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Photo: Barney Rowe/BBC.
Professors Alice Roberts and Mike Parker Pearson in Wales with the key to a legend about Merlin.

One should never completely dismiss a myth. There is usually a grain of historical truth buried inside. It has just gotten distorted as told and retold over centuries. I feel the same qualified trust about fantasy novels. I know they are imagined, but there is something about them I believe.

In today’s story we find archaeological proof of historical truth underlying an Arthurian legend about the magician Merlin.

As Dalya Alberge writes at the Irish Times, “An ancient myth about Stonehenge, first recorded 900 years ago, tells of the wizard Merlin leading men to Ireland to capture a magical stone circle called the Giants’ Dance and rebuilding it in western England as a memorial to the dead.

“Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account had been dismissed, partly because he was wrong on other historical facts, although the bluestones of the monument came from a region of Wales that was considered Irish territory in his day.

“Now a vast stone circle created by our Neolithic ancestors has been discovered in Wales with features suggesting that the 12th-century legend may not be complete fantasy. Its diameter of [120 yards] is identical to the ditch that encloses Stonehenge, and it is aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise, just like the Wiltshire monument.

“A series of buried stone holes that follow the circle’s outline has been unearthed, with shapes that can be linked to Stonehenge’s bluestone pillars. One of them bears an imprint in its base that matches the unusual cross section of a Stonehenge bluestone ‘like a key in a lock,’ the archaeologists discovered.

Mike Parker Pearson, a professor of British later prehistory at University College London, says:

‘I’ve been researching Stonehenge for 20 years now, and this really is the most exciting thing we’ve ever found.’

“The evidence backs a century-old theory that the great prehistoric monument was built in Wales and venerated for hundreds of years before being dismantled and dragged to Wiltshire, where it was resurrected as a second-hand monument.

“Geoffrey had written of ‘stones of a vast magnitude’ in his History of the Kings of Britain, which popularised the legend of King Arthur but is considered as much myth as historical fact. … The discovery will be published in Antiquity, the peer-reviewed journal of world archaeology, and explored in a documentary on BBC Two on [presented] by Prof Alice Roberts.

“A century ago the geologist Herbert Thomas established that the spotted dolerite bluestones at Stonehenge originated in the Preseli hills of Pembrokeshire [Wales] where, he suspected, they had originally formed a ‘venerated stone circle.’ The newly discovered circle – one of the largest ever constructed in Britain – is about 5km from the Preseli quarries from which the bluestones were extracted before being dragged more than 225km to Salisbury Plain some 5,000 years ago.

“In 2015 Parker Pearson’s team discovered a series of recesses in the outcrops of Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin with similar stones that the prehistoric builders extracted but left behind … quarried almost four centuries before Stonehenge was constructed.

“It convinced Parker Pearson in 2015 that ‘somewhere near the quarries there is the first Stonehenge and that what we’re seeing at Stonehenge is a second-hand monument.’ “

At the Irish Times, here, you can learn how the archaeologists managed to carbon-date the circle despite the destructive effects of acidic soil.

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Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty.
As construction for a tunnel under Stonehenge begins, archaeological surprises are turning up.

Do you ever wonder about the layers of civilization buried deep beneath your feet? John Hanson Mitchell wondered about my region’s layers back in a 1980s book, here. He got himself into a kind of trancelike state in which he believed he could sense the presence of indigenous tribes living their lives beside what is now Interstate 495.

More recently, as Steven Morris reports at the Guardian, “Bronze age graves, neolithic pottery and the vestiges of a mysterious C-shaped enclosure that might have been a prehistoric industrial area are [being] unearthed by archaeologists who have carried out preliminary work on the site of the proposed new road tunnel at Stonehenge.

“One of the most intriguing discoveries is a unique shale object that could have been part of a staff or club found in a 4,000-year-old grave. Nearby is the resting spot of a baby buried with a small, plain beaker. Ditches that flank the C-shaped enclosure contain burnt flint, suggesting a process such as metal or leatherworking was carried out there thousands of years ago.

“Just south of the site of the Stonehenge visitor centre, archaeologists came upon neolithic grooved ware pottery possibly left there by the people who built the stone circle or visited it.

“ ‘We’ve found a lot – evidence about the people who lived in this landscape over millennia, traces of people’s everyday lives and deaths, intimate things,’ said Matt Leivers, A303 Stonehenge consultant archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology. …

“The plan to drop the A303, which passes close to the stones, into a two-mile tunnel is hugely controversial, with many experts having said that carrying out such intrusive construction work would cause disastrous harm to one of the world’s most precious ancient landscapes and lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of artefacts. A legal challenge was launched against the £1.7bn plan late last year.

“Highways England and Wessex Archaeology, which is leading the exploration of the tunnel corridor, said they were working on the project systematically and sensitively. …

“Close to the western end, two burials of Beaker people, who arrived in Britain in about 2,500BC, were found. One was an adult, buried in a crouched position with a pot or beaker. Also in the grave was a copper awl or fragment of a pin or needle and a small shale cylindrical object, of a type that is not believed to have been found before.

