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.

14 thoughts on “Stonehenge Riverside Landscape Project

  1. Christine

    I had no idea that pre-history was so perplexing!

    After reading the ‘Declaration of Abroath’
    []it would seem that the Scots were not indigenous to Scotland but rather [first]drove out the Britons and [then] utterly destroyed the Picts.

    The Picts who approximately occupied the territory we now know as Scotland were not of Celtic origin.[]

    Apparently there is a scholarly debate raging over the identity of the Britons as to whether they were Celtic or not. Christopher Allen Synder in ‘The Britons’ p4 describes the debate as follows;

    “Most of the debate is emanating from archaeologists who study the European Iron Age. They are now questioning the association of Hallstatt and La Tene cultures with Celtic speaking peoples, and whether the specifically continential term ‘Keltoi’ (or Celtae) shoule be used to describe the Iron Age inhabitants of Britian and Ireland. Greek and Roman writers were inconsistent in their useage of the term, they say, and ‘Celt’was never used to describe a person from the British Isles prior to the seventeenth century.”

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    The term Celtic comes, I think, from the Greeks. It lacks specificity and I prefer to think of all (or almost all) of the inhabitants of North Europe as Indo Europeans, though this is a lingiustic/cultural group rather than a ‘racial’ group

  3. Christine

    The linguistic trail is an interesting one…[ Perhaps it suggests the three groups (Brythons, Gaels and Picts)all share a common proto-Celtic origin? It is also interesting to note the continential migrations and settlements that resulted due to the Anglo Saxon invasions in the west of Britiana….

    Indo-European langauges include both the celtic and the germanic language: supposing an earlier common origin?

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    Yes. All the languages of Europe (except Finnish and Basque) have a common origin and the term Indo-European is not very helpful. The probability is that it originated in East Anatolia or around the Caucuses Mountains. ‘Caucasian’ might have been a better name for the language but it became associated with a racial group – rather as though some future historian concluded the Japanese belong to the same ‘race’ as the English because they use trains.

  5. Marian

    I am totally with you on the cremation and scattering of ashes Tom. I personally like the idea of flying to the four winds to help provide a little potash to the odd needy plant. I don’t want to be remembered as a name on a headstone and I cannot understand the idea of building concrete walls with metal doors and hiding ashes inside in urns to atrophy in the dark .. but for those who do like to be commemorated the Native Woodland movement is a great alternative. There are apparently over 200 natural burial sites now in the UK, see

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    Yes, and it would be rather nice if ‘the community’ expanded the area of woodland each time someone died.
    There is also something attractive about Parker Pearson’s theory that casting the ashes into the river was a community ceremony at the solstice, like a graduation, except that everyone ‘passes’.

  7. Martina

    Very intriguing idea – expanding woodland over burial sites. In my country are cemeteries enveloped by Thuja or Chamaecyparis (instead of mythological Cyperuss). I always wanted a tree on very spot of grave or little pond for ashes. Imagine how more diverse would be these places with trees, ponds, shrubs and mounds without ‘stone beds’ getting vandalised. Instead of mourning above expensive cold tombs and artificial flowers, one would look up with excitement how the tree is gradually climbing to the sky and taking sorrow away. I can see families of deceased to compete whose tree is taller and faster growing than others. I should think about this earlier as a topic for my final project;-)

  8. Christine

    So we would have forests and/or woodlands to honour our dead as well as avenues of honour to honour our fallen?

  9. Christine

    ps. Treenet is an organisation interested in Avenues of Honour, War Memorials and their links to overseas grave sites ie. Gallipoli. []

  10. Tom Turner Post author

    I prefer the idea of new forests to that of endless avenues, because avenues are so closely associated with power. Societies need power, of course, but I have inherited a streak of anarchism which makes me more aware of the abuse of power than of its uses. Re the Avenues of Honour project, I recommend Kipling: “If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied”

  11. Tom Turner Post author

    Martina, I guess the big issue in cemetery design is whether Man is part of nature or separate from nature. Our language, which is rooted in two millennia of religious belief, is that we are separate, so that we use the words ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ to mean ‘not made by man’. This leads us to make graves which are obviously ‘influenced by man’. It depresses me to see new fields being converted from beautiful farmland to ugly ‘developments’ of ugly lumps of granite with ugly lettering – though they look worse in Russian-influenced countries, embedded with photographs of the deceased.

  12. christine

    Professor Doug Fisher is his article ‘Can the Law Protect Landscape Values’ [] highlights an aspect of how landscapes [and historic heritage] are valued that is often easily overlooked;

    “Place – just like landscape, space and land – means different things to different people in different contexts. Thus space and landscape generate a sense of cultural identity. Much depends on the cultural context of the people involved. Thus, even if there is a growing sense of European culture;

    ‘The reality of Europe has long been of making differences between Europeans on the basis of certain common inheritances that have been given distinctive casts in different places. So, even if a given landscape vista can be thought of as having a certain ‘Europeanness’ to it, compared say to North American or North African vistas, much stronger influences come from national, regional and local contexts in which the particular vistas are embedded.’

    There are numerous examples of the diversity of perceptions of landscape depending on the cultural context of the individuals or groups involved….”

  13. Tom Turner Post author

    I have read that in Israel, the Jewish heritage is protected and valued but other types of heritage (Christian, Muslim, Arab, Palestinian etc) are not valued and not protected. One could say ‘understandable’ but I would also say ‘very regrettable’.


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