Chapter 3 Journal Activity
Long shadow of a lost King?
Perhaps the importance of Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the legends of Stonehenge, is that, whilst others before him had possibly described Stonehenge, he offered an explanation for its construction, as well as its purpose. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, given that he also wrote the History of the Kings of Britain, he suggested that a king initiated the process,.
In 1136AD Geoffrey of Monmouth tells a story of a king called Aurelius, who is told by Merlin, a ‘prophet’, that he should bring stones from Ireland, and this refers to the Wiltshire monument. From the Greeks before the Roman invasion of Britain, through Henry II, Edward I and Malory in 1469, and into modern times, there seems to be the will to find a King connected to Stonehenge. It is likely that many of the people excavating the monument from the 17th century onwards were hoping to find treasure fit for a king, though whether this was for the person himself or for the treasure they expected him to have, I am not placed to say. It would also seem that there is an expectation on behalf of visitors to Stonehenge and others that a single figure or specific set of people would be responsible for the initiation of this building project.
Such an amazing and demanding structure as Stonehenge would seem to have needed to leadership of a king-like figure to initiate it and inspire or command the loyalty and authority to bring together the necessary workforce. I know of no evidence suggesting a large slave population, so it would seem those who carried out the build did so willingly, whether out of a desire to participate or a part of their contribution to a group or tribe. Even so, the enormity of the task would suggest that the work would require more people than the kind of local population we imagine to have existed in even productive areas in the Neolithic. In his text about the building of Stonehenge, Geoffrey of Monmouth suggests that the stones should be brought from an existing structure, “which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts”, seeming to suggest that these experts might come from another place (or time!). To bring together such people would require power and knowledge of managing people. It is easy enough, bearing this in mind, to understand the perceived need for a king.
When a newly discovered burial was found, about three miles from Stonehenge, surrounded by a wealth of grave goods, it is not surprising that the press designated him the King of Stonehenge, for example “The king of Stonehenge: Were artefacts at ancient chief's burial site Britain's first Crown Jewels?” By Paul Harris for the Daily Mail, 12 May 2009. He lived in the early Bronze age, and without modern scientific methods of research, who knows whether he would have been dubbed King Arthur. However, analysis has shown that his origins are not in the UK but somewhere near the Alps.
So back to our question, ‘To what extent are Stonehenge archaeologists still working in the shadow of Geoffrey of Monmouth?’ For certain, we still want to understand this majestic and very substantial monument. Our approach it differently now though. Archaeologists now look for physical evidence, massive or microscopic, and though they will refer to documents written in the past, they are very critical in their assessment of the information within theme. It does not need to be the gold and treasure that would conventionally be seen as fit for a king that excites them. In fact, one only needs to look at the Blick Mead excavation, being carried out by Buckingham University, to see how small pieces of stone can cause huge excitement in the archaeological community. The realization that those stones were shaped by people nearly 8,000 years ago, combined with its closeness to Stonehenge, makes this treasure of stones and bones as important as gold or gems.
If the archaeologists are delighted when they find the likes of Blick Mead, where does Geoffrey of Monmouth fit into the modern scene? Those who seek out information about the past, including prehistory, don’t operate in a blissful bubble where their activities are supported and encouraged by all. Despite any evidence that might be found, the myths and legends of the past, including those of Geoffrey of Monmouth have taken root in the minds of some modern people, who can be very possessive of property and remains found in this area. Not only Geoffrey’s writings, the stories and characters from Stukely, who embroidered the information given by Julius Caesar, both these creative writers have provided inspiration for some people to believe that the Stonehenge monument and landscape still have spiritual relevance to them, and sometimes conflict with the current custodians of the area. Loose connections between the writers of the past find current custodians accommodating a man with a motor bike claiming to be a spiritual leader with the first name of our greatest legendary king, and asserting rights for himself and his followers. So perhaps archaeologists do still have to operate in the shadow of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the idea of a mystical king.