Category Archives: landscape and garden archaeology

Stonehenge theories revisited


Stonehenge Sunrise June 22nd 2009

Stonehenge Sunrise June 22nd 2009

The paperback version of Rosemary Hill’s Stonehenge has just come out. In this witty and erudite volume she unpicks the various theories of the purpose of the stones and shows how they “say more about the theorists and their time than the place itself”.

Like Pevsner and among many others I have shared Tom’s disappointment in visiting Stonehenge in the middle of the day with a thousand other tourists, and have done the same visit only once since we were no longer allowed to have picnics on the sacrificial stone.  And no one can tell me that it is not indeed a sacrificial stone, since my own time and place meant I was brought up with the romantic view of Stonehenge as described by Clive King’s immortal ‘Stig of the Dump’. In it the time-misplaced caveman Stig who lives in a chalk pit, leads our adventurous hero out of his long summer holidays and back in time to witness Stonehenge one Midsummer’s Eve. The sense of time and timelessness of the stones are ingrained via the experience of childhood.

It is in the moonlight or early morning that the stones look at their most magical, or in the drama of a storm as portrayed by Turner. One must go out of hours. The only way to visit Stonehenge in my view is then to keep your romantic beliefs, and in the current layout to keep your distance. One must see it without the crowds; the coaches and concessions; barbed wire and information panels – (the latter soon to be redone by English Heritage’s ‘intellectual access scheme’ which apparently involves rewriting all information so that it can be understood by someone with the reading age of ten.)

One of the best views of the Stones and the settings is from the footpaths behind Countess Farm, on the Amesbury roundabout. Walking up behind the Kings Barrows and looking out along the Avenue you get the sense of scale and grandeur which makes the whole plain feel like a cathedral nave with the stone circle as the trancept. One of the fairly recent proposals was to have the visitor centre at Countess Farm, with pedestrian access to the stones from there. This would be a brilliant way of regaining the atmosphere of the place, with the half mile walk allowing the time and space to feel the sense of place. The cars and coaches would be out of the view too. We would then just need to get rid of the barbed wire.

At the poet and philosopher John Michell’s memorial service last month was read this poem:

How Lord Montagu Gave Stonehenge to the Freemasons

By John Michell, Midsummer 1988

WHEN philanthropic Mr Chubb gave Stonehenge to the Nation

(He’d bought it just before he made this generous donation)

He laid down two conditions: public access as of right

And nothing to be built nearby to mar the sacred site.

The answer to these clauses form the government Trustees

Was ‘Bother Mr Chubb, we’ll do exactly as we please.

A few more buildings round Stonehenge aren’t really going to spoil it,

Beginning with a carpark and a gents’ and ladies’ toilet.

The Commissioners of Works who were the first administrators

Were succeeded by another bureaucratic apparatus

Entitled ‘English Heritage’, and what these people do

Is bugger up historic sites; their head’s Lord Montagu.

They made a fence of steel and wire which everyone bemoans

And dug a concrete tunnel from the carpark to the stones.

No one is permitted now to walk inside the ring

You’re kept behind some ropes so you can hardly see a thing.

There used to be a festival to greet the summer sun

And people would assemble there as they had always done.

In 1985 we saw the end of that tradition

Lord Montagu decided on its total abolition.

But ever since he ordered that the festival should cease

Stonehenge has been surrounded by an army of police,

And if you try to join them they get terribly excited

And tell you that it’s private and you haven’t been invited.

Now, I’m not the sort of person who’ll impetuously hasten

To spread the word that every single policeman’s a Freemason,

But many of them are you know, and here’s the subtle dodge;

Stonehenge has now been proved to be an old Masonic Lodge.

The person who revealed this – and he certainly should know-

Is Mr Russell Herner of the Grand Lodge, Ohio.

His book about Stonehenge says it was built for all eternity

To house the Master Mason and the rest of his fraternity.

So when upon the longest day, St John the Baptist’s Feast,

You see a group around Stonehenge who gaze towards the East,

They’re not just simple coppers spoiling other people’s fun,

They’re members of the brotherhood out worshipping the sun.

Perhaps there was a senior officer at the memorial, for we learn this week that all pagan police officers are to be given time off to celebrate the Summer Solstice. And all witches in the force are to be given Halloween for religious parity. Who will police the solstice then?

Fishbourne Roman Palace Garden

The re-created Fishbourne Roman Garden looks too much like a renaissance garden, with a 'formal' hedge and mown lawn

The re-created Fishbourne Roman Garden looks too much like a renaissance garden, with a 'formal' hedge and a mown lawn. The museum building, left, is passable but it would have been a much better idea to use the columns to make a proper peristyle with a tiled roof. Terracotta-coloured sheet steel would be an improvement.

