill suggests the burial was during a hiatus between these times, post-Roman but pre-Conquest. 26

A second test returned a date of about 760 AD, the mid Anglo-Saxon period. Recent study of the bones confirms they represent a man from the Anglo-Saxon era. Re-testing of samples from the remains has resulted in a revised date range of 640–690 AD. 27

Execution or Sacrifice?
An initial examination of the skeletal remains identified traumatic spinal lesions. Later, a full examination revealed a cut through the fourth cervical vertebra which had clipped the left mandible: the man had been decapitated; the blow intended to remove the head with a single cut from the rear-right side. The single, clean cut must have been made with a sharp, narrow but relatively robust blade, cutting through the right handside of the spinal column. The assailant must have been standing behind the victim. Although the single blow does not appear to have removed the head completely the victim would have died instantly in what appears to have been an act of execution rather than as a sacrifice.

The absence of grave goods suggests that the Stonehenge corpse was stripped before burial as is often the case with executions. The position of the hands is not recorded, but some decapitations from later Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries have the hands tied, either behind the back or to the front. He was between 28 – 32 years of age and about about 5ft 4 inches tall. Analysis of isotopes from a tooth revealed he was not an ethnic Anglo-Saxon but born in central southern England.

The corpse had been forced into a shallow pit not quite long enough to accommodate it, forcing the partially attached head forward on top of the chest. The grave aligned east north-east/west south-west with the head thought to be at the easterly end, although Hawley did not record its position. The grave was sited on the south-east side of the stone circle, near the South Barrow, between the ditch and the sarsen circle, close to 'Y' Hole 9. 28 Hawley noted that circular sides of postholes at either end of the grave which were probably responsible for the restricted size of the pit. Hawley thought these may have formed part of a gallows, supporting a cross-beam, but they appear to align with a series of timber post holes coming in from the southern entrance to the monument and therefore are probably prehistoric in origin.29

Furthermore, if the victim had been hung by the neck until dead on a gallows then why perform decapitation post-mortem? Ten per cent of Roman burials have been found with the head removed, the skull often found between the legs or feet. Theories vary, but decapitation may have been performed to prevent their spirit walking the earth. In such cases the head seems to have been cut off from the front with a sharp blade in a sawing motion. The Stonehenge skeleton had been struck from behind whilst standing, or more likely kneeling, with one single blow, probably from a Saxon broadsword.

Execution by decapitation was rare in the late Anglo-Saxon period. The earliest West Saxon laws of King Ine of Wessex (688-725) prescribe hanging and the striking off of hands and feet for various offences. A further clause notes that a person 'travelling off the highway' might be slain; a term better suited to the sword rather than the gallows. However, drawings from Late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts show decapitation scenes and in each case the instrument used is a sword. 30

The Stonehenge execution burial is significant as one of the earliest known located both at a prehistoric monument and in a boundary zone. Apart from the Stonehenge example, decapitations are not recorded from Wiltshire between the 5th and 7th centuries; this may in part be due to the limited number excavated. However, it is known that prehistoric monuments were re-used or funerary purposes as early as the 5th century, becoming widespread by the 7th century. Execution burials are known at Sutton Hoo from 7th century origins, but their relationship to prehistoric remains there is uncertain. Several barrows have been found to possess secondary internments from the Saxon era and the attraction of Stonehenge is obvious. Yet, despite one or two 9th or even 10th century AD occurrences the practice is very rare beyond the late 7th and early 8th centuries.

The Stonehenge victim seems a rare execution, and indeed unique at the monument. Was he someone special?

Hengist's Stones?
It would have been quite fitting for the legendary Saxon leader Hengist to have been beheaded at the Giant's Dance, the very place he had the British princes murdered, but Geoffrey of Monmouth records his execution further north. On Aurelius's return from exile in Brittany with a force of Armorican Britons the Saxon's retreated across the Humber. Hengist marched to meet Aurelius at the field called Maisbeli; Geoffrey does not offer a location. On being routed by the British and Armorican forces, Hengist fled to the castle of 'Kaerconan,' which Geoffrey states is now called 'Cunungeburg', identified as Conisbrough, 5 miles south-west of Doncaster, South Yorkshire. The present 13th century castle, situated on on the summit of a circular hill with walls 15 feet thick, is said to be of British origin. A detachment of Armorican cavalry ensured the Britons victory. Hengist was captured and beheaded by Eldol, Duke of Gloucester outside the city where a mound was raised over his body. A tumulus at Conisbrough has long been believed to mark Hengest's grave.31

At one time it was thought that Hengist was buried at the Bronze Age barrow cemetery on the promontory at Hengistbury Head, at Christchurch harbour, the confluence of the Rivers Avon and Stour on the south coast near Bourenmouth. However, the tumuli at Hengistbury Head have been dated to the Bronze Age. Excavations of eleven of the barrows failed to reveal any Anglo-Saxon era intrusions.

