People and the Diverse Past: Two Comments on 'Stonehenge for the Ancestors.'

By Whittle, Alasdair | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

People and the Diverse Past: Two Comments on 'Stonehenge for the Ancestors.'


Whittle, Alasdair, Antiquity


The richly textured paper on Stonehenge by Mike Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina (1998) develops exciting new ways of looking at Stonehenge and other stone monuments, drawing on analogies from Madagascar and elsewhere to elaborate the importance of ancestors in kinship-based societies. The presentation of practices and beliefs related to ancestors in parts of Madagascar is particularly powerful. Their Neolithic model gains extra credence by being applied not only to Stonehenge but also to the Avebury complex. In the latter case, I find their suggestion of a parallelism in layout between Avebury and the West Kennet Avenue on the one hand and West Kennet palisade enclosure 2 and Outer Radial Ditch i plus Structure 4 on the other, very convincing. That relationship may just have been reinforced by the recognition this year by RCHME on aerial photographs (Bob Bewley pers. comm.) of another outer radial ditch leading from Palisade Enclosure 2 to another circular external structure, on more or less the same alignment as the first set. The recognition of a social setting for these monument complexes and traditions different to that envisaged in chiefdom models is also very welcome.

One measure of the success of the paper is the number of questions it raises. In the space available here and in a spirit of appreciation, I want to raise two questions. Should we exclude people from Stonehenge and Avebury in the manner outlined by PP&R, and do we use sufficiently varied concepts of ancestry in general in the study of the Neolithic and other prehistoric periods?

People and Stonehenge

Why should people largely be excluded from the use of Stonehenge (and Avebury), leaving the monuments to the ancestors and their incorporeal world? PP&R envisage only periodic visits by people for communication with the real owners: the ancestors (1998:318-19 and footnote 11). I have also suggested a 'presencing' of ancestors in the stones of Stonehenge (Whittle 1997b: 152), and PP&R's Malagasy analogies reinforce the connections between ancestors and stone. I also tried in my paper, however, to show that there is much built into the layout of the site and its relationship to others in the complex of monuments as a whole which seems to demand the active presence of people: the opportunity for procession (cf. Barrett 1994); shifting sightings of other older and younger monuments on approach and departure; the play on left and right and the properties and qualities of the sarsens themselves within Stonehenge; and the varied lines of sight or orientation made possible from within the monument by the complexities of its layout. I even claimed that the monument could have been open to all, though of course many others would prefer to envisage restrictions of various kinds. Perhaps this will seem like hair-splitting to the non-committed, but I believe that the power of the monument rested both on the way it actively involved people and on the diversity of beliefs and traditions which it presented and tried to eternalize.

It may be too simple to apply the ancestors-only model to other related monuments, whether or not it works at Stonehenge. In the case of the Avebury complex, rather more argument is needed. Silbury Hill needs to come out of the footnotes. We need to worry more about the relative chronology of Silbury, Avebury and the West Kennet palisade enclosures, none of whose dates are precisely established (Whittle 1997a; Pitts & Whittle 1992). For the sake of argument in my report I treated all three as roughly contemporary, but there is the possibility of the palisade enclosures coming later than Avebury and perhaps also later than Silbury. If so, the distinction between domains of the living/domains of the ancestors would be weakened. Strictly speaking anyway, on the basis of excavated evidence so far, the animal bone from the palisade enclosures comes largely from events at the construction of the sites, not from inside them (PP&R 1998: 319) during their use (though wider excavation could of course change that picture).

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