Thursday 21 December 2017

Arthur, Stonehenge and the Solstice

Top Ten Arthurian Locations: No 8 

“We saw through the great trees a well made round table of ancient construction, covered with flat stones. The knight walked across the arena and in through the door of the temple. He found the place in its simplicity the most holy that he had ever experienced. There was an altar toward the east where he mused for a while. Turning to the right he saw a rich throne. The sun which was then setting, directed a single ray through the door of the temple onto the throne, illuminating it brightly.” [Perceforest, 14th century anonymous Arthurian Romance]

The Solstice at Stonehenge
In the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice will occur today, Thursday, 21 December 2017, at precisely 16:28 hours. Think of the solstices and Stonehenge immediately comes to mind where thousands will gather to witness the astronomical phenomenon on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. And there seems no better reason to include a post on the Arthurian connections with Stonehenge today.

This astronomical phenomenon marks the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year with the sun rising at 08:03 and setting at 15:53, providing just 7 hours, 49 minutes of daylight. After today the days will slowly, but surely, start to lengthen.

The term solstice means “sun stands still”, which we can best explain as if we were tracking the journey of the sun along the horizon by inserting marker posts (wooden, or stone) at the
sunrise, or sunset. On tracking the solar journey we will find that on the solstices (winter and summer) the sun appears to stop and pause on the horizon for a few days before changing direction and retracing its journey, moving back along the horizon position. The midpoint indicating the equinoxes where there is equal day and night.

The solstice seems to have been a special event in the annual cycle for many cultures since
Neolithic times. The sun reaches its strength at summer solstice and slowly decreases in power until its death at sunset on the winter solstice. The next morning a new infant sun will rise which will grow in strength until the summer solstice, and then the cycle starts over.

The axis of Stonehenge was purposefully constructed to align with the summer – winter solstice line. The majority of archaeologists agree that the significant alignment at Stonehenge is to the winter solstice where the setting sun will be seen to sink between the Great Trilithon and disappear into the recumbent Altar Stone.

The huge outer ring and the inner horseshoe of Trilithons are constructed from local sarsen, a hard silicified sandstone, found about 20 miles away on the Marlborough Downs. But the Altar Stone and the small stone settings in between the sarsen settings, the bluestone circle and inner bluestone horseshoe, are foreign stones, transported some 140 miles from South Wales. The term “bluestone” is used by geologists to cover all the exotic, non-local rocks at the monument, consisting of over 20 different types of Welsh rock, such as dolerites, rhyolites, and sandstones.

Antiquarians of the 17th and 18th century knew the bluestones were not local stones but it wasn't until 1923 when Herbert H Thomas identified the source of one type of dolerite to Carn Meyn in the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, southwest Wales. Recent archaeological investigation has identified the source of the ‘spotted dolerite’ bluestones to Carn Goedog, also in the Preseli's, and the source of  one type ‘rhyolite’ bluestone further in north-west Pembrokeshire at an outcrop of Craig Rhos-y-felin.

Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Royal Cemetery
900 years ago Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that the wizard Merlin was responsible for magically transporting the Giant’s Dance (as he called Stonehenge) from Ireland to Salisbury Plain in England. Writing around 1136 AD Geoffrey's Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) is today considered a pseudo-historical (fictitious) account of British history. Not many would argue with that today but with regard to Stonehenge, Geoffrey seems to have stumbled upon an tradition with an element of truth to it.

Geoffrey, loosely following the account known as the Night of the Long Knives in the 9th century Historia Brittonum, tells us that after Hengist's Saxon's treacherously slaughtered 460 unarmed British Nobles at a peace conference, having concealed daggers in their shoes. Vortigern is forced to concede his cities and fortified places in consideration of their granting him his life. He then fled to Kambria (Wales) where he is pursued by the Sons of Constantine.

Merlin is tasked with constructing a suitable monument to the British nobles. He brings the Giant's Dance from mount Killaraus in Ireland to Mount Ambrius on Salisbury Plain as if by magic. He sets up the stones brought over from Ireland about the sepulchre, placing them in the same manner as they had been on mount Killaraus.

Not only did Geoffrey have knowledge of the bluestone of Stonehenge coming from the west he was also aware that the monument was a Royal Cemetery.

When Arthur's father Utherpendragon dies Geoffrey has them carry his body “to the convent of Ambrius, where they buried it with regal solemnity, close by Aurelius Ambrosius, within the Giant's Dance”. Later, when Constantine dies he too is buried: “ the side of Utherpendragon within the circle of stones, called Stonehenge in the English language, which had been built with such wonderful skill, not far from Salisbury”. Should we expect Arthur to be buried here too along with his family?

Archaeological evidence obtained through study of the remains uncovered by the Stonehenge Riverside Project who raided Aubrey Hole 7 in 2008 to recover all the cremation deposits excavated from Stonehenge, including remains found during Colonel Hawley's excavation in  the 1920's, reburied by William Young and R.S. Newall reburied in 1935, has been interpreted as indicating that this was indeed a cemetery for a group of elite families whose remains were brought to Stonehenge and buried over a period of more than 200 years.

According to Geoffrey, there are three Dark Age interments at Stonehenge; Aurelius Ambrosius, Utherpendragon and Constantine. Yet, in addition to the many cremation burials found at Stonehenge, four articulated skeletons have been found during archaeological excavations at the monument. However, we must bear in mind that only half of the ground area of Stonehenge has been excavated; who knows what lies beneath?

Hawley found a skeleton in the ring ditch in 1922 but it was discarded as he felt that it was a modern interment. The fate of this skeleton is not known. In 1923 another skeleton, allocated number 4.10.4 in 1938 by the Royal College of Surgeons, was unearthed, then lost, believed destroyed in the London bombing of 1941. Another was found in 1926 lying across the central axis inside the stone circle, a significant placing, but again was subsequently lost.

Richard Atkinson unearthed another articulated skeleton at Stonehenge in 1978. The remains of this man, who died from a hail of flint-tipped arrows around 2,300 BC, was found in the ditch. Known today as the Stonehenge Archer; debate continues as to whether he was a ritual sacrifice or a murder victim.

In 1999 skeleton 4.10.4 was relocated by Mike Pitts who discovered it had actually survived the bombing during the Second World War. Tests have revealed he was decapitated and dated to 640–690 AD and therefore considered a Saxon execution.

However, unknown to archaeologists at the time, skeleton 4.10.4 had already been re-discovered in 1975 by Wystan Peach who believed the remains were of King Arthur, the architect of Stonehenge.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

* * *

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.