Thursday, October 14, 2021

Stone Circles, Axeheads, and Beer

When I took a few anthropology courses in the 1970s, they were primarily Mesoamerican - that is, we studied the history of maize, followed by pottery because those give you the structure for everything else you are going to study. So I missed all the European arguments, as there was a sea-change under way,* with growing claims that the axeheads being discovered were mostly ceremonial rather than weapons. Some clearly were, as an important burial might include multiple axeheads from distant places, such as jadeite from the Italian Alps showing up in Britain, all of them unused - never even fastened to a handle. This accorded with the cultural belief that particular Westerners had brought all manner of violence to the rest of the world, which had previously only had low-level skirmishing. The bastards. Archaeology itself was seen to be entirely a colonialist exercise, following on the heels of Europeans teaching the world to go to war, and there has been breast beating even unto the present day about Awful Us. This of course never means Us, but is a disguised version of accusing our internal political and cultural rivals.  The real Them, actually. 

I won't get much into that argument, other than to refer again to Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization, which explodes that notion. Quite simply, if you have low-level skirmishing in a small tribe every year or two, you end up with more deaths in combat than from pitched battles and full-scale wars. Secondly, war is observed and recorded (and now dug up and evaluated) before there was Western influence, pretty much everywhere. The myth arises because Westerners brought writing and curiosity about others, so that proof of much violence before they arrived is scant. The English and Germans especially were the horrible oppressive archaeologists in other lands primarily because they were the only people interested in everyone else.  that curiosity spread to other Europeans, and to the Anglosphere. Other countries did not extractively dig up cool stuff and take it home from South America or Indonesia because they didn't care enough about them to go there and find out about them. Thirdly, Seven of the ten deadliest wars in history have been fought in Asia, which should be the (ahem) death blow to the idea.  Except it isn't, of course, as in the previous post. There is a need to believe otherwise.

I hope I remember to write up newer examples about how "We," (meaning "You") are terribly racist in our interpretation of the events of prehistory.  But I am already too far afield.

But there was an impressive trade in axeheads, many of them ceremonial, this is true. It is difficult in prehistorical research to discover exactly where they were traded. We might suspect sites at or near ports. Another major possibility would be crossroads. Lastly, sites near where they were quarried would go high on the list. In the last few decades, however, there is increasing evidence of only roughed-out heads being traded near the quarries. 

And here we come to another spot where exchange of information from other places becomes important. There are still tribes where quarrying particular stone for weapons is still done, and archaeologists go on digs in many places. There is also late historical record in the New World of where the "best" flint for arrowheads came from, according to the indigenous peoples.  The best places were often the inaccessible ones, those well up the mountains or far from good water sources.  Only there, after the journey, is the Strong stone, the Spiritual stone, the Favored stone found.  So those archaeologists go later in their career to Wales or the Carpathians, and the evidence of quarrying up high, even though the stone below is as good or even better, makes sense.  But you wouldn't want to set up an entire axehead-shaping-and-finishing site there.  Too expensive. You trade for chunks of that in markets below, if those at the markets have not already put in the hours of finishing themselves.

There is, obvious when you think about it, difficulty in the record in that axeheads would not be the sort of thing that would be left behind in the places they were traded.  If you brought something from the Alps to Cornwall but didn't happen to trade it, you wouldn't just shrug and leave it there. You would put it back in your bag and press on to the next minor king to see if he might be interested. When expensive goods are found they are in burials, or in battlefields or destroyed buildings, though even those latter are often picked clean immediately after. Axeheads - whether for work or decoration - are highly portable and you take them with you.


A word about inaccessible places. We usually find stone circles, stone rows, and barrows in high, inaccessible places.  Very romantic, gazing out over the moors or the valleys or the ocean from within one of the thousands of stone circles in GB. (Many of the circles are of nine or nineteen stones, BTW, with some speculation that these were counters for the 18.6 year lunar cycle.  Could be.) Yet it pays to remember that these could well be an unrepresentative sample. If barrows or circles were built everywhere, those in the farming areas would have long since been ripped down and plowed under.  There are stone circles in the north of England where you can see the missing stones in the distance, lying flat as part of a wall or barn. When the original significance is lost, people either adapt the site to their own purposes or just take the lovely building material for their own. The ancient structures in areas that people needed for settlements are likewise no longer visible, nor ever likely to be.  Our romantic picture that they these were always in wild places is almost surely false.  It's just that no one disturbed them in the wild places.  There was no need.  It may be that every family had its own little barrow, no right in the settlement, but not so far away either, or that every settlement had its stone circle, most now pulled down.