Murder at Stonehenge
In Geoffrey's story, none of the Stonehenge burials from the post-Roman period were said to have been decapitated. Further, the execution is entirely absent from Stonehenge folklore. Geoffrey's claim that Stonehenge was set up as a memorial to native soldiers killed by Saxon invaders led by Hengist, and subsequently the burial site of Aurelius Ambrosius and Utherpendragon, has been regarded as myth rather than history.32

As we saw in the introduction, Henry of Huntingdon provided the earliest written reference to Stonehenge in his History of the English, 'Historia Anglorum', c.1130 AD, calling the monument “Stanenges,” usually interpreted as a description of hanging or suspended stones, or possibly derived from the the Saxon word 'hengen' meaning a gallows.

However, the late 16th century English antiquarian William Camden informs us that the true Saxon name appears to be “Stan-Hengest,” the Stones of Hengist, and not 'Stan-henge,' as in hanging stones.33

It is argued that “hanging-stones” would have been expressed by the Saxon word "Hengestanas.” Indeed, Stonehenge is called "Stanhengest" by Simon of Abingdon, in his 12th century Chronicle of the Monastery, and that it was so designated, not because Hengist slaughtered the British Nobles there; but because he ended his days there, “......solemnly immolated to the vengeance of the successors of the Druids." 34

Evidently, Geoffrey was not aware of the Saxon execution at Stonehenge and it was omitted from his story; no doubt he would have maximised the tale of Hengist being executed at the Giant's Dance in revenge for the slaughter of the British nobles had he known of it. But as we have seen he has Hengist beheaded and buried near Conisbrough, not far from Doncaster in South Yorkshire.

Yet again we seem to be treading on a remarkable series of coincidences. But, as to Stonehenge, it appears Geoffrey was unaware of a Dark Age execution at the monument, as is the folklore of the monument; but as for the Giant's Dance cemetery, incredibly, he must have been following a much older tradition; a survival from prehistoric times?

Next: Merlin and Stonehenge Part IV: Stones from the West

Copyright © 2013 Edward Watson


Notes & References:
21. Written at Stonehenge by Thomas  Warton the younger, 1777
22. Mike Pitts, Hengeworld, Arrow, 2001.
23. Mike Pitts et al, An Anglo-Saxon Decapitation and Burial at Stonehenge, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine, vol. 95 (2002), pp. 131-46.
24. Richard Atkinson, Stonehenge, Penguin, revised edition, 1990.
25. Cleal et al, Stonehenge in its Landscape, English Heirtage 1995, pp.267-8.
26. Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, Stonehenge Excavations 2008, The Antiquaries Journal, 89, 2009, pp.1–19.
27. D Hamilton, M Pitts and A Reynolds, A revised date for the early medieval execution at Stonehenge. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine (Wiltshire Studies, 2007) 100, pp.202 – 203.
28. The Y and Z Holes are two rings of concentric (though irregular) circuits of near identical pits cut around the outside of the Sarsen Circle at Stonehenge. It is thought that the holes had never held uprights of either stone or timber. Richard  Atkinson suggested that they had been intended to house bluestones. They appear to be the last construction activity at the site.
29. Mike Pitts et al, op.cit.
30. Ibid.
31. Historia Regium Britanniae, Book VIII, Chp 7.
Lewis Thorpe, Introduction and Translator, The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Penguin Classics, 1973.
32. Stuart Piggott,The Sources of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Antiquity 15, 1941, pp.305-19.
33. William Camden, on Wiltshire in Britannia, 1610.
34.  William Long, Stonehenge and its Barrows, published by Devizes in 1876 from the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, vol. Xvi.

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Saturday 11 May 2013

Merlin and Stonehenge: The Royal Cemetery

Part II

In the 12th Century Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed  that the Giant's Dance was erected at the Cloisters of Ambrius as a memorial to British Nobles slaughtered by the Saxons.

