Saturday, 12 June 2021

Geoffrey and the Giants’ Dance

 "The discovery of a dismantled stone circle—close to Stonehenge’s bluestone quarries in west Wales—raises the possibility that a 900-year-old legend about Stonehenge being built from an earlier stone circle contains a grain of truth."  - Mike Parker Pearson, et al, The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales, Antiquity 2021 Vol. 95 (379): 85–103.

The Bluestone Trail
Much has been written recently about the claimed discovery of the “original” Stonehenge in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales, following the television program Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed first screened on BBC Two on 12 February 2021. The documentary followed the revelations of Mike Parker Pearson and team in the Antiquity journal, The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales (Antiquity 2021 Vol. 95 (379): pp.85–103).

The media quickly picked up on the claims that the earliest megalithic circle at Stonehenge was first built in the Preseli Hills (Mynydd Preseli) more than 5,000 years ago, before it was dismantled and its stones dragged over 140 miles to its present location on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England.

The huge sarsen stones, making up the outer circle and inner trilithon horseshoe, were sourced locally and brought from Marlborough Downs about 20 miles distant around 500 years later. The construction of the sarsen ring appears to be in common with most prehistoric stone circles that used local materials. Nevertheless, moving the massive sarsens weighing as much as 20 tons each was no mean feat. Yet it is the 80 or so smaller bluestones, the largest weighing around 4 tons, at Stonehenge that have puzzled archaeologists since the British geologist Herbert Thomas identified their source in south west Wales a hundred years ago. 

In 1923 Thomas established that the spotted dolerite bluestones at Stonehenge originated in the Preseli Hills where he envisaged they may have originally formed a “venerated stone circle”. He identified a site called Carn Menyn in the Preselis as the source of the spotted dolerite bluestones at Stonehenge. 

Good Science or Bad Science?
Since then it is now known that there are at least 20 different rock types that constitute the “bluestone group” of stones, an unsatisfactory generic term used by archaeologists to describe all the non-sarsen stones at Stonehenge, such as spotted dolerites, unspotted dolerites, rhyolites, and tuffs. Modern science has identified the sources of two types of the Stonehenge bluestones at outcrops at Carn Goedog (near Carn Menyn) and Craig Rhos-y-felin  in the Preseli Hills.

The Stones of Stonehenge project team led by Mike Parker Pearson (University College London) claims to have identified the site of a dismantled bluestone circle situated between these two proposed quarry sites. The Antiquity paper argues for the existence of a bluestone circle at Waun Mawn that was dismantled in prehistory and re-erected as Stonehenge. 

Archaeology is perhaps the most speculative of all the sciences as one must put the archaeological finds into a context. Parker Pearson is a master of the archaeological story, a skill he has crafted since Stonehenge Riverside Project days when he proposed that the people of Durrington Walls were the builders of Stonehenge. Influenced by funerary practices in modern day Madagascar Parker Pearson saw the timber constructions at Durrington Walls as the land of the living and the stone circles of Stonehenge as the abode of the ancestors. The two sites linked by ceremonial avenues aligned to the midwinter sunrise and sunset by the river Avon.

The big flaw in this is that when a senior academic puts forward a theory such as the first Stonehenge was a bluestone circle at Waun Mawn it can very quickly become established fact among popular opinion, when there is little, if any, proven evidence to confirm the theory in this case. The team have been accused of stretching the evidence and making it fit their scheme; I leave criticism of the archaeological methods to those better qualified than me. Here I am more interested with the prospect of Geoffrey of Monmouth's tale of the Giants’ Dance and how this may have influenced the archaeologists.

Merlin and the Legend of the Stones
Herbert Thomas's discovery of the geological origin of the Stonehenge bluestones led several academics to look again at Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century tale. Archaeologists Stuart Piggott (1941), Aubrey Burl (2006), Timothy Darvill & Geoffrey Wainwright (2009) and now Parker Pearson have all speculated that there may be a grain a truth in Geoffrey’s tale of the Giants Dance. The possibility certainly seems to have influenced the authors’ of the Antiquity paper:

"In the oldest story of Stonehenge’s origins, the History of the Kings of Britain (c. AD 1136), Geoffrey of Monmouth describes how the monument was built using stones from the Giants’ Dance stone circle in Ireland. Located on legendary Mount Killaraus, the circle was dismantled by Merlin and shipped to Amesbury on Salisbury Plain by a force of 15,000 men, who had defeated the Irish and captured the stones. According to the legend, Stonehenge was built to commemorate the death of Britons who were treacherously killed by Saxons during peace talks at Amesbury. Merlin wanted the stones of the Giants’ Dance for their magical, healing properties." [Parker Pearson et al, The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales (Antiquity 2021 Vol. 95 (379): pp.85–103]

There are many flaws in Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae); much of what he wrote he seems to have simply made up to fill out a good yarn; today, at best, it is considered a pseudo-historical account. Did Geoffrey really believe the stone circle was erected during the Arthurian era, the period known by the (now out-of-favour) term the Dark Ages 400-600 AD? 