Barry Cunliffe led the excavations at Fishbourne from 1961-8 and wrote a most useful book on the subject. Located near Chichester on the south coast, Fishbourne is the best example of a Roman garden in England. But I am doubtful about Cunliffe’s interpretation.  He began with the proposition that ‘there was a formal and it was discoverable by excavation’ (Cunliffe’s italics). This assumes his conclusion and the term ‘formal garden’ comes from a much later period in garden history. This has been a problem with much that has been written about Roman gardens. Since the term ‘Renaissance’ means ‘re-birth’ too many people have concluded that we can discover the form of  Roman gardens by studying renaissance re-incarnations. But there are several other sources of information about Roman gardens and they do not seem to confirm this picture (or ‘formal’ hedges and a ‘formal’ lawn : (1)  the frescos at Pompeii, Herculaneum and elsewhere; (2) excavation of garden sites in Southern Europe; (3) texts, such as Pliny’s letters. None of these sources confirm the above re-creation of Fishourne. The planting design  comes from a pattern of trenches, but there is no evidence that box was planted in these trenches. Cunliffe calls them ‘bedding trenches’ (p.134) and my experience of growing hedges and flowers inclines me to the belief that they were more likely to have been planted with flowers. Pollen analysis yielded no information but box is of course a tree (Buxus sempervirens). It can grow on very dry soils and it has has strong fibrous roots. Digging up one of the box trees shown on the photograph ( planted at Fishbourne in the 1960s) would provide useful evidence – my guess is that the roots would be found to have outgrown and destroyed the archaeological Roman ‘bedding trenches’ (in fact I do not think they should have been planted, for this very reason – who knows what information future archaeological techniques might otherwise have discovered?). William Melmoth’s translation of Pliny’s Letter LII to Domitius Apollinaris [ Bosanquet, 1909 edn] includes this passage:  ‘You descend, from the terrace, by an easy slope adorned with the figures of animals in box, facing each other, to a lawn overspread with the soft, I had almost said the liquid, Acanthus: this is surrounded by a walk enclosed with evergreens, shaped into a variety of forms.’   I wonder if the tree, shown as a conical specimen on the photograph, was box clipped into an animal form. Conical specimen trees and lawns are modern concepts.  Like everyone, I  would like to know more.

Stonehenge as a woodland site

The stones at Stonehenge may have been placed in a woodland glade, as in the above photomontage

The stones at Stonehenge may have been placed in a woodland glade, as in the above photomontage

If Stonehenge was built in a woodland clearing, this photomontage gives an impression of how it might have looked, more like Japan’s sacred rocks (iwakura) in a sacred place ( niwa) in a forest  than like the ‘English Acropolis’ Stonehenge was once conceived to have been.

Stonehenge was made at the height of the Neolithic forest clearance which converted England from a forest land to a partly-agricultural land. Clearings symbolized the presence and the work of man. There are no records of Neolithic vegetation cover on Salisbury Plain but it ‘must’ (as bad historians say) have been part-open and part-woodland. The photomontage shows that the Stones in the Henge would have looked beautiful  in a woodland clearing, as would the Cursus and the Avenues. The Stonehenge Riverside Landscape Project, led by Mike Parker Pearson, has emphasised the fact that the henge was not an isolated  ‘monument’ in the sense that war memorials are isolated monuments. Stonehenge was a complex feature in one of the earliest man-made landscapes in North Europe. It was, one might say, a context-sensitive design!

Burial Mounds

Winterbourne Stoke Barrows









Martina’s comments on ways of commemorating the dead bring us full circle to the Stonehenge site which has amazing burial mounds all around the surrounding countryside. Many have been ruined by the plough but as the English Heritage site above shows there are still some beautiful landforms.



