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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

Hidden Landscapes: Stonehenge

Stonehenge is one the UK’s most visited tourist attractions – and one of the world’s most enigmatic ancient monuments. People come from all over the world to stare at the iconic stone pillars and wonder how, and why, they were put in place.


The site may be instantly recognisable, but there is far more to it than first meets the eye. As archaeologists study this area, mystery after mystery unfolds. But a coherent story may be beginning to emerge.

That has been particularly true over the last decade. Researchers have been studying not just the monument itself, but the area around it, hoping to find clues in this intriguing landscape of prehistoric monuments.

Underground imaging and excavation have revealed that Stonehenge was once part of a complicated network of structures: ancient burial mounds, unknown settlements, processional routes and even gold-adorned burials. The finds paint a picture of a far more mysterious and elaborate Neolithic and Bronze Age world than previously thought.

One such project that looked at Stonehenge in this holistic way was the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, which ran from 2010 to 2014. Underground radar and magnetic imaging techniques revealed that Stonehenge lies at the centre of a complex web of structures covering an estimated 4.5 square miles (12 sq km). The project caused a media frenzy in 2015, when scientists announced the finding of a potential ‘Superhenge’ at nearby Durrington Walls – a huge 500m (1,640ft) diameter stone circle.

However, this frenzy was short-lived. When excavating the site, the archaeologists didn’t find any stones. Instead, they found that timber posts once stood here. After they were removed, the holes were filled with chalk and then covered in earth to form a henge bank. On radar scans, the gaps in the loose chalk had looked like stones.


Today, Durrington Walls is a field surrounded by banks.

Despite this setback, UK lead for the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project Vincent Gaffney stressed that the project revealed hundreds of new features and many sites never seen before. “Following this survey, we know not only where things are but where they aren’t as well,” said Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford.

These kinds of surveys are key, Gaffney said, because they allow archaeologists “to investigate all areas of land equally, and not just the monuments we know. This allows us to interpret the evidence in a more sophisticated manner.

“What this has revealed is a completely unknown monumental phase of Durrington Walls. In between the Neolithic village and the massive earthwork was a massive ring of posts somewhere between 4-6m (13-20ft) in height – a minimum of 200 and perhaps as many as 300. This is completely new and would have been missed entirely without the survey.”


Modern stones mark where the pillars of Woodhenge, another ancient monument in the area, would have been

The finding of another huge monument in the area has changed the way archaeologists look at the development and history of the region. “Increasingly, I would suggest that we are beginning to see the mosaic of blank areas and monuments as suggesting processional movement,” said Gaffney.

In other words, the landscape was used in religious or ceremonial processions related to the monuments.

Mike Parker Pearson of University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, who led the Stonehenge Riverside Project from 2003 to 2009, thinks that the posts at Durrington Walls were put up with the intention that they would be taken down soon after. “They may only have stood for a matter of months before they were replaced by the henge bank and ditch,” he said. “Their purpose seems to have been to mark the perimeter of the great village, by now abandoned. So perhaps the posts were a monument to the people who lived here while building Stonehenge.”

Whatever the monument was used for, it shows that Stonehenge isn’t alone in this landscape. Understanding the significance of Stonehenge depends on understanding everything else around it as well.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project found that Stonehenge was built in two phases. The first – a ditch, bank and circle of bluestones – was built 500 years earlier than previously thought, more than 4,500 years ago. The second phase, when the larger, iconic outer circle was erected, came about 500 years after the first.


The area, however, was occupied beginning around 9,000 years ago, suggesting it had significance long before Stonehenge was built.

Twenty miles (30km) away lies the less well-known but just as significant site of Avebury, home of the largest stone circle in Europe. But the Neolithic reach of this area extended even further – such as into Wales, where prehistoric Britons procured the bluestones for Stonehenge’s inner circle.

Meanwhile, Parker Pearson says, it seems that the big stones at Stonehenge came from the Avebury area.

This suggests that these significant Neolithic landscapes – Salisbury Plain, Avebury and the Preseli hills in Wales, another area rich with prehistoric monuments – were linked. And holding that link together was Stonehenge.