In the Antiquity paper Parker Pearson argues that the area of Wales where the bluestones came from was considered Irish territory in Geoffrey’s day. This is simply not correct; during the 12th century the newly arrived Norman Lords were busy settling Flemings in south-west Wales.

The earliest account we have of Stonehenge is found in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, (History of the English), written around 1125, in which he lists the stone circle by its English name as one of the four marvels in England:. 

“The second is at Stonehenge, where stones of remarkable size are raised up like gates, in such a way that gates seem to be placed on top of gates. And no one can work out how the stones were so skilfully lifted up to such a height or why they were erected there.”

Amazingly it has been suggested that Geoffrey of Monmouth didn't invent the story of the stones of the Giants’ Dance but simply recounted known folklore; yet it is inconceivable that an oral tradition could have survived from the Neolithic, some 4,000 years before he put quill to parchment in the 12th century. Yet the account is not found in any source before Geoffrey and we must conclude that his 900-year-old story of Stonehenge is pure fantasy; in his day Geoffrey could not have possibly known that the smaller bluestones came from Wales.

Geoffrey’s Sources
Evidently from his account of the Giants’ Dance Geoffrey was not familiar with the geography of the area around Salisbury Plain and it is doubtful if he had even visited the stone circle. Geoffrey clearly models his convent at Ambrius with the Priory at Amesbury but appears confused between the location of Mount Ambrius and the Temple at Ambrius; he seems to use both terms to describe the same thing.

According to Geoffrey the Britons met with Hengist’s Saxons at the monastery at Ambrius on the kalends of May for a peace conference. During the meeting the Saxons pulled out concealed daggers and slaughtered 460 British nobles. The murdered Britons are given Christian burial by St Eldad, bishop of Gloucester (unknown outside Geoffrey) “not far from Kaercaradauc, now Salisbury….. near the monastery of Ambrius, the abbot, who was the founder of it.” Geoffrey tells us that at this place was a convent that maintained 300 friars, situated on the mount of Ambrius.

It is here on mount Ambrius that the king Aurelius Ambrosius has Merlin re-assemble the Giants’ Dance as a memorial to the slaughtered British nobles. When Aurelius dies he is buried “near the convent of Ambrius, within the Giants’ Dance.” His brother Uther Pendragon takes the throne of Britain. When Uther drinks water poisoned by the Saxons at Verulam his body is taken to the convent at Ambrius where he is buried close by Aurelius within the Giants’ Dance.

Following Uther’s death his son Arthur becomes king and fights a series of battles, the pinnacle of Geoffrey’s opus. After being mortally wounded in his last battle against Modred, Arthur is taken to the isle of Avallon to be cured of his wounds, not buried among his kinsfolk within the Giants’ Dance as one might expect. Clearly here Geoffrey was familiar with the Breton and Cornish legend of Arthur’s return; you can’t bury a man who isn’t dead.

At this point in Geoffrey’s tale one could be forgiven for questioning whether the Giants’ Dance is actually Stonehenge; all we can be certain of at this point is that it is a stone circle somewhere near Salisbury. But where is mount Ambrius? Stonehenge is situated on a plain, not a hill or a mountain by any means.

However, the location of the Giants’ Dance is revealed after Arthur’s kinsman Constantine takes the throne and on his death is buried close by Uther Pendragon “within the structure of stones, which was set up with wonderful art not far from Salisbury, and called in the English tongue, Stonehenge.

The name Ambrius is clearly created by Geoffrey to provide a connection with Amesbury, about 5 miles from Stonehenge, where there has been a religious house since the 10th century. Amesbury Priory was founded by the Saxon Queen Ælfthryth in 979 AD as a house exclusively for women. Shortly after Geoffrey’s time when Henry II dissolved this house in 1177 there were some 30 nuns, a far cry from Geoffrey’s 300 friars. Henry used the priory buildings for the foundation of a double priory of the Fontevrault Order, which he introduced into England, known as Amesbury Abbey.

