Thursday, 6 June 2013

Secrets of the Stonehenge skeletons

I finally had an opportunity to see the Stonehenge documentary, repeated on More4 in a comfortable 9 o’clock slot recently. Even if at the core of the programme there were some interesting hypotheses, some better established than the others, some of the attention ended up directed to a series of design choices that clearly were made by the production company and outside the powers of the archaeologists.

We all have probably recently been complaining about the irritating re-enactments in archaeological documentaries. There are the pretend ancient Egyptians in their thick black wigs carrying bowls in dark corners or sitting on replica chairs when intriguing modern classical music is playing. There are the screaming attacking armies of the barbarians, Persians and/or Celts. There are the Iron Age People cooking in their woollen clothes in a dark round house, when the smoke is quietly floating around, while a voiceover keeps repeating the same mysterious lines over and over again. However, this time the budget may have been smaller than normally, since any alive re-enactors were replaced – by shadow puppets. The kind of puppets you see in the south-eastern Asian displays. This was a true novelty.

The documentary also kept repeating the same shot of Mike Parker Pearson walking among the stones of Stonehenge and observantly look up to their top parts. This section reminded me in an unintended manner of the movie Plan 9 from Outer Space. In that movie, voted to have been one of the worst ever made, a section with Bela Lugosi, then already deceased, and some other shots were reused continuously. However, this documentary I was watching naturally was light years better than the movie, but the continuous repetition of the same scenes hints that the programme uses the building up of intrigue techniques that repeat same questions, such as ‘why did the use of Stonehenge stop so abruptly’, before the ad breaks. The continuous repetition also suggest that there was really material for a 45-minute documentary, but the programme had to cover a certain slot. Although there is always more than 45 minutes worth of stories from Stonehenge!

On the positive side, it was crucial to get a neat summary of the findings of the excavations of the Aubrey Holes in this programme. However, some of the arguments were surprising - although the script must have been edited by the production company. The programme makers suggested that before the Riverside project people did not know that the first Stonehenge did not have the stone circle with headstones in the middle. However, Atkinson had already written in his book in the 1950s that the first Stonehenge was a simple henge with a ditch. The important Riverside novelty was the observation that there were probably bluestones instead of wooden poles in the Aubrey Holes. This is a true novelty, but not the same thing as them finding out about the simple first henge for the very first time.

I really appreciated the study of the reburied cremated bones from the Aubrey Holes. That must have felt like a very daunting task at first, but the cleaver use of ear bones as the marker of the number of individuals was impressive. Nevertheless, I am not sure how the presence of burials of both men and women together with children was evidence for the existence of a special religious order at Stonehenge and the members of which were buried there under the first simple stone henge.

Another thing that made the re-excavation of the Aubrey Holes bones remarkable was that every single director of the sub-projects of the Riverside project took turns in carrying out the humble duties of excavating with trowel.

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