Misleading Images: Stonehenge and Brittany

By Scarre, Chris | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Misleading Images: Stonehenge and Brittany


Scarre, Chris, Antiquity


Does a unique eroded prehistoric carving on one of the sarsen uprights at Stonehenge link the most famous of English megalithic monuments to Brittany?

Recent studies of Stonehenge, drawing new attention to the box-like symbol carved on stone 57, have proposed an origin in the megalithic art of Brittany (Burl 1997; Castleden 1993). Burl (1997) has used this to argue that the final form of Stonehenge 'may well have been the handiwork of intrusive and powerful leaders from Brittany'. The purpose of the present note is to cast doubt on the supposed connection and to propose a different interpretation of the Stonehenge carving.

The carving on the inner face of stone 57 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] was brought to the attention of archaeologists in 1953 by R.S. Newall. He was making casts of the newly discovered axe and dagger carvings on stones 4 and 53 when he noticed a different kind of outline on stone 57: an incomplete and irregular box-like shape, around 3 ft 9 in tall, slightly recessed and with a protuberance in the middle of its top. The following year the carving was reported by O.G.S. Crawford, who at once recognized its resemblance to motifs from megalithic burial chambers in Brittany. He also noted that it was the first found outside Brittany (a situation which still prevails), and labelled it the 'Box Symbol' (Crawford 1954). Atkinson, in his now classic account of Stonehenge, wrote (1979:179):

The symbol on stone 57 is of particular interest. In so far as its weathered and abraded state allows interpretation, it seems to be a version of a symbol which occurs on many standing stones, and occasionally in chambered tombs, in Brittany. Its appearance at Stonehenge provides one more link between Wessex and the Breton peninsula in the middle of the second millennium B.C.

This last comment raises the contemporaneity of the Stonehenge carving with its supposed Breton parallels. Atkinson was writing at a time when the sarsen structures of Stonehenge were believed to be of Early Bronze Age date, a period when close links between Wessex and Brittany are well illustrated by a whole range of artefactual parallels (Piggott 1938; Briard 1984; 1987). A new series of radiocarbon dates and a careful study of the excavation records and finds have revised the chronology, and place the sarsen structures at Stonehenge several centuries earlier (Cleal et al. 1995). Stonehenge 3 is now dated to the third quarter of the 3rd millennium BC -- Late Neolithic rather than Early Bronze Age. In seeking parallels for the Stonehenge carving, we are therefore obliged now to consider contacts during the Late Neolithic, a period in which there is very little evidence for cross-Channel relations.

When Crawford and Atkinson first studied the carving they had the advantage in that stone 57 was lying where it had fallen in 1797. In 1958, the stone was re-erected, along with its fallen neighbour and the lintel which went with them, to form a restored inner trilithon (Atkinson 1979: 45). Since that time, it has only been possible to study the Box-figure on stone 57 by means of a ladder. To illustrate his 1954 article, Crawford published a photograph of Newall's rubbing of the Box-figure (1954: plate V). In 1992, Rodney Castleden made a new rubbing of the carving, which gives an image significantly different from that obtained by Newall ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]; Castleden 1993). The new rubbing considerably improves, both in clarity and completeness, on the earlier version; it shows a box-like shape with a projection in the centre of the right-hand side and a loop in the middle of the top, plus a second curving line immediately to the left of the loop.

Following Crawford, Castleden compares the shape of this motif with Breton figures found at sites such as Mane Bras, Mane Rutual and Ile Longue (Castleden 1993: 213, figure 83). Burl (1997) cites a similar set of Breton parallels including Barnenez, Ile Gaignog and Kercado (all early passage-graves) and extending into the later Neolithic. …

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