It would appear that when Geoffrey refers to the convent of Ambrius he means the Priory at Amesbury, and when using the term mount Ambrius he is referring to the site where the Giants’ Dance was reconstructed, that is Stonehenge. But as stated above Stonehenge is hardly on a hill, let alone a mountain.

As we have seen above, Geoffrey has the British nobles buried “not far from Kaercaradauc, now Salisbury”. Kaer Caradawg was used as a name for Old Sarum hillfort, about 2 and a half miles miles north of Salisbury cathedral.

The Iron Age hillfort at Old Sarum, 2 miles north of Salisbury was known as Sorviodunum to the Romano-Britons. Sacked by the Saxons in 552, refortified by King Alfred in the 9th century, the Normans constructed a motte and bailey castle in 1070. Shortly after the cathedral was constructed but was badly damaged just five days after completion in 1092. The Old Sarum cathedral was refurbished and expanded in the 1110s by bishop Roger of Sarum.

The cathedral was moved to “New Sarum”  (Salisbury) in 1220 when, as legend claims, an arrow was shot from Old Sarum and where it landed the new church would be built. However, the distance is too great for a single arrow shot and it is claimed that the arrow hit a white deer that continued to run and finally dropped on the spot where the cathedral stands today. As the site around the new cathedral grew Old Sarum was abandoned and the stones robbed. New Sarum was made a city in 1227 and by the 14th century was the largest settlement in Wiltshire.

It therefore follows that if Old Sarum became New Sarum (Salisbury) when the settlement relocated, then if Kaercaradauc (Kaer Caradawg) was Salisbury it must previously have also been the name of Old Sarum. By this reasoning it seems very likely that Geoffrey confused mount Ambrius with the new cathedral and hillfort at Old Sarum (Kaer Caradawg) and clear evidence that he never visited the site of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain.

A late Triad refers to The Three Perpetual Choirs of Britain as being sited at the Isle of Avalon (Glastonbury), Caer Caradoc (Old Sarum) and Bangor Is-y-Coed (Bangor-on-Dee, near Wrexham) with 2,400 singers in each choir, a hundred for every hour of the day and the night. Following a translation (or more correctly a re-interpretation) by Iolo Morgannwg, the earth mysteries writer John Michell argued that Bangor Is-y-Coed  should be identified with Llantwit Major. Michell proposed further choir locations forming a huge decagon 63 miles across centred on a Whiteleafed Oak was in existence in ancient days for the enchantment of the land.

In the The Dimensions of Paradise, Michell wrote; “Three of the choirs were located at Stonehenge, at Glastonbury, and near Llantwit Major in Wales. Others appear to have been at Goring-on- Thames and at Croft Hill in Leicestershire….” Michell claimed the decagon formed a straight line from Glastonbury to Stonehenge, then down the line of the Stonehenge Avenue and the Midsummer sunrise to Goring-on-Thames forming an internal angle of 144 degrees. Michell had determined there was ancient temple at Goring but this has proven to be incorrect

However, the connection with the line of the Stonehenge Avenue is intriguing and we will return to this point later in discussing Parker Pearson’s claim for why Stonehenge was constructed at this place.

Stones from Africa
Geoffrey claimed “the giants of old brought them [the stones of the Giants’ Dance] from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country.” He added that these were healing stones; by washing the stones they would put the sick into the water and they were cured of their ills. There is no doubt that this statement has encouraged some [see: Darvill & Wainwright] to see the bluestones as possessing healing properties and this is the reason why so few have survived at Stonehenge today. There is no folklore outside of Geoffrey to support such a concept. The bluestones have been chipped away by souvenir hunters since at least Roman times simply because some types are considerably softer and flakier than sarsen.

Why Africa? Geoffrey’s claim that giants brought the stones from Africa is medieval make-believe of course, but he had to provide a link to these large mythological figures to justify the name, the Giants’ Dance. However, during Geoffrey’s time the Islamic world was at its cultural peak, a Golden Age, in which major advances in the sciences such as alchemy, astronomy, mathematics and medicine, had major influences on the Western world. Linking to the Islamic world also enhances the mysticism of the stones.

Stones from Ireland
Geoffrey tells us that the Giant's Dance was at Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland where it stood as a  structure of stones of a such vast magnitude that Merlin scoffed none of his age could raise them. This seems a very apt description of the massive sarsen stones at Stonehenge (not the smaller bluestones) topped with a ring of interlocking lintels, a very impressive structure indeed.

