Might the standing stones of Stonehenge and Avebury have been purpose-built for ‘sky burial’, providing a secure perch for crows or maybe seagulls to roost or nest?

Notice the abundance of passing visitors on the wing.  Birds like to have a safe place to perch, or indeed to roost overnight.

034449_a9c7b03b bird's resting place stonehenge close-up

Close-up

 

Is what we are seeing here merely an incidental feature of Stonehenge and similar sites with standing stones, including the simpler ones at Avebury?

36795d3e041457399c2c67eedd21033a crow avebury

Crow at Avebury (single standing stones, no lintel cross-pieces).

This blogger/retired scientist, with an insatiable appetite for unsolved enigmas (Turin Shroud , or  biogenesis of life on Earth etc) says NO. The attraction of those Neolithic standing stones to birds, carrion feeders especially, was NO ACCIDENT. They were set up specifically for that purpose. But there had to be an added attraction – food as well as a place to rest.

So what was the source of food?

Well, here’s where the discussion gets a little difficult.

Long, long before our Neolithic (late Stone Age) ancestors were farming the chalk uplands of Wiltshire, their ancestors, the  forest-dwelling hunter-gathers were confronted with an age-old problem – how to dispose of the dead, efficiently, while leaving some permanent memorial. However, being pre-Christian pagans they had preoccupations of their own, ones that may no longer seem obvious to the modern mind. Like how should the body be handled so as to permit release of the soul, i.e. spirit? Here’s where things get even more difficult: apparently the mortal flesh of the body was considered to be an impediment to escape of the soul. Anything that removed flesh from bone, no matter how  off-putting a sight in the short term, provided peace of mind to the living,   consonant with peace and immortality for the dead. A number of ploys, strategies were available, the details of which need not concern us right now. Suffice it to say that a popular one that existed in ancient times, and which survives to this day in various parts of the world, was the so-called “sky burial”.

05a9e988991d3f2ceb4c89f65fb7df63 tower of silence

Artist’s portrayal of an Eastern ‘Tower of Silence’ . Note vultures at the top, cleaned bones in the central well.

 

(To keep this posting of a reasonable length, I’m assuming the reader is broadly familiar with the meaning of ‘sky burial’, still extant in some parts of the world under alternative names, e.g. “Towers of Silence”. If not then see the image above, and maybe the wiki entry on sky burial too)

Recent excavations in the Sussex Weald (see link below) uncovered these structures which date back to 4000 BC or earlier. They are considered to be places where the dead were laid out for excarnation (defleshing).

 

Fig. 7 photograph of square enclosure[15]_0

Designed for excarnation of the dead (“defleshing”) by birds?

Here’s the authors’ own words.

Quote from the Historyextra site that supplied the above photograph (my bolding) :

“The composite arrowheads we found show that people were exploiting the woodland. And we suspect the small square enclosure that we discovered – a gully around a square, raised platform – was used as a mortuary.

We think the dead would have been laid out for birds to pick off the flesh. We suspect this is a Neolithic structure, dating to 4,000-2,000 BC.

Yes,  opportunist feeders, especially massed scavenger birds,  would have been considered agents par excellence for accomplishing an unpleasant task with maximum dispatch, least bother.

In passing, the title for this posting originally specified “carrion crows” as the likely scavenger. On reflection, one must not overlook another species that is highly adaptable – namely the seagull (especially herring and lesser black-backed gulls). In modern Britain they used to come far inland from their normal coastal habitat, being attracted by the rich offerings of landfill sites (probably less so now with separate kitchen-waste recycling via biogas plants).

_46754655_hi008296032 seagulls landfill site

Seagulls, landfill site, Gloucester, England (from BBC).

Their adaptability re nesting sites is legendary.

