Megan Fox explores Stonehenge. The show opens. ‘It definitely feels sacred’, she says. Darvill says ‘they were healing stones’. An ancient power is at work, and Fox wants to find the truth.
For some, this is unbridled pseudoarchaeology, with academic work serving as a means to fringe ends. The pitch is left ambiguous as to whether the stones actually heal, and that’s worrying. That’s David S. Anderson’s take on the show as a whole, and he states categorically in his Washington Post article that among the more ‘dubious claims’ of the show is that: “ancient stones may hold healing properties”. Later in the same piece, Anderson rightly questions the odd experiment Fox performs in episode 2. However, in these prominent public statements, he is dismissing a lot of interesting academic research regarding Stonehenge, its landscape, and its funerary archaeology. I’d like to take a less puritanical approach to episode 2.
Summing up Episode 1
First, some background. I’ve made a case that while Fox waffles about magic and mystery, and wastes a portion of the show going on a ‘Viking visionquest’ to no avail, the rest of the first episode’s core ideas and arguments about ‘Viking Women Warriors’, sustained by a raft of experts, effectively showcase mainstream and current academic research topics. While the episode had its share of hyperbole and misleading points, I regarded it as a success for the public profile of Viking-period research and especially it brought a series of key sites, artefacts and younger scholars, including their fresh ideas and research, to a wide audience.
Then, looking at four reviews of the first episode, I argued they shared in fundamental lapses in understanding Viking-period academic research, a series of assertions based on spurious and uncritically mobilised historical sources, and an undue focus on personal criticisms of Fox’s education and agenda. I suggested instead that while the episode elides conventional academic research with fringe ideas, it needn’t be dismissed as pseudoarchaeology to its core. If the argument for Viking warrior-women is problematic, this relates to the academic research, not to Fox’s documentary!
Stonehenge: Healing Stones?
But what of the second episode? Is Stonehenge treated like an alternative archaeological mystery by Fox and her team, or is there a core academic story here too? This brief review would suggest that the treatment of Stonehenge is rambling, and a minor chunk is wasted on fringe theories and Fox’s verbal diarrhea about magical powers. Still, there are some good academic sections here worthy of our attention amounting to over 33 of the 41 minutes of the episode. These sit awkwardly with the fringe elements, but actually, again, the core argument of the show is based on this academic research, primarily the writings of Professor Tim Darvill of Bournemouth University and outlined in some of his publications.
Fox visits Stonehenge and meets an archaeological ‘wizard’
So Fox travels ‘over 5,000 miles deep into the British countryside’ and sees the ‘greatest unsolved puzzle of the ancient world: Stonehenge’. Not ‘Stonehenge’ as in the British way of saying it – ‘Stone-henge’. No, like the US version; like Rabbinhood: ‘Stonehenge’. The Spinal Tap way.
So she meets up with Mark Conroy, a travel guide. It’s not clear why. Fox explains that the stones were shaped by hand and places with laser-like precision. Stonehenge, we’re told possesses ‘logic-defying construction and science-baffling sophistication.
‘It can even predict eclipses’??? I’m no archaeoastronomer but that sounds hyper-dodgy to me!
She goes inside the stones and is humbled by their size and antiquity. I’m glad the jackdaws make an appearance.
We then meet Si Cleggett – ‘archaeologist and leather jacket-wearing wizard who is worthy of his own Tolkien novel’. She jokes that Si looks like he has visited Middle Earth at least once, or twice (this is done in a fond way, not disparaging).
A very basic sketch of the monument’s history is attempted, but perhaps the details are misplaced? I thought archaeologists regarded the bluestones were on site before the sarsens, if later rearranged?
Still, one gets a crude sense of the monument, and Si Cleggett explains the complex ‘cultural imprint’ over 1,500 years – up to 50 generations. This is such an important point and I’m glad this was articulated. Despite the humorous and ludicrous language and inaccuracies of Fox, this section is all generally good thanks to Cleggett.
