Notice the abundance of passing visitors on the wing. Birds like to have a safe place to perch, or indeed to roost overnight.
Is what we are seeing here merely an incidental feature of Stonehenge and similar sites with standing stones, including the simpler ones at Avebury?
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”.
(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).
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).
Their adaptability re nesting sites is legendary.
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?
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:
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:
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
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.
Colin Berry PhD
April 17, 2016.
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).