The Heel at Stonehenge

Fig 1. Dawn at Stonehenge's Heel Stone. Photo: Fernando Pimenta

Stonehenge and Avebury

By Dr Lionel Sims

It was Thursday morning at 4am and up and out to get to the assembly point for our coach trip to Stonehenge. We had managed to book a group special access visit for one hour into the stones from 6.45 to 7.45am, and much to the coach driver Bob's chagrin that meant a one hour drive from the SEAC conference hall's Queen's Square from 5.30. It was still twilight on a beautiful September morning, the roads were clear and we were bang on time to get the English Heritage bus from the new visitor centre to the stones.

All the security staff at Stonehenge are ex-squaddies and we were politely but firmly briefed before leaving the bus on what we were allowed to do. That summed up to nothing except take photos and have a nice time, but no eating, drinking, touching or climbing the stone etc etc.. Off the bus and into the stones and all 29 of us fanned out to immerse ourselves in the experience of the privilege of having Stonehenge to ourselves for sixty minutes. The Sun had just risen as we arrived and the damp of autumn hung as thick mist below us in Stonehenge Bottom to the north-east, which gave the impression either that we were above the clouds or that they covered the underworld. Everyone was quiet as the ambience of this monument seeped into us and we all became engrossed in taking as many photos as possible.

The Heel at Stonehenge

Fig 2. The rising sun at Stonehenge 15th September 2016. Photo: George Zotti

After twenty minutes I offered to give a guided tour to any that wanted one, and most joined us. We started at the back of the monument, at stone 16 hidden from the front with a surface rendered as oak bark. Then widdershins round to the half-height, half-width, half-depth stone 11. Instead of Atkinson's suggestions that it was shaped this way by lightning strikes, or that they had run out of full size stones, or that they miscalculated the spacing of all other stones and were only able to fit such a stone in the remaining space, I suggested we need to take seriously Mike Pitts' suggestion that an oak lintel spanned the space between stones 10 and 12.

In short Mike Parker Pearson's materiality model could not account for Stonehenge not being a monument of stone, but a monument of stone with a cryptic reference to wood. And finally round to the entrance between stones 1 and 30, with the axial alignment through the Grand Trilithon from the right side of the Heel Stone through a lower window to winter solstice sunsets and from the left side of the Heel Stone through an upper window to the southern minor standstill moonsets.


Fig 3. Stone 11 in the outer sarsen circle at Stonehenge. Photo: Claude Maumene

When both Sun and Moon are in those windows, consistent with the binary architecture of the monument, it is the start of the longest darkest night. Connected by the Avenue and River Avon with the wooden Durrington Walls, there its stone heel stone and its axial alignments on summer solstice sunset and the northern major standstill moonsets suggest a priestly-prescribed alternation with another dark Moon ritual in a constant nine-yearly alternation 'between pillar and post'. All this in keeping with a cosmology driven to stave off time collapsing by solarising the Moon, just as Levi-Strauss found as a central theme in Amerindian myths. All of this was food for thought by our group, not that English Heritage had deigned to open the cafeteria, so instead of waiting 1.5 hours for a coffee and croissant we decided it would be quicker to drive back to Bath and get our chosen breakfast there.

Then on to the one-day tour of the Avebury monuments on the Saturday the day after the conference. After a 9 am departure on a cool and cloudy day we arrive in Avebury, 20 miles north of Stonehenge. Here I was concerned that our five mile walk over open ground might be too much of a challenge for some of our party, but the day went well for all. To shorten the walk the coach stopped for 15 minutes at Silbury Hill before taking us on to our starting point in East Kennet village. That way we could weigh the central paradox of the remaining Avebury monuments that they systematically avoid Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric earth mound in the world.

To evaluate this strange design feature which refutes central place theory, the plan for the day was to walk the two avenues which prescribe the route through the Avebury stone circle and henge by avoiding Silbury Hill. But walk it as who? Since the past is another culture, we needed an anthropological imagination to prepare ourselves for the walk. So before we set off, standing under the trees on the bridge over the beautiful and now dry River Kennet, we did a group simulation of being Palaeolithic big game hunters and then Neolithic cattle herders. Since the late Neolithic monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury were built by cattle herders who continued to hunt and forage, then their culture was precariously poised between two ultimately incompatible systems. At the core of this instability, according to the standard anthropology models of bride service versus bride-price, are gender dynamics. In anthropology we are used to stretching cultural concepts to the utmost by comparing modern common sense notions with those of hunter-gatherers, and this certainly happened during our simulation. One member of the group later suggested that in another age I would have been burned at the stake for facilitating the simulation, but the general hilarity enjoyed by all got the day off to a challenging start.


Fig 4. The Avebury Tour. At the Swindon Stone 45. Photo Steve Gullberg

So forewarned we set off to the Sanctuary, the West Kennet Avenue, the Avebury circle and henge, Beckhampton Avenue and the Adam and Eve stones. Along the way, to witness the syncretic overlay of Christianity's battle with the pagan Beckhampton Avenue, we went into Avebury church to see the carved image of the Bishop with his staff killing the double-headed serpent. Once we had completed the walk we had seen that for 80% of the prescribed route Silbury Hill could not be seen. However the interrupted views of its chalk white summit terrace could be seen from the Sanctuary, Avebury Circle and Beckhampton Avenue.

Together with many other details we had encountered during the tour, and from the alignments of these views, the combined properties could be interpreted as crescent Moon before, during and after dark Moon. Indeed, since we could see Silbury Hill in line with and below the background horizon this artfully constructed it as the Moon when it had set and was therefore in the underworld. By our active agency of us seeing it in the underworld, then participants could only conclude that they also were in the underworld.

To end our phenomenological foray into the Neolithic we had time to have a pint in the Wagon and Horses pub next to the Beckhampton roundabout - great end to a great day with new and old SEAC friends.

Lionel Sims

Browse previous issues here

SP News, editor Pam Armstrong SP News

The SPNews welcomes articles, features, reviews, ideas, art work and photography.

The Ed's email is always open.
Pam Armstrong
Newsletter Ed'.

Copyright © 2016. All Rights Reserved.