News & Current Affairs

September 22, 2008

Dig pinpoints Stonehenge origins

Dig pinpoints Stonehenge origins

Archaeologists have pinpointed the construction of Stonehenge to 2300 BC – a key step to discovering how and why the mysterious temple was built.

The radiocarbon date is said to be the most accurate yet and means the ring’s original bluestones were put up 300 years later than previously thought.

The dating is the major finding from an excavation inside the henge by Profs Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright.

The duo found evidence suggesting Stonehenge was a center of healing.

Others have argued that the monument was a shrine to worship ancestors, or a calendar to mark the solstices.

A documentary following the progress of the recent dig has been recorded by the BBC Timewatch series. It will be broadcast on Saturday 27 September.

Date demand

For centuries, archaeologists have marvelled at the construction of Stonehenge, which lies on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire.

Mineral analysis indicates that the original circle of bluestones was transported to the plain from a site 240km (150 miles) away, in the Preseli hills, South Wales.

This extraordinary feat suggests the stones were thought to harbor great powers.

Trench

The dig was the first inside the ring since 1946

Professors Darvill and Wainwright believe that Stonehenge was a center of healing – a “Neolithic Lourdes”, to which the sick and injured traveled from far and wide, to be healed by the powers of the bluestones.

They note that “an abnormal number” of the corpses found in tombs nearby Stonehenge display signs of serious physical injury and disease.

And analysis of teeth recovered from graves show that “around half” of the corpses were from people who were “not native to the Stonehenge area”.

“Stonehenge would attract not only people who were unwell, but people who were capable of [healing] them,” said Professor Darvill, of Bournemouth University.

“Therefore, in a sense, Stonehenge becomes ‘the A & E’ of southern England.”

Modern techniques

But without a reliable carbon date for the construction of Stonehenge, it has been difficult to establish this, or any other, theory.

Until now, the consensus view for the date of the first stone circle was anywhere between 2600 BC and 2400 BC.

To cement the date once and for all, Professors Darvill and Wainwright were granted permission by English Heritage to excavate a patch of earth just 2.5m x 3.5m, in between the two circles of giant sarsen stones.

In the stone socket

The key was to get organic matter from the bluestone sockets

The dig unearthed about 100 pieces of organic material from the original bluestone sockets, now buried under the monument. Of these, 14 were selected to be sent for modern carbon dating, at Oxford University.

The result – 2300 BC – is the most reliable date yet for the erection of the first bluestones.

Strictly speaking, the result was rounded down to “between 2400 BC and 2200 BC” – but 2300BC is taken as the average.

An even more precise date will be produced in the coming months.

“It’s an incredible feeling, a dream come true,” said Professor Wainwright, formerly chief archaeologist at English Heritage.

“We told the world we were going to date Stonehenge. That was a risk, but I was always confident,” said Professor Darvill.

Intriguingly, the date range ties in closely with the date for the burial of the so-called “Amesbury Archer”, whose tomb was discovered three miles from Stonehenge.

Some archaeologists believe the Archer is the key to understanding why Stonehenge was built.

Analysis of his corpse and artefacts from his grave indicate he was a wealthy and powerful man, with knowledge of metal working, who had traveled to Salisbury from Alpine Europe, for reasons unknown.

Post mortem examinations show that he suffered from both a serious knee injury and a potentially fatal dental problem, leading Darvill and Wainwright to conclude that the Archer came to Stonehenge to be healed.

But without an accurate date for Stonehenge, it was not even clear whether the temple existed while the Archer was alive.

His remains have been dated between 2500 BC and 2300 BC – within the same period that the first stone circle was erected.

“It’s quite extraordinary that the date of the Amesbury Archer is identical with our new date for the bluestones of Stonehenge,” said Professor Darvill.

“These two things happening within living memory of each other for sure is something very, very important.”

Earliest occupation

Professor Wainwright added: “Was the Amesbury Archer, as some have suggested, the person responsible for the building of Stonehenge? I think the answer to that is almost certainly ‘no’.

“But did he travel there to be healed? Did he limp, or was he carried, all the way from Switzerland to Wiltshire, because he had heard of the miraculous healing properties of Stonehenge? ‘Yes, absolutely’.

“Tim and I are quite convinced that people went to Stonehenge to get well. But Stonehenge probably had more than one purpose, so I have no problem with other people’s interpretations.”

Skull

All theories about Stonehenge must follow an accurate dating

Among other key finds, the team uncovered organic material that indicates people inhabited the Stonehenge site as long ago as 7200 BC – more than 3,500 years earlier than anything previously known.

They also found that bluestone chippings outnumbered sarsen stone chippings by three to one – which Wainwright takes to be a sign of their value.

“It could be that people were flaking off pieces of bluestone, in order to create little bits to take away… as lucky amulets,” he said.

The duo are preparing to publish an academic report of their excavation, and will announce their findings to their peers next month, in a lecture at London’s Society of Antiquaries.

Ongoing debate

Experts on Stonehenge said the new date was a major milestone in understanding Britain’s most famous monument.

Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick, of Wessex Archaeology, said: “This is a great result – a very important one.

“The date of Stonehenge had been blowing in the wind. But this anchors it. It helps us to be secure about the chronology of events.

Darvill and Wainwright

Profs Darvill and Wainwright believe their ideas hold true

“The theory that it was a center of healing is certainly a plausible one, but I don’t think we can rule out the other main competing theory – that the temple was a meeting point between the land of the living and the dead.

