As I’ve mentioned before, one of the circumstantial arguments in favour of Christianity possibly arriving in England as early as the 1st Century is the ‘tin-trade’ route. Without getting into the legend of Joseph of Arimatheia being a tin-trader and the morass that is England’s ‘Holy Legend’ here, we’ll just say the route was a historically attested direct link between the southwest coast of England and Palestine in antiquity. This route is associated with the Bronze Age (British tin was needed to make quality bronze). However the only historical accounts are much later, from the Classical period – Iron Age rather than Bronze, indicating it was still in use when Caesar arrived. These descriptions are attributed to early Greek travellers, in particular Pytheas who - some modern writers speculate - travelled to Britain using the established tin-trade route of the time. His account of his voyage of circa 330 BC up to (and around) Britain is lost, but references to it (sometimes sceptical) survive in the work of over a dozen classical-era Greek and Roman writers. There are other early descriptions of Britain which are not credited by these classical writers overtly to Pytheas, but may still derive from his long-lost codex.
One such reference is the account of a ‘spherical’ or round [sphairoeides] temple and precinct ‘sacred to Apollo’ in the land of the Hyperboreans, which survives in the World History of Diodorus Siculus of circa 50 BC. This is often mentioned in books about Stonehenge (e.g. by Gerald Hawkins), the assumption being this must be our earliest description of the site, and is usually thought to derive from an even older lost codex, the 5th-C BC History Of The Hyperboreans by Hecataeus of Abdera. Now an archaeologist has claimed the famous description of a ‘spherical temple and precinct sacred to Apollo’ derives from Pytheas’s 4th C. BC visit. This is slightly startling as there is no consensus about where Pytheas landed on the south coast, though the Avon Valley leading to Stonehenge and other ancient sites seems to have been a major trade route inland. He also argues that the reference is not to a single site but to two distinct sites, with Stonehenge as the ‘temple’ and the sacred precinct another, heretofore neglected, site a mile east, towards Salisbury. This site has evidently been ignored partly as it was misleadingly named 'Vespasian's Camp' by the 16C antiquarian William Camden, no earlier name being known. Camden simply surmised the site must have been a Roman camp from the time of Vespasian’s invasion up the Avon Valley in AD 70. Since then, traces of much earlier use have been found - from the Neolithic (pits) and the early Bronze Age (barrow-style funeral mounds), the chalk spur whose lower slope the ‘camp’ sits on being named Kings Barrow Ridge.
The name or epithet Chorea Giganticum, given in Latin in a 12th-century prose epic of the founding of Britain, is sometimes invoked as a possible ancient name for Stonehenge (which is of course a Saxon name), the Latin being translated Giants’ Circle or Giants’ Dance. This apparent old name appears in two later manuscripts as “Choir Gaur” which is taken to mean the same, Celtic Gawr meaning giant or mighty. It also refers to music: we still use the words choir, chorus, and choreographer for a group of singers or dancers and the dance director. And those who studied such prehistoric circles were also known in the 18th century as Chorographers. As ancient music and dance were often part of sacred rites, the word chorea as a place has implications of a ritual centre. “Coria” meaning a hosting place survives in Gaelic, the older Q-Celtic branch from Ireland. Its root may be the Q-Celtic counterpart of P-Celtic ‘Bor-’, which survives in the Latin name Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. The terms Boreas, Boreades, and Hyperborea which occur in the ancient account refer to the North Wind, the Northernmost land beyond it, with Boreades the name of the sacred precinct’s supervisors, the priests of Hyperborean Apollo mentioned by Diodorus.
The archaeologist in question, Dennis Price, who also got press coverage last year when he found Stonehenge's lost ‘altar’ stone, has been poring over these ancient accounts with language experts from Exeter University. He argues the reference to a round temple and precinct sacred to Apollo has been misunderstood. He argues it must refer to two different sites, with the former being Stonehenge and the latter being not Stonehenge’s wooden ‘sister’ sites of Woodhenge or Durrington Walls, but the larger yet heretofore neglected site called Vespasian's Camp [OS Map ref SU1441 - click this link and type the OS ‘code’ cited into the search box to see a closeup map section].
The ancient account describes the sacred precinct as a ‘city’ [Greek polis]. Vespasian’s biography tells how he stormed some 30 oppida i.e. hill forts which are tribal centres or capitals, from Wight north, and this may be the type of site meant. The site in question has previously been classed as a large Iron Age hillfort: it was 15 hectares across, sitting inside a 40m wide bank ringed by a 5-10m deep ditch. (Some ‘henge’ i.e. bank-and-ditch sites are regarded by archaeologists today not as military sites in the Roman ‘vallum’ style, but where the ditch is inside the bank – impractical for defence - as sacred enclosures, as at Stonehenge.) A 1995 English Heritage archaeological report mentions a layer of domestic rubbish 1m thick, suggesting a once-substantial population. (The main occupation dates are put at 1100-800 BC and 700–350 BC, which don’t really accord with Stonehenge dates.)
Its entrance is not far from ‘The Avenue’ ancient processional way from Stonehenge to the Avon at Amesbury. (Today, the road leading out of Amesbury to Stonehenge crosses the site, with houses on the south side, by the Avon.) Price surmises the earthworks are on such a scale they may have prompted Pytheas to think of Troy, whose divine protector was the sun-god Apollo. A recent book (I was invited to its local ‘launch’ event just before Xmas), Stonehenge: The Biography Of A Landscape, by archeo-historian Prof. Tim Darvill of Bournemouth University, theorises Stonehenge was a sort of prehistoric Lourdes, with Apollo (that most versatile of ancient deities) in this context a healing presence.
All this has been getting press coverage in print and online, but another possible link not featured so far is the Perpetual Choir. The ancient account says that hymns were sung to Hyperborean Apollo non-stop by a large group of dedicated singers (our ‘chorea’ or ‘choir gawr’ again?), and there are allusions to such choirs in Celtic lore. The Troiedd Ynys Prydein (Triads Of The Island Britain), which exist in a handful of discrepant manuscripts, are thought to have been used by bards or druids as ‘mnemonics’, to memorise key cultural and historical events as refrains about which whole narratives once existed.
One triad concerns The ‘3 Perpetual Choirs of Britain’, and some versions of the TYP manuscript give one of the 3 choir-venues as a nearby one - either Salisbury (as Caer-Salog), or else Amesbury. Amesbury, the town closest to Stonehenge, is where stood a famous Priory and convent (in the English version of the Arthurian Romances, the adulterous Guinevere ends up there). Amesbury Abbey was built just below the site of Vespasian's Camp hillfort, and it became part of the now-vanished Abbey’s grounds. Later, the land became part of the Marquess of Queensberry's estate, and in the 18th century the hillfort area was landscaped in the fashion of the day with planted shrubbery, ‘ornamental’ walks, and a grotto including a "Merlin's Cave." Antiquarians have tried to link the place-name Amesbury with the late Romano-British general Ambrosius Aurelianus who helped keep the invading Saxons at bay, as well as with the word ‘Ambrosian’ as it is used to mean heavenly music – as in the Ambrosian Singers, the famous London choral group formed in 1951.
There are obviously more developments to come on this, hopefully touching on the route early travellers like Pytheas took to Britain. Look out for an upcoming BBC-TV episode of Timewatch on new theories about the Stonehenge area.