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Chapter 3 Journal Activity

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Archaeology in a place of myth.


In a practical sense, Stonehenge archaeologists owe nothing to Geoffrey of Monmouth. No serious archaeologist believes that the stones came from Ireland in post-Roman times. Nevertheless, the Welsh cleric continues to cast a great shadow over how the public perceives the work of said archaeologists, which in turn influences how they work and how their findings are perceived by the public.

Geoffrey of Monmouth included Stonehenge in his mythology of Britain and by attributing its relocation to Amesbury to Merlin. In doing so, imbued one of approximately 1300 megalithic circles with a sense of legend and romance that persists to this day. Alongside places such as the Great Pyramids, the Great Wall of China and just about everywhere in Israel, the public is interested in Stonehenge and has some preconception about what ought to be discovered about it.

Stonehenge is unlike other sites, such as Catalhoyuk, that may be equally, if not more, archaeologically interesting. The broader public wants to know about Stonehenge. New findings are likely to be much more broadly featured in the news than findings at other sites. This can be good for archaeologists, not only because it is pleasing to have attention paid to one's work but also because public interest is likely to lead to greater funding. However, there is a downside to public interest insofar as Stonehenge's use as a tourist attraction must be balanced with its use as an active archaeological site. The construction of infrastructure such as new roads for tourists can threaten sites of archeological interest. Even worse, past "amateur archaeology" of the sort done by Captain Beamish has obliterated artifacts that more competent investigators would have preserved.

Stonehenge archaeologists must also work in the shadow of what the public expects them to find about Stonehenge. No-one still believes supernatural explanations for Stonehenge's construction of the sort proposed by Geoffrey of Monmouth (aside perhaps people who believe the site was constructed with the help of extraterrestrials). Nonetheless, his mythologising of the place has led the public to feel that theories of the place must be embellished. It cannot be just an ancient religious site. It must be a place where human sacrifice was once conducted. It cannot just be an impressive example of engineering, so precise that light from the solstice goes through the stones. It must be an elaborate astronomical clock. Stonehenge Archaologists must therefore work to debunk the public's preconceived notions about the place. They must live with the fact that, no matter how fascinating their findings, they will always be slightly disappointing compared to the myth. That the bluestones came from Wales is exciting, for instance, but how much less exciting than if they had really been brought from Ireland by Merlin himself!


over 1 year ago

Nicely put! Now I'm looking up Catalhoyuk.

over 1 year ago

Catalhoyuk is really interesting. Certainly worth reading about.

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