Things get better still when Si takes Fox to visit the offices of Wessex Archaeology – one of the biggest commercial archaeology companies in the UK. Fox and Cleggett joke about the many crazy ideas out there about Stonehenge which is a useful bit of context. However, and more seriously, Cleggett makes key points about how Stonehenge is only 1% of the story – ‘one piece of a massive puzzle’: the broader landscape of many different types of monument including the Stonehenge Cursus. In a short documentary, they do their best to articulate the complexity of the environment around Stonehenge and Avebury. Durrington Walls is briefly discussed by Cleggett as a ‘community barbeque on a grand scale’ which is what I understand from what I’ve read before. Importantly, this was both a monumental complex in an occupied landscape, as well a landscape well-visited by people coming from afar and gathering for ceremonies. The funerary dimensions of the landscape – for ceremonies for the living, and the honouring of ancestors, and burying the dead. These ideas are well established in the academic literature, including the work of Mike Parker Pearson.
Wonderfully, Cleggett explains that being an archaeologist is about getting in touch with past people, and getting one’s own time machine by exploring artefacts and human remains. This is fabulous way of articulating the power of archaeology to a popular audience. Well done Si!
So, what’s not to love about this episode so far?
McKinley and tears
The best is yet to come. Because we then get to the fabulous burial archaeology. Si introduces Fox to the human remains of 3 children found buried in a circular pit together close to Stonehenge (we aren’t told exactly where) – as if they were hugging each other in death. They were found 2 miles from Stonehenge, and this is the first time that a TV programme has shown these particular remains.
We then meet the totally awesome Jackie McKinley who explains the childrens’ bones date to the Early Bronze Age. The most wonderful bit of almost any TV show featuring human remains takes place. Having met Jackie on numerous occasions, I can confirm she possesses a no-nonsense but informal demeanour; she is both a genuine expert but also brimming with humanity and kindness. The way she talks about the human remains is articulate and emotive. Yet it isn’t the bones themselves in front of Fox, but when she is shown by McKinley the contextual information of their relationship in a circular pit, that things overwhelm Fox. McKinley brings up a 3D photogrammetric model on a computer screen for Fox to view, showing the grave. The intimate association of the three children powerfully present themselves. McKinley explains how their heads were tucked up and nestled together. Fox is brought to tears, asking Jackie to stop. McKinley, not trying to be sentimental, but to explain her point, goes on: ‘it’s almost as if you’ve put them to bed’. The sweetness and sadness of this is upsetting to Fox, as a mother of three children. McKinley explains that these people probably had powerful afterlife beliefs and the grave ‘was not the end’.
So this section of the programme gives us not only a fabulous showcase for Wessex Archaeology’s fieldworkers and lab-based experts, but affords a distinctive and rare moment on a TV documentary where genuine emotions are expressed regarding a mortuary deposit from the prehistoric past. Fox is clearly not pretending to be a hardened CSI: she may have never been around ancient or modern human remains before. Growing up in the US, its doubtful she will have encountered human bodies in museums regularly. Therefore, her reaction reveals the powerful emotions human remains can elicit when their contexts of discovery are visualised, as much as their tangible presence. Fox argues that the bones are ‘like a mirror’ (in an emotional sense, I presume), and she feels what their parents must have felt, and specifically the parental desire to heal them at all costs. The bones are thus both affective, and bring home the potential of healing as a common desire for ancient people who fell sick.
Bones at the museum
American audiences are then introduced to the positive fact that many UK museums still curate and display their human remains in staged reconstructions of the mortuary contexts in which they are found. In so doing, these remains facilitate ongoing research can be conducted and they can serve a range of educational purposes to local people, students, researchers and visitors. Also, as with the bones in the lab, this section reveals the close-quarters engagement with human mortality and with past life and death that these remains afford that is lost for museum visitors in North America. This is because Fox now is introduced to the famous 2002 discovery of a Beaker grave from close to Stonehenge known popularly as the ‘Amesbury Archer’ on display in the Salisbury Museum. Fox visits with McKinley and Conroy, and it is important to remember that this is another discovery of Wessex Archaeology: one of the company’s most famous! Some of the artefacts are explained.
The C14 dating is outlined: apparently ‘advanced DNA testing’ dated the grave…. Ooops! This blooper aside, the context of the grave is properly explained and the long journey from the Alpine region of birth might have been inspired by the sacred landscape and its potential healing powers. His excruciating pain and the speculation that he travelled ‘to Stonehenge’ are linked together to the possibility of the landscape being a pilgrimage place or ‘hospital’. This is an argument put forward by Professor Tim Darvill (see below).
They discuss another skull where there seems to be an attempt at surgical intervention, and revealing a more sophisticated society than at least Fox anticipated. Through the child multiple burial, and these museum exhibits, aspects of the life and death of prehistoric people are explored for a mass TV audience that might rarely encounter such remains.
Fox then outlines this as evidence that Stonehenge served as a place of healing for pilgrims. She regards this as a ‘functional’ explanation, posing the question of whether the stones were an advanced medical room for surgery. Ok, that’s bananas, but she’s just asking dumb questions to lead to a better way to look at it: was there something ‘healing’ perceived in the stones of the monument?
So far, while the story doesn’t quite hold together, the individual elements are plausible and explained by experts. They then visit the Preseli Mountains in West Wales: the source of Stonehenge’s bluestones. Professor Tim Darvill outlines the theory that is pivotal for the entire programme and clearly inspired it. Darvill introduces the landscape as the ‘magic mountain’, clearly getting into the spirit of public engagement. He explains that the stones might have been thought to ‘have the potential to heal people’ and that’s why the stones at Stonehenge were important. He explains that they found the quarries where the Stonehenge bluestones were likely extracted and the quarries were dated. The material qualities of spotted dolerite are explained. They find a stone that ‘could have been standing at Stonehenge’ had it not broken. A brilliant phrase is uttered by Darvill: ‘you can almost hear the swearing that came out of that stone when it broke’. Fabulous stuff!
But Fox asks: why are the stones special? Darvill explains the 12th-century account of Geoffrey of Monmouth who Fox explains ‘blurred the lines between history and myth’. Geoffrey describes how the Stonehenge stones were ‘healing stones’. The bluestone outcrops are associated with springs in the Preseli Mountains which may have been used at some undisclosed point in the past to immerse bluestone fragments to extract their healing properties. Fox then honestly states that there is no firm evidence to back up this theory of healing stones, although myths may derive from some ancient knowledge: a ‘kernel of truth’.
The discussion then moves onto the other qualities that might have made the spotted dolerite special. Darvill explains their acoustic qualities, including examples of ‘ringing’ stones. Darvill identifies the importance of sound in megalithic architecture and natural outcrops of stones. Maltese tombs are then evoked by Fox, but there is plenty of evidence from archaeoacoustic research from the UK that megalithic architectures – passage graves and stone circles, might have induced altered states of consciousness through drumming, chanting or perhaps other techniques. Hence, the final key academic point, articulated by Fox and not adequately supported by experts in the programme, but discussed for over two decades by archaeologists, is that the circular arrangement of Stonehenge may have had acoustic properties to make it a place of special sonic effects. She then explains that whatever was happening was not static, since the bluestones were arranged at least 3 times at Stonehenge.
The sections outlined above take us up to 25 minutes out of 40 minutes. We then go to a University of Bristol lab so that Fox can test if the bluestone sounds affect her brain, and we find out at the end of the show that they just might. All well and good, but not very convincing or conclusive.
Still, put this together and you have a compelling, rich, and visually powerful narrative about one strand of current academic research on the significance of Stonehenge as one element of a monumental landscape linked to mortuary rituals and ancestor worship, and thus gatherings and ceremonies that might have had a healing component throughout its multi-phased use. The possibility of long-distance pilgrimages taking place to this landscape, inspired by this tradition, is not outrageous, if strained in the fashion presented in the episode.
