Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Reflections on the "Stonehenge Skeletons"

Several people who have read my novel, Undreamed Shores, set in the age of Stonehenge, have asked me to comment on the recently broadcast Channel 4 documentary, "Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons" (available, if you missed it, at Here are a few thoughts.

As historical writers, we all weave our stories from a blend of hard facts, deductions from those facts and subjective interpretations based on those deductions. We use our imagination to fill the gaps between the things we know, the things we think we know and the things we are conscious of not knowing. When we write non-fiction, speak at academic conferences and teach courses, we do our best to keep these categories separate, and to show the demarcations between them. When we write novels, or collaborate in the making of TV programmes, they inevitably get mixed up together.

Sometimes simplification leads to confusion. The programme starts out by saying that, until now, "we" had assumed that all the stones at Stonehenge were of the same date. Well, no we didn't. As an undergraduate in the early 1980s, I was taught that there were several components to Stonehenge, and that these were likely to be of different dates.

Broadly speaking, we thought that the phasing was as follows:

Phase 1. The bank, ditch and avenue.
Phase 2. The "Aubrey Holes," which we knew contained cremated human remains.
Phase 3. The bluestones, brought from West Wales, though not necessarily in their current position.
Phase 4. The much larger sarsens, including the trilithons.

                                              (Photo, Wessex Archaeology).

The most recent research (, which is discussed on the TV programme, has led to a reassessment of this, and use of the most up-to-date radiocarbon technology allows us to be a lot more precise about the actual dating. The phasing, as we now understand it, is as follows:

Phase 1. The bank, ditch and "Aubrey Holes," 3330-2895 BC.
Phase 2. The sarsen trilithons and circle, and the double bluestone circle, 2670-2340 BC.
Phase 3. The avenue, 2580-2200 BC.
Phase 4. The bluestone oval and outer bluestone circle, 2480-1930 BC.

Note that the dates for Phases 2-4 overlap, leading the authors of the detailed report, including Professor Mike Parker-Pearson, who appears in the TV programme, to conclude that the "major settings" (i.e. the sarsen trilithons and the sarsen and bluestone circles) are the product of "...a single (relatively quick) unitary episode of activity, rather than the result of longer and more piecemeal episodes of construction."

The big surprise, which I didn't know about when I wrote Undreamed Shores, is the evidence (which I haven't seen in detail, but which sounds convincing enough) to suggest that some of the bluestones which currently make up the Phase 2/4 settings stood originally in the "Aubrey Holes," meaning that they were brought to the site much earlier than we had previously assumed.

That's potentially a problem for Undreamed Shores, in that my protagonist, Amzai (in 2400 BC), believes the bluestones to have been brought to the site during his wife's childhood. Perhaps some of them were, but, in any case, the reader of the novel is not made party to the "whole truth" (quite deliberately so, on my part, since I was aware that there were elements of the "whole truth" that I couldn't be certain of), but only to the truth as understood by Amzai, a stranger in the world of the builders of Stonehenge, who is reliant on what he has been told, and who, in any case, probably has an imperfect grasp of the language.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. That's potentially a problem for Undreamed Shores, in that my protagonist, Amzai (in 2400 BC), believes the bluestones to have been brought to the site during his wife's childhood.

    May not be a problem if the bluestones were removed from site and then re-sited a second time (perhaps relocated from 'bluestonehenge' to Stonehenge). Where they were brought from could be simply be a confusion of memory?

    I too had some misgivings about the documentary:

    Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons: Initial Critique

  2. Ah yes, I'd hoped to mention "Bluestonehenge" (
    here (it does feature in "Undreamed Shores), but found the piece was long enough without it. It seems to have been dismantled between 2469 and 2286 BC, around the same time as the stone settings at Stonehenge were constructed.