From Neolithic shafts to skyscrapers

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Normally, in mid-June, the fields of Salisbury Plain are filled with pagans, druids, and tourists watching the dawn of the longest day of the year in the skies over Stonehenge. This year, however, the proceedings were live-streamed. Sitting inside and watching the sun touch the ancient stones on Facebook live with notifications beeping in the background undoubtably lacks a certain sense of mysticism.

And yet, in the absence of the usual visitors, there is still excitement in Wiltshire. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a large circle of deep shafts around Durrington Walls Henge, some three kilometres north-east of Stonehenge. Each shaft is ten metres in diameter and five metres deep, making them much wider than the largest trilithon at the more famous Neolithic structure. Twenty such shafts have been found, forming part of a circle around Durrington Walls. It is estimated that all that remains is forty percent of the original structure; much has been lost to later developments.

Professor Vincent Gaffney, the leading archaeologist, notes: ‘Stonehenge has a clear link to the seasons and the passage of time, through the summer solstice. But with the Durrington Shafts, it’s not the passing of time, but the bounding by a circle of shafts which has cosmological significance.’

Much has been made of the fact that the circle proves that the earliest inhabitants of Britain could count: they would have required a way of measuring in order to space the shafts. Evidently, to build such a structure – with only tools of bone and wood – was a dramatic, difficult undertaking; the effort was not accidental or random, but a result of a deep desire to mark the earth with a symbol of some significance. Size and furious energy signifying something, we just don’t know what.

When most of our interactions and indications of love or devotion exist in an intangible, internet-realm – Instagram posts for fathers’ day, Zoom graduation ceremonies, and FaceTime calls with the grandparents in which they can neither see nor hear you – it is difficult to conceive of a belief so strong that the only fit response is to toil over constructing a two kilometre wide circle of dangerous, unwieldy objects. Of course we have built cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues. But, as the years have gone on, waning religious beliefs and safer, industrialised building practices have coincided to make the act of constructing physical monuments to beliefs less difficult and less needed. Perhaps the only modern-day descendant of this Neolithic effort is the unending sea of cranes that bob across our cities’ skylines and build seemingly impossibly tall, narrow, and glassily-fragile skyscrapers.

No doubt this most recent excavation will give rise to reams of aliens/time-travel/hologram conspiracy theories like those that plague Stonehenge. But perhaps, in thousands of years, someone will be writing an article about the bizarre significance of some colossal wrecks by the Thames in South-East England. Boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away …

Francesca Peacock

Francesca Peacock is a member of the Engