Stonehenge: mounds, artefacts and intrigue

Stonehenge stands within a vast ritual landscape. Encircling the towering stones was once over 800 round mounds adding to the temple’s splendour. From within these enigmatic mounds some of the finest artefacts have been unearthed. They are the archaeological Holy Grail to understanding the spirituality and daily life of a culture long gone. Monuments like Stonehenge preserve their mathematical, astronomical and engineering capabilities like a megalithic library. Written in stone they are a legacy of their incredible achievements.

Bronze Age (c2500-750 BC orthodox dating) burial goods, such as jet from the Baltic, beads form Egypt and delicate and intricately designed gold artefacts reveal international trade and artistic craftsmanship. Such finds adorn several British museums attracting publicity and attention.

Yet, some of the mound artefacts are very intriguing and challenge our understanding of ancient Britain. My research has located documented evidence of an entire skeleton of a giant unearthed just one mile from Stonehenge, which was ‘13 feet and 10 inches tall’, strange metal objects and curious chalk plaques all of which were found in the round mounds of Salisbury Plain. Interestingly, the old English name for Stonehenge was The Giant’s Dance perhaps the medieval name was derived from the large skeletons that have been found in and around Salisbury Plain.

The Giant’s Dance - The old name for Stonehenge

Salisbury Plain
Stonehenge stands like a guardian overlooking the vast Salisbury Plain. The area is managed by the MoD (Military of Defence) and it contains numerous prehistoric monuments. I liken it to Area 51 in the USA as it contains military ‘no-go’ zones. The armed services use it to practice manoeuvres, to launch laser guided weapons and as an intense firing range. Round mounds are plentiful in and around the Plain, some of which housed burials, although not all are so easily explained. One fascinating find came from a Plain barrow that was excavated in 1955. The excavated skull showed signs of surgery. Initially, a blanket explanation was given – the skull had been trepanned. Trepanning is a surgical technique of scraping out a deep round groove in part of the skull. It was thought that prehistoric trepanning may have been applied to relieve epilepsy, serve headaches and even cataracts. Archaeologists say our ancestors thought these illnesses were caused by evil-spirits.

Thus, in one particular view, trepanning was partly a shamanic response to alleviate symptoms. One image portrays a shabby looking caveman hacking away at a skull of an uncomfortable patient which implies a primitive and superstitious people that did not fully understand the implications of their surgical actions. Such Dark Age medieval association is, I believe, an insult to our prehistoric forefathers.

Prehistoric cancer treatment
According to archaeological dating the surgery occurred between c2000 and 1600 BC. Roger Watson, a Documentation Officer of finds, Devizes Museum, Wiltshire postulates that the young man underwent a major surgical operation for ‘a brain tumour that involved the cutting away of a disk of bone measuring 32 mm in diameter from his cranium. The cut was probably made with a blade made of flint which is razor sharp. What was used for an anaesthetic or to sterilise, to close the wound we don't know at all.’

This new evaluation of a so-called trepanned skull suggests the successful removable of a cancerous tumour rather than ushering out evil-spirits that cause epilepsy. Around the Stonehenge environs, numerous Bronze Age patients survived this type of repeated operation. Flint is razor sharp and an ideal medium for fine cutting and scraping. However, the young man whose skull was investigated by Watson lived in an era when copper was widely available. There is evidence that copper metal may have been used to make surgical instruments that supported the surgeon’s flint knife. We know that a surgeon’s operational kit is far more than just knives.

Whilst the skull is defiantly an artefact unearthed by an antiquarian centuries ago, which has only recently been re-examined by Watson, who, incidentally has pushed the boundaries of prehistoric medical awareness away from superstition into an objective surgical dimension. Thankfully, we are now eroding the restrictions of intellectual arrogance and beginning to see prehistory in a new light.

Compared to other regional monumental sites, such as the nearby Avebury Henge, or sites further a field such as megalithic sites in Scotland, the Stonehenge mounds have a statistically higher proportion of trepanned skulls. Stonehenge may have been England’s first surgical capital.

Let us consider another unusual artefact that may have been associated with prehistoric surgery, which is worthy of our scholarly attention. Not far from Stonehenge, was an extraordinary ‘round barrow cemetery’- labelled as such by archaeologists in the 1950s - yet only a few of the mounds actually contained burials. Centuries ago, this was recognised by an antiquarian who observed: I cannot help remarking of having found so many empty cists [barrows].

Round mound on Salisbury Plain

One of the larger mounds, sadly removed by the plough, was the exact dimension of Stonehenge cannot be coincidental. Standing out from the other barrows due to its exalted elevation it gained the attraction of antiquarian enquiry. Deep within the mound was a cremation and a wooden box, inside of which was a wooden sheaf lined with fabric ‘the web of which could still be distinguished’ some 4200 years later – so well preserved the artefact within the confines of the mound. When opened they saw a copper (or brass) instrument which is shown below (left). Its corroded dimensions are similar to a pair of household scissors some 6.75 inches long.

