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20 November 2006
Stonehenge 'No Place for the Dead'

A leading expert on Stonehenge based at Bournemouth University has breathed new life into the controversy surrounding the origins of Stonehenge. In his new book Stonehenge: The Biography of a Landscape (Tempus Publishing) Professor Tim Darvill, Head of the University’s Archaeology Group, suggests that the ancient monument was a source and centre for healing and not a place for the dead as believed by many previous scholars. Professor Darvill also makes a case for revellers who travel to be near the ancient monument for the summer solstice in June to reconsider. Instead, he believes that those seeking to tap into the monument's powers at its most potent time of the year should do so in December during the winter solstice when our ancestors believed that the henge was 'occupied' by a prehistoric god - the equivalent of the Roman and Greek god of healing, Apollo – who 'chose' to reside in winter with the Hyborians, long believed to be the ancient Britons.
     The basis for Professor Darvill’s findings lies in the Preseli Mountains in west Wales where he and colleague Professor Geoffrey Wainwright have located an exact origin for the bluestones used in the construction of Stonehenge some 250 km away. "The questions most people ask when they consider Stonehenge is 'why was it built?' and 'how was it was used?'" says Professor Darvill. "Our work has taken us to the Preseli Mountains to provide a robust context for the source of the bluestones and to explore various ideas about why those mountains were so special to prehistoric people."
     "We have several strands of evidence to consider. First, there is folklore in the form of accounts written in the 14th century which refer to a magician bringing the stones from the west of the British Isles to what we know as Salisbury Plain. It was believed these particular stones had many healing properties because in Preseli there are many sacred springs considered to have health-giving qualities. The water comes out of the rocks used to build Stonehenge and it's well established that as recently as the late 18th century, people went to Stonehenge to break off bits of rock as talismans. Also, around the Stonehenge landscape there are many burials, some of which have been excavated and amongst these there are a good proportion of people who show signs of being unwell. Some would have walked with a limp or had broken bones - just the sort of thing that in modern times pressurises people to seek help from the Almighty."
     Dr Raimund Karl of the University of Wales, Bangor, questioned whether finding the remains of sick people in and around Stonehenge proves it was intended to be a place of healing. "It's a possibility that it was a place of healing, but whether there was a predominance of sick people buried there I'm not so convinced. Many prehistoric burial grounds everywhere show various signs of illness because people in prehistoric times didn't have a modern health service and many of them had lots of illnesses."
     Prof Darvill suggested the deity worshipped at Stonehenge would have been a pre-historic equivalent of the Greek and Roman god of healing, Apollo. He added, "Although his [Apollo's] main sanctuary was at Delphi in Greece, it is widely believed that he left Greece in the winter months to reside in the land of the Hyborians - usually taken to be Britain. Altogether, and with the incorporation of the stones from Wales, Stonehenge is a very powerful and positive place of pilgrimage, although whether the monument's healing power actually worked is a matter for further discussion."
     Professor Timothy Darvill and Professor Geoffrey Wainwright, formerly Head of Archaeology at English Heritage, will expound their theories further during an open lecture at Bournemouth University on Thursday 30 November at 5.30pm when the subject will be Beyond Stonehenge: Carn Menini and the Preseli Bluestones. Admission to the lecture is free. All are welcome.  Pre-booking is recommended by emailing bulectures@bournemouth.ac.uk or by telephoning (01202) 9610933.
     
Sources: Bournemouth University Press Release (November 2006), AlpgaGalileo (16 November 2006), icWales (17 November 2006)

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