Posts Tagged ‘Stonehenge’

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)


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.


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.


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).