Mons Killaraus” can only be the hill of Killare in County Westmeath, Ireland. Killare was situated at the foot of the Hill of Uisneach, the sacred centre of Ireland, the axis mundi, where sky touches land and three worlds meet; the gateway to the mythical Otherworld. This place is associated with druids, the fire festival of Bealtaine and said to be the burial place of the mythical Tuatha Dé Danann, the supernatural folk of the goddess Danu. The hill is connected by a ceremonial road to the Hill of Tara, an ancient site that has been in use for more than 5,000 years as a place of burial and assembly. According to Geoffrey the purpose of the Giants’ Dance is exactly the same; a place of assembly and then a royal cemetery.

The Hill of Uisneach consists of a series of monuments and earthworks including a megalithic tomb, burial mounds, enclosures, standing stones, holy wells, the earliest dating to the Neolithic period. The passage tomb known as St Patrick’s Bed is claimed to be the oldest structure on the hill. On the south-west side of the hill is a huge stone known as Ail na Míreann (The Stone of Divisions, or Cat Stone) said to be the point the four ancient Provinces of Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster, met. This is the home of the sovereignty goddess, Eriu, who, according to legend, is buried under the Catstone. The stone is also said to be the entrance to the mythical fifth Province of Ireland; Midhe. 

As the mythical centre Uisneach fits requirements in all measures; but the big question is of course did a stone circle once stand here in ancient days? There are claims, but little evidence, that Ail na Mireann was ringed by a stone circle. But ultimately this myth always leads back to Geoffrey of Monmouth and there is no current evidence to support this. The only way to be certain is to carry out archaeological surveys but there is little appetite for such intrusions on this most sacred of sites.

The Sacred Centre
The convergence of five ancient roads at the Hill of Tara, linked to Uiseneach by a ceremonial avenue, indicates the spiritual and political importance of the site; burial place and seat of the High Kings of Ireland. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Henry of Huntingdon recognised the significance of the ancient roads of Britain that we should expect to converge at, or very near, Stonehenge if it were to be the sacred centre:

“So important was the safely of Britain to its loyal people that, under royal authority, they constructed four great highways from one end of the island to the other, as military roads, by which they might meet any hostile invasion. The first runs from west to east, and is called Ichenild. The second runs from south to north, and is called Erninge Strate. The third crosses the island from Dover to Chester, in a direction from south-east to north-west, and is called Watling Street. The fourth, which is longer than the others, commences in Caithness, and terminates in Totness, extending from the borders of Cornwall to the extremity of Scotland; this road runs diagonally from south-west to north-east, passing by Lincoln, and is called the Foss-way. These are the four principal highways of Britain, which are noble and useful works, founded by the edicts of kings, and maintained by venerated laws.” [The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, Book I]

Geoffrey seems to have used Henry’s Chronicle as a source for the four paved Roman roads (see JSP Tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain, pp. 34, 121, 281). On the ancient roads of Britain Geoffrey says: 

“The king [Belinus] ……………….. summoned all the workmen of the island together, and commanded them to pave a causeway of stone and mortar, which should run the whole length of the island, from the sea of Cornwall, to the shores of Caithness, and lead directly to the cities that lay upon that extent. He commanded another to be made over the breadth of the kingdom, leading from Menevia, that was situated upon the Demetian Sea, to Hamo's Port, and to pass through the interjacent cities. Other two he made obliquely through the island, for a passage to the rest of the cities.”

In following Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey is describing the main Roman roads of Britain, none of which intersect at Stonehenge. In medieval times the centre of the country was considered the intersection of two of these principal Roman Roads, Watling Street and The Fosse Way at High Cross in Leicestershire where a stone monument was erected in 1712 marking the site of a wooden cross which had stood there for several centuries. Originally a larger, decorated structure was sited at the centre of Watling Street near to its junction with the Southern Fosse Way. 

According to the ancient British Tale of Lludd and Llefelys, Lludd measured the length and breadth of the island and found the centre to be at Oxford. However the sacred centre, omphalos or navel, is not necessarily a geographical centre but a spiritual point. There are several sites that could qualify for the scared centre and Stonehenge, with its many concentric rings, is certainly among them; surrounded by prehistoric barrows Stonehenge is a central point in a huge cemetery.

But who knows where the Neolithic people considered the sacred centre of Britain? Even if we consider the prehistoric trackways of Britain, such as the Great Ridgeway and the Icknield Way, there is no evidence that they all led to Stonehenge as the sacred centre. The nearest we find is the Harrow Way, or Hard Way, an ancient trackway dating from the Neolithic period that runs from the mouth of the River Axe in Devon to near Dover in Kent, the eastern part known as the “pilgrims way” adopted as a Holy route to the shrine of Thomas Becket. The line of the Harrow Way where it passes Stonehenge is not agreed by any means.

