Posts Tagged ‘Stonehenge’

Archaeologists Discover Bronze Agent Musical Instrument Made of Human Bone

September 4, 2020

This is an interesting piece of archaeological news from Tuesday’s edition of the I for 1 September 2020. The article ‘Bronze Age people turned human thigh bone into musical instrument’ by Nina Massey reported that archaeologists from Bristol University had discovered the instrument buried with other fragments of bone and tusk and axes buried as grave goods with a man near Stonehenge. The article reads

Researchers have uncovered evidence of a Bronze Age tradition that saw human remains retained and curated as relics over several generations.

The findings indicate a tangible way of honouring and remembering individuals some 4,500 years ago, experts say.

Led by the University of Bristol and published in the journal Antiquity, the study used radio-carbon dating and CT scanning.

Lead author Dr Thomas Booth said: “Even in modern secular societies, human remains are seen as particularly powerful objects, and this seems to hold true for people of the Bronze Age. However, they treated and and interacted with the dead in ways which are inconceivably macabre to us today.

“After radiocarbon dating Bronze Age human remains alongside other material buried with them, we found many had been buried a significant time after the person had died, suggesting a tradition of retaining and curating human remains.”

He added: “People seem to have curated the remains of people who had lived within living or cultural memory, and who likely played an important role in their life or their communities, or with whom they had a well-defined relationship, whether that was direct family, a tradesperson, a friend or even an enemy.

In one example from Wiltshire, a human thigh bone, crafted into a musical instrument was included as grave goods with the burial of a man found near Stonehenge.

The carved and polished artefact was found with other items including axes, a bone plate and a tusk. Radio-carbon dating of the thigh bone suggests it belonged to someone this person had known.

Professor Joanna Bruck, principal investigator on the project, and visiting professor at the University of Bristol’s department of anthropology and archaeology, said: “Although fragments of human bone were included as grave goods, they were also kept in the homes of the living, buried under house floors and even placed on display.”

Dr Booth said: “This study really highlights the strangeness and perhaps the unknowable nature of the distant past from a present-day perspective.”

He is also quoted as saying, “Bronze Age people did not view human remains with the sense of horror or disgust that we might feel today.”

This is the first time I’ve read about human remains being turned into a musical instruments in ancient Britain, but I’m not surprised. There are many cultures all over the world that preserve the skulls of dead ancestors and enemies. They included the Mandan and other tribes in the US, some indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea and the ancient Celts. There’s a carving from an ancient Celtic temple from southern Gaul of a monster, whose two front claws rest on severed heads. Around the statue are depressions carved into its base, possibly to hold the real thing. Nigel Barley in one of his books on death around the world notes that in the traditional culture of one of the Pacific peoples, the skeletons of dead relatives are handled and taken apart, so that their descendants can carry bits of it about of them as an act of respect and remembrance.

And there are also cultures that turn human remains into musical instruments. There’s the Chod ceremony in Tibetan Buddhism, in which the priests wear aprons made out of human skin and play drums made of human skulls and, I believe, flutes from bone. Something similar may well have been done here with this instrument.

The Stonehenge connection is interesting and possibly relevant. One of the theories about the standing stones is that they were originally put up as monuments to the ancestors in a process involving secondary burial. This followed the suggestion of a Madagascan archaeologist, who said that they reminded him of the practice among his people. There the remains are interred for a period after death while they decay. After a certain time, they’re taken out, prepared and then re-buried in another set of ceremonies during which a stone or a wooden pole is set up as a monument. It may well be that this instrument was created as part of such a burial rite.

