3. Meaning and Materials

Archaeological approaches to materials and their deployment in social contexts, whether modified or not, have tended to favour interpretations involving symbolic attachments and imposed meanings. Grounded primarily in applications of memory, reason, and testimony, ideas of metaphor, allegory, analogy, and oppositions come to characterise the understandings we create. Thus it is not the material itself that is significant, but what it stands for. Paul Taçon, for example, has documented how dominant outcrops of sandstone and quartzite in the landscape of western Arnhem Land in northern Australia are associated with powerful ancestral beings. Collective memory perpetuates the idea that long ago the Rainbow Serpent swallowed other ancestors and was then forced to vomit their bones, which in turn formed the rocky sandstone and quartzite escarpments. As a result of these connections between ancestral beings and the quarries, the stone from these sources is said to have special properties and a spiritual significance (1991, 195).

Closer to home, Chris Tilley postulates that the great stone menhirs of Brittany may in some cases stand as a metaphor of growth and fertility like great bulbous rhizomes inserted in the ground (2004, 85), while others are axe-shaped and were perhaps selected to highlight a developing conceptual distinction between humanity and the land (2004, 85-6).

For the Stonehenge area, Mike Parker Pearson has developed a simple binary opposition between wood and stone into a rich and complicated cosmology based around the idea of hardening in the life-death cycle that also embraces a set of metaphorical oppositions involving summer and winter, and the rising and setting of the sun. Stonehenge in this view was a ceremonial circle built of stone for the exclusive use of the ancestors, with ceremonies by the living population focused upon timber structures around Durrington Walls. The Avon and the Stonehenge Avenue both physically and metaphorically served to link the domain of the living with the domain of the ancestors (Parker Pearson and Ramilisonina 1998).

An alternative approach is to focus on the intrinsic and aesthetic qualities of particular materials – such things as colour, shape, texture, sound, structure, source, energy, and spirit. These may be real or imagined, but established through perception and consciousness as sources for knowledge-building, the construction of beliefs, and the creation of experiences. Association, affiliation, connection, and sensation come to underpin understandings and significance so that it is the quality and authenticity of the material itself which is fundamentally important.

Emmanuel Mens (2008) has shown rather neatly that in western France whole rock outcrops were systematically sliced up to provide building blocks for the Carnac alignments and the construction of megalithic tombs. The passage grave at Kerbourg, Loire-Atlantique, is especially important as it shows that the top sections of a rock outcrop were used to form the roofing-slabs of the passage and chamber while the orthostats forming the walls were derived from the sides and core of the same source outcrop. The original arrangement of the raw materials were clearly significant to their ultimate use, to the extent that the first stones quarried must have been set aside in order to form the final embellishment of the chamber and passage construction. In a very real sense the natural world was being replicated in the constructed world.

Something similar may be discerned in the use of coloured stones in megalithic tombs in northern and western Britain (cf. Lynch 1998). On Arran, for example, Andy Jones has shown that local red or white coloured stone was generally used in constructing long barrows so that the colour of the monument matched its local landscape. Where a barrow was built at the junction of two lithologies, opposing sides of the cairn reflected local conditions. Features such as the capstones and facades were often constructed to display colour contrasts in the materials used, thereby creating an aesthetic of place closely linked to landscape (Jones 1999). Similarly the Clava Cairns of eastern Scotland show the use of selected raw materials for different sections of the kerbs defining each mound (Bradley 2000a, 216-17). There is an interplay between glacial erratics collected on the surface and large pieces of sandstone quarried nearby. Red, pink, black, yellow and white stones predominated, much the same range as can also be seen in the recumbent stone circles of the area, where most of the flat recumbent stones are of a contrasting colour to the adjacent flankers and pillars of the circle itself (cf. Lynch 1998).

Harnessing the power of stone is perhaps more widespread than commonly imagined. Tim Insoll has described how among the Tallensi people of the Tongo Hills in northern Ghana, the importance ascribed to rock arises from the fact of it being a product of the earth and central to an Earth Cult. Shrines associated with this cult were often focused around natural places and the power of a shrine seems to be intrinsically associated with the rock from which it is formed. New shrines are sometimes created through a franchising process that includes transferring a piece of rock with a special provenance and biography from the 'mother' shrine to a distant affiliated shrine (2006, 229-31).

For Stonehenge I have suggested elsewhere that some components may have initially been selected for their special properties rather than their symbolic meanings (Darvill 2006, 129-46; 2007). It was the construction of the Double Bluestone Circle with its main axis on the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset right in the centre of the earthwork enclosure that transformed a fairly standard formative henge with decayed timber structures and occasional use for burials into an altogether unique and powerful monument.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Plans showing the bluestone components of the main recognised phases in the development of Stonehenge, Wiltshire. (Drawing by Vanessa Constant, after Cleal et al. 1995, figures 80, 81, 116, and 117)

Assuming that the Double Bluestone Circle was complete (and some doubts have been expressed on this point, see Cleal et al. 1995, 185-8), then about 80 pillars would have been needed, seemingly an assortment of spotted dolerite, dolerite, rhyolite, tuff, and perhaps sandstone from southern and south-western Wales (Fig. 3, Phase 3.i). These same stones were incorporated into all subsequent phases of the monument: the Bluestone Oval, itself later modified to become the Bluestone Horseshoe, within the central space; and a Bluestone Circle between the Trilithons and the Sarsen Circle (Fig. 3, Phase 3.iv-v). The arrangement of different kinds of stone in these later structures reflects the actual arrangement of stone outcrops in the eastern Preselis, as if the monument is a microcosm of the real world (Darvill 2006, fig. 50, and cf. Bradley 2000b, 92-6). In the centre of Stonehenge, and in the centre of the outcrops in the eastern Preselis (Fig. 4), are the distinctive spotted dolerites that have attracted so much attention over the years following the work of H.H. Thomas (1923). In 1951 this rock was defined as Petrological Group XIII (Stone and Wallis 1951, 128-9) but has since been recognised as one distinctive variant of the spectrum of graphic pyroxene granodiorites and quartz-dolerites defined as Group XXIII (Shotton 1972).

Figure 4

Figure 4: Outcrops of spotted dolerite on Carn Menyn, Preseli Hills, north Pembrokeshire, Wales. (Photograph: Timothy Darvill)

Why the spotted dolerites were selected to stand at the focus of the monument is a question often raised, but rarely addressed. Perhaps it was the colour of the stones. Perhaps the white spots were seen as a reflection in the earth of the stars in the heavens. Perhaps the spots were tears shed by some great ancestor for the loss of a loved one. Perhaps Carn Meini was a sacred mountain, a magical place, or home to the Neolithic gods in the same way as Mount Olympus served the Greek pantheon. We can invent any number of stories, emphasise any recognisable qualities, or borrow any amount of ethnography; all provide provocative accounts, but they get us no closer to what happened in the past. Is there any hope? Well yes, perhaps: there are strong local traditions, and there is archaeological context.


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Last updated: Wed May 27 2009