Stones of Power? Megaliths and Politics.

War Memorial at Saltburn, N Yorks
War Memorial at Saltburn, N Yorks

Hot off the press is the latest blog from  one our favourite archaeologists – The Urban Prehistorian (Miliband’s Megalith) in which the role of megaliths (trans. big stones) in a modern context is explored You may be surprised to learn that #Ed’sStone is just the latest in a long line of big stones used by politicians. Some of you may be asking is this relevant to, say, teaching prehistory at KS2?

All of us recognize monuments don’t we? They are usually big. They say something. We know this because many of them have writing on them. Well, modern ones do, and by modern I mean anything post Iron Age here in Britain. Take this War Memorial for example. We know who it is dedicated to and for what reason – it is written there for us to read; but we also read image and shape. Less obvious then are the images of angels which links this to religion and ‘our’ understanding of Christianity and Christian values. The very shape of the monument also reflects this ‘tradition’. As adults we ‘see’ and ‘read’ these things without thinking. Children, on the other hand, are taught to ‘read’ monuments as they grow and become acquainted with the culture they find themselves immersed in. These monuments become familiar, common-place objects as we move around our town and cities.

What is a monument? Well, it has been defined as a building or other structure to commemorate a person/people or event; a statue or other structure placed over a grave in memory of the dead; a building or structure that is of historical importance or interest and as an enduring or memorable example of something. So the war memorial shown here meets at least one of those definitions. Clearly, monuments are built to last, to carry their message to future generations about someone or something in the past – and how often is the medium used to carry that message stone? How many war memorials, buildings are made of stone?

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Memorial stone – commemorating the arrival of the year 2000 AD, Flagg, Derbyshire.

Today we create memorials for many reasons – military campaigns/wars, famous people, popular events or on a smaller scale, gravestones for a loved one. The memorial shown on the left here is a simple block of limestone which was curated by the villagers of Flagg in Derbyshire to mark the passing of the millennium. Again, we know this because there is a written record. What are we to make of ‘monuments’ when there is no written record? When it comes to prehistory what do the monuments of past peoples tell us?

 

The Heel Stone - part of the Stonehenge complex
Stone 16 – part of the Stonehenge complex

Our first example here may not be immediately recognizable from this angle, but it Stone 16, to give it it’s official title, which is part of Stonehenge. Now although we cannot be sure of the exact purpose or what happened at Stonehenge, almost everyone would agree it is a monument and was an important place in the past. How do we know? Well the site itself was used for thousands of years, before, during and after Stonehenge was used. The archaeology of the site and its surroundings tell us of burials, of re-shaping the site and features and it is the only example of this type of structure in the world. It also speaks of power; not only power over but power to – to motivate and organize people, the power to impress and the power to structure people’s ideas and emotions.

Now let’s take another example; today it is called Hill O’ Many Stanes and is in Caithness in the north of Scotland. The ‘official’ guide begins “A strange sight to behold” (Historic Scotland). There are some 200 standing stones, none above waist height, spreading out in neat rows across a hillside. We, as archaeologists, and you as members of our 21st century culture, categorize them as ‘ a single monument’. However, each individual stone may be a monument and the collective may mean something else.

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The Hill O’ Many Stanes, nr Wick in Caithness.

What does the Hill O’ Many Stanes tell us of late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age some 4,000 years ago? How did people living then understand the site? Perhaps the answer lies in the linear character of the stones? Or does it lie in the shape and size of them? Almost all the stone circles in the Peak District are composed of stones under 1 metre high – a coincidence?

If you would like more on Stonehenge there are of course many websites that feature it, but one we like is Simon Banton’s Stones of Stonehenge which has many images of all the stones. Take a look, we think you’ll like it. Let us know what you think!

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