Egyptians Issue Polite Invitation to Musk to See that Aliens Didn’t Built the Pyramids

August 4, 2020

Here’s a rather lighter story from yesterday’s I, for 3rd August 2020. Elon Musk, the billionaire industrialist and space entrepreneur, has managed to cause a bit of controversy with Egyptian archaeologists. He’s a brilliant businessman, no doubt, but he appears to believe in the ancient astronaut theory that alien space travellers built the pyramids. He issued a tweet about it, and so the head of the Egyptian ministry for international cooperation¬† has sent him a very polite invitation to come to their beautiful and historic country and see for himself that this is very obviously not the case. The report, ‘Musk invited to debunk alien pyramid theory’, by Laurie Havelock, runs

An Egyptian official has invited Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX tycoon, to visit the country and see for himself that its famous pyramids were not built by aliens.

Mr Musk appeared to publicly state his support for a popular conspiracy theory that imagines aliens were involved in the construction of the ancient monuments.

But Egypt’s international co-operation minister corrected him, and said that laying eyes on the tombs of the pyramid builders would be proof enough.

Tombs discovered inside the structures during the 1990s are definitive evidence, experts say, that the structures were indeed built by ancient Egyptians. On Friday, Mr Musk tweeted: “Aliens built the pyramids obv”. which was retweeted more than 84,000 times. It prompoted Egypt’s minister of international co-operation Rania al-Mashat to respond: “I follow your work with a lot of admiration. I invite you & SpaceX to explore the writings about how the pyramids were built and also check out the tombs of the pyramid builders. Mr Musk, we are waiting for you.”

Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass also responded in a short video in Arabic, posted on social media, saying Mr Musk’s argument was a “complete hallucination”.

Hawass used to be head of their ministry of antiquities, and a very senior archaeologist. He was on TV regularly in the 1990s whenever there was a programme about ancient Egypt. And he doesn’t have much truck with bizarre theories about how or why the pyramids were built. ‘Pyramidiots – that what I call them!’ he once declared passionately on screen.

The idea that the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have built the pyramids because it was all somehow beyond them has been around for some time, as have similar ideas about a lost civilisation being responsible for the construction of other ancient monuments around the world, like Stonehenge, the Nazca lines and great civilisations of South America, Easter Island and so on. Once upon a time it was Atlantis. I think in certain quarters it still is. And then with the advent of UFOs it became ancient astronauts and aliens. One of the illustrations Chris Foss painted for a book cover from the 1970s shows, I think, alien spacecraft hovering around the pyramids.

There’s actually little doubt that humans, not aliens, built all these monuments, and that the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids for which their country’s famous. Archaeologists have even uncovered an entire village, Deir el-Medina, inhabited by the craftsmen who worked on them. This has revealed immensely detailed records and descriptions of their daily lives as well as their working environment. One of the documents that has survived from these times records requests from the craftsmen to their supervisors to have a few days off. One was brewing beer – a staple part of the ordinary Egyptians diet – while another had his mother-in-law coming round. I also distinctly remember that one of the programmes about ancient Egypt in the 1990s also proudly showed a tomb painting that at least depicted the system of ramps the workers are believed to have used to haul the vast stones into place. And the great ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, in his Histories, states very clearly that the pyramids were built by human workers. He includes many tall tales, no doubt told him by tour guides keen to make a quick buck and not to worried about telling the strict truth to an inquisitive foreigner. Some of these are about the spice and rich perfumes traded by the Arab civilisations further west. He includes far-fetched stories about how these exotic and very expensive products were collected by giant ants and other fabulous creatures. But no-one tried telling him that it wasn’t people, who built the pyramids.

On the other hand, the possibility that aliens may have visited Earth and the other planets in the solar system isn’t a daft idea at all. Anton ‘Wonderful Person’ Petrov, a Russian YouTuber specialising in real space and science, put up a video a few weeks ago stating that it’s been estimated that another star passes through the solar system once every 50,000 years. A similar paper was published by a Russian space scientist in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society back in the 1990s, although he limited the estimated to a star coming within a light-year of Earth. That’s an incredibly small distance, and if there have been other, spacefaring civilisations in our Galaxy, they could easily jump off their solar system to visit or explore ours. We can almost do it ourselves now, as shown by projects that have been drawn up to send light-weight probes by solar sail to Alpha Centauri. In addition to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence using radio telescopes to comb the skies for a suitable signal, there is also planetary SETI. This advocates looking for the remains of alien spacecraft or visitors elsewhere in our solar system. It’s advocates are serious scientists, though it suffered a major blow to its credibility with the furore over the ‘Face on Mars’. Which turned out not to be a face at all, but a rock formation as its critics had maintained.

Aliens may well have visited the solar system in the deep past, but it was definitely very human ancient Egyptians, who built the pyramids. Because, as Gene Roddenberry once said about such theories, ‘humans are clever and they work hard.’ Wise words from the man who gave us Star Trek.

Let’s go out in space to seek out new life and new civilisations by all means, but also keep in mind what we humans are also capable of achieving on our own down here.

Prehistoric Hull Traded with an Settled by Ancient Egyptians

July 22, 2020

This is another clipping from 20 years ago, but on rather a lighter subject. It’s from the Daily Mail, 26th August 2000. Titled ‘Where the Hull have we landed, pharaoh?’, it’s about the discovery of three ancient Egyptian ships in the city. The clipping reads

Egyptians were shipwrecked off the east coast of Britain some 2,700 years ago and settled in Hull, it was claimed yesterday.

Three wooden boats found in mud on the banks of the Humber in 1937 – thought at first to be Viking – are now said to date from 700 BC and be identical to ones which once navigated the Nile. Egyptologist Lorraine Evans says her findings will revolutionise views about our ancestors. “The simple fact that many people of Britain are going about their daily business unaware of their Egyptian heritage is astounding,” she added.

I don’t know if her findings have been corroborated or invalidated by more recent research. The ancient Egyptians used sewn plank boats, which is exactly how they were built. Nails were used, and instead the ship’s timbers were held together by drilling holes in them and sewing them together with rope. A few years later a ship built exactly the same way by indigenous Brits was found in Dover, so this might simply mean that Iron Age Britons were making them earlier than previously believed.

However, archaeologists are amassing increasing evidence that long distance trade was far more established across the world than previously recognised. You can’t see it with the unaided eye, but some of the stones at Stonehenge have the Mycenaean double-headed axe, indicating that the builders were in touch with Bronze Age ancient Greece. And ancient Spain, which was also partly home to Celtic tribes, also traded with ancient Egypt so it’s entirely credible that sailors and traders from the land of the Nile may have made their way farther north.

I mentioned this to a friend of mine at the time. He told me that some geneticists had also discovered the markers for ancient Egyptian heritage in the DNA of White Brits in Birmingham. I really can’t comment, as I haven’t seen anything to confirm this. But what spooked him is that one of the psychic questers around at the time had claimed in one of his books that through his psychic powers he had found out that ancient Egyptians had also settled in the city of Noddy Holder and Black Sabbath.

Another Prehistoric Monument Discovered Near Stonehenge

June 25, 2020

Here’s a bit of interesting archaeological news. According to Monday’s edition of the I newspaper, for 22nd June 2020, a set of prehistoric pits have been discovered around the Durrington Walls henge near Stonehenge.

The article by Douglas Barrie, ‘New prehistoric monument discovered near Stonehenge’, runs

A major prehistoric monument has been discovered just a short distance from Stonehenge. Fieldwork and analysis revealed evidence of 20 or more massive shafts more than 10m (33ft) wide and 5m deep. they form a circle more than two kilometres in diameter around the Durrington Walls henge – the site of a large Neolithic settlement.

Analysis suggests that the features were excavated more than 4,500 years ago at around the time Durrington Walls was built. It is thought the shafts served as a boundary to sacred area or precinct.

Dr Richard Bates, of the University of St Andrews, said the shafts reveal “an even more complex society than we could ever imagine”.

He added: “Clearly sophisticated practices demonstrate that the people were so in tune with natural events to an extent that we can barely conceive in the modern world we live in today.”

Meanwhile, more than 3.6 million people tuned in to a livestream from Stonehenge for a virtual celebration of the summer solstice.

With the usual celebrations cancelled because of coronavirus, English Heritage broadcast footage from the Wiltshire landmark on its Facebook page instead.

It was only a few years ago that the Durrington Walls henge was discovered. This included evidence that the site had been used for feasting and would have supported a large population. I can’t remember much about it now, but it has been argued that Durrington Walls and Stonehenge formed a huge ritual landscape for the ritual journey of the dead to the afterlife. Or something like that.

Video on My Model of the Neolithic Mortuary House at Loftus in Britain

December 21, 2019

A bit more archaeology now, for those interested. Four years ago in 2015 I made this video about the model I’d made of the Neolithic mortuary house and palisade around its forecourt discovered beneath a long barrow, also from the Neolithic, at Loftus in Cleveland, Britain by Blaise Vyner during excavations from 1979 to 1981. The Neolithic was the period c. 4,000 BC when hunter-gatherers were settling down into settled communities and farming. The built long barrows to house the remains of their dead. The remains come from many different skeletons, and are often sorted according to body part. Long bones, for example, may be stored in one chamber while other parts of the skeleton were kept in another. Many of the barrows also have forecourts, some of which have traces of burning dating from the time they were built and used. From this archaeologists have suggested that the barrows were also the centres of religious ceremonies in which parts of the skeletons were handled in order to commune with the ancestors.

Mortuary houses are structures in which the bodies of the dead are kept during decomposition, after which they are buried for a second time with appropriate rituals. It’s a funerary practice found in many different society throughout the world, including North American First Nations and the people of Madagascar.

Incidentally, today is the winter solstice, which some archaeologists believe was the real time the stone circle at Stonehenge was built to mark. This is the shortest day of the year, after which the sun returns and the days start lengthening again. This would be seen by the monument’s ancient builders as the return of warmth, light and the revival of life after the cold of winter, and so an important event for early agricultural communities.

But considering how cold and miserable it’s been, I think it’ll be a very brave set of pagans, druids and hippies, who would go down there to celebrate it today. But I’ve no doubt some hardy souls will do it.

 

Jon Downes and the Amphibians from Outer Space: Land of Dopes and Tories

January 5, 2019

Jon Downes and the Amphibians from Outer Space were a local band in Devon. Downes was into cryptozoology, the study of unknown animals, and, with others, ran the Centre for Fortean Zoology. Back in the 1990s they published a small magazine, Animals and Men, which covered developments in zoology ranging from recent discoveries in paleontology and dinosaurs, the new species then being discovered in South East Asia, and creatures like the Yeti and other ape creatures and the Loch Ness monster, whose existence is very definitely not accepted by mainstream scientists. His band was also unsurprisingly steeped in Fortean high weirdness, hence its bizarre name. One of the songs on their album was about the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, a mysterious figure who stalked American suburbia around the 1940s. The Mad Gasser got his name because he was believed to be responsible for knocking people unconscious with some kind of anaesthetic gas. Despite the panic he caused and an intense police search, no-one was ever caught and the Mad Gasser is thus one of those mysterious figures of urban folklore like Spring-Heeled Jack in Britain.

Downes’ lyrics often included explicit social and political comments. ‘God Bless Amerikkka/Petsurfing’ contained references to the Beach Boys as well as bitter comments on Reagan’s America and the Vietnam War. It’s lyrics ran

The Beach boys in the Whitehouse took the president out dancing
took in a drive-in movie threw a frisbee with Charles Manson.
The American dream was sweet sixteen and no-one gave a damn
and thousands of asshole students were praying for their very own Vietnam.

“Give me Liberty or Give me Death” give me concepts I can see
“Give me Librium or Give me Meths” it’s all the same to me,
God Bless America!
(I don’t mean to annoy ya as you drown in Paranoia got no reason to destroy ya in the land of the brave).
God Bless America!
(You’ve got to catch that one last wave!)