“ ‘It is an oddity,’ said Leivers. More detailed work will be carried out to find out what it is, but one theory is that it could be the tip of a ceremonial wooden staff or mace. Also found in the same area was a pit dating to the age of the Beaker people containing the tiny ear bones of a child and a very simple pot – a sign that this too was a grave. Usually Beaker pots are ornate but this one is plain, probably to reflect the age of the person who died.

“A little farther south, the C-shaped enclosure was found. ‘It is a strange pattern of ditches,’ said Leivers. ‘It’s difficult to say what it was, but we know how old it is because we found a near-complete bronze age pot in one of the ditches.’ …

“Another find was a group of objects dating to the late neolithic period – when the stone circle was built – including grooved ware pottery, a flint and red deer antlers. …

“Highways England said the amount of survey work that had been carried out was unprecedented because of the significance of the site. David Bullock, A303 project manager for Highways England, said: ‘There has been a huge amount of investigations so that this route can be threaded through so as to disturb as little as possible.’ ”

What mysteries will your everyday items pose for archaeologists of the future? What will more advanced people with no need for mouth guards or braces, say, make of gizmos like that?

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Acoustics Research Centre /University of Salford, Manchester.
Acoustical engineer Trevor Cox works with a scale model of Stonehenge in a sound chamber.

One day last week, I was writing a letter to Brandeis admissions to help Shagufa get a bit more support for grad school, and I used a thumbnail description of this blog to explain how I met her. I said it was tied to my daughter’s jewelry company, which I always say, but then I added something I’d just thought of: “my goal is to share inspiring stories.”

Is that right, Dear Reader? These stories are not always inspiring, but I didn’t think the university would care that they were merely topics some stranger calling herself Suzanne’s Mom finds interesting. I’d be grateful for your own thumbnail description of SuzannesMomsBlog.

Today’s story is in the interesting department. (I wonder if everything interesting is by its nature also inspiring.)

Sarah Cascone writes at Artnet, “We may never fully solve all the mysteries of Stonehenge, the monumental prehistoric circle of stones built on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. But a new study suggests that it may have been designed to amplify sound in very specific ways.

“To recreate the acoustic properties of the stone circle as it was originally built around 2,500 BC, acoustics engineers at the University of Salford in Manchester constructed a 1:12 scale model they called ‘Minihenge.’ The results of their research have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

“ ‘Constructing and testing the model was very time consuming, a labor of love, but it has given the most accurate insight into the prehistoric acoustics to date,’ Trevor Cox, the project’s lead researcher, said in a statement. ‘With so many stones missing or displaced, the modern acoustic of Stonehenge is very different to that in prehistory.’

“Thanks to laser scans of the site conducted by the governmental research group Historic England, Cox and his team were able to replicate the exact dimensions and precise topography of the monoliths using a computer-aided model and a 3-D printer. Missing stones were replaced where they were believed to have originally stood — 157 in all, based on the latest archaeological research.

The simulated stones were treated to replicate the acoustic properties of the site’s actual materials, allowing for more accurate results than in past models. … Researchers then tested the model, placing speakers and microphones in and around it while working at the university’s Acoustics Research Centre, which boasts a specialist acoustic chamber. (To account for the difference in scale, all sounds were 12 times their normal frequency, in the ultrasonic range.)

“The study found that people who spoke or played music inside the monument would have heard clear reverberations against the massive standing stones. Testing on the model also suggests that the stones increased the volume on interior sound, kept exterior sound out, and made it hard for anyone outside the structure to hear what was going on inside. …

“The placement of the stones was capable of amplifying the human voice by more than four decibels, but produced no echoes. Music and other sounds would have been enhanced such that someone standing within the outer circle of stones would have heard conversations from the center with perfect clarity, even as the sound was obscured to those outside. …

“While sound appears to have been an important consideration for the ancient builders, researchers still believe that astrological alignment was the primary factor in the placement of the stones. And mysteries about Stonehenge’s musical properties still abound.

“ ‘Stonehenge hums when the wind blows hard,’ musicologist Rupert Till of the University of Huddersfield in England, who has previously conducted acoustic research on the site, told ScienceNews.

“There is also speculation that some of the smaller stones used in the ancient site’s construction may have been chosen for their musical qualities. Making a sound much like a metallic gong when struck, they could have been used as percussion instruments, Cox suggested in the Guardian in 2014.

“That theory was tested in a 2013 study conducted by researchers from the Royal College of Art in London, who were able to ‘play’ Stonehenge’s ringing stones like a giant xylophone in a unique form of ‘rock’ music. According to their findings, published in Time & Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, the stones’ musical properties were likely even more pronounced in antiquity, before they were set in reinforced concrete.”

More at Artnet, here.

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Photo: Ruben Ortega Martin, Raices de Peraleda
Drought has uncovered a Spanish version of Stonehenge, the 7,000-year-old Dolmen of Guadalperal.

As global warming brings changes to our planet, the permafrost is melting and releasing dangerous bacteria. But sometimes other, less harmful things come to light.

Caroline Goldstein writes at ArtNet, “If there’s even the slightest silver lining to the ravages of climate change, it’s that the warming conditions are revealing some previously unknown archaeological sites and artifacts.