Instantly explained as an ‘article of ornament rather than utility’ has stuck for centuries. The latest theory purports it to be a scarf or cloak pin; yet intriguingly it appears similar to past surgical instruments that were commonly used in the medieval period (right). Similarities like this should not be dismissed. In addition, whilst it may be a scarf pin, it must be noted that it was found in close proximity to an actual trepanned skull, which is of little consequence to the archaeological analysis of the object. By expanding the limitations of orthodox interpretation, we potentially have evidence of surgical procedures preserved in bone and brass, located close to one another amid one of the most unusual mound complexes in England. The patient went on to live for many years after his surgery testified by his perfectly healed bone.

Artefacts and strange mound burials
When it comes to artefacts the most widely documented finds in the Stonehenge environ is the famous Bush Barrow. This is because the skeleton of ‘a stout man’ was accompanied with exquisite gold burial goods. Most books and websites on Stonehenge have written of this remarkable find. However, we will focus on some more unusual and thitherto unreported finds. The following illustrations that accompany my research were taken from Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine. The extensive volumes can be easily accessed at the UK’s National Monuments Records Office, Wiltshire, UK.

A few miles south of Stonehenge and gracing the Salisbury Plain was another exceptionally large barrow that instantly aroused the attention of early excavators. Village rumours had hinted that the ancient round barrows housed gold and so shepards, farmers and small landowners believing they were about to hit a golden jackpot reached for their shovels. Previously, the mounds had stood virtually unmolested for nearly 4000 years.

If these early gravediggers did not find gold they simply threw away the artefacts. However, a few were kept and later passed on to more serious antiquarians.Within one mound an extraordinary burial of an ‘extremely large man’ was unearthed and at his feet there was ‘a massive hammer of dark-coloured stone’. Other curious finds accompanied him, one of which was an object of twisted copper or brass. Theories abound as to what it was - from a dog collar - to a bucket handle! Whilst the giant skeleton and the massive hammer may be far more interesting than the brass object, all have seemingly vanished into the ethers.

I must point out that the mounds from whence these artefacts came were very different from other mound burials. Unusual artefacts were housed in unusual mounds. Mounds which were larger in elevation were often coined king or monarch mounds by antiquarians who instantly observed their distinctive traits. See for yourself how different the finds are. Most Bronze Age mounds are attributed to the Beaker people said to be European migrants entering the British Isles from c2000 BC onwards. Within these Beaker mounds, it was commonplace to have cremated bones interned in a cup or vase shaped object - called a Beaker - and often with spear like objects or beads as shown below. Rarely are beakers found alongside the more unusual artefacts.

We are looking at two different eras of burial one of which precedes the other and unlike archaeologists; I suggest the more complex finds are earlier. We need to remember that the geological features of the Stonehenge environs are problematic to preservation. Rainwater reacts to the chalk/calcium to form a weak hydrochloric acid and alongside ploughing has removed, in places, layers of chalk, systematically erasing the past. Thus, remains are invariably found in features such as pits, ditches and burial mounds.

One pit artefact which is particularly interesting and exceptionally well preserved will be discussed. Found deep within the pit hints that it was purposely deposited a bit like a time capsule.

An image of Stonehenge?
In a previous article for Ancient Origins, I wrote about the Mesolithic activity in the Stonehenge environs, a possible Mesolithic wooden temple and a town. The Mesolithic postholes close to Stonehenge were excavated in the late 1960s by Lord and Lady Vatcher. Whilst enthusiastic about excavating the ritual landscape they lacked the high standard and requirements of modern day archaeological procedure. Nonetheless, during a dig in 1967 they located and cleared a deep and curious pit on the high ground east of Stonehenge called King Barrow Ridge. This was once the settlement area of the people that built the large Cursus monument - a massive earthen enclosure that coursed for 1.75 miles to the north of Stonehenge which looked like a gigantic container. The walls of the monument, long since ploughed, were some 6-8 feet high (c40000-3800 BC orthodox dating).

Within the pit lay two unusual chalk plaques and an antler pick which was used to carbon date the finds to c2900-2580 BC. The antler pick may have had nothing whatsoever to do with the chalk plagues yet it was used to date the entire locale. The area was also covered with Neolithic houses centuries before other domestic sites such as Durrington Walls. There were also distinct traces of a much earlier Mesolithic settlement (8000–4000 BC). Evidently, the area was known and occupied for millennia. It has been questioned whether or not the Vatchers’ excavated the chalk plagues from a Mesolithic midden pit. Debate continues.

