A new theory about Stonehenge may throw light on a key episode of early British history.
Earlier, I suggested the identification of Stonehenge as the centre of the “Hyperborean” or farthest-North island domain in early Greek accounts may be of interest here. [For details, see “Pytheas And The Lost City Of Apollo” .] That is, it might throw some light on the great unresolved mystery of early British history. How did Christianity become established here, before it did in Rome?
The first issue here is what religion did the British have, which Christianity overtook? Until recently, Stonehenge has not been considered evidence here as archaeological dating puts its abandonment over a thousand years earlier - no later than 1200 BC. Last year it was argued the early Greek travel account of a massive temple complex dedicated to Hyperborean Apollo and ruled by a priestly caste refers to Stonehenge and Vespasian’s Camp hillfort by Amesbury (the nearest town to Stonehenge). The argument modern antiquarian Dennis Price came up with last year was that these references derive from the lost codex of Pytheas detailing his visit here, c.330BC. Excavation of the Vespasian’s Camp rubbish pits show human occupation till 350 BC, which is at least around the time Pytheas visited Britain – though we don’t know exactly where he went. Now, if local religious practices did not change for 4-5 centuries - from then until Christianity arrived in the early Roman Era - then we have a possible continuity of religious belief. Thus, our second question may be answered: before Christianity, the official religion was worship of Apollo, the sun-god, god of healing and learning (and other things).
The problem is there’s still quite a jump in time here, with Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age evidence being run together to present a continuity that may be an illusion. Most people if asked would say the pre-Roman society of Britain was the Kelts, though the Celtic tribes seem to have been largely refugees from the Roman conquest of Gaul by Caesar around 55 BC. And for a long time there’s been such a gulf in the world-views of the academics and the New Agers over Stonehenge itself there’s been no genuine debate to and fro which might help resolve the mystery. But I’m told this was largely due to the English Heritage site’s now-dead chief archaeologist. He proclaimed Stonehenge was a mystery that would never be solved – so there was no point digging anything up. (There’s a conspiracy theory about this, that he made some sort of discovery early on, which so upset him he closed the site to further exploration.)
Now he’s gone, the next generation, including his own trainees, are developing new theories which are coming closer to the alternative view. The much publicised BBC/Smithsonian Museum-sponsored dig in April, the first inside the ring at Stonehenge for over 40 years (!), by Tim Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, was only days old when they announced they had found evidence to back up their thesis the site was “a prehistoric Lourdes” or healing spa, to which the unwell (but well-off) travelled from across Europe. This is perhaps not surprising, as the two had already co-authored a book documenting this interpretation.
Their thesis is at variance with the traditional notion it was a monument to the ancestral dead, the centre of a necropolis, with thousands of burials in the surrounding plain. (Perhaps the “cure” there – by one account using water poured over the “healing” stones - was usually a failure.) The “necropolis-monument” theory had already been challenged by the ‘astro-archaeological’ argument, popularised in the 1960s by Gerald S. Hawkins in popular paperbacks like Stonehenge Decoded that it was a prehistoric astronomical observatory and “computer.” He diagrammed how the posts and stones were aligned to the rising and setting of the sun, moon and certain constellations at key times. Critics pointed out the alignments involved stones that had stood, and often been moved, at different times, up to and including the 20th-century.
Now we have yet another computer-based ancient-code theory, which specifically attacks the ‘astronomical-computer’ argument, saying apart from an overall alignment of the central avenue to the solstices, the stones are not aligned to anything - except each other. The new book, Solving Stonehenge: The Key To An Ancient Enigma (Thames & Hudson, $40) by Anthony Johnson, “an archaeologist specializing in geophysics, survey and computer applications in archaeology,” advances the theory instead that Stonehenge is a reflection of ‘Pythagorean’ geometry. This is of interest here as the Pythagoreans were linked with the Hyperboreans (remember them?). Indeed, one of the Pythagorean Brotherhood, a priest called Abaris, is said to have visited the Hyperboreans. And Bladud, the legendary “Druid King” founder of the now-famous hot-spring mud spa farther west, the City of Bath in Somerset, supposedly visited Pythagoras, the 6th-C. BC Greek "father of numbers". This is not so strange as it might first sound, since both the Greeks and the Hyperboreans shared a worship of Apollo. The Hyperboreans used to send maidens to Greece every year bearing gifts for Apollo. And Apollo himself was said to leave Greece every 19th year to spend three months among the Hyperboreans, because his mother Leto came from there. The early Greek description we mentioned at the outset refers to this. (Found in the Diodorus’s 1st C. BC World History, it is usually attributed not to Pytheas but an earlier lost codex, Hecataeus’s 6th-C BC History Of The Hyperboreans). It mentions “a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple …. built after the pattern of the spheres.” This last phrase it what gets Stonehenge researchers excited, taken as support for the astro-archaeology theory.
Anthony Johnson’s new book claims to show how (with mathematical proofs) Stonehenge was purely an exercise in Pythagorean geometry. He says this knowledge was part of “the Neolithic belief system”. This would explain how ‘Pythagorean’ geometry existed over two thousand years before Pythagoras. Johnson disputes in effect that “the pattern of the spheres” should be taken as an astronomical reference. What it could also refer to is the ancient ‘Pythagorean’ model of the cosmos as a set of 7 nested spheres, for Stonehenge is a set of 7 nested rings. And Johnson’s claim 56 was the key number is quite compatible with the reference to the celebration in every 19th year. For this is the way the Great or Metonic cycle of 18.61 years was calculated (as 19+18+19 =56), when the sun and moon returned to the same positions in the sky at the same seasonal point.
As to our original question - how did Christianity become established here so early … there is an obscure codex reference to the arrival in Britain of the first disciples from Palestine at the time the local priests were away attending to the manifestation of their god - which occurred every 19 years. But this will have to wait until next time.