Parker Pearson suggests that the Welsh bluestones were the first to be put in place at Stonehenge, and that it was the monument that they came from that was important. The stones would have been considered to be ancestral symbols of western Britons, he said, and “bringing them to Salisbury Plain was an act of unification of the two main Neolithic peoples of southern Britain.”


Outcrops of rock in the Presili hills, Wales

Even today, the Preseli hills are dotted with dolmens (ancient tombs). “The density of dolmens reveals that this was an important region (both politically and spiritually) some 700 years before Stonehenge,” Parker Pearson said, making it “possibly a leading territory within western Britain in the centuries before 3000 BC.”

But even if we agree with the theory that bringing the stones from Wales was a symbolic and even political, act, it presents another mystery: how did prehistoric Britons move those huge stones?

Some suggest that people didn’t move the stones at all, and that instead, glaciers transported the stones across southern Britain. But the finding of two ancient stone quarries in Preseli ended that debate for the most part.


Excavations at the Craig Rhos-y-felin quarry, shown here, revealed that the bluestones were quarried and transported to Stonehenge

Scientists also have experimented with ideas of how to transport the large stones 160 miles (260km) from Wales. According to Parker Pearson, they discovered that moving small megaliths like the bluestones, which mostly weighed 2 tons or less, was not actually that difficult – even with just dragging the stone on a sledge.

In another recent finding, archaeologists discovered the cremated remains of people buried at Stonehenge. The Stonehenge Riverside Project’s 2008 excavation retrieved about 58 burials, including at least nine men – and 14 women. As it is thought that anyone buried at Stonehenge had elevated social status, this therefore poses questions about the role of women in the Neolithic period.


“It frequently seems that there is always something new from Stonehenge, but I continue to be surprised that we keep finding so much – even in areas that have been studied intensively for years,” said Gaffney. “The latest findings from Durrington demonstrate that new technology doesn’t just find new sites, it dramatically transforms how we understand known sites.

“It also emphasises not just how unique Stonehenge was, but how important the landscape around that monument was – and that we are still just beginning to understand how it developed and what it meant to the people who built Stonehenge.”

Even so, no matter how many new discoveries are made, it seems that Stonehenge will only continue to throw up new questions for scientists and the media to ponder. These Neolithic people had huge skill and ambition.

Such a huge monument erected so perfectly, over many centuries, is not something easy for us to understand in our fast-paced, modern world.



Filed under: Archaeology, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Intrusive development damaging Tuscan landscape

From Telegraph:

This month, thousands of British holidaymakers are making the pilgrimage, putting hemselves through the purgatory of air travel and the struggle with baggage and car hire. But it will all be worth it when they arrive in the heart of the postcard that every middle-class Brit carries around somewhere in their mind’s eye.

In Tuscany, the olive groves dutifully simmer in the heat haze. Villages nestle gorgeously on hill crests. The land swishes its seductive, feminine curves. Cinema’s premier fantasy location, whither pallid north Europeans return like migrating wildebeest to marvel at the shimmering duet of light and landscape, is a chimerical neverland which miraculously exists.

Or does it? These days, when you drive around the folds in the hills towards the medieval Manhattan that is San Gimignano, you can’t see the fields for the brutally ugly poster hoardings advertising the local Vernaccia. But a billboard can always be taken down.

Lately, however, there have been more ineradicable alterations to the landscape. Take the Val d’Orcia. You’ll have quaffed its Brunello di Montalcino and, from the other end of the valley, its Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. When one pictures Tuscany, it is the Val d’Orcia that supplies the classic image of yellowing crete senesi (the Siennese clays) punctuated by a lone farmhouse in a tall cluster of cypresses. That is why it was made a parco artistico, naturale e culturale, not to mention a Unesco World Heritage site.

These protections have not so far impeded plans, 10 miles from Montepulciano at Gallina, for a plant that will be visible for miles around, where straw and wood will be burned to make fuel pellets offsite. The location is perhaps a little odd, given that the nearest pellet factory is hundreds of miles away in Le Marche.

San Gimignano (Wikimedia Commons)

Nor, it seems, is there enough raw material in the Val d’Orcia to keep the plant working. It’s feared by local campaigners that other waste will be burned there, pumping carcinogenic dioxins and nanoparticles into the pure Tuscan air, as well as large quantities of CO2 and carbon monoxide.