The western world just genuflects and licks its paltry leavings
so three stupid generations have got something to believe in
now style over content is the way they measure worth,
and a grinning fool has just become the most powerful man on earth.

The cretin culture faced the wall and found it couldn’t win against it
the peasants in the jungle or the troops of Ho Chi Minh,
the profit motive is a joke when there isn’t any money,
there’s no point to a joke like that, it really isn’t funny.

It also struck me that his track ‘The Stranger (L’Etranger)’ is also partly a comment on Thatcher and the British secret state, while the title is a reference to Camus’ existentialist classic.

She’s got half a mind to kill you if you don’t agree with her programme
she’s got half a mind to stop you in your tracks.
She’s got a 10% dead army, she’s got heroes ten a penny,
she’s got men she’d pay to stab you in the back.

There’s a new ideal on the night-time breeze,
(won’t you wait a while till midnight?)
There’s a new man coming through the trees,
(won’t you watch him dance by lamplight?)

In the darkness at the edge of town there’s a stranger with a knife,
and he swears he’s going to stop her with his life.
She knows he won’t forgive her, (and that he never wanted to live there),
but she still thinks he loves her like his wife.

In her mind she’s built a castle and peopled it with fear,
if you look too hard you know that it will all disappear,
she’s so lonely in her madness, it’s so lonely at the top,
If you got that far it’s really hard to stop.

The most explicitly anti-Tory lyrics in the album are in Part Two of his song, ‘English Heritage’. The song was about the government’s privatization of Stonehenge to English Heritage, who then surrounded it with a wire fence, put up a souvenir shop and charged an entry fee. The second part of the song was an explicit attack on Tory patriotism, ‘Land of Dopes and Tories’, and was an obviously parody of Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. It ran

Land of Dopes and Tories, gameshows and TV,
the land our fathers fought for don’t seem the same to me.
Something’s subtly different, something must have changed,
‘cos England’s now just a refuge for the terminally deranged.
Land of Dopes and Tories, land of the living dead,
land where the hope and glory only lives on in my head,
land of idiot violence where innocent blood is shed,
land where only the assholes heard what Mosley said.
Land of Dopes and Tories I don’t see the point,
Anarchy and Freedom is everything I want.
Anarchy and Freedom is everything I want.

The sleeve notes explain that the line about Mosley refers to his comment that whoever won the Second World War, Britain would be ruined as a world power.

Time and the world have moved on since the album came out, and the ’90s ended nearly two decades ago. Reagan is gone, and we had another grinning fool enter the White House in the shape of George ‘Dubya’ Bush. He’s now been succeeded in his turn by another maniac, Trump, who doesn’t grin but glowers and struts like Mussolini. Over here, Maggie also passed from power to be succeeded by John Major, the grey man who handed Stonehenge and other ancient sites to English Heritage, and who was succeeded in his turn by Blair and his sickly grin. Blair has also left government, and instead we’re run by Tweezer. Who would like us all to believe that she’s Maggie Mark 2. And she does have men ready to kill people. Not just the staff at the DWP, who are determined to throw people off benefits to starve and die at the slightest excuse – she’s also put legislation in place to put 3,500 troopers on the streets in case of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. And British television and popular culture in the shape of the right-wing press is doing its best to distract people from how dire and desperate the situation is for very many people, not least by smearing and misrepresenting Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party. And like Maggie Thatcher, Tweezer’s also using the secret state to smear and lie on her behalf.

Maggie, Reagan and their era are gone, but Tory and Republican tactics and policies are carrying on. It’s time they were utterly discarded, and genuinely left-wing, progressive governments voted in under Jeremy Corbyn here in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US.

A Treasury of Ancient Mathematical Texts

February 4, 2017

Henrietta Midonick, The Treasure of Mathematics: 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1968)

ancient-mathematics-cover

I realise that the history of mathematics is an arcane subject, that few people will have much interest in, having struggled enough with the subject at school. But with Black History Month, there is immense interest amongst scholars of Black and Asian history about restoring Black and Asian scientists and mathematicians to their rightful place in history.

