This post is all about exceptional natural phenomena, and how they can drive the ritual activities of a region over many millennia. Maybe.
Completely by chance I began watching the BBC's new series Operation Stonehenge, and it is brilliant! Seriously, I totally recommend it. Excellent archaeological coverage is one of the things Britain should be famous for across the planet. As usual, I'm gob-smacked by what modern archaeology can do. Move over ley-lines, this is neuro-imaging for the earth itself. So much of Operation Stonehenge is amazing, I don't even know where to begin. I want to watch it a dozen times.
One of the things which fascinated me most deeply came early on and is dated to the earliest period of occupation during the Mesolithic era, around 10,000 years ago. Archaeologist David Jacques speculated that an exceptional natural phenomenon observed by the earliest humans may be at the root of the area's significance.
For a start, it seems there was a natural clearing which turns into a funnel of the type used by hunters of herding animals, always and everywhere, to trap their prey en masse. In this case, the prey was the Aurochs, an extinct species of huge wild cattle. There is some evidence that people gathered from far and wide for Aurochs hunts and feasts.
So far so good. This is normal and expected hunter-gatherer stuff. The fascinating part is that near this hunting ground is a spring, and the flints from that spring, if exposed to the air for a few hours, turn a color you might call pink, magenta or even fuschia. Jacques says it wasn't a common color in the lives of prehistoric hunter gatherers, but I swear, the first thing I thought when I saw it (and I was deeply impressed, by the way), was: blood... blood and butchered flesh. Hunks of meat, organs. That's what the pink flint looks like.
It is easy, very, very easy, to speculate about what these flints may have meant to Aurochs hunters, although the phenomenon is actually caused by a rare algae in the spring water. Not far from the stream, the Mesolithic people erected three tall, totem-pole-like stones, the first ritual structure known in the area, a couple of thousand years before Stonehenge really got started.
Although this is astonishing stuff, I do have some questions for the archaeologists. First, there has been significant climate change since that period. We're talking about a time when Britain was not separated from the continent. Since then, the climate warmed, sea levels rose.Why should I believe that these algae were in situ ten thousand years ago? Okay, I guess I'll just have to believe you've done due diligence here.
Second, why should I believe the pink flints have anything much to do with Stonehenge? You say there was a big gap, during which nothing much seems to have happened. The henge monuments aren't built in relation to the stream particularly, whereas they are quite convincingly connected with solar astronomy. If the people who created Stonehenge used these 'magic stones' for any purpose, it hasn't been brought to our attention. Correlation doesn't equal causation, at least not directly. Is the implication only that a high intensity (and density?) of use in Mesolithic times prompted dense and intense usage of the site later on - while meanings, possibly, changed completely?
None of this alters the fact that the pink flints are a rare and amazing natural phenomenon and were surely interpreted in a magical way by the early people who first observed them.
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