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Henges – brands or performances?Back in 2004 the artist and archaeologist Aaron Watson observed that archaeologists have become preoccupied with describing how henges conform to typologies and other academic notions of what they 'should' be. Instead, he argued, attention should be directed at how henges were used – in other words, what henges 'did'. Putting it another way, we should think of henges as not so much a 'brand' of monument as places where life was 'performed'.
Sounds great in principle, but as Watson himself acknowledged, the evidence for what henges 'did' is ambiguous. Furthermore, almost certainly there never was just one original purpose – only ever a variety of overlapping expectations which evolved over the millennia or so during which henges were actively used. This is comparable to the time that our oldest churches and cathedrals have been actively used. Apart from tourism, most people now visit churches for the rites of hatching, matching and dispatching. But these are not the reason that churches were built, apart from a handful of 'exceptional' burials.
Even if we focus attention on the primary liturgy, this too has changed substantially since medieval times. The preaching-dominated services of the eighteenth century are nothing like either the medieval liturgy or the re-imagined medievalism of the mid-nineteenth century. And yet we think of this as an unbroken – if, at times, turbulent – tradition. There is no reason whatsoever why what happened at henges did not evolve in equally complex ways. Anthropologists have shown there are many ways in which places can be deemed sacred, although most commonly there is a sense of being nearer to the realm of the deities.
Such complexity means are no hard and fast rules about what makes churches, henges or other places 'sacred'. Such designations are the outcome of subtle and ever-shifting cultural relationships between people and their environment. Above all, they are ongoing. In a sense a 'sacred place' is always emergent, never culturally static. If you like, a sacred place is to space as candle light is to a candle, or as a waterfall is to water. We can put a candle or a bucket of water in a museum, but no one can curate a flame or a whirlpool. Places can be 'conserved' but they are only 'sacred places' in so much as sacred rituals – however minimalistic – are performed there.
Avebury henge as performance space. Members of the British Druid Order celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Order at autumn equinox 2013.
So, a decade on from Watson's original challenge, can we yet say what henges 'did'? Watson himself suggested we might think of henges as markers on routeways. Gordon Noble responded by providing some clear evidence that henges are located between the headwaters of rivers – especially when the overland gap cuts off a peninsula or isthmus which is difficult to navigate safely. In Scotland the henges and other clusters of Neolithic sites at Kilmartin, Dunragit and the Upper Clyde valley all lie on important trans-peninsular routes (with modern roads or motorways confirming their importance).
In England the best example is Avebury, where the headwaters of Kennet/Thames, the Hampshire Avon and the rivers draining Somerset into the Bristol Avon almost meet. Anyone coming up from the Solent would meet people from the Bristol Avon without going all the way around Land's End – a treacherous journey with no natural harbours on the north coast of Cornwall apart from Boscastle – which requires expert seamanship to gain access.
Recent work by Mike Parker Pearson and his associates at Durrington Walls near Stonehenge confirms the reasonable expectation that henges were seasonal meeting places. The distinctive banks of henges thus become more akin to amphitheatres. Julian Thomas, Christopher Tilley and Richard Bradley have all drawn attention to the 'nested' visibility – and audibility – of henges and stone circles.
Anyone who has watched television programmes in recent years will almost certainly have seen Parker Pearson talk about Stonehenge as a place of the dead. In a separate article I suggest that this is somewhat misleading and it would be better to think of henges as places alive with other-than-human-persons, such as souls. Watson developed further Colin Richards' earlier notions of the henge as a central place, an 'axis mundi' where physical and metaphysical space and time all converge. For Watson, perhaps the most important 'defining feature' of a henge is not the banks and ditches, still less what goes on inside, but rather the relationship to the far horizon – ringed by a 'territory' of which the henge is a microcosm. In other words, a place for 'performing' the relationship between a society and its territory.
As prehistoric henges predate Plato by a good few millennia, there is no reason to suppose that the builders of henges thought in terms of the timeless Platonic Ideals which underpin medieval Christian metaphysics and modern day secular successors. More probably they shared the sense of 'everything is change' which is key to Heraclitus and Daoism – and, indeed, a good many other traditional cultures. This supports Watson's suggestions that henges are places of 'permanent emergence'. This would be consistent with henges being continuously restored and adapted.
Relatives tidying a family grave in Avebury. One of the windows in my office looks out on this churchyard, so I am aware that these ladies, and a great many other people, come regularly to visit and 'do something' for their deceased relations.
After all, when people visit the graves of deceased relatives they feel moved to have a bit of a tidy up, even if it isn't really needed. Quite literally my view from the henge bank here in Avebury includes the churchyard next door. During the summer there is the frequent buzz of strimmers being used by relatives, even though the contractors who cut the grass make a good job. Clearly there is a psychological need to 'do something' for the deceased, apart from bringing flowers and stopping for a few pertinent thoughts or prayers.
Just as we don't naturally think of visits to graves as 'performances' – although indeed they are – so too we seem reluctant to think of henges as places were relationships with other-than-human-persons were performed. Instead of thinking henges as part of anachronistic notions of timeless Neoplatonic Ideals which lead to landscape and culture being 'curated' and categorised, we should instead become part of the 'performances' of what they always have been: emergent processes.
SourcesBarrett, John, 1994, Fragments from Antiquity, Blackwell.
Bradley, Richard, 1993, Altering the Earth, Society of Antiquaries.
Harding, Jan, 2012, 'Henges, rivers and exchange in Neolithic Yorkshire', in A.M. Jones et al (eds), Image, Memory and Monumentality, Oxbow.
Noble, Gordon, 2007, 'Monumental journeys: Neolithic monument complexes and routeways across Scotland' in V. Cummings and R. Johnston (eds), Prehistoric Journeys, Oxbow Books.
Parker Pearson, Mike, 2012, Stonehenge: Exploring the greatest stone age mystery, Simon and Schuster.
Richards, Colin, 1996, 'Monuments as landscape: creating the centre of the world in late Neolithic Orkney', World Archaeology, Vol.28:2, p190–208.
Thomas, Julian, 1993, 'The politics of vision and the archaeologies of landscape', in B. Bender (ed), Landscape: Politics and perspectives, Berg.
Tilley, Chris, 1994, A Phenomenology of Landscape, Berg.
Trubshaw, Bob, 2005, Sacred Places: Prehistory and popular imagination, Heart of Albion.
Trubshaw, Bob, 2012, 'Stonehenge: Dead or alive?', Northern Earth No.132, p15-20.
Trubshaw, Bob, 2012, The Process of Reality, Heart of Albion; online at http://www.hoap.co.uk/general.htm#tpor Watson, Aaron, 2004, 'Monuments that made the world: performing the henge', in R. Cleal and J. Pollard, Monuments and Material Culture, Hobnob.
Originally published in Northern Earth No.141, p11–13.
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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs
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