Coneybury Henge 2750BC…Of Eagles and Kings
The previous thread here looked at Stage One Stonehenge post holes dating from the early part of the third millenium BC. Ditch and bank enclosure-type structures were evolving at this time from an earlier tradition of causewayed enclosures, an example of which is found at Robin Hood’s Ball approximately 2.1 miles north of Stonehenge. At some time in the Neolithic period a causewayed enclosure or other structures may have existed in the ‘mondus abconditus’ of the Stonehenge landscape at Vespasian’s camp and here.
Evidence suggests that after only a short period of usage, the early Stonehenge site was possibly abandoned and deserted to the elements, followed by a rapid recolonisation by scrub, bushes and rank grass. The wooden structures were left to decay and the ditch and bank to erode. Particularly from snail evidence and various archaeological investigations on site (first suspected by Col Hawley in 1921) it is now generally accepted that there was a period during the early third millennium BC when the Stonehenge site was subject to human abandonment.
After the sheer human commitment and physical effort necessary to construct Phase One of Stonehenge, why was the site abandoned after a relatively short period of use? I shall leave pondering the zeitgeist and cultural context of those distant times to others more informed and qualified in such speculation.
A question I would like to consider is ‘What other evidence exists within the Stonehenge environs of our ancestors’ activities during the early part of the third millennium BC?’ One such example is Coneybury Henge.
What do we know about Coneybury Henge and its surrounding area?
- It is classified as a small henge monument on a low hill ESE of Stonehenge and was excavated by Mr J. Richards in 1980. Much of the information summarised in the bullet points below is sourced from the English Heritage Book of Stonehenge written by Mr. J. Richards and published in 1991.
- It consists of an oval ditch 45 metres across at its longest diameter, with a single entrance ENE. The southern section of the excavated ditch was approximately 3 metres to its base. The profile at the base was narrow and V-shaped. The lower edges of the ditch were fresh looking ‘and within the chalk rubble that accumulates rapidly as a result of frost and rain shattering exposed chalk edges, lay the incomplete skeletons of a dog and a white-tailed sea eagle.’
- A radiocarbon date from the base of the above ditch suggests it was constructed in approximately 2750BC.
- The northern section of the ditch appears slightly shallower, with its base at approximately 2.75 metres. ‘Here the ditch was U-shaped and flat-bottomed, its sides smoothed in contrast to the jagged sides of the southern cutting’. Looking at the comparative ditch sections provided on pages 92 and 93 of the above book, the chalk rubble does appear much more evenly distributed and less compacted at the bottom of the southern V-shaped ditch.
- Mr. Richards also writes that ‘The appearance of the terminal ditch (northern section) together with the nature of its lower fills suggests that it may have been cleared of accumulated chalk rubble at least once before being allowed to silt up naturally.’
- Within the interior of the henge, pits and post holes were discovered along with large numbers of stake holes.
- In the centre of the enclosure lay a possible circle of pits or post holes, some of which may have held upright stones or timbers, and many of which contained small quantities of grooved ware pottery. To me, the footprint of the pit/post holes at the centre of the henge do resemble those discovered nearby on the banks of the Avon during the recent SRP excavations, each site naturally containing the almost prerequisite sherds of grooved ware pottery.
- Beyond the pits running concentric to the inner edge of the ditch were the remains of a circle of small posts, a circle which also incorporated two pits apparently flanking the ‘axis of symmetry’ of the enclosure.
- In the southern excavated segment at least, the post holes exhibited a regular spacing and great similarity in dimensions and profile. The survival of such shallow features within this part of the enclosure is due largely to the buffering effect of the deeper soils which formed over the scarped interior. Presumably as part of the earth moving associated with the major construction of the ditch and bank, the interior of the enclosure appears to have been terraced into the slight slope to form an effectively horizontal platform.
- Mr. Richards then writes ‘perhaps the most unusual features of the interior was the large number of stake holes, over 700 in total, revealed by careful excavation and cleaning of the surface of the hard chalk bedrock. The stake holes, usually about 6 to 7 cm (2.5 to 3 inches) in diameter, were apparently created by banging sharpened stakes into the chalk. It is almost impossible to prove whether or not they are associated with the prehistoric activity within the henge, but many showed a strong relationship to both the enclosure as a whole and to internal features, the date of which is beyond doubt’. At least seven rows of sharpened stakes ran SE to NW, like spokes on a partial bicycle wheel.
- The surrounding enclosure bank appears to be approximately 4 metres wide.
Certain of the above observations demonstrate clear similarities to the main Stonehenge site, hastily and incorrectly leading my mind to judge this henge as a 40% scale model of the main site. Conversely, there are intriguing differences which endow Coneybury Henge with its own unique characteristics and beg many further questions.
During the above investigations, Mr. Richards also discovered a pit 12 metres NW of Coneybury Henge which has subsequently become known as the Coneybury Anomaly, dating from 3980 to 3708 BC, proving that man was active in the area of Coneybury Hill at least one thousand years before the construction of this small henge. This mind-boggling date of 6000 years ago draws the timeline ever closer to the Mesolithic discoveries of the archaeologist Mr D Jacques and his team, recently announced in respect of excavations a few hundred yards away at Blick Mead on the banks of the River Avon and in the lee of Vespasian’s camp. This area west of Amesbury and east of Coneybury Hill is now frequently referred to as ‘the cradle of Stonehenge’.