I picked up this book in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham about a year or so ago. It’s a collection of ancient and medieval mathematical texts from Ancient Egypt, Babylon, China, India, Islam, the Jews and, of course, the ancient Greeks. The blurb for it runs

Mathematics is the only true international language. men can communicate more directly, precisely and logically in pure mathematics than in any other tongue. Moreover we have much to learn from the achievements of past civilizations in this field: even modern computers have not fathomed all the intricacies of Stonehenge. In this fascinating collection of original sources (many of them published in a popular edition for the first time) Henrietta Midonick shows individual mathematicians grappling with varied problems – some practical, such as architecture, money valuation, mechanics, astronomy and calendar calculation; others verging on philosophy, such as the existence of zero and the concept of infinity. Her arrangement also demonstrates the growth of key ideas in geometry, arithmetic, logic and calculus.

Volume 1 documents the growth of mathematical science in the civilizations of Babylon, Ancient Egypt, the Mayas, India and China, and assesses the revolutionary discoveries of Plato, Archimedes and Euclid in classical antiquity.

Among the various extracts are pieces on Babylonian mathematics; four geometrical problems from the Moscow Papyrus, which dates from Ancient Egypt, c. 1850 BC; the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, again from Egypt, c. 1650 BC; the Bakhshali Manuscript, from 4th century AD India; the Mayas – discussing their system of numbers, the calendar, arithmetic and chronology, and the Quipu, the method of keeping statistical records using knots, used by the ancient Incas in South America.

Chinese mathematicians include Wan Wang, from the 12th century BC, Chou Kung, c. 1100 BC; Chang Tsang, died 152; Liu Hui, 3rd century AD; Sun-Tsu, from the same century; Hsia-Hou Yang, 6th century AD; Wang Hs’iao-T’ung, 7th century AD, Li Yeh, c. AD 1178-1265; Ch’in Chiu-Shao, c. AD 1250; Yang Hui, c. AD 1275; Chu Chi-Chieh, c. AD 1300.

The Indian scholars collected include Aryabhata the Elder, c. AD. 476; Brahmagupta, AD 598; and Bhascara Acharya, AD 1114-c. 1185.

It also includes the Algebra of Mohammed ben Musa al-Khowarismi, who founded much of modern algebra, including giving it its modern name.

The two Jewish mathematicians collected include the Mishnat ha-Middot of Rabbi Nehemiah, from c. AD 150; and the Method of Division of Immanuel Ben Jacob Bonfils, c. AD 1350.

The ancient Greeks include Hippocrates of Chios, 5th century BC; an extract from Plato’s Dialogues; the Elements of Euclid of Alexandria, c. 300 BC; Apollonius of Perga’s Conic Sections, from the same period; Archimedes’ On Spirals, Mechanical Problems, and Quadrature of the Parabola, Pappus, c. AD 300, and Proclus, AD 410-485.

babylonian-multipilication-table

Ancient Babylonian Multiplication Table for X 10.

For the non-mathematician like myself these texts aren’t easy reading. There are diagrams to help, but many of them, as the pioneering works of their time, are trying to express difficult mathematical ideas without the modern language of Maths, and so it can be difficult understanding what they are trying to describe. Nevertheless, this is an important collection of some of the classic texts of ancient mathematics on which the structure of modern maths has been built.

Sneck! Mutant Bounty Hunter In Radio 4 High Culture Shock!

April 7, 2015

Strontium Dog

Mutant Bounty Hunter Johnny Alpha, AKA Strontium Dog, from 2000 AD, drawn by Carlos Ezquerra

I’ve published a few pieces recently about comics, and particularly 2000 AD. Last week it was reported that Judge Dredd was going to be taking on Nigel Farage in the form of a hate-mongering politico, Bilious Barrage, in Mega-City 1. Now in today’s Radio Times there’s also news that another favourite from 2000 AD will get a mention on radio: Johnny Alpha, the mutant bounty hunter and hero of the strip Strontium Dog. He’s due to get an appearance on a programme about a new cycle of poems about the element, from which he and the other Search/Destroy Agents took their name The (Half) Life of Strontium.

