Friday, December 05, 2008

Stonehenge. Also, Woodhenge.

Went to see archeologist Mike Parker Pearson speak last night at the National Geographic headquarters here in DC. Pearson supervised one of the two digs that took place at the site last summer (Geoff Wainwright directed the other).

To an auditorium filled with about two hundred people he delivered news from the field, stressing how archeologists now see Stonehenge as one among many interconnected sites along the River Avon. Pearson argues that Stonehenge must analyzed as a counterpart to Woodhenge. The perdurable stone was a place for the dead (so far sixty cremation interments have been discovered there, mainly in or near the Aubrey holes that used to house megaliths), and the rot-prone but enormous tree-derived structure was a place for the living. He showed us slides of what remains of the plaster floors of wattle and daub houses from the period. The hearth often endures as a kind of ghost image. In one dig an imprint left by two knees is discernible just in front of where the fire would have been, an impression left by years of careful tending.

Pearson stressed the importance of discovering antlers fashioned into the digging tools that were used to transform the earth. When these remnants survive, they enable fairly precise carbon dating of the structures nearby. He also emphasized the tediousness of using stone tools to dress the megaliths, and the price paid in the body by those who employed them (osteoarthritis especially). In an aside, he also mentioned that a ribbon-like band of rock unearthed near Stonehenge naturally points towards the winter solstice (the ribbon effect the product of glacial runoff). He ventured that this stone band may have rendered the place sacred, triggering Stonehenge's solar alignment (an alignment unique among henge monuments).

I left the auditorium full of admiration that human lives could be imagined from such scanty leavings. My son Alex came with me, and was even ready to ask a question (though they never got to him). He fills me with wonder as well: that someone at age eleven can sit through an archeology lecture on a day that also included homework, Hebrew school and piano practice ... and love it.

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