Anxiety about environmental pollution is already high, thanks to the building of a geothermal plant on the vast tree-smothered slopes of Monte Amiata, at 1,800 metres the tallest mountain in Tuscany.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountain at Scansano, one of the leading vineyards, Biondi Santi, was surrounded by wind turbines in 2007. In other corners of Tuscany they have since sprouted like funghi porcini, with the difference that, at up to 150 metres tall, they are rather easier to locate. In an area of 12 miles by six miles near the dramatic, unspoilt uplands around Volterra, authorisation has been given for 78 turbines.

These projects continue despite the fact that even Paolo Scaroni, the head of Eni, which controls more than 80 per cent of Italy’s domestic natural gas production, recently admitted that the turbines do not produce enough energy because Tuscany simply doesn’t have enough wind. But in Italy the incentives for renewables are the highest in Europe. And, as they are paid in advance, there is no process by which investment can be measured against productivity.In other news, the council in Grosseto has just freed up 200 hectares of archaeologically rich agricultural land in Braccagni in the Maremma for building an industrial village, including 20 hectares of solar panels. The area’s Roman-Etruscan heritage is also threatened by a vast new yacht basin planned for Talamone, the ancient port on one of the Italian peninsula’s last remaining stretches of undeveloped coastline. And meanwhile, as everywhere else in Europe, the cities and towns encroach on the countryside, the tarmac spreads across hills and farms. In Italy they call it lo sprawl.

One of the most shocking instances of lo sprawl is planned for a valley known as the Golden Basin, on the green, fertile northern side of Amiata. Here, in one of the last Tuscan valleys to have remained entirely unspoilt since medieval times, the local comune has received an application to build a “well-being centre” 500 metres from a national monument, the Castello di Potentino, along with other residential structures, all requiring asphalted access. A hotel, in short – no matter that other hotels in the area are empty for much of the year.

The proposed hotel has become a lightning rod for local feeling. The regional branch of Italia Nostra (Our Italy), the national association for the defence of the historical, cultural and environmental heritage of Italy, was soon involved. It organised a one-day conference to try to persuade the local mayor to think again. Politicians, hoteliers, local businesses and tourism companies were invited to give professional advice to help the local council change its mind.

To no avail thus far, explains Charlotte Horton, whose vineyard at Castello di Potentino produces a wine this year voted one of the best three in Tuscany. “There is no public scrutiny,” she explains. “We have written many letters to the council. They replied with a very evasive answer that gives us no explanation. We have no idea what they are up to. The local councils have too much administrative power over things they are not professionally experienced enough to manage.”

Benedetta Origo, the daughter of the formidable Iris Origo, who wrote the best-selling War in Val d’Orcia about the resistance to the Nazis in southern Tuscany, says that the enemy is within, and far more slippery.

“Recent laws have given each comune almost complete autonomy to decide what is good or not regarding building, expansion, roads, etc,” she says. “If the mayor decides that a certain plan is ‘good for the community’, he has the ultimate power to concede permits, which are then irrevocable. Therefore greed sets in easily.

“Most of the comuni are so drastically short of money that they will do anything to fill their coffers. The whole situation is pitiful, and slipping fast.”

In other words, it’s the old story – greed and short-termism, but all given new momentum by the financial crisis engulfing Italy, and fuelled by a lack of pastoral leadership from Rome. The final defence against despoliation is Article Nine of the Italian constitution. It declares that the state must protect the historic heritage and cultural landscape of the country. That constitutional responsibility has been comprehensively devolved to local governments.

The result? Tuscans are gradually losing the landscape that lures visitors from around the world. They may also, in due course, lose the visitors. So a word to the wise. If you want to visit that postcard in your head for real, book early to avoid disappointment. Pretty soon a fantasy is all that will be left.

The original version of this article stated that a geothermal power plant operated by Enel SpA has caused drinking water pollution, lowered the water table, led to deforestation and incorrectly linked the plant with the region’s cancer rates. Enel SpA have assured us that these allegations are unfounded.

From Telegraph

Filed under: Universalis, , , , , ,

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