The blurb in the Radio Times says Strontium is the 38th element in the Periodic Table and was discovered in 1792 by miners in the Scottish village of Strontian. Robert Crawford’s new suite of poems elaborates on the connections between the village in Argyll, the bomb that dropped on Nagasaki and the mutant bounty hunter, Strontium Dog.

The programme’s on at 4.30 pm. on Radio 4 on Sunday, 12th April.

The strip took its name from Strontium 90, one of the radioactive elements in nuclear fall-out. The Strontium Dogs were mutants, who were legally prevented from holding any other jobs on Earth except as bounty hunters because of their mutations. The strip combined detective adventures in a kind of future galactic Wild West, as the strip’s hero, Johnny Alpha, and his norm partner Wulf Sternhammer, roamed space bringing criminals to justice.

Alpha took his name from the alpha particles emitted by his mutant eyes. In the strip these gave him X-ray vision and the power to read minds. In practice they’re very weak. You can block them with a sheet of paper. Not that science fact necessarily gets in the way of a good tale. 2000 AD generally had a strong satirical edge, and wasn’t averse to tackling serious issues. In Strontium Dog the strips’ creators used the mutant hero and his deformed friends and enemies to explore issues of racism, prejudice and the British class system.

Alpha’s father was a ruthless right-wing politicians, Nelson Bunker Kreelman, who was determined to carry out a policy of mass murder to cleanse an irradiated Britain of its mutant population. Alpha’s own mutation was carefully hidden in order to safeguard his father’s reputation. In the event, Alpha rebels against his father, and leads a mutant revolt from one of the ancient symbols of British identity, Stonehenge.

The mutant’s victory is limited, however. Although they are tolerated, their opportunities are very limited. They are segregated into mutant ghettos, and are very much second-class citizens. When Alpha and Wulf travel, they are forced to find accommodation in the hold or in the second class cabins, as mutants very definitely may not travel first class with ordinary humans. And the discovery of mutant relatives, especially offspring, is still a major source of shame for respectable middle class Brits.

In one strip, the king of Britain, Clarkie II, attempts to bridge the divide between norm and mutant by marrying a young mutant lady with a duck’s bill from the Milton Keynes mutant ghetto. This is a step too far for his subjects, and the idealistic king is hounded, forced to abdicate, and flee into space.

It’s a slightly irreverent, but also curiously sympathetic look at Prince Charles’ actions at the time. This was before his marriage with Lady Di fell apart, and the Prince was still popular with many Brits. He also appeared to be genuinely and deeply concerned with the plight of his poorer subjects as Maggie’s recession threw millions out of work. And so the strip’s creators, Aaln Grant and Carlos Ezquerra, were able to present a fantastic version of the Prince of Wales showing his social concerns in the future. In this case, it was marrying well out of his class with a mutant girl from the wrong side of the tracks.

And what Crawford’s poem also shows us, is that apart from great literature, the major figures of British arts also started off like the rest of us: reading and enjoying the four-colour funny papers. They’ve now grown up, and Dredd, Alpha and the rest are heading upmarket alongside . At least on the radio.

Reagan Dog

Never afraid to treat authority with the amusement it deserves: Strontium Dog and his partner, Durham Red, rescue a Ronald Reagan kidnapped by time-travelling aliens.