The Harrow Way would appear to shadow the line of the A303 near Stonehenge. However, it diverts from the A303 before Stonehenge and fords the river Avon at the village of Ratfyn, just north of Amesbury. The Harrow Way then climbs the Kings Barrow ridge before joining the line of the Stonehenge Avenue into the stone circle and emerging through the Neolithic barrows of Normanton Down, through Berwick St James, before rejoining the line of the A303 at Chicklade Bottom. Further west the Harrow Way joins the Great Ridgeway at Beaminster Down before hitting the Devonshire coast.

If Stonehenge was constructed at the sacred centre it would explain the reason for a prehistoric trackway running across southern Britain from east to west to the centre of the stone circle and may well be the reason why Stonehenge was constructed where it is rather than Parker Pearson’s solstitially aligned glacial striations.  

Geoffrey’s tale of the Giants’ Dance describes the translation of one structure marking the sacred centre of a country to another land. No doubt he had heard of the sacred centre of Ireland and imagined an equivalent structure was needed in southern Britain as we have seen above, he selected elements from various sources to construct his story of the Giants’ Dance. However, we may ask what inspired Geoffrey to add this element of a grand memorial to the fallen to his Historia?

A Memorial to the Fallen
Without doubt the kernel of Geoffrey’s story of a memorial to the murdered British nobles is taken from the History of the Britons (Historia Bittonum, c.829AD), popularly known as "Nennius". Yet the original account fails to mention Stonehenge or a memorial constructed for the fallen. These embellishments to the story are not known from any other source and therefore must be due to Geoffrey’s creative spirit. Clearly he wanted a fitting memorial the British nobles murdered by the Saxon invaders. 

Fast forward from the post-Roman days of Ambrosius to Geoffrey’s own time in the 12th century. Only 70 years before Geoffrey produced his Historia an army of nobles had been killed fighting heroically to the death for the Crown of England by the invading Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The late 12th-century Chronicles of Battle Abbey records a speech made by William I (The Conqueror) which he delivered immediately before the battle pledging to found a monastery if God granted him victory. The Chronicles, which date from around 1180, states the abbey was "founded by the Conqueror in expiation for the sin involved in the conquest".  Consequently, within 5 years of William’s victory the Abbey of St Martin (now know as Battle Abbey) was built with the high altar of the abbey church reputedly sited on the exact spot where King Harold died on Senlac Hill.

On William’s death he bequeathed many gifts to the Abbey including his royal cloak and a portable altar used on his campaigns. William had endowed the Abbey to such an extent that it became the 15th wealthiest religious house in the country.


    • Geoffrey took the idea of the peace conference between Britons and Saxons from the History of the Britons (Historia Bittonum).

    • He saw Stonehenge as a fitting tribute to the British nobles murdered at the conference.

    • Geoffrey does not appear to be familiar with the geography of Stonehenge and claims it was erected on mount Ambrius when the monument is sited on a plain.

    • He models mount Ambrius on the ancient hillfort at Old Sarum (Kaer Caradawg) where a new cathedral had been built shortly before he wrote his History of the Kings of Britain.

    • Geoffrey models the convent at Ambrius which he claims housed 300 friars on the Priory at Amesbury that had 30 nuns.

    • He relates Stonehenge to the Sacred Centre of Ireland at Uisnech

    • Prehistoric roads converge on the Hill of Tara which is linked to Uisnech by a ceremonial avenue.

    • The ancient trackway known as The Harrow Way runs east to west across southern Britain and through the centre of Stonehenge, entering the stone circle through a ceremonial avenue.

    • He claims the huge stones of the Giants’ Dance came from Africa and were erected by the giants of old.

    • In Geoffrey’s day the Islamic lands were experiencing a golden age and everything coming out of Africa was considered mystical.

    • He modelled his grand memorial devoted to the murdered British nobles slaughtered by an invading race on the Abbey built shortly before he wrote his Historia dedicated by William I to the English nobles slaughtered at the battle of Hastings by the invading Normans.

When you break out and analyse the elements of Geoffrey’s elaborate tale of the Giants Dance it becomes quite clear that he did not follow an ancient tradition at all but carefully constructed a story taking inspiration from events in his own time. We come to the unavoidable conclusion that Geoffrey had no idea the bluestones of Stonehenge came from south-west Wales and archaeologist are quite wrong to think there was ever a “grain of truth” in his story.

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