The Sunday News
I AM of the view that at this stage we have gleaned something, some critical concepts from African experiences relating to water that we may apply to Stonehenge with a view to translating, explaining and interpreting the iconic cultural landscape which was declared a World Heritage Site (WHS). Before we get down to that business, we are, once again, going to pose some few questions which will assist, guide and inform the process of interpretation.
At Stonehenge which is that one cultural feature and its accompanying idea(s) which, when eliminated, the cultural edifice totally loses its meaning and reason for existence? The second question is, “which cultural feature and its expressed theme/idea recurs the most often within the composite cultural landscape that constitutes Stonehenge?”
The two questions are, I want to believe, demand the same answer. Presenting them this way demands that we fully commit and apply our minds so that we interpret the cultural landscape from an informed, objective and sustainable standpoint.
Interpretation stems from hard facts relating to quite a number of issues and phenomena. This we are not in a position to undertake. We rely on research work that was done by the Stonehenge Riverside Project from 2003. Dr Mike Parker Pearson who led the project, did write a definitive book on the work they did. The hard facts from the archaeological research are there. The issue is thus not about the dearth of relevant data on account of inadequate or faulty research. The issue is about going beyond the facts and interpreting them.
Interestingly, the title of the Project carries the word “River.” A river is associated with water and indeed, there is a nearby River Avon which is an integral part of the cultural and geological landscape. A cultural landscape embraces a number of cultural features which individually bear some narrative, theme, and concept.
At the same time, all the various cultural features add to one primary and major theme that explains the reason behind the creation and construction of a particular cultural site. Emphasis here is on a holistic expression and which inevitably leads to a holistic interpretation which is based on and is sustained by feeder themes and narratives from individual cultural features. At the end of the day there must emerge one theme which embraces and encapsulates all secondary themes. The questions, actually the same question posed in two different ways, seek to bring out the essence of Stonehenge.
The essence that we refer to is one that holds hope for coming up with some objective, sustainable and holistic interpretation. At the same time, we ought to be ever alert to the fact that there were a particular people who created and constructed the cultural landscape. The said people possessed a particular worldview within which they created and came up with a built environment that expressed and symbolised the represented cultural aspects in particular at thought level. Purpose underpins creativity and design, be it at the levels of art such as sculpture, architecture and other artistic expressions that illuminate the underlying, underpinning and informing culture. Building for what? is a question that ought to be at the back of our minds each time we seek to interpret cultural features constituting a cultural landscape.
A people’s worldview is critically important and cuts across both cultural and geological phenomena. A culturally inspired built environment sometimes, if not always, seeks to make use of natural geological attributes at the sites where the cultural mind intersects and interacts with a complementary natural environment. Nature is perceived and understood with the assistance of mental orientation and choices. Stonehenge, as will be seen later, is no exception. The River Avon is not a creation of man but a result of natural processes.
In the river there is water. This takes us back to the critical question we posed when we commenced the exercise of interpreting the possible significance, meaning and purpose of water at Stonehenge. The question stands here between water and the physical channel within which water is found. “Which is the more important, between a container and its contents?” In this instance, is it water or the channel or both?
Stonehenge was built in stages which reflected ideological, technological, political, social and economic changes over time. The stages that archaeologists have identified place the circular ditch with its accompanying bank in the very first stage (3 000-2920 BC) where there were Aubrey holes that were enclosed within. A comment will follow later which relates to Aubrey holes. This was a stage prior to the incorporation of bluestones from the Preseli Mountains in Wales and the sarsens from Marlborough in England. The ditch and bank are cultural features within the Stonehenge cultural landscape. Research seems to suggest that the ditch was not empty but may have contained some water. That question again, concerning a container and its contents.
One cannot but observe that the water-containing ditch was linked to the River Avon with river water. The river, we may argue, did not perfectly measure to the desired architectural dictates of creators and builders of Stonehenge. Builders do not build within the context of a vacuum. They do so from the diverse perspectives of desired usages, known and acceptable designs, ideas relating to aesthetics, inter alia. Water in a ditch thus had to conform to the dictates of a particular people.
Circularity seems to take centre stage in terms of design and attached meanings and aesthetics. The creating and building mind is One and does not, within itself, create contradictions within a single cultural landscape nor contradictions between a culturally built environment and its contextual natural environment. The presence of the River Avon and the geological orientations of underlying rocks was no accident.
The choice was determined by the desired usages within the context of beliefs, cosmology and worldview. The mind is an important conditioner.
A few characteristics of the ditch and bank may be ideal at this stage as design and form may help in deciphering the hidden purposes. The ditch and bank were circular in design and located about 100 metres from the central structures-the stone circles although originally it was just the Aubrey holes. The ditch seems to have had 5 segments perhaps suggesting the stages of construction or regulating water levels where the ground was uneven. An apparently important aspect was that the deep ditch contained cremated burials. At the bottom of the ditch there were burnt or cremated bones. That was time when inhumation (ground burials) was no longer taking place.
This takes me to the idea that burials were one centrepiece that provided not the essence but rather an important and most critical facilitator of spiritual linkages between the living and the departed ancestral spirit whose bones lie in the tombs on the site. That, in my view, constitutes the basis of spirituality. This is a worldview that stems from a Duality of Being, that a human being constitutes ephemeral and transient material body and an eternal, enduring and immortal spirit.
The vulnerable living progeny always looked up to the potency, protection and sustenance of departed spirits for their own good, in terms of wellbeing, protection, sustenance, and fecundity. The relationship between the two, spirits and the living, as consummated by the presence of relatively enduring bones in tombs is, in my view, the basis for the creation of an interactive and interfacing cultural landscape for the good of both parties.
Everything else adds to and facilitates communication between the living and the living dead, the departed ancestral spirits. It is all about Spirituality and what the people at the time understood by it and the benefits they derived from it.
As we saw in the few earlier articles relating to water, it has the character and trait of eternity. The container in which it is put, the circular ditch, equally expresses eternity. It is eternity, not of the ephemeral and transient human bodies, but that of enduring human spirits, the very basis and essence of Spirituality. Notable is the fact that as Stonehenge became more and more complex, the expressed ideas relating to spirituality were always resident. If anything, they were intensified and got expressed in more ways than before.