A Brief History of Stonehenge, by Aubrey Burl

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Revisionism is never content. Those tangible innovations of pottery, cattle, pigs, wheat and barley seeds and the introduction of well-shaped stone tools have been explained away as ‘essentially it was an idea’.1 Ideas do not communicate by themselves. They need people, not a phantom rope-line of grain-filled pots bobbing like homing-pigeons across the Channel or herds of eagerly emigrating cows and bulls chesting the waves of the North Sea. The ‘essential idea’ came from living people, and during the fifth millennium the people came from the mainland of western Europe to settle in Britain. They were farmers. Some settled on the chalklands of Wiltshire where the ground could easily be tilled and planted.
1 ‘Essentially it was an idea’, Francis Pryor, Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland Before the Romans (HarperCollins, London, 2003): ‘There must however have been a small element of migration’, domestic animals ‘had to be introduced from outside’, pp. 121-22.

I’ve long been fascinated by megalithic monuments in general, and Stonehenge is a very special case, one of the most elaborate stone circles of northwestern Europe. We visited in 2016; it’s pretty crowded these days.

Aubrey Burl was the doyen of British megalithic studies, publishing his first book on stone circles in the 1970s and inspiring many other enthusiasts. This was his last book, published in 2007 when he was already 81 (he died in the early weeks of the 2020 pandemic, aged 93).

It’s a generally lucid explanation of the archaeological sequence of the development of Stonehenge, which (as you possibly know) went through several evolutions over a period of 1500 years from 3100 to 1600 BC, the massive trilithons coming in around 2500 BC, though built on a smaller but much older alignment of stones from maybe 8000 BC. These are barely imaginable timelines on a human scale. There are a couple of churches across the Dijle valley from here which have been in use since the eleventh century, and the oldest church in Belgium claims to have been founded in 823 AD. Across the border, the Protestant church in Trier was built as the emperor’s throne room in 1700, and the Roman gate of the city still stands. But these are individual buildings, rather than an entire sacred landscape. Burl is very good at giving us a sense of how Stonehenge and its setting would have seemed to the people who built it, and rebuilt it.

He also starts well, with a review of how Stonehenge came to popular attention 300 years ago, and often refers back to earlier writers. There’s one chapter, unfortunately, where the prose becomes rambling and disjointed, and it’s the most controversial chapter, in which Burl insists that the older standing stones (the ‘bluestones’) were not transported to Wiltshire from Wales by prehistoric humans, but by Ice Age glaciers long before. This is not well supported by the known evidence of known glaciation, even according to Burl’s own account.

Another curious lapse is his attempt to demonstrate that there is a prehistoric substratum of words in Welsh, Breton and Cornish which are unrelated to other neighbouring languages. He seems to be completely unaware of two centuries of research into Indo-European, which has demonstrated that quite a lot of the Celtic words that he sees as independent are in fact related to similar words in English and Latin: for example Welsh rhew and Cornish rew, meaning ‘ice’, come from the same root as English ‘freeze’ and Latin pruina, meaning ‘frost’; and more crucially for his argument, Welsh haul and Breton heol, meaning ‘sun’, are definitely related to Latin sol. It’s an odd lacuna on Burl’s part.

Apart from that, I found it a fascinating read. You can get it here.

This was the top unread book on my shelves acquired in 2016 (I could not find Can You Solve My Problems? by Alex Bellos, which would have been ahead in the queue). Next on that pile is World’s Fair 1992, by Robert Silverberg.

And finally, this is Spın̈al Tap.