Don't Knock the Ancestors. (Debate)

By Pitts, Mike | Antiquity, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Don't Knock the Ancestors. (Debate)


Pitts, Mike, Antiquity


James Whitley (2002) complains of `omnipresent' and `universal' ancestors, invading archaeological theory and student essays. All is not necessarily as bad as he believes. In the British Neolithic, the subject area from which he draws many of his examples, invoking ancestors has proved productive both for thinking about the past and for engaging the public in the stories. In particular, far from `circumvent[ing] the tedious business of undertaking contextual analysis' (Whitley 2002: 120), reference to ancestors in the Stonehenge landscape has occurred in an atmosphere of enquiry, discovery and the positing of varied ancestral models.

Whitley is of course right to say that in societies where one can enquire directly after these things the concept of `ancestors' is highly flexible and varied. It does, however, also have a simple colloquial sense well exemplified in the BBC television strand `Meet the Ancestors'. Visiting excavations, archaeologist Julian Richards sought to engage viewers' interest by depicting an ancient world through the eyes and minds of its people represented by their material remains. The BBC is acutely aware of the need to be seen to be multicultural, so even if careless of the deep history of migrations and ethnic mixing in the British Isles, it knows that some of its viewers are very recent immigrants. The titular `ancestors', then, meant little more than `people who came before us'. There is nothing wrong with this. A handy reminder, to both academics and the public, that the subject matter of archaeology is people should not be sniffed at.

On the other hand, at least at Stonehenge, Whitley is wrong to say that the 'universal ancestor has gone from becoming an orthodoxy without ever having had to suffer the indignity of being treated as a mere hypothesis' (2002:119). There is no doubt that the paper by Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina (1998), which emphasises ancestral roles, has had a big impact on thinking about Stonehenge. It has not, however, gone uncriticised (e.g. Barrett & Fewster 1998; Whittle 1998) or untested. In Hengeworld (Pitts 2001) I selectively adopted and developed the Parker Pearson-Ramilisonina hypothesis. This book was written for a general readership, so the winnowing of the original model was only briefly explained. By touching on some of the details here, I hope to show that the concept can be validated against archaeological data and a variety of contrasting ancestral models can be proposed and tested (see also Pollard & Reynolds, 2002: 122, 129).

Stonehenge as a landscape of ancestors

Although the vegetation cover on the chalk around Stonehenge tends naturally to mixed deciduous forest, the first known structures at the site (a ditch and bank enclosing a circular space dating from 2975 BC) were created in grassland that had developed over centuries of anthropogenic interference. This grassland was encroached upon by arable at various times. For example there are apparently 1st millennium BC fields west of Stonehenge between the A344 and A303, and to the east small areas of medieval fields north of Vespasian's Camp (Figure 1; Batchelor 1997 and unpublished air photos mapped by English Heritage).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

However the dominant landscape character appears to have been pasture for many generations, with major settlement focussed on the river valleys to west and east. That part of the reason for this may have been limited availability of water is suggested by a deep well at Wilsford, 1.5 kilometres from Stonehenge. This well was in use around 1450 BC but was possibly excavated before 2300 BC (Ashbee et al. 1989; weighted mean of four samples from near base 3189 [+ or -] 34 BP/1465 cal BC, wooden bucket at bottom OxA--1089 4640 [+ or -] 70 BP/ 2370 cal BC). Over 30 metres deep, the well was surrounded by grassland and thus presumably serviced stock (finds included grass cropped by grazing sheep, sheep dung and two aborted lambs). …

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