A Monument to the British Nobles
In his 'Historia Regium Britanniae'  (History of the Kings of Britain) c.1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth claims that the Giant's Dance (Stonehenge) was erected as a monument to 460 unarmed British nobles treacherously murdered by Hengist's Saxons as a peace conference. Had Geoffrey invented the whole story or was he following an ancient tradition? 

According to Geoffrey the British Nobles lay buried at the monastery near Kaercaradoc, now Salisbury. At this place was a convent situated near the mount of Ambrius, the Cloisters of Ambrius. To perpetuate the memory of that piece of ground, which was honoured with so many noble patriots that died for their country, Aurelius Ambrosius, the king, sent for Merlin, the 'prophet of Vortigern'. After passing through several provinces, they found him in the country of the Gewisseans, at the fountain of Galabes, which he frequently resorted to. Merlin said they should send for the Giant's Dance in Ireland if they wanted a fitting monument of vast magnitude and wonderful quality, that if placed here as there it would stand for ever.11

After Merlin took the Giant's Dance to Britain, the Irish, under king Gillomanius, came for the stone circle and landed at the city of Menevia (St Davids, Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales). The British forces, under Utherpendragon, engaged in battle with them while king Aurelius lay sick at Winchester. One of the Saxons, named Eopa, disguised as a monk, went to Winchester and promised to restore the king to health if he would but take his potions. The king took the potions which secretly contained poison and fell asleep, dying shortly after. He was buried within the Giant's Dance near the Cloisters of Ambrius.12

Later in Geoffrey's story of the Saxon wars, after a victorious battle against the Saxons under command of Octa and Eosa, Uther and one hundred of his men died suddenly after drinking water from the well poisoned by the Saxons at Verulam (the Roman city of Verulamium, now St Albans). Uther's body was carried to the Cloisters of Ambrius where they buried it close by Aurelius, within the Giant's Dance.13

We can be certain Geoffrey means Stonehenge for the Giant's Dance as he states later that Constantine is buried close by Uther within the structure of stones which was set up with wonderful art not far from Salisbury, called in the English tongue 'Stonehenge.'14

Stonehenge Cemetery
Geoffrey of Monmouth seemed to be aware that Stonehenge was a cemetery as he has three British Dark Age kings buried there within the monument. He was also probably aware of the large number of barrows on Salisbury Plain, although there is nothing in his works to suggest he ever visited the monument. The ancient funerary custom of north-western European peoples of placing the dead in mounds is known from the Neolithic long barrows, into the Bronze Age round barrows and persisted into the late Halstatt culture of the Iron Age as attested by the 'Chieftains Grave' at Hochdorf, dating to 530 BC. To the Celtic peoples, perhaps when they had forgotten their original purpose as a sepulchre, considered the mounds to be the home of faery and the entrance to the Otherworld. In Gaelic mythology the 'Sidhe' are the people of the earthen mounds, believed to be a supernatural race; such as the last of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Children of the goddess Danu, who retreated into the Otherworld after they were defeated by the Milesians. Much later, the Anglo-Saxons in England respected these ancient tumuli; during the 5th and early 8th centuries AD they buried their dead around ancient barrows, sometimes as secondary internments in the higher levels of the mound.15

Stonehenge Landscape – JFS Stone, 1958
Stonehenge sits at the centre of a vast necropolis a mile wide and some six miles long. Standing at the stone circle on Salisbury Plain it is immediately noticeable that the surrounding skyline is crested with Early Bronze Age round barrows; a prehistoric cathedral in the middle of a huge graveyard. Significantly, one of the greatest concentrations of round barrows in Britain was built in the area around Stonehenge. A number of important barrow groups appear to have been deliberately located to be visible from Stonehenge itself, such as those on King Barrow Ridge, The Cursus Barrows and the Normanton Down cemetery.

Whereas Neolithic people had used long barrows for communal burials, the Bronze Age placed more emphasis on the individual rather than the community; initially one individual was buried per round barrow. By a remarkable coincidence, the number of barrows within a mile or so of Stonehenge has for long been estimated at around 300; but the addition of those destroyed and those discovered from air photographs increases the number to around 460, remarkably, exactly the number of murdered nobles according to Geoffrey. These barrows would probably almost all have been visible in Geoffrey's time.16

However, most of these Bronze Age barrows were constructed sometime after the erection of the huge lintel-topped sarsen stones, c.2,500 BC, and major construction work at Stonehenge had finished, the monument was obviously still regarded as an important centre for society and religious belief, with later generations respecting the ancient sanctity of the monument. Yet, significantly Geoffrey has Aurelius, Uther and Constantine buried within the Giant's Dance. In Geoffrey's time he cannot have possibly been aware of any burials inside the circle of the ditch and bank of the monument. However, recent archaeological work has confirmed this is indeed the case.

New archaeological evidence found by the Stonehenge Riverside Project indicates that Stonehenge served as a burial ground from its earliest beginnings; the site started life in the early third millennium BC as a cremation cemetery within a circle of upright bluestones. The latest evidence indicates that cremation burials were taking place with the arrival of the first Welsh Bluestones placed as grave markers in the Aubrey Holes a metre inside of the ditch as early as 3,000 BC. Burials continued at Stonehenge for at least another 200 years, with sporadic burials after that.17

Stonehenge cremation burials.
Human remains are not uncommon at Stonehenge. During his work at Stonehenge between 1919 and 1926 William Hawley excavated the eastern side of the circle with almost all the prehistoric human remains coming from the ditch and the Aubrey Holes. It seems that no museum was prepared to curate these remains, since the scientific value of cremated bone was not appreciated in Britain at the time. In 1935,William Young and R.S. Newall reburied all the cremation deposits excavated from Stonehenge in several sandbags, accompanied by an inscribed plaque, they were tipped into the previously excavated Aubrey Hole 7. The remains were recovered from the Aubrey Hole in 2008 by the Stonehenge Riverside Project. Recent studies have identified the remains of some 63 individual from more than 50,000 cremated bone fragments buried at Stonehenge.18

It was previously thought that almost all the Stonehenge burials were of adult men. However, new techniques have revealed for the first time that they include almost equal numbers of men and women, and children including a newborn baby. Grave goods revealed high-status objects, such as a highly polished stone mace head, comparable to a sceptre, and a small ceramic bowl, interpreted as an incense burner, has led to the suggestion that the human remains recovered from the Aubrey Hole could have been from religious and political leaders and their immediate families; an elite group, the most important prehistoric families immortalised at Stonehenge.19

Not only did Geoffrey appear to have knowledge of the stones of the Giant's Dance being foreign to Salisbury Plain eight hundred years before Herbert Thomas announced the provenance of the bluestones was in Preseli south-west Wales in 1923, 20 but it also seems a remarkable coincidence that Geoffrey should have 460 British Nobles buried around the Giant's Dance when Stonehenge is surrounded by that number of barrows. Significantly, he reserves royal burials within the circle, shortly after the arrival of the Giant's Dance, for the British kings Aurelius, Uther and Constantine, when recent archaeological research has identified the earliest burials at Stonehenge, corresponding with the arrival of the bluestones, to an elite group of priest kings.

On the first count, it appears Geoffrey had knowledge that the Giant's Dance was an ancient cemetery. Is it possible he had knowledge of an ancient tradition regarding Stonehenge that stretched back to the Neolithic Age; four thousands years?

But in Geoffrey's account this all happened during the dark days of the Saxon wars, c.450 – c.650 AD. Is there any evidence of Dark Age burials at Stonehenge?

Next: Merlin and Stonehenge Part III: The Saxon Execution

Copyright © 2013 Edward Watson


Notes & References
11. Historia Regium Britanniae (HRB), Book VIII, Chp 9-10.
Lewis Thorpe, Introduction and Translator, The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Penguin Classics, 1973.
12. HRB, Book VIII, Chp 14.
13. HRB, Book VIII, Chp 24.
14. HRB, Book XI, Chp 4.
15. Howard Williams, Ancient Landscapes and the Dead: The Reuse of Prehistoric and Roman Monuments as Early Anglo-Saxon Burial Sites, Medieval Archaeology 41 (1997), pp.1-31.
16. L V Grinsell, The Stonehenge Barrow Groups, Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. (Undated).
17. Mike Parker Pearson et al, Who was buried at Stonehenge? Antiquity, 83 (2009). pp.23-39.
18. Mike Parker Pearson, Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest tone Age Mystery , Simon & Schuster, 2012.
19. Ibid.
20. H H Thomas, The Source of the Stones of Stonehenge, Antiquaries Journal 3 (1923), pp.239-260.

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