 

gull nesting sites

Inland seagulls and their squatting tendency

Might safe and secure nesting exolain why the builders of Stonehenge went to so much trouble to make the stones secure, with both mortise-and-tenon AND tongue-in-groove joints?

mortise and tenon joint stonehenge      mortise on stonehenge upright

One would’t want the lintels rocking even ever so gently if wishing to attract a year-round resident population of feathered-friends …

So how does the idea of Stonehenge as a site for ‘sky burial’ fit in with nearby Neolithic sites (notably Durrington Walls and Woodhenge)? That grouping is full of possible interpretations and scenarios, some already broached here and on the writer’s sciencebuzz site some 4 years ago, notably in connection with wintertime communal feasting of young pigs. Let’s not be too quick to make sense of a welter of competing information. Let’s go some 25 miles north of Stonehenge to another iconic grouping of Neolithic sites, all under the care of English Heritage, namely Avebury Henge and Stone Circle, Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow. Here’s a Google map showing their close proximity to one another:

google map silbury etc third try

The red stars show the locations of Avebury (top), Silbury Hill (centre) and West Kennet Long Barrow (bottom). Note the scale (bottom right, highlighted in yellow) – a mere 200 metres.

 

Here’s a list of approxiamte datings for the major Neolithic sites in Wiltshire which this non-historian has culled from different internet sources, and is happy (until told otherwise) to take on trust:

 APPROXIMATE TIMELINE

West Kennet Long Barrow: 3650BC. Finally decommissioned  approx.  2500BC

Avebury stone circles: 2750 BC (as late as 2400BC for the linear avenues).

Stonehenge 3 (II) from wiki – sarson arrival: 2,600 – 2,400 BC but continuing later with arrival of bluestones.

Durrington Walls: 2525 – 2470BC

Marlborough Mound/Marden Henge: 2400BC

Silbury Mound : 2400-2300 BC

Woodhenge: 2300BC

So here’s a scenario that might have been operating in approx 2,500 – 2,300 BC, initially involving Avebury and West Kennet Long Barrow, and later involving the approximately midway upstart ‘cardionecropolis’  (yup, my description) that we now call Silbury Hill.

Someone in the community dies, possibly a respected figure, deserving of a ‘proper send-off’. Cremation? No, oh-so-last millennium, wasteful of increasingly scarce firewood, needed for cooking and heating. Simple burial? No, ruled out on both practical and religious grounds. Chalk bedrock in the Wiltshire downs, with no metal implements, merely antler picks, makes burial laborious and time-consuming. But there’s an age-old fear re burial – might it not prevent the soul exiting from the buried, mortal remains to the skies above?  Solution: transfer the body to Avebury, taking a basket of local turves and soil fauna (earthworms etc)  from the deceased’s home patch to  our putative excarnation site where it’s handed over to specialists. The first thing they do is excise the heart (thus the two smoothed-off flint-sharpening stones at the southern entrance to Avebury)  which is enveloped  in the turves, then tied around with plaited grass or string to create a compact receptacle for interment (see posting immediately previous to this one). The grieving relative says a temporary farewell to the departed, walks the short distance to Silbury mound where the package is interred behind a sarsen stone at a spot decreed by Silbury’s guardians. Meanwhile back at Avebury the corpse minus heart is laid out for excarnation by the resident bird population. Days, probably weeks later the bereaved returns to collect an ensemble of relatively clean bones. They are then taken home for safe-keeping and veneration OR in the case of VIPs maybe transferred to West Kennet Long Barrow, or one or other similar temporary repository for bones, maybe for months, possibly for years. (It does appear there was a steady coming-and-going of bones/dislocated skeletons at West Kennet, which ceased with the arrival of the final consignment of bones).

The next task is to fit that other grouping Stonehenge/Durrington Walls/Woodhenge into a coherent framework based around excarnation as the preferred option for disposal of the dead. In fact an attempt was made to do just that on both this and the writer’s sciencebuzz site, introducing a new concept that I termed ‘secondary necrophagy‘. It seems such a waste of ‘disposable’ high class protein to feed it to wild, undomesticated birds. Why not comminute it, and use it to keep captive pigs fed in the winter months especially?  Response/feedback to that idea? Zilch! Ought one now to try a second time, especially if the arguably less gut-wrenching ideas re Avebury and Silbury were hopefully to gain some traction?  Only time will tell. This writer is in no hurry to ‘sew up the story’. Neolithic Britain is not the kind of topic that can be neatly sewn up in a hurry…

Here’s a final image, just discovered. Try to imagine those starlings (?) are crows or seagulls. Regardless of species, they clearly appreciate their ‘bird’s eye view’ of Stonehenge and Salisbury Plain.

dsc_2097

Colin Berry PhD

April 17, 2016.

