Stonehenge for the Ancestors: The Stones Pass on the Message

By Pearson, M. Parker | Antiquity, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Stonehenge for the Ancestors: The Stones Pass on the Message


Pearson, M. Parker, Antiquity


Megalithic stone monument construction in Madagascar has close associations with the honouring of the ancestors. Through the use of probability, piecemeal and relational analogies, and a consideration of the materiality of stone, a case can be made for certain structuring principles linking the ancestors with stone and the living with wood which can be found, in their own specific manifestations, to be relevant to historical and contemporary Madagascar and to Late Neolithic Britain. As a result Stonehenge can be interpreted as belonging to,the anCeStors, a stone version for the dead of the timber circles used for ceremonials by the living. By extension, Avebury and many other stone monuments of this period can be understood as built for the ancestors in parallel to the wooden monuments constructed for the living.

Introduction

That most enigmatic monument on Salisbury Plain continues to resist our attempts at understanding whilst, at the same time, it provides fertile ground for countless speculations and theories from all corners of archaeology's broad church. It has been conceived of as an astronomical observatory, a computer, and a centre of earth energies amongst many other interpretations (Hawkins 1966; Hoyle 1966; Chippindale 1983; Chippindale et al. 1990). All of these notions are grounded in some way or another in our own British and western 20th-century concerns and imaginings of Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age society, as a distorted mirror of the present (Ruggles 1997). There have been attempts to draw on the knowledge of monumental architecture in traditional societies in other parts of the world, such as Colin Renfrew's use of Polynesian analogies of chiefdom organization to explain the conditions which gave rise to Stonehenge's construction (1973). With the full publication of excavations at Stonehenge (Cleal et al. 1995) and the publication of other volumes on the monument (Cunliffe & Renfrew 1997; Bender 1998), we should now be in the best position to think about the meanings embodied in the megalithic architecture of Stonehenge and associated monuments in Wessex (Barrett 1997). We may well be able to say much about how the monument was erected (Startin & Bradley 1981; Richards & Whitby 1997) but there is no satisfactory overall view as to why it was built.

The perspectives of indigenous scholars on their colonial and pre-colonial pasts have been a welcome and significant development in recent years (e.g. Gathercole & Lowenthal 1989; Layton 1989a; 1989b), yet there has been little opportunity for such commentary on the archaeological remains of the European heritage. At the 1986 World Archaeological Congress in Southampton, there was a relatively informal move to do so with Edward Matenga from Zimbabwe providing an alternative view of the Avebury monuments. Such an approach has also been possible through the preparation of a television documentary on Stonehenge in which both of us participated [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Not only have we been working together on issues of monumentality in Madagascar since 1991 but Ramilisonina has lived his life in communities which regularly erect standing stones and which have a complex knowledge and understanding of stone's symbolism and significance.(1)

Ethnographic analogy: wood and stone

Analogy can be considered to work in four different ways: as formal or piecemeal analogy; as cross-cultural generalization; as relational analogy between structuring principles in different societies; and as analogies of materiality, appreciating the physical tangibilities of the world as experienced. Each schema has its contribution to make in developing an appreciation as to what is the most appropriate understanding of monumental stone architecture in Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age Britain.

Formal analogies between present-day societies and the remains from the past are generally predicated on the notion that precise parallels can be drawn between the two. …

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