Stonehenge Riverside Landscape Project

The River Avon, near Durrington Walls and Stonehenge, might have been as sacred as the River Ganges at Varanasi

The River Avon, near Durrington Walls and Stonehenge, might have been as sacred as the River Ganges at Varanasi

ITV’s Timewatch broadcast a very good programme on the Stonehenge Riverside Project. Led by Mike Parker Pearson, from 2003-9, it studied the landscape setting of the monument. Parker Pearson presented the argument with brilliance, acknowledging other views and gaps in the evidence. This contrasted with other theorists (eg of Stonehenge as an astronomical observatory or a healing centre) who have seemed too partisan. As the name suggests, the Stonehenge Riverside Project theory is that the riverside was the key feature in the prehistoric landscape and that it was used for the disposal of ashes from the cremation of those who had died during the year. This gives a comparability with Varanasi and Hindu culture. Parker Pearson also argued that Durrington Walls (Britain’s largest henge circle, a few miles from Stonehenge) was ‘the land of the living’ (a settlement) while Stonehenge was ‘the land of the dead’ and that there was a processional route between them, along the River Avon. This gives a comparability with Thebes, though Egyptian processions crossed the Nile, and leads to the question (to which my answer is ‘Yes, definitely’) ‘Should Stonehenge and Durrington Walls feature in the history of garden and landscape design?’

One thought left in my mind by the programme was how much more dignified ancient funeral rites were than their modern equivalents. Britain has a ghastly collection of semi-secular-municipal-multi-faith ‘chapels’ with maudlin decor and tawdry music systems. I would much rather be cremated on an open fire and have my ashes strewn in a wild and beautiful landscape, without the taint of municipal officialdom or a level of  ‘funeral parlour hucksterdom’ which makes Varanasi seem efficient, fair and well-run, as well as spectacularly beautiful and profoundly spiritual.

George Harrison of the Beatles was cremated and his ashes were cast into the Ganges.

Landscape setting of the Avebury Stone Circle

The landscape setting of Avebury Stone Circle: it is a visually contained enclosure

The landscape setting of Avebury Stone Circle: it is a visually contained enclosure

Avebury is a more appealing place than Stonehenge. It is more beautiful and, to me, it has a greater sense of ‘spiritual mystery’. The Unesco summary is that “Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world” and that “Avebury prehistoric stone circle is the largest in the world. The encircling henge consists of a huge bank and ditch 1.3km in circumference, within which 180 local, unshaped standing stones formed the large outer and two smaller inner circles.”

I wonder if the reason for my being more attracted to Avebury is that, because of the remaining trees and the  high earth bank, it is still an enclosure. As noted in a previous post on Stonehenge, I believe it must have been an enclosure in woodland. Avebury more-or-less retains this condition and it is highly significant. It was a sanctuary: a sacred place in the sense of a place which was ‘set apart’ from, yet related to, the wider landscape. The  photographs, above, show the site of Avebury from Windmill Hill (top). The church steeple can be seen in the centre of the top photograph and on the right of the middle photograph. The road and the barbed wire in the third photograph are an absolute screaming disgrace, equivalent to using  Rome’s Forum as a coach park. I am very pleased that they are going to deal with the roads around Stonehenge but, first, they should implement a much cheaper and very much more important project by closing the wicked road through Avebury to motor vehicles.

We can view Stonehenge and Avebury in the light of  Ken Dowden’s comment (European paganism 2000, p.27 ) “If there was an Indo-European homeland, there were no temples there, only landscape. Sacral area must therefore in origin be identified by geography, not buildings. The buildings we have today, where they do not represent long-standing religious tradition, continue a geographical sense of sacrality. In this sense ‘nature’ inevitably underlies the choice of place in which to perform ritual”

Stonehenge as landscape and garden

img_0123-stonehenge2Colin Renfrew wrote that ‘Most of us have been brought up to believe,  for instance, that the Pyramids of Egypt are the oldest stone-built monuments in the world, and that the first temples built by man were situated in the Near East… It comes, then, as a shock to learn that all of this is wrong. The megalithic chamber tombs of western Europe are now dated earlier than the Pyramids – indeed, they rank as the earliest stone monuments in the world – so an origin for them in the east Mediterranean seems altogether implausible’ (Before Civilization, 1976 edn p.16).

This reads like a ‘mine-is-bigger/older-than-yours’ sort of argument. A greater truth is that Stonehenge AND the Pyramids were products of a Neolithic civilization which had its origins in West Asia. And both have a significant relationship to the landscape – which has received insufficent attention.

The only certain facts about the placing of Stonehenge are that it was in the midst of an agricultural community and it was aligned with the solstice. It was a sacred place,  not on a hilltop and not a fort. To understand such a place, one has to engage with the planning and design of Neolithic sanctuaries, in, for example, the countries which are now Iraq, Malta, Egypt, Greece and France. The best examples are in Egypt and the most useful way forward may be to review what is known about ‘sacred gardens’ (sanctuaries) in Sumer, Babylon, Luxor and Wessex. To me, this suggests that the above images  Stonehenge with a woodland backdrop are more likely to represent the original situation the views against open downland. I do not think it was not built as an eyecatcher ‘monument’. It was a sanctuary for rituals and ceremonies – and such activities were shielded from public gaze in West Asia.  The encircling mound must also have blocked inward views, as the larger mound at Avebury still does.