“I am not yet persuaded that the Amesbury Archer came to Stonehenge to be healed. I favour the interpretation that he was one of the earliest metal workers, who travelled to the area to make a living from his skills.

“In any case, it is still not clear if his burial predated Stonehenge.”

Dave Batchelor, Stonehenge curator at English Heritage, said: “We are pleased that the professors’ precision in targeting that small area of turf and their rigorous standards in archaeological excavations have produced such a rich collection of physical evidence.

“We are looking forward to seeing the results of the full analysis, but from what we understand so far, we believe they have added valuable information to the chronology of Stonehenge.”

September 1, 2008

Peru’s first ‘visionary’ editor

Peru’s first ‘visionary’ editor

Doris Gibson, who 58 years ago founded Peru’s leading news magazine, has died at the age of 98. Her strength of character and determination helped the magazine withstand military dictatorships and repressive governments, as Dan Collyns reports.

Front page of Caretas showing a portait of Doris Gibson

Caretas magazine is famous for its mocking of the authorities

She began with 10,000 soles (£2,066), which her uncle had given her, and a typewriter in a single room.

The magazine was going to be called Caras y Caretas – faces and masks – but as Peru was under a military dictatorship at the time they decided to call it just Caretas to symbolize the repression they were living under.

They planned to revert to the original title after the dictatorship but it never happened.

Soon afterwards, the magazine was shut down for the first time. It was to be the first of eight closures, most of them during another military dictatorship in the 1970s of General Juan Velasco.

“She would be very creative in how she overcame the closures,” says her granddaughter Diana. “With her everything was possible.”

Genteel poverty

She was born in Lima, by accident, in 1910.

In those days, people travelled by boat between the capital and Arequipa, Peru’s upmarket second city nestled in the Andes to the south.

Her mother was aboard ship and about to head home to Arequipa when her waters broke and she had to go ashore to give birth.

She was the daughter of Percy Gibson, a poet who rebelled from his wealthy merchant family of British descent to live a literary life.

Doris’ younger sister Charo says he never worked a day in his life and she and her many sisters grew up in genteel poverty.

Bohemian life

Doris Gibson

Doris’ son described her as an instinctive fighter

At a young age Doris married an Argentine diplomat, Manlio Zileri, and bore an only son, Enrique, who went on to become the longest-standing editor of Caretas, earning a reputation as Peru’s best journalist.

Just a few years later she was granted one of staunchly-Catholic Peru’s first divorces and she began an intensely bohemian life surrounding herself with artists, intellectuals and politicians.

Doris was a very beautiful young woman and famous for her long, shapely legs. She had a relationship with the artist Servulo Gutierrez to whom she was both a lover and a muse.

He famously painted a life-size nude portrait of her which – following an argument – he sold to a wealthy businessman.

She was independent at a time when women were dependent on their husbands

Her granddaughter Diana says she went to the man’s house with a photographer from the magazine.

They said they needed to photograph the painting in the sunlight, so they put it outside on the car and promptly drove away with it.

“I don’t want to be nude in your house,” she told the man when he called to ask for it back.

Defiance

Despite her upper-class background her friends say she had an old-world warmth for all the people she knew from the shopkeeper down the road to her domestic servants.

Having money, or not, was a question of luck, she was fond of saying.

The magazine is famous for its front covers. Always visually audacious, ironic and mocking authority

Her warmth was also volcanic, says her son Enrique, like the famous Misti volcano which overlooks her home town of Arequipa. Their arguments were legendary.

But she also aimed that fire at successive repressive governments which tried to silence the most important political magazine in Peru.

She confronted soldiers when they raided the office and had photographers poised to record the break-ins.

“Mala hierba nunca muere” – Bad weeds never die – exclaimed the leaflets she had scattered throughout Lima as if freedom of speech would grow up through the cracks in the pavement.

Caretas could not be silenced.

The magazine is famous for its front covers. Always visually audacious, ironic and mocking authority.

When Alberto Fujimori’s birthplace – and thus eligibility to be president – was called into question in 1997, his head was superimposed on the rising sun of the Japanese flag with the words: Once again: Where was he born?

“She was instinctively a fighter,” says her son Enrique, “and a natural businesswoman.”

Visionary

For years she lived on the eighth floor in the same building as the magazine. It survived for all its years due to her intense presence which inspired fierce loyalty in her journalists.

Doris Gibson

Doris’ determination helped Caretas withstand Peru’s military regimes

She was independent at a time when women were dependent on their husbands.

A feminist before the movement had begun, and according to many, a visionary who influenced the course of Peru’s recent history through the brave and defiant reporting of the magazine she created.

For some time we shared the top floor of a block of flats.

Her carer, Chela, invited me across the hall to meet her. The flat she shared with her younger sister Charo was like a museum. Full of copper pans, paintings and artefacts.

She had just celebrated her 97th birthday. Her cheeks were hollow and her eyes had sunken into her skull, but she looked straight at me.

She held my hand in her tight grip, pulling me forward slightly as she tried to utter some words. I told her who I was and Chela repeated what I had said at volume.

As I walked out of the room I saw a black and white photograph portrait of a beautiful, bright eyed young woman. She had dark flowing hair, porcelain skin and rosebud lips. It was Doris, aged 16.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.