The Sarobe: A Living Megalithic Tradition in Basque Spain

December 26, 2013

Swinside Circle

Swinside Large Stone Circle in Cumbria

The stone circles constructed by the peoples of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages are some of the most fascinating ancient monuments in Europe. Despite considerable work by archaeologists, it is still a mystery why they were built. One of the most popular theories, proposed by Alexander Thom, is that they were built as ancient astronomical observatories, marking out the rising and setting of the sun, moon and stars on particular days of the year. They thus also acted as monumental calendars. Thom’s theories were later revised by Aubrey Burl, who demolished some of the more far-fetched theories. Burl demonstrated that not all stone circles were aligned with the stars, and that the elaborate mathematical calculations to produce the type of calendars proposes by Thom were beyond the capability of the societies that built them. He also showed that some of the stars, which were presently aligned with some stone circles, had moved since the circles were first built due to precession of the equinoxes. They were not originally aligned with the circles when the ancient peoples first put them up. Burl did, however, also confirm that many of the circles were aligned with the sun and moon, particularly at the solstices.

Other research on stone circles and other, associated monuments and structures, has investigated them as sacred, ritual landscapes used for the great ceremonies performed by these ancient societies. They have been compared to cathedrals in Christian society. Mike Parker-Pearson, for example, has recently suggested that Stonehenge was constructed as part of a wider funerary landscape that included Durrington Walls, deliberately laid out as a series of ceremonial paths to mark the journey of the dead to their last resting peace and their transition from the living to the world of the ancestors.

The archaeologists investigating the astronomical functions of the stone circles looked for similar practices in other cultures around the world, particularly with the Maya of Mesoamerica. This has also been discredited due to the immense cultural differences between the historic Maya and the peoples of Neolithic Europe. Nevertheless, in the 1990s archaeologists found a possibly much closer parallel to these ancient monuments and their builders in the Basque sarobes. These are stone circles consisting of eight stones, used by nomadic shepherds in the far south of the Basque country. Clive Ruggles, in his chapter on ‘Astronomy in Ancient Europe’ in the book Astronomy Before the Telescope, describes them thus:

‘However, an analogy of great potential interest has emerged recently, from far south in the Basque country. Here there are many examples of what appear to be eight-stone rings. These sarobe were constructed by transhumant shepherding people in historic times, and in some cases they were still in use at the beginning of the twentieth century. This means that we have both first-hand accounts and extensive documentary evidence relating to their purpose and function. this evidence shows that the sarobe were actually perceived by the builders as stone octagons rather than stone rings. Legal records specify their design, construction and celestial orientation. Each site was laid out using standard units of length and aligned with the cardinal and inter-cardinal directions. Linked to the theme of cosmic order, it acted both a seat of government and a centre for religious rites. The sarobe functioned within a cosmological network of social practices and beliefs rather than merely at an instrumental level.

‘The sarobe are the material remnants of a system of the social organisation of space dating back to at least the early Middle Ages, and possibly much earlier. This system is also reflected in constructs and concepts in the Basque language. This language is pre-Indo-European, which provides evidence that Basque culture was not ruptured by the arrival of Indo-European speakers, so that a cultural continuity may be postulated right back to prehistoric times. In addition, it is interesting to note that the Basque standard unti of measurement relates to ancient units used to lay out traditional land holdings in France and possibly in many parts of the British Isles. These observations do not, of course, prove that cultural practice in the Basque Country in historic and modern times was in any way related to that in the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Isles; they do, however, provide a strong motivation for studying the Basque Country further as useful analogy for ancient cultural practice elsewhere in Europe, and such investigations are well underway’. (p. 25).

The Basque sarobe’s also show that the stone circles probably had both an astronomical and religious functions. They thus give an insight into the type of religious and social ideas behind their construction, though without being exactly like those of the peoples, a kind of cultural ‘living fossil’, who built the megaliths in Britain and the rest of Europe.

Sources

Alex Gibson, ‘Introduction’, in Alex Gibson and Derek Simpson, eds., Prehistoric Ritual and Religion (Thrupp: Sutton Publishing 1998).

Clive Ruggles, ‘Archaeoastronomy in Europe’, in Christopher Walker, ed., Astronomy Before the Telescope (London: British Museum Press 1996).