In my eyes, the most fascinating, thought-provoking and unique discovery at Coneybury Henge is the rara avis, the white tailed sea eagle. With a wingspan of up to 8 feet, it is a monarch of birds.
- Is the age of the eagle contemporary with the digging of the ditch in 2750BC or were the bones curated (or procured from elsewhere) similarly to certain of the animal bones found in the Stonehenge enclosure ditches and terminals particularly, some of which are known to be up to 500 years old when finally buried in the earth?
- Why was only a partial skeleton of this magnificent creature placed with a partial skeleton of a dog in the southern ditch?
- What happened to the other remains of these animals? Did they rot away over time? Were they buried elsewhere, casually discarded, burnt, or partially eaten by animals or by man?
- Were the dog and the bird linked in some way in life as well as in death?
- What influence did this rare majestic bird exercise over our ancestors, and what motivated them to place these animals together in the southern ditch?
- What relationship did our ancestors have with birds per se?
- Was the bird captured locally, somehow, alive or found locally already dead?
- Was the bird brought to Salisbury Plain from some distance either alive in captivity or already dead?
- Had the bird spent all or some of its life in captivity as a high status symbol, either locally or elsewhere?
Mindful that excarnation funerary practices are known to have existed particularly in southern Britain at certain times in prehistory, it is my uneducated guess that our inscrutable ancestors enjoyed a particularly deep relationship on all levels with birds in general. The placing of this bird at this location at this particular moment in time represents probably one of the most symbolically charged and potent acts of votive deposition we have as yet discovered in modern times within the Stonehenge environs.
In contemplating our ancestors’ relationship with Stonehenge and its environs from the plethora of information that is available in academic studies, books published over hundreds of years, opinions of every shade available in the “digiverse” and even from personal site visits (which I would highly recommend), it is only natural to form one’s own opinions on the subject. Personally, I try to maintain a conscious vigil to remain open-minded as once apparent facts subsequently melt into groundless speculations. I find ‘To know the truth as well as it may be known’ a valuable mantra as my latest ideas crystallise, rigid and unbending, and subsequent research colours the Stonehenge I wish to find rather than the Stonehenge that exists.
My current opinions include:
- At times during the Neolithic period, funerary practices and rituals in the Stonehenge environs involved sky burials. Whether Neolithic or modern times, the principal methods of disposal of the bodies of the dead involve earth, air, fire or water. Excarnation practices were known to have existed particularly in Southern Britain in Neolithic times.
- Tall platforms were erected in a nearby cliffed area along the banks of the River Avon at Lord’s Walk, the river frontage South of Durrington Walls, and possibly on the eastern side of Vespasian’s Camp to the area south of Woodhenge for birds to initially deflesh the bodies of the the recently dead.
- After a certain period of time, the remaining bones of the highest status individuals were collected from the platforms and surrounding area, removed, and placed in wooden charnel house structures that stood at that time on the site at Stonehenge.
I make mention of the above only to illustrate the special relationship that our ancestors may have enjoyed with birds and the deeply intimate influence that birds may have exercised on their psyche.
Hunting birds particularly have enjoyed a special status amongst the historical kings and queens of Britain. The above white-tailed sea eagle may have been held in captivity by the then king of Stonehenge as the only bird of high enough status to eat the flesh of human kings at the required time. For the man to know that one day his flesh would be offered as food to this bird he shared his life with must have been a constant and humbling reminder of his fate.
Imagine Coneybury Henge for a short time on a hill near Stonehenge dedicated to a funerary ritual fit for a king of the Wessex tribe, a Neolithic Westminster Abbey. The king’s recently dead body placed on a raised wooden platform at the centre of the henge. The captive eagle offered forward that had shared much of its life in the company of the living king. A bird chosen by the king himself had the honour bestowed upon it of feasting on the flesh of a king for a final meal itself. After the eagle was satiated and a suitable time had elapsed, the bird was sacrificed and the family of the king ritually prepared and feasted too on the flesh of the eagle. The king’s favourite dog sacrificed and placed with the final partial remains of the eagle in a ditch on a hill on Salisbury Plain .
Eagle stones or aetites (technically, any hollow stone containing loose matter) are a subject I find fascinating and hope to return to in the future. According to Pliny, aetites were found in the nests of eagles and there are always two of these stones found together, ‘a male stone and a female stone, without which the eagles would be unable to propagate’. Others have said that these stones protect the eagle’s eggs and young from lightning strikes and snakes, who are said to fear them. An excellent article on these elusive stones by C.N. Bromehead exists in the archives of Antiquity : 1947 volume 21 Number 81 pages 16-22. Unfortunately, it is not free to view. Pliny also observed that eagle stones should be wrapped in the skin of an animal that has been sacrificed. The stone was observed to have a purplish colour, coincidentally, the colour closely associated with British royalty to the extent that Elizabeth I forbade anyone except close members of the royal family from wearing the colour.
William Blake and Eagles:
Does the Eagle know what is in the pit,
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole?
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod,
Or Love in a golden bowl?
‘In the third chamber was an Eagle with wings and feathers of air
he caused the inside of the cave to be infinite,
around were numbers of Eagle like men,
who built palaces in the immense cliffs.’
‘The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow’
‘When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of genius; lift up thy head!’
1757 to 1827