Herts. UK

sciencebod01(at)aol.com

 

Next posting? Isn’t Stonehenge supposed to have served primarily as an astronomical calendar, signifying the longest day in summer (or shortest day in winter)? Isn’t it asking a lot to suggest it was dual purpose?  And what about those bluestones, carried all the way from the Preseli mountains in west Wales, whether by glaciers or by human beings? Why the preference for bluestones for STONEhenge Mk1 (arranged in 2 concentric arcs we’re told) over local sarsens (silicified sandstone) – the latter present in abundance in Wiltshire while scarcely getting a look-in where Mk1 Stonehenge was concerned?

Both those key questions will be addressed.

 Update: April 18: here’s a link to a new posting on my sciencebuzz site:

Why the need for all those Neolithic standing stones at Stonehenge and Avebury? Why were igneous bluestones required from the distant Welsh mountains?

 

New update: Monday April 25: see new posting on my sciencebuzz site:

Stonehenge can be thought of as a Flintstone-era funeral parlour. Its sales pitch was soul-releasing sky burial AND, by way of bonus, a compact take-away package of cremated bones.

 

New update: Friday April 29:

Ideas are evolving rapidly. See the latest posting on my sciencebuzz site:

Might Stonehenge have been designed as an easily-spottable feeding station for high-flying seagulls – as perhaps was the nearby “Cursus”?

 

Photo-archive (placed here to avoid overloading my current sciencebuzz posting, 23rd May, 2016).

Chapter 2 Page 1

Archive 1: more details later

 

 

animal gnawing

Archive 2- more details later

peck marks

Archive 4 – more details later.

Advertisements

About Colin Berry

Retired science bod, previous research interests: phototherapy of neonatal jaundice, membrane influences on microsomal UDP-glucuronyltransferase, defective bilirubin and xenobiotic conjugation and hepatic excretion, dietary fibre and resistant starch.
This entry was posted in Avebury stone circle, silbury hill, Stonehenge and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Might the standing stones of Stonehenge and Avebury have been purpose-built for ‘sky burial’, providing a secure perch for crows or maybe seagulls to roost or nest?

  1. Colin Berry says:

    Here’s another comment that I left this morning on the sarsen.org site:

    sciencebod12 February 2018 at 07:19
    Thanks Neil. I realized afterwards it must be something happening elsewhere…

    Just a quick note on possible logistics before this posting gets overlain with new ones (such a shame/annoyance that Blogger does not provide a “Latest Comments” list to all postings, past as well as present.

    The aim was to perform the entire process in a 36 – 48 hour time span.

    Here’s a possible sequence of operations

    Day 1: body of deceased to be delivered after sunset. Necessary preliminaries (let’s not discuss details) took place during hours of darkness.
    Day 2: prepared body placed on central spot shortly before dawn. Central zone then cleared of people.
    The bluestones were then struck, the chimes attracting gulls and /or other avian scavengers from miles around.
    The corpse was gradually stripped of most of its flesh throughout the daylight hours, at least at highly developed Stonehenge, Avebury etc, designed to attract and accommodate scores of scavenger birds. The soul of the deceased would be considered to have been released to the heavens (“sky burial”).
    Come dusk, the skeletal remains would be collected up and dispatched to a nearby crematorium, probably outside the excarnation area, possibly outside the circular heaped-up bank.

    Come nightfall, fires/pyres were lit, the largely-defleshed bones quickly and cleanly cremated, then later retrieved from the ashes.
    Day 3: Relatives arrived to collect and take away cremated bones. While they would be aware of flocks of birds on the wing, coming and going, and indeed take comfort from that, they would be spared the sight of the central feeding area, that being screened off by the raised bank of the enclosure. (Indeed Mark 1 AFS relied almost entirely on the chalk bank of a causewayed enclosure, both as a screen and a man-made landmark visible to birds from afar, maybe with a few scattered timber posts initially as additional perches, later progressing to standing stones, then those mighty lintels.) Yes, the latter weren’t purely decorative – they served a purpose! Why so massive? Because that’s all that was available nearby as bridging stone. Thus the carpentry joints needed to prevent unwieldy sarsen stones from rocking, as well as a proto-Ikea aid to idiot-proof assembly.

    Newly discovered Neolithic Datchet enclosure (announced just 3 days ago)

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5371127/5500-year-old-Neolithic-monument-near-Windsor-castle.html

    Why all the animal bones – domestic and wild – to say nothing of that severed human skull?

    Can be accommodated with the AFS model! How? Beware: more speculation:

    To be a workable proposition, the skeletonization would have to be speedy and efficient (relatives don’t want to be kept waiting too long for their take-home package). That means attracting and retaining a sizeable population of avian scavengers so there’s always a number of hopefuls on permanent standby – scores at least.

    What if there’s a temporary halt in supply of mortal remains? Answer: one plugs the hiatus with animal remains, maybe feasting on the choicest parts before giving feathered friends the left-overs.

    Thus the connection between feasting, animal and human bones… Just don’t ask about all those young pigs at the Durrington wintertime-feasting site!

    PS:

    PS: More on those Datchet animal bones (both domestic and wild animals):

    The funeral centre had to be paid for its services. But how, given there was no money in Neolithic times as a medium of exchange?

    Answer: you didn’t just turn up with your deceased relative. You brought an animal as well – either from your herd if a farmer, or from hunting expeditions into the surrounding countryside.

    As I say, the mortuary attendants could feast initially on choicer cuts, maybe inviting the relatives and/or others to join them, and then use leftovers to ensure there was always something that would keep the avian scavengers on permanent standby.

  2. Colin Berry says:

    Here’s my latest response to Neil Wiseman on the Sarsen.org site:

    http://www.sarsen.org/2018/02/a303-tunnel-waste-plans.html

    sciencebod, 11 February 2018 at 14:51

    Hello again Neil

    If anything to do with Sun or Moon, would there not have been a few markings on one or more stones, a point I raised earlier?

    There is also the more general point that pre-stone circle/pre-henge farmers, those growing crops especially, would/must have had some crude kind of calendar at their disposal, and such a calendar would not have required massive stonework or even timber or chalk bank construction to figure out where one was in the annual cycle of seasons.

    How? Imagine a farmer plonking down on a west-facing tree stump at the end of his working day, watching the sun set. He would be aware that the Sun sets progressively northwards up to a certain part of the year, with the longest day/shortest night , then stops, then moves back until reaching a new stop point much further south (80 degrees in modern terminology, i.e. the best part of a right angle).

    Suppose now he counted the number of nights between what we now call the summer and winter solstices, by making cuts on a branch, or dropping small flints into a clay pot. He’d have found there were a regular repeating pattern of approx 182 nights, give or take between the solstices. Already he’d have a notion not just of days and nights (obviously) but now, more importantly, of years as well.

    Months, notably lunar months? Yes, watching the phases of the Moon would serve, but why bother when it’s the warming Sun and seasons that are crucial to crops? Suppose then, dispensing for now with the Moon, our farmer decided to sow seed at the halfway point between the shortest and longest day, what we now call the vernal or spring equinox (arriving March 20 this year). He could do that crudely, by waiting for the Sun to set halfway between the two solstices OR, if wishing to be more accurate, could have waited until he had 90 or so notches or flints.

    Why then go to the bother of constructing anything permanent simply to know where one is approximately in the passage of each new year when all that’s needed is a clear view towards the westward horizon (or alternatively the east-facing one instead if preferring to make his observations first thing in the morning?

    What’s all this got to do with causeways, henges, standing stones, Stonehenge one might ask? I say nothing whatsoever – absolutely nothing. They were designed for an entirely different purpose, to do with giving dear departed relatives a respectful but efficient send-off to the afterlife, one in which an intermediary role for local birdlife was quickly perceived and accomplished by degrees, culminating in those mighty sarsen lintels (bird perches)for which it’s hard to see any obvious role where monitoring the annual seasons is concerned, or Sun or Moon worship etc etc.

    I say that the summer/winter solstice theory is a false connection, one that should have been dispensed with long ago for lack of corroborating evidence and displaying, dare one say, a degree of fanciful or wishful thinking. It tries to make our Neolithic ancestors seem more detached from the problems of everyday existence than was really the case (like where the next meal was coming from, or what to do when Aunt Dot suddenly keels over, the ground outside is rock hard, the firewood nearly used up etc). Thank goodness for communal organization, or the first blossoming thereof.

    Go visit the local (outdoor) funeral parlour, lit up at dawn if the sky is clear, thanks to its alignment in relation to sunrise and sunset. Those clever and methodical funeral directors have worked out a system. Call back a day or two later for an odour-free package of Auntie’s bones to add to the collection on their mantelpiece, or its Neolithic equivalent…

    Don’t bother carving anything on the posts or stones. No one needs reminding what they are for…

    (I’ll return with a separate comment later re the claimed ‘lithophonic’ properties of Stonehenge’s bluestones, once I’ve selected passages from that Royal College of Arts posting).

    Cheers

    ColinB

  3. Colin Berry says:

    Have just posted this comment to another site.

    http://www.sarsen.org/2018/02/a303-tunnel-waste-plans.html

    sciencebod 10 February 2018 at 15:23

    “Oh dear. This site is turning out to be such a disappointment – so few comments, so little feedback, despite the informative and authoritative nature of Tim’s postings.

    Don’t get me started on some of the alternative sites – which invite comments, then tell one that the comment one has submitted must first be pre-moderated, that one is in a queue, but which finally never appears (with most other postings also devoid of any genuine-looking comments).

    There is much that is wrong right now as regards the received ‘wisdom’ regarding Stonehenge (read dogma) and stone circles, henges etc in general where the internet is concerned (I could say more, but will hold my tongue for now).

    It’s getting on for 2 years since I last posted on Stonehenge/Silbury Hill on my own two sites – some 20 postings in all between 2012 and 2016. None – and I repeat none – have been picked up by any number of those dubious sites – even on comments – this one excluded.

    There seems to be a deliberate attempt at message-suppression (to which this blogger is no stranger, having attempted to ‘tell it the way it is’ regarding the supposedly ‘enigmatic’ Shroud of Turin these last 6 years!

    Any chance of a guest posting on this site, one that briefly summarizes my near certainty that our Neolithic ancestors set great store, as well they might, by preliminary AFS (avian-assisted skeletonization) aka “sky burial” aka ‘defleshing’ aka excarnation as a preliminary to final bone cremation?

    Those massive sarsen lintels were the high point of AFS evolution and technology – monumental bird perches if the truth be told – designed to attract and retain the nearest the British Isles have to the Eurasian vulture – almost certainly the adaptable and voracious seagull!

    Sorry to keep banging on – but I have to say it again – the internet is not working as it should to disseminate new ideas. That’s thanks, I suspect, to vested interests of one sort or another… this site being mercifully free, if somewhat low profile right now , due one suspects to its emphasis on unadorned facts rather than bonkers (?)ideas…”

    Colin Berry (aka sciencebod)

  4. Colin Berry says:

    Have just this minute added this comment in reply to Neil Wiseman on Tim Daw’s sarson.org site.

    http://www.sarsen.org/2018/02/larkhill-causewayed-enclosure-posthole.html#comment-form

    It’s a summary of my belief that Stonehenge represents the technological pinnacle of Neolithic’s Britain’s pragmatic adoption of avian facilitated skeletonization (aka excarnation, aka “sky burial”) as a preliminary to final bone cremation. (NB: bone, as distinct from whole body cremation!)

