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THE DEAD OF STONEHENGE

Archaeologists excavate the dead of Stonehenge.
(This is one in a series of Gail’s blogs for the Inside NOVA website http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/insidenova/)
Every summer, they descend on Stonehenge by the thousands to watch the sun rise on the longest day of the year -Pagans, Druids, party animals, foreign exchange students, families with kids, documentary producers. Some dance, drum or dream the night away; others sip or smoke all manner of mind-altering substances. When dawn arrives obscured by clouds (or sheets of rain, like the year I tried to attend), no one seems to mind. The vibe is festive and life-affirming. I wonder how many revelers realize they’ve just boogied down on a sacred burial ground.

When I started researching our Stonehenge show, I was surprised to learn that at least 50 human burials were discovered there in the early 20th century. But that’s the tip of the iceberg: considering all the unexcavated areas of the monument, experts figure at least 240 people were buried at Stonehenge, if not many more. There has been no shortage of theories about the purpose of Stonehenge -Druid temple, astronomical observatory, landing pad for UFO’s. But one thing is certain: Stonehenge was used as a cemetery. In fact it’s the largest cemetery ever discovered in Britain for its time period (roughly 3000 to 2500 BC -the last gasp of the Stone Age.)

So why have the guidebooks rarely mentioned this? I wonder if it’s because nearly all the burials excavated so far have been cremations -small clusters of bone fragments placed directly in the ground (possibly in now-vanished leather pouches or baskets), with virtually no grave goods. Finding such modest burials can’t have the same impact on archaeologists as the unearthing of full skeletons -or mummies!- decked out with jewelry, weaponry, and household items.

To complicate matters, the archaeologists who excavated most of the burials at Stonehenge did so in the 1920’s and 1930’s, at at time when burnt bone was considered useless for scientific study. Not a single museum in Britain would accept the cremations from Stonehenge, so they were dumped into four burlap bags, and stored in an attic for a decade. Then in 1935, archaeologists reburied the bones in a hole at Stonehenge, and largely forgot about them.

What if, instead of 50 cremation burials, archaeologists had discovered 50 complete skeletons at Stonehenge? What if the dead had been laid to rest in neat rows, or oriented to face the east, with grave goods tucked around them? What if archaeologists had been able to gaze into the empty eye-sockets of intact skulls? I asked these questions of Mike Pitts, an archaeologist and Stonehenge expert, during an interview in September. He paused, smiled and mused: “It’s a very good point, that. I like that. Imagine how different the history of our understanding of Stonehenge would now be.”

(PS: In 2008, Mike Parker Pearson and his team retrieved those reburied cremations. We’ll feature that excavation and the analysis of the bones of the “Stonehenge Dead” in our show.)

STONEHENGE AT DAWN

(This is one in a series of Gail’s blogs for the Inside NOVA website http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/insidenova/)

August 26, 2009, 5:24 am -40 minutes to sunrise. In the Stonehenge parking lot, we huddle by our cars, fumbling with flashlights and drinking coffee from a thermos to ward off the chill. Our cameraman and soundman have unloaded their gear, and we’re poised to head into the stone circle for approximately three precious hours of “exclusive access.” But the security guards have decided there’s not yet enough ambient light for us to move safely among the stones. So we wait.

The guards are mostly young strapping men. They wear fluorescent yellow rain jackets that almost glow in the dark, but the rest of their gear is black -trousers, sweaters, gloves, knit caps, and massive flashlights that look a lot like billy clubs. I wonder how spooky or lonely it might be to patrol Stonehenge all night, and I ask one of the guards. He chuckles and says he much prefers night shifts to working days. Why? He smacks his flashlight rhythmically into the palm of his left hand. “Because at night you get jumpers.” Jumpers? “People who jump the fence. They think no one’s looking, that they’re gonna get in and touch the stones. But no jumper has ever got to the stones on my watch. Keeps it interesting. Keeps me fit.”

Around 5:42 am, a smudge of dawn appears on the horizon and the guards let us in. Laden with equipment, we sprint through the turnstiles, past the shuttered snack bar and gift shop, into the tunnel that runs under the A344 roadway, out the other side and up a steep ramp. Finally, there it is, a study in somber: the black mass of Stonehenge framed against a slate sky. Unfortunately, there’s no time to drink it in. We rush to set up the camera, just in case the cloud cover miraculously parts and grants us a shot of sunrise through the megaliths. Besides, we need to be ready to roll for Clive Ruggles, archaeoastronomer extraordinaire who’s scheduled to arrive in 25 minutes. Jill (Shinefield, my co-producer) and I check our watches compulsively. Exclusive access at Stonehenge is difficult to secure and does not come cheap -so every minute counts.

The clouds stubbornly stay put, but at least it’s not raining -yet. Clive shows up, more energized at dawn than most people at any hour. By the time he finishes answering my first interview question, he’s so warmed up he doffs his jacket. So we shoot ‘Take 2′, and he does the rest of the interview in shirt sleeves. Archaeoastronomy once enjoyed a shady reputation, straying too often into weird science. Almost singlehandedly, Clive rehabilitated the field with his rigorous study of the alignments at Stonehenge and other Neolithic monuments in Britain and Ireland. He has since worked at sites around the world. To be an archaeologist is one thing; to be an astronomer is another; but to be both… My theory about Clive is that his brain fires twice as fast as everyone else’s, and he can pack twice as many ideas in his head.

The interview is over, and we’re shooting ‘B-roll’ of Clive when the clouds let loose on us. It’s a mad scramble to open umbrellas and drag the equipment into the shelter of the tunnel. We dash back and forth, and I nearly slip on the slick grass. Then just before I head back down the ramp for the last time, I look back. And finally I feel it -that shiver of awe. I let the rain and the mystery wash over me, and it’s like I’m seeing Stonehenge for the first time.

BLUESTONEHENGE

The River Avon, near the site of Bluestonehenge.

(This is one in a series of Gail’s blogs for the Inside NOVA website http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/insidenova/)

This fall, a piece of prehistory made a big splash in the news. “Second Stonehenge Discovered!” “New Stone Circle Found near Stonehenge!” If you simply scanned the breathless headlines, you might assume that a ring of giant stones had somehow escaped notice for a few thousand years, just a mile from the mother-of-all-henges. As a friend asked, “Why didn’t anyone spot it until now?”

For starters, the stones are long gone. For another, the monument is located on the lush banks of the River Avon, prime real estate where most traces of prehistory have been overlaid by lavish country estates. (Apparently Sting owns one.) Luckily, the owners of one idyllic stretch of riverbank (ideally suited for gin-and-tonics on summer afternoons) allowed archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson and his team to dig there. Mike”s goal had been to pinpoint the end of the Stonehenge Avenue, a processional pathway that begins outside the entrance to Stonehenge, curves for about 2 miles across the landscape, and dead-ends somewhere near the river. Mike never dreamed he’d find “Stonehenge’s Little Sister.”

In September 2009, we show up to film the site on the morning after a torrential thunderstorm has swept across the Salisbury Plain. By 9 am, archaeologists and student diggers have bailed rainwater out of the deepest trenches, and everyone is back at work -boots muddied, jeans soggy, spirits intact. I spot Mike Parker Pearson kneeling in the bottom of a ditch, trowel in hand, scraping up clods of sticky clay. He digs with gusto yet great delicacy, parsing out the subtle nuances of color and texture that distinguish signs of human activity in the soil from old rabbit holes. This man can read dirt. He is so clearly in his element that I feel guilty disturbing him. But gracious as always, he gives us a tour of “Bluestonehenge”, as his latest discovery has been christened.

Mike’s team has exposed a large wedge of the henge -a circular ditch and external bank about 33 feet in diameter. In the center, Mike points out an arc of several large holes that (based on their size and shape) must have held standing stones. To my eye, it looks like a gigantic slab of chocolate cake, with holes where huge birthday candles were pulled out. Extrapolating from this ’slice’, Mike reckons the intact circle probably numbered about 25 closely-spaced standing stones. And these were almost certainly bluestones, a type of stone that that’s indigenous to Wales, over 150 miles away. Stonehenge also contains many of these ‘foreign’ bluestones.

So what’s it all mean? Mike cautions that he’s still waiting on radiocarbon dates, but even now it seems clear that Bluestonehenge was an integral part of Stonehenge. Mike suspects the bluestones that once stood here by the river were eventually dragged up the Avenue and installed in Stonehenge, during a later phase of ‘remodeling’. As for the purpose of Bluestonehenge? Mike digs his toe into the ground: “This soil is full of charcoal. Maybe people were cremated here by the river and then their ashes were buried at Stonehenge itself. Not many people realize that Stonehenge was Britain’s largest burial ground at that time.”

According to Mike’s theory, prehistoric people dedicated the area around Stonehenge to their ancestors. We are standing in the sacred realm of the dead. But somehow it just doesn’t feel that way this morning, with the sun sparkling on wet grass and the Avon glinting through the trees. And with Sting just up the road.

Cutting Stonehenge

We have finally taken Stonehenge into the editing room! We went through a second bout of filming during the summer of 2009, and postponed post-production until after the holiday season. It’s a thrill to start putting the story together. We hope to complete the show by the summer, with broadcast still-to-be-determined. WGBH asked us to blog about our shoots, so Gail’s been posting to the Inside NOVA website (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/insidenova/). We’ll be posting her blogs on our website as well.

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