Still, when I go to Orkney I am going to have the thousand-yard stare while standing among the stones, just like everyone else. 


A second word about trade. We romanticise this or picture it falsely as well. We have a strong tendency - even archaeologists and science writers have it - to think of an individual trader, setting out into the unknown with goods to trade, hoping to find buyers for metalwork, or wine, or amulets. We marvel at their ingenuity, or courage, or cleverness. No, it was a job, and the necessary information built up over generations.  If you take X number of axeheads to Brittany you are likely to be able to unload them at a particular festival, and if your luck is bad you can reroute on the way home trying to sell the last few at a worse price at a port market further up the coast. As crop yields or safety changed the traders would adjust. A lot of it is trial and error over generations. It is impressive in aggregate, but for each individual guy landing a boat in what is now the Netherlands - not so much. They knew their markets.


The arguments about putting a tunnel under Stonehenge to get the roads away from it (I am pro-Tunnel.  I will expand on this if that seems wrong to you) have caused folks all over the Isles to get exercised about roads an their own stone circles.  In more than a few places there are roads that go right through  a large circle, which makes people shudder at the desecration.  Don't people know these are sacred sites?

It turns out these roads aren't new.  In fact, when you dig up the site, you find that the road has always gone through the circle, so far as we can tell. In a few cases, even two roads - which gets people to thinking. And rethinking the digging, and the burnt pig bones and evidence of fences and weird post holes within and without the circles. In our era we divide up functions and separate them somewhat, so that places where we have worship and places we have trade, or places we negotiate truces and places we have parties are somewhat separate.  Not entirely, even now.  Yet our picture of stone circles as sacred sites, Stonehenge especially, has images of fire at night, and blood sacrifice, and people chanting dire things. Priests shrieking, eyes rolling back in the head, drums pounding, large groups of pilgrims from great distance walking in processions.

Well, that's not the only kind of sacred ceremony, is it? Another kind is that everyone drives their sheep for trade or barbecue**, brings all their best costumes and goods, including marriageable young people, attends processions happily in daylight, singing songs and fasting only in anticipation of feast very soon. Even human sacrifice - we must remember that they were not quite like us - was just part of the fun. We will renew our agreements about boundaries. We will watch blood sports together and cheer. We will tell dirty stories and re-enact the myths of gods or heroes. 

Remember those traders from hundreds of miles away?  They would know when the festivals were and what they might hope to trade for there. As markets changed they might gradually switch which festival they went to at summer solstice, gathering news from others. 

The sheep had to be contained somehow. Evidence of wood between stones at some circles could mean many things, but dark deeds at midnight is looking ever less likely. Meter-thick posts were set in meter-apart grids at a few sites, and Avebury is being re-looked at in that manner. What the heck?  what can you do with that?  And why are there bones of pigs shot with arrows in there? We automatically think of those massive trunks as going up into the sky.  What if they were only six feet high, enough to keep a man inside from looking over the area but low enough for those outside to observe?  The ditch and wall surrounding may not have been designed to keep out prying eyes from viewing holy places until they had been properly cleansed with long rituals, they might have been places to sit and watch guys shooting at pigs among the "trees." Small stadiums. 

Which brings me to beer, which I will post on next, because this has gone very long.

*I have been corrected that it was never under weigh despite my previous claims (and learned my lesson).

**Sheep from Orkney were driven all the way to Stonehenge. For what purpose?  Unknown, but the possibilities are few.


james said...

I like the stadium speculation. The outer rings at Avebury look a little low to be viewing platforms, but they might be part of the playing field too. I wonder what the goal would have looked like? The post heights aren't even enough to think about straddling them all with a lattice--though a few might have been, to provide VIP seating.

There are all sorts of possibilities: 2 teams: defense has the middle zone and the offense is trying to shepherd sheep or pigs past them into the goal. (Nobody gets to pick up an animal)

Two or more teams trying to kick a ball in a pattern weaving in and out of the rings, and block the others.

The ring is too big to do maypole-type dances with.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

This is a possible, perhaps even probably look of Avebury in its day.
That could accommodate spectators.
As for the game, I wonder if they just had free-for all trying to shoot pigs with arrows, reminiscent of previous generations when they were hunters instead of herds and farmers.

james said...

The wikipedia picture gave a different impression. I've never been outside London, so I've no sense of the sites.

A free-for-all is a fun picture. People do tend to make complicated games for themselves, though. I can see kids trying to climb on the posts...

Grim said...

Excellent point about inaccessible places.