Stonehenge and Timber Circles, by ALEX GIBSON
Adorned with a colourful new cover, this is a revised edition of Alex Gibson’s 1998 volume of the same title. Here, Gibson provides a very readable and accessible account of the Neolithic and Bronze Age timber circles of Britain and Europe that will appeal to a popular as well as an academic audience. This is an up-to date synthesis, as seen by the mention of very recent excavations at Boscombe Down and Durrington Walls, and reference to the re-dating of Croft Moraig, now placed firmly in the middle to late Bronze Age in a paper in the latest issue of the Society’s Proceedings (Bradley & Sheridan 2005). Gibson is well qualified to write on this topic, having excavated two timber circles in Powys, at Sarn-y-bryn-caled and Pont-ar-daf, and dedicated much of his recent work to investigating aspects of late Neolithic and early Bronze Age monumentality.
The book is divided into six chapters, and there is much detail here. The first chapter is an exercise in scene setting, providing a brief synopsis of the Neolithic and early Bronze Age in Britain – the ‘time of timber circles’. Chapter 2 explores the context of timber circles: their relationship to henges, cursus monuments and palisaded enclosures. Gibson stresses their diversity in format (single and multiple rings, free-standing and enclosed, and so forth) location, associations and date. A very convincing argument is presented for the primacy of timber circles over their encircling henge enclosures at North Mains, Milfield North, Arminghall, Woodhenge and elsewhere.
Via the evidence from radiocarbon dating, ceramic associations and structural sequences, the chronology of timber circles is explored in the following chapter. Illustrating the continuing need for better chronologies, it is somewhat sobering that only 34 reliable and 24 indirect or unreliable radiocarbon dates for timber circles are listed, and of the former several have large ranges. The author sees sequence in the available repertoire of dated sites, beginning with small diameter and unelaborated circles just before 3000BC, moving to large complex and multiple circles (eg Woodhenge, the Sanctuary, Durrington Southern Circle) around 2500BC – a ‘climax’ – then smaller and simpler sites, sometimes associated with burials, during the 2nd millennium BC (eg Hungerford). The evidence presented is convincing. There are of course exceptions to this scheme, as Gibson points out. In particular, the Irish Iron Age multiple circles of Navan and Knockaulin stand out on the grounds of their extremely late date and structural complexity. The striking similarity in plan and format between Navan and later Neolithic multiple circles leads Gibson to speculate that the Irish Iron Age circles could represent a reinvention of tradition, kept alive by mythology and story telling.
Chapter 4 on timber circles in Europe sits perhaps uneasily within the volume, because of the discordant nature of the material. Much is made of the Rondell sites of central Europe, such as the recently explored enclosures at Goseck and Immendorf with their claimed solar and celestial alignments. While this is a useful review and presentation of this material to an English-speaking audience, these enclosures – which the late Andrew Sherratt suggested were ‘ersatz tells’ – are considerably different in format, genesis and date (mostly early 5th millennium BC) to the timber circles of Britain and Ireland. To be fair, the author acknowledges this. The best parallels for British circles, as Gibson points out, are a few contemporary structures in the Netherlands, north Germany and now southern Scandinavia. The ‘insularity’ of aspects of the British late Neolithic and early Bronze Age is perhaps worth stressing.
Chapter 5 presents the diverse evidence for the functions of timber circles. Much ground is covered, with all the familiar interpretive themes of recent years being touched upon: claimed and demonstrated solar, lunar and cardinal orientations; contexts for feasting and structured deposition; complex architectures which structured procession, exclusion, control of access and the playing out of power relations. Claims that these structures served as mortuary houses are summarily dismissed, and the author observes that where burials do occur they are usually secondary. In keeping with the varied architectural repertoire, date, associations and material practices of these constructions, a diversity of roles and functions is postulated.
The book ends with a consideration of the reconstruction of timber circles, finally leading to the most anomalous of all such monuments, Stonehenge. This is effectively an historical survey of timber circle research, from Squadron Leader Insall’s discovery of Woodhenge in 1925 onwards, reviewing the way in which the structural format of these monuments has been interpreted – essentially a dialogue between prehistorians, excavated evidence and changing interpretive fashions. The long running debates over roofed versus free-standing or lintelled post arrangements are covered, the roof finally coming off when Gibson brings in his own experience of reconstructing the Sarn-y-bryn-caled circle (lintelled, of course).
The title of the book might strike many as odd, in that Stonehenge – or at least that of the sarsen and bluestone settings of phase 3 that adorn the cover and constitute most people’s image of the monument – is not a timber circle. Furthermore, discussion of Stonehenge takes up less than ten percent of the book (though to the cynic, the inclusion of that magic name on the cover must help sales!). But there is logic here. Stonehenge has its timber settings, in the form of some at least of the Aubrey Holes and the phase 2 posts (though not necessarily arranged in circles), while the sarsen and earlier bluestone trilithons of phase 3 copy timber constructions. The point is well made that Stonehenge is not a stone circle, but a multiple timber circle in stone. The dressed stones and employment of mortice and tenon joints show this famous monument to be part of a ‘well-founded and established tradition’ of timber circle construction.
It is therefore curious and rather amiss that no reference is made to Mike Parker Pearson and Ramilisonina’s 1998 Antiquity paper ‘Stonehenge for the ancestors’. In this, it is argued that an intimate metaphorical link existed in the later Neolithic between wood (a living and transitory material) and the living, and stone (a resilient and ‘timeless’ substance) and the ancestral dead. Timber circles become monuments for the living and stone circles monuments for the ancestors. Whether one agrees wholly with this scheme or not, it does provide a compelling explanation for the use of timber and stone in contemporary and structurally similar monuments, and for the ‘lithicisation’ of timber circles. Gibson instead perceives the change from timber to stone as marking ‘a fundamental change in the religious practices of the population’ (p.57). Contrasting the often closed, ‘exclusive’ and spatially complex architecture of timber circles with the open format of those in stone, he is at pains to stress that timber circles are not proto-types for stone circles, except, of course, at Stonehenge. But what if stone circles are commemorative or explicitly ancestral constructions, and both these and timber circles are linked by a unifying materiality?
So how does this new edition differ from the first? In many respects, the changes are not great, comprising for the most part a revision and updating of the text, and the inclusion of a few extra illustrations. The bibliography is, however, substantially expanded; and certain new discoveries have been added to the very useful gazetteer, including the simple ring on Boscombe Down, near Salisbury (excavated in 2005), and the remarkable Holme-next-the-Sea circle/palisade with inverted tree stump (‘Seahenge’). The latter is an important discovery since the first edition, though perhaps unjustly dismissed here as an eroded round barrow. The existence of such of monument could hardly have been anticipated, and one wonders what other surprises will appear before the next edition of this book.
Review Submitted: April 2006
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