English Heritage is planning a much-needed ‘restoration’ of the Stonehenge landscape and it would be good if a way could be found to allow both ‘woodland’ and ‘downland’ views of the site. Assuming this is not possible, another alternative would be to make a full ‘re-creation’ of Stonehenge in a woodland setting. It would not be such an expensive project and it would (1) reduce visitor pressure on the anicent ‘monument’ (2) allow visitors to walk amongst the re-created stones – which might just as well me made in re-constituted stone.

See also: post on the landscape setting of Avebury Stone Circle.

Deptford Creek London Landscape Archaeology


I wish I could tell you whether this rotting barge is a ‘wreck awaiting removal’ or a ‘scheduled monument awaiting a viewing fee’. I fear the former. Deptford Creek is a very interesting place. Henry VIII established England’s first Royal Dockyard here. Peter Romanov, son of Alexis I, was born in the Kremlin and came to Deptford in 1698 to learn shipbuilding. This was 4 years before he became the Czar who became Peter the Great. An exceedingly strong man, he worked, drank and womanized with the shipwrights. From 1871 until 1914 Deptford was the City Corporation’s Foreign Cattle Market. But almost all the evidence of this fascinating history has gone. The Docklands Light Railway was as heartlessly perched over the river as if it  been in Tokyo.  Then, with the 1990s YBA’s and Britart, Deptford became an artist’s enclave.  Most certainly, the old ships should not be removed. But nor should they be restored. They should be allowed to sink, ever so gradually, into the mud.

Indian water gardens history and restoration

Ruchir75 put this photo on Flickr with the caption 'The watering system in Ram Bagh gardens'

Ruchir75 put this photo on Flickr with the caption 'The watering system in Ram Bagh gardens'

On the evidence of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (see quotes below), Ancient India had the most fabulous gardens. But they were lost and the Indian gardens we know today were made by, or influenced by,  Islam. Various acts of violence have made Muslims unpopular in India and this may have contributed to the comparative neglect of India’s gardens – despite India having the world’s finest examples of Islamic gardens. So what can be done to revive and restore this wonderful heritage? One of the great tasks is to get the water back into the canals, as in the gardens of the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb. But how can this be done? The task requires local enterprise. Garden managers should be informed that pools, baolies, canals and plants require water.  An Indian Decade of Water Gardens should be declared during  which local garden curators and their malis can raise entrance fees on days when the water systems are working and share the increased revenue with staff. The present system of charging foreign visitors 10 times as much as Indian visitors should be replaced with a system of charging higher entrance fees to all non-local visitors. India now has as a middle class equal in size and wealth to a large European country, providing a resource which should be ‘tapped’ to fund the restoration of India’s water gardens. When things start getting better they are likely to continue getting better.  The Ram Bagh Gardens were made by Babur, the first Mughal Emperor,  but are now named after Lord Rama, hero of the Ramayana (image courtesy ruchir75). [Notes (1) a mali is a gardener (2) it costs more to enter Versailles when the fountains are working]

Ramayana on gardens

Beyond the sea my Lanka stands
Filled with fierce forms and giant bands,
A glorious city fair to see
As Indra’s Amaravati.
A towering height of solid wall,
Flashing afar, surrounds it all,
Its golden courts enchant the sight,
And gates aglow with lazulite.
Steeds, elephants, and cars are there,
And drums’ loud music fills the air,
Fair trees in lovely gardens grow
Whose boughs with varied fruitage glow.

Mahabharata on gardens

Within that palace Maya placed a peerless tank, and in that tank were lotuses with leaves of dark-coloured gems and stalks of bright jewels, and other flowers also of golden leaves. And aquatic fowls of various species sported on its bosom. Itself variegated with full-blown lotuses and stocked with fishes and tortoises of golden hue, its bottom was without mud and its water transparent. There was a flight of crystal stairs leading from the banks to the edge of the water. The gentle breezes that swept along its bosom softly shook the flowers that studded it. The banks of that tank were overlaid with slabs of costly marble set with pearls. And beholding that tank thus adorned all around with jewels and precious stones, many kings that came there mistook it for land and fell into it with eyes open. Many tall trees of various kinds were planted all around the palace. Of green foliage and cool shade, and ever blossoming, they were all very charming to behold. Artificial woods were laid around, always emitting a delicious fragrance. And there were many tanks also that were adorned with swans and Karandavas and Chakravakas (Brahminy ducks) in the grounds lying about the mansion. And the breeze bearing the fragrance of lotuses growing in water and (of those growing on land) ministered unto the pleasure and happiness of the Pandavas. And Maya having constructed such a palatial hall within fourteen months, reported its completion unto Yudhishthira.