Things then go downhill. From 28:30 minutes to 36:30 minutes – 8 minutes out of 41 – we have 2 pieces of fringe archaeological fluff. These add nothing to the narrative, which is probably just as well. First up, we have leylines ‘explained’ by a Druid (which Fox poses ‘some believe’) and dowsing takes place at Avebury, which Fox tries. Including a druidical perspective on prehistoric megalithic architecture isn’t a bad thing in itself, and might have been effectively employed to discuss the meanings of sacred sites today, yet in the fashion portrayed and the specific theme of leylines identified by dowsing, needed more critical unpacking.
They then visit Graham Hancock in Bath: we’re told he is one of Fox’s ‘personal heroes’. They get him to explain his lost civilization ideas which he claims explains worldwide megalithic architecture (which Fox concedes are ‘controversial’). Hancock plays the usual ‘people are too set in their ways and they don’t understand the big picture’ (something said about my blog quite regularly). He wants to focus on the ‘giant’ of human history, not the small pimple on its head that archaeologists focus on. He’s delusional, and his giant doesn’t exist. The pimple however, is awesome and fascinating, and we are learning more about it all the time! Anyway, we can ignore these two sections, not simply because leylines and Hancock are pseudoarchaeological horse manure, but more importantly in the context of the show these sections add nothing at all to the story of the healing stones. I don’t object to their presence on principle, but they simply don’t contribute in a critical and comparative fashion to the show’s main story.
In summary, this is a bizarre programme mixing a couple of sections of pseudoarchaeology based on no reliable evidence, an odd neurological experiment on Fox’s brain, and a fascinating, speculative, but unquestionably mainstream and professional seam of academic discussions exploring the healing properties of bluestones and the ceremonial significance of the colour, texture and sonic properties of Stonehenge. For me, the mortuary archaeology – in the Wessex Archaeology lab, and in Salisbury Museum with McKinley was fabulous. Cleggett was great too, affording some powerful explanations of why archaeology is the best and only way to access prehistory (since clearly audiences might include those who imagine otherwise), and explaining some key aspects of the Stonehenge landscape as well as the monument. Darvill was superb as well, introducing with charisma the landscape and stones of the Preseli bluestone outcrops in a legitimate if provocative section. While I don’t think these sections were brought together coherently, no small part because of the time wasted on the pseudoarchaeology, the episode showcased some fascinating recent and ongoing research on Stonehenge and its landscape, promoting the work of Wessex Archaeology in particular, and followed Darvill’s healing stones hypothesis as its main focus. In all these regards, the episode had merit, while the pseudoarchaeology 8 minutes – laylines and Hancock – was needless and distracting. Still, it is the credit of the superb work of academic researchers that they can confidently rub shoulders with alternative views. It is a sign of academic and professional maturity that archaeologists felt confident going on this show, given its overt alternative agenda. As Cornelius Holtorf wrote in 2005 in World Archaeology:
Critical understanding and dialogue, not dismissive polemics, is the appropriate way to engage with the multiple pasts and alternative archaeologies in contemporary society….The true danger does not lie in the epistemological relativism inherent in my proposition but in the indefensible absolutism that is the alternative.
Most fascinating for me was a rare, perhaps unique, example of a positive, genuine and emotional interaction between a presenter and the bodies of three Early Bronze Age children mediated by a leading UK bioarchaeologist. Mortuary archaeologists usually show respect and sensitivity in discussion human remains and mortuary contexts, but rarely if ever are we shown a presenter brought to tears by the engagement. Likewise, I felt the close-quarters engagement with the Amesbury Archer and other Early Bronze Age human remains at Salisbury Museum was an important dimension of the programme. These engagements with human remains flags up the key roles of mortuary contexts in the stories we tell about the human past, but also their emotive and intellectual efficacy for our own encounters with, and reflections on, mortality in the present. In this final regard the neophyte engagement of Fox was instructive and sincere. While the pseudoarchaeological dimensions are cringeworthy, for the reasons outlined above I award episode 2 of LOTL a hengiform thumbs up!