    1. Causewayed enclosure- multifunctional, being demarcation of homestead territory, with funeral facility at one end, pushed to one side, probably screened, maybe whole body cremation with or without prior excarnation via different methods one can only guess at.
    2. Henges – first step towards specialized avian facilitated skeletonization, just one means of arm’s length excarnation, with ‘artificial white cliffs’ designed to attract voracious gulls from afar; north-east opening ensures the interior is brighty illuminated at or shortly after sunrise. Central ‘altar’. (Forget those summer and winter solstices, good idea initially but all-too-typical unscientific failure to follow through with critical corroborative evidence, science merging imperceptibly into pseudoscience – then hand-me-down dogma).
    3. Arguably henge-like circles of stone in the Golan Heights (Rujm-el-Hiri, “Stonehenge of the Levant” ) also suggested to play an excarnation role.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rujm_el-Hiri

    4. The Seahenge model, isolated coastal salt marsh, serial use over years or decades – too meticulously-built and isolated to be regarded as a one-off funeral of a celebrity figure (Sorry Tim). Inverted tree stump arguably much too large and unwieldy for a single offering.
    5. Addition of multiple timber posts to henges, sometimes circles but not always (so one should not rush into alignment with sun and solstices, or moon either). Regard the posts as perches for gulls and/or other voracious avian species, albeit a less than efficient scavenger than the continental vulture..
    6. Addition of structures like that close to Durrington Walls (“Countess Farm”/”mortuary house”/ “house of dead”) – multiple posts within screened dwelling – arguably no roof – again a site for specialized AFS (excarnation arguably too non-specific a term given the different agents – microorganisms, birds, rodents, foxes, wolves and other land-based carnivores, man-made flints and knives ).

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2750005/The-hidden-empire-Stonehenge-Radar-scanners-17-sites-near-ancient-stones.html
    7. Replacement of timber posts at Stonehenge initially with modest-size bluestone pillars, later the taller sarsens, circles of standing stones at other sites – from Avebury as far north as the Orkneys. Were they too for sophisticated, some might day precocious/anachronistic astronomical purposes? Evidence?
    8. Perch-like stone structures at the ancient Turkish site (Gobekli Tepe, S.E. Anatolia) with engravings that include vultures.

    http://www.ancient-origins.net/editorials/vulture-stone-gobekli-tepe-world-s-first-pictogram-004348

    9. Silbury Hill – manual pre-excarnation (heart only?) and interment under individual mini-sarsen markers.
    10. Durrington winter feasting on young (8 month old pigs). Pre-excarnation (i.e. unfussy animal omnivore mediated )?
    11. Burials of cremated bones (not whole bodies) at Guernsey site, with nearby stone-circle.
    12. Out-of-area coastal lichens still resident of Stonehenge stones. Evidence for coastal cliff-edge gulls having migrated inland, probably tracking up the (Hampshire) Avon river.
    13. Stonehenge’s transoms (i.e. cross-pieces) the technological peak of Neolithic avian-assisted excarnation (aka pre-cremation skeletonization) – provided ideal bird perches, offering security, space etc.
    14. No astronomical engravings on Stonehenge stones, as might be expected (or demanded as corroborating evidence in support of what is otherwise a poorly defended hypothesis). But there are representations of metal-cast daggers and axeheads (presumably Bronze Age) suggestive of some kind of attack on flesh (pre- or postmortem?).
    15. Possibility that Stonehenge was periodically chalked and re-chalked to make and keep it a gleaming white landscape feature, which together with henge bank and walls increased its gull-attracting properties.

  5. Colin Berry says:

    I see there are any number of archaeologists and others describing Stonehenge as a basically a “crematorium”. Enter (stonehenge crematorium) into your search engine and observe the many listings!

    I say that they (and the media) are missing the point. Stonehenge – the impressive standing stones – was NOT a crematorium. It was a PRE-CREMATORIUM, designed for AFS (avian-facilitated skeletonization). In other words, the adjacent end-stage crematorium did not , or would not, cater for whole bodies, but for skeletonized remains only, specifically the left-overs after the local birds had had their fill, after the departed’s soul had been released to the heavens (“sky burial”).

    How much longer must one wait for the obvious to permeate into our national consciousness, and for the true purpose of chalk henges, timber posts, standing stones etc to be recognized? Collectively they represented an early expression of British technological prowess! It’s time we stopped being squeamish, and faced up to the facts (and the TRUTH!).

  6. Pingback: The Monumental and Mysterious Silbury Hill | NewsBean

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s