Interestingly, one of the chalk plagues shows a stylised design similar to that of Stonehenge’s outer circle of linteled stones and may have been a sketch belonging to that era. However, if the artefact was from the Mesolithic period, the chalk plague was some five thousand years older than Stonehenge. Thus, was the plague a sketch of an inspired vision of that which was to come, a concept born in the so-called Dark Ages of the Mesolithic era and then ritualistically deposited into the deep pit? Understandably, one cannot place an entire plan of a monument upon one singular stylised sketch. Nonetheless, if we overlook artefacts in a dismissive manner we will loose sight of that which we are looking for, and proverbially throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Sacred water, holy spring
Close to the deep pit was a spring that may have been revered as medicinal by our Neolithic ancestors. In the ancient world, the sign for water that transcended cultural divides was the chevron pattern and even the ancient Egypt hieroglyph ΛΛ or ‘mu’ means water, as does the zodiacal sign of Aquarius (Greek Zodiac). Another plague, which was found close to the spring, consisted of chevron patterns and I surmise that is was representative of the nearby Stonehenge spring water. Filtered through the chalk and pure subsoil’s the water would have risen to the surface mineral rich. Incidentally, as a second generation water diviner I know that underground streams ‘emit’ a chevron pattern whilst coursing through rocky subsoil’s, which was first noted by the water diviner Benjamin Tompkins in 1899, and I find it intriguing that this was a prehistoric way of expressing water.

King Barrow Ridge. A row of Bronze Age mounds crown the hilltop

Years later during the Bronze Age, King Barrow Ridge was a peaceful place. Numerous mounds were constructed that crowned the hilltop and eternally gazed towards Stonehenge. Undisturbed some mounds await excavation their secrets still held tight. The deep pit and old settlements were long gone by the Bronze Age. Undoubtedly, inherited memories bestowed meaning and serenity to all that visited for they knew the meaning of this evocative landscape that time has lost. Today, the fast, intrusive and ugly A303 main road drowns out the sound of the skylarks, and memories of the past, as car after car whizzes by; and more alarmingly low flying military aircraft and flares disturb the ancestors of their slumber. Counterintuitive progress creeps ever closer in the guise of road improvements. The long debated Stonehenge tunnel may well ease the sound of traffic but the air above will still be poisoned with military noise. And even if the tunnel did get the go ahead – it has been mooted prior to every general election for nearly half a century - what would they find deep in the arteries that bypass Stonehenge? Would any unusual or spectacular archaeological find be reported to the general public, to enliven the news, Facebook or Twitter? A few years ago, a stone circle was found close to the new Stonehenge visitor’s centre which at the time should have made headline news. Around 30 metres wide and containing 22 stone (or post) holes the circle was intimately related to its parent Stonehenge. ‘Because this was a commercial operation (for clients of English Heritage), the results were confidential and the find couldn’t be revealed to the public’, reported Stonehenge archaeologist Michael Parker Pearson. Even this top expert was apparently denied the opportunity to thoroughly investigate the site and went on to say ‘without archaeological excavation it’s impossible to know when this circle was constructed. Only when it is investigated by spade and trowel will we know whether it had anything to do with Stonehenge’.

For many years now, we have known that Stonehenge has at least nine stone circles surrounding it, and I predict that there is more, probably totalling 12. Archaeological surveys in my possession some 60 years old hint that they were bluestone circles. New finds lie just beneath the surface, some of which will be shown to be over 10,000 years old and date back to the mysterious and elusive Mesolithic era, as was the case at the Blick Mead Mesolithic settlement close to Stonehenge. Let us not forget that Stonehenge was a gigantic ceremonial centre and as new information is imparted we step ever closer to the people that constructed one of the wonders of the ancient world.

About the author
Maria is an international lecturer and an accomplished author. Her latest book Divining Ancient Sites – insights into their creation explores the physical and metaphysical properties that underpin monumental sites worldwide.

Maria also leads tours of ancient sites as well as one-day workshops exploring locations such as Avebury Henge, Stonehenge and Glastonbury. In 2015, Maria will host two unique tours of the Salisbury Plain, a restricted area of MoD ownership, which houses some extraordinary monuments rarely seen or visited by the general public. For international visitors, Maria will be co-hosting an 8-day tour of some of the most spectacular ancient sites in Southern England.

Maria is also a professional tutor and runs the Avebury School of Esoteric Studies, which teaches many subjects to certificated level. The school is afflicted to the prestigious Association of British Correspondence Colleges ABCC. Maria is currently researching and writing a new book From Stonehenge to Serpent Mound and her recent discoveries unveil many new insights into European and American monumental building programme that unite distant cultures. The book explores areas of prehistory that have been thoroughly neglected and Maria will present a new, breath taking vision of the ancient world and the profound knowledge of its architects.

Ancient Sites of Stonehenge is a great introduction guide to the Stonehenge environs.