“This past summer, an extreme drought in the Extremadura area of Spain that caused the Valdecañas Reservoir’s water levels to plummet has revealed a series of megalithic stones. Previously submerged underwater, the Dolmen de Guadalperal, often called the Spanish Stonehenge, are now in plain sight.

“Though the Dolmen are 7,000 years old, the last time they were seen in their entirety was around 1963, when the reservoir was built as part of Franco’s push toward modernization. …

“Angel Castaño, who lives near the reservoir and serves as the president of a Spanish cultural group, told the website the Local, ‘We grew up hearing about the legend of the treasure hidden beneath the lake and now we finally get to view them.’

“The approximately 100 menhirs are, like Stonehenge, hulking megalith stones — some standing up to six feet tall — that are arranged in an oval and appear oriented to filter sunlight. Evidence suggests that these stones could actually be 2,000 years older than Stonehenge.

“Castaño is working with the group Raices de Peraleda to move the dolmen before rains come and re-submerge them. ‘Whatever we do here needs to be done extremely carefully.’ he said.”

I guess so. I can’t help wondering if it would be better to move the reservoir and leave the stones, which obviously were placed where they are for a reason. But not being an engineer, I suppose moving the reservoir would be even more difficult. And already access to water is becoming a serious problem around the world. (For a heartbreaking story about the difficulty many Navajo people have getting clean water, read this.)

So hard to balance conflicting goods!

More here.

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110518-amazing-shade-of-red-on-Japanese-mapleDid you read The Hobbit? Do you remember the thrilling moment when an ancient prophecy comes true as a “thrush knocks” and the sun briefly beams at a tiny spot on the wall of the Iron Mountain, revealing the forgotten keyhole to the dragon’s backdoor? No? Well, check it out.

I mention this ability of the sun to shine at a certain place only at a certain time because the photo below represents one of my attempts to run outside in a mad rush and capture how a particular solar angle projects the squares of the gate on the stone wall. It only happens a couple times a year because the sun keeps moving. (That is, the Earth keeps moving in relation to the sun.) In a few minutes the projection would be on the grass, not the wall. The following week, it wouldn’t happen at all. I totally lost out last spring, but managed to get this much in the fall. Stonehenge.

The first sculpture was by a grateful patient of Mass General Hospital in Boston. Next come sculptures seen from the cafe balcony at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. And, typical of the City That Never Sleeps, Insomnia Cookies will deliver until 3 a.m. The port-a-potty confirms Asakiyume’s contention that these ubiquitous accommodations are as creatively named as hair salons.

Then, I give you Central Park the Beautiful. What city would ever build something this magnificent today?

Finally, another of my favorite topics: the wonder of lichen.

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Suzanne is in Denmark at the moment and sent me a website for something unusual she saw there: a modern Stonehenge.

“The idea of creating The DODECALITH arose in 2006 when the composer Gunner M. Pedersen saw sculptor Thomas Kadziola’s land art project Anemarken (Ancestors’ field) … on the island of Lolland.

“The composer suggested that he and the sculptor create a Stonehenge on Lolland, consisting of a circle of twelve huge menhirs with heads in the open countryside.”

The creators write, “On a hill overlooking the sea, we are creating a singing monument … that will give everyone from near and far an experience of greatness, closeness and beauty, of time’s migrations and settlements. It will express pride and humbleness, times gone by, the present, and, importantly, time coming. …

“The stone figures will stand on invisible foundations and they will sing!
Under a circle of natural sitting stones, a 12 channel sound system will be installed. This system will allow spatial electro acoustic song and music specially created for The DODECALITH to sound inside the circle at intervals every day, all year round. …

“The ancestors [came] from afar, from the land to the south where the waters rose 7,500 years ago and sent the Lolers on their long journey. … Along the coast from Ravnsholt to Ravnsby alone, over 70 burial mounds have survived, several of which are passage graves. … There are now only four mounds … It is here we are re-erecting the Ring of the Lolers, The DODECALITH, to let the new Lolers ancestors sing.” More.

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There is always something new to learn about Stonehenge, a site shrouded in mystery for centuries.

Rossella Lorenzi writes at Discovery News, “Using noninvasive technologies such as ground-penetrating radar and geophysical imaging, a team from the University of Birmingham’s IBM Visual and Spatial Technology Centre, known as VISTA, and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Vienna, discovered evidence of two huge pits positioned on a celestial alignment at Stonehenge. …

” ‘This is the first time we have seen anything quite like this at Stonehenge,’ said project leader Vince Gaffney, an archaeologist from the University of Birmingham. ‘When viewed from the Heel Stone, a rather enigmatic stone which stands just outside the entrance to Stonehenge, the pits effectively mark the rising and setting of the sun at midsummer days.’ ”

Read more here.

On YouTube you can find both boring videos about Stonehenge and funny ones. A comedy routine by Eddie Izzard made me laugh, but it’s a bit too naughty for Suzanne’s Mom’s Blog. You can check out a few of Spinal Tap singing “Stonehenge” in the movie This is Spinal Tap. And here is a great scene about Druids from that movie.

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