Was Stonehenge mathematically structured?

(Originally posted at The Growlery, 2008/06/07)

Stonehenge is never really out of the news; in fact, it’s probably the archaeological site that enjoys the most media exposure. Even so, it has been in the news quite a lot lately, what with the recent report of work by Mike Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge Riverside Project, which has given us radiocarbon dates from burials excavated in the 1920s, suggesting that the site was used for burials from around 3000 BCE, several centuries earlier than previously thought and really quite early in the British Neolithic.

I must insist, however, that Parker Pearson’s theory that Stonehenge stood in contrast to the much larger timber circle at Durrington Walls, is plausible at best but completely unproven. Based on an ethnographic analogy resulting from some earlier fieldwork he did in Madagascar, Parker Pearson has sought to revive structuralist archaeology with his contention that the two British sites were conceptually binary opposites, the stone of Stonehenge representing permanence and ancestry, with wood representing transience and impermanence. Okay, so far so good (though still ‘not proven’). However, he goes on to assert that stone is not only ancestral but also male, while wood is (quoting PP himself) “soft and squishy, like women and babies.” (1) At which point my inclination is to get out a Walloping Cod and suggest that he keep his structuralism to himself until he has archaeological evidence for all this.

But lost amidst all this highly-funded work is a new book by Anthony Johnson, Solving Stonehenge: The Key to an Ancient Enigma (Thames and Hudson, 2008), offering clues to the mathematical abilities of the builders of the monument. I haven’t read the book (which isn’t published for another week) , but an article in the Independent suggests that the geometrical knowledge of the builders was more considerable than previously believed (by some). I hadn’t heard of Johnson before (despite having a very strong research interest in the prehistory of mathematical thought, and a secondary interest in the archaeology of megaliths). He appears to be a doctoral candidate at Oxford working on geophysical techniques in archaeological survey, but has not published before on Neolithic mathematics. One does need to be cautious when dealing with topics in ancient science, which are particularly prone to attracting the attention of pseudoarchaeologists, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.

How, then, do we evaluate what an ancient monument can tell us about the mathematical abilities of its creators? The most important finding that Johnson is suggesting, from my perspective, is that other than the well-known solar alignments of the monument, no significant astronomical knowledge was employed in the orientation of the site. Rather, it was in geometry, and the creation of complex polygons using ‘rope-and-peg’ technology (making arcs and lines on the landscape using physical means), that the Stonehenge builders excelled, creating, over 1000+ years of the site’s history, a palimpsest of complex polygons among the various features of the site. By ‘experimental archaeology’ I take it that Johnson used this technique himself to show that using modest technology and a modicum of geometrical knowledge about the relationship between circles and squares, the monument’s shapes could have been constructed precisely. This is fascinating stuff, and gets us away from Alexander Thom’s ‘megalithic yard’ and Gerald Hawkins’ ‘Neolithic computer’ theories, both of which start from the assumption that astronomy was the function of the site.

My only major issue (prior to reading the book, which I’ll have to do over the next few months) is Johnson’s claim that “It shows the builders of Stonehenge had a sophisticated yet empirically derived knowledge of Pythagorean geometry 2000 years before Pythagoras”, mostly because Pythagoras was essentially a fiction about whose work we know almost nothing, and because it suggests inappropriately to the untutored reader that in fact the Stonehenge builders had proven the Pythagorean theorem, which is not what is being claimed. It’s not quite the same kind of error as asserting that sunflowers ‘know’ the Fibonacci sequence because their florets are arranged in such a pattern (okay … no one actually claims that, as far as I know). The point is, though, that there is always a danger in inferring specific mathematical knowledge from the outcomes of processes such as the rope-and-peg technique. Similarly, while it is plausible that “this knowledge was regarded as a form of arcane wisdom or magic that conferred a privileged status on the elite who possessed it”, we don’t actually know who exactly controlled this knowledge (and how), whether in fact the engineers/surveyors/artisans involved were part of the (as-yet incipient) social elite at the site, whether that status changed at all over a millennium or more (almost certainly!), and whether in fact geometrical knowledge was perceived as ‘magic’ in any sense.

In my ‘Prehistory of Language and Mind’ seminar, I emphasize the real dangers in attempting to hermeneutically insert oneself into the minds of prehistoric individuals based on their material culture, a caution that is worth repeating here. This is particularly true in the case of megaliths, which archaeologists approach too often on the basis of intuition, faulty ethnographic analogies (I’m looking at you, Parker Pearson…) and wishful but unsupported thinking, as Jess Beck and I show in a forthcoming publication (2). All of which is fine when one is speculating idly, or creating one’s own personalized or intuitive understanding of the past, but is pretty shoddy evidence-based scholarship. Accordingly, I’d insist that even Johnson’s work (to which I am initially positively disposed, and whose use of experimental archaeology is a definite advantage here) needs to be treated with the utmost caution, due to the exceedingly high risk of erroneous interpretations of ancient scientific abilities.

(1) Caroline Alexander. 2008. If the stones could speak. National Geographic, June 2008, p. 50.
(2) Jess Beck and Stephen Chrisomalis. Landscape archaeology, paganism, and the interpretation of megaliths. Forthcoming in The Pomegranate.

ETA: Anthony Johnson himself has now commented on the post, noting that the quotation from the news article about Pythagoras does not actually reflect his words. The blog for his book can be found at Sarsen56.

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