Outside the Circle: The Ancient Stonehenge Landscape – A Wider Perspective
Stonehenge stands on the windswept Salisbury Plain reminding us of the engineering, astronomical, and mathematical skills of our distant ancestors. Undoubtedly, Stonehenge is recognised worldwide as one of Britain’s most iconic stone circles. Yet, Stonehenge is a part of a much wider ceremonial landscape that contains some of the most enigmatic and mysterious monuments ever constructed. Stonehenge has its origins rooted in antiquity. Around 10,000 years ago the Mesolithic peoples of Salisbury Plain created a thriving community close to where Stonehenge would eventually stand some five thousand years later.
Totem poles or temple structure?
In the old visitor’s car park next to Stonehenge are three large white circular markers which signify the position of Mesolithic postholes. Excavated in the 1960s these timber features were interpreted as ‘totem poles’ which instantly conjures up an image of free standing timbers of no complexity. However, laboratory carbon dating sent a shock wave through the archaeological community as the postholes dated from 8800 BC; although one post may have been a later addition. Aligned to face the direction of the spring and autumn equinoxes, the posts that once stood 14 feet high, reveal astronomical precision at a time when we are told that prehistoric communities were hunter-gathers. Granted, at sites such as Goblecki Tepe megalith temples were constructed during the Mesolithic era; the Far East being considered the cradle of civilization, however, ancient Britain was seen as a primitive backwater.
What did the posts signify and were they a section of a much wider timber structure – a temple complex? Questions abound as the excavation had many flaws. In 1988, some thirteen years after the initial excavation, a fourth posthole was discovered suggesting that other features may have been missed. Labelling timber posts ‘totem poles’ robs our prehistoric ancestors of their ingenious skills which will soon become evident.
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Close to Stonehenge is Vespasian’s Camp, an Iron Age hill fort which was a Druidic ceremonial centre dated to 500 BC. In 2005, at the base of the camp, archaeologists unearthed yet more surprises about our distant Mesolithic past. Thought to be nomadic wanderers that followed game and wild herds, Mesolithic people roamed the British landscape and lived in temporary huts or dwellings. However, new evidence dismisses this old opinion from which a new view of our remote past emerges.
Vespasian’s Camp, an Iron Age hill fort
Close to an old spring, a Mesolithic building was recently discovered which is the oldest known building in the Stonehenge landscape. This find is unprecedented as it was believed that no such structure should exist; as Mesolithic people were thought to be nomadic. It was interpreted as a ‘home base’ or campsite that people returned to seasonally. Certainly, the spring was deemed sacred as numerous Mesolithic deposits were placed in the water. Over 10,000 Mesolithic implements such as tools were excavated from the spring and remarkably the tools were in pristine condition. Indeed, the blades were so sharp that some of the archaeologists cut their fingers on the razor-sharp edges. For millennia, the spring continued to be revered as deposits from the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages were found alongside ritual deposits of the later Romano-British era. This was hallowed ground revered since the dawn of time.
We are spoon-fed by historians that the Mesolithic people lived in wigwam like structures following wild animals and foraging for nuts and wild berries. Not so. People lived in the so-called home base for over 1500 years as occupation spanned from 6250 – 4700 BC. This was no short-lived affair and over 62 generations lived and worshipped close to Stonehenge and its Lourdes like spring.
Evidently, it was the Mesolithic people that chose and consecrated the location of Stonehenge long before a single stone was raised by their Neolithic descendants.
3800 BC a New Monument Emerges
Around 3800 BC, (if the archaeological dating system is correct and many anomalous findings questions this) a new monument suddenly emerged that still defies explanation. When I take people into the Stonehenge landscape I always point out where a monument called the Cursus was located. Cursus monuments were common in Neolithic Britain and one gigantic example stood around 875 yards (800m) north of Stonehenge. Although Cursus monuments preceded the stone circle-building phase by over a thousand years, they are intimately associated with them.