See also: Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes

Re-creation of the world's oldest garden design in Egypt

The plan is Sennufer's Garden is the most famous illustration of an Egyptian garden, and the oldest accurate plan of a garden

The plan of Sennufer's Garden is the most famous illustration of an Egyptian garden, and the world's oldest accurate plan of a garden

I heard a rumor that  Sennufer’s Garden is to be re-created. This is a project I have dreamed of  (see note at foot of page on The Domain of Amun) and I believe it is the best tourism investment Egypt could make.

– the project will attract worldwide publicity
– the re-created garden will remind the world that Egypt may well be the country in which the world’s first pleasure garden was made (see blog post Where is the world’s oldest garden?)
– garden visiting is an extremely popular tourist activity, with the Alhambra said to be the most visited garden in Europe
– a new tourist attraction on the East bank in Luxor will take some of the pressure off the ancient monuments on the West bank of the Nile
– a re-created historic garden will fit well with the ambience of the resort hotels being developed on the East bank
I do not know if it has been arranged but the re-created garden is the type of project which could easily attract funding from a hotel chain, an Arab billionaire or from the Aga Khan Historic Cities Support Programme (HCSP) . Since the garden structures would be of mud brick, the cost would not be exorbitant.

The new Sennufer’s garden will  be an invaluable contribution to the world’s cultural heritage. If he has a hand in the project, congratulations to Dr. Zahi Hawass (Secretary General, The Supreme Council of Antiquities). A re-creation of the world’s oldest garden would be a wonderful event.

Other Egyptian garden plans survive but Sennufer’s Garden Plan is by far the most sophisticated and in some respects astonishingly modern. See Marie-Luise Gothein’s explanation of the plan of Sennefer’s garden.

[See also: Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes]

Where was the world's first garden made?

The garden of the House of Venus at Pompeii is one of the oldest surviving gardens in the world (image courtesy John Keogh)

The garden of the House of Venus at Pompeii is one of the oldest surviving gardens in the world (image courtesy John Keogh)

Cultivation and the domestication of plants began in the Levantine Corridor, which runs from Dead Sea to the Damascus Basin, and quite probably outside Jericho. This is known because the earliest domesticated plants are all native to this region and radio-carbon dating reveals that horticultural activity began c9,000 BCE. Plants were cultivated by hand and with digging sticks, not with the plough, but the plants cultivated were all cereals and pulses, making ‘farming’ a better description of the activity than ‘gardening’ or ‘horticulture’ in the modern sense of ‘not ploughed’.

The first literary evidence of gardening comes from Sumer in Lower Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh mentions that his city (Uruk) was ‘one third gardens’ – but the gardens were were palm orchards. Some flowers may have been grown but the main purpose was growing food and the gardens are unlikely to have been beside houses. People lived on dry mounds (tells) and required irrigation to grow fruit and vegetables. The Garden of Eden was ‘located’ in Sumer but its status is mythological rather than historical.

China is another candidate for having made the first gardens but the only places we know of were more like National Parks than anything we would call a garden. Chinese imperial parks were fast tracts of wild landscape set aside for hunting, as at Changan. There were altars in the parks, and pavilions at a later date, and crops were cultivated but they are better described as parks than as ‘gardens’.

The next candidate country for having had the ‘world’s first garden’ is Egypt and since the Egyptians had gardens in the exact sense in which the word is now used,  ‘Egypt’ is the best answer to the question ‘Where was the world’s first garden made?’ Some temple gardens (sanctuaries, like Karnak) survive in Egypt but the only representations of domestic gardens are paintings and models. The oldest garden layout known to archaeology may be at Passargadae in Iran.

So where was Europe’s first garden made? The possibilities are Crete, mainland Greece, Sicily and mainland Italy. The inhabitants of Greece (who did not speak Greek) were cultivators by 7000 BCE, which is 2000 years before the Egyptians, and practiced ornamental horticulture in classical times (500 BCE). But Europe’s first gardens in the modern sense of enclosed and planted spaces designed in conjunction with dwellings were probably in Italy – and the oldest surviving examples are certainly in Pompeii (above image courtesy John Keogh) with some of them made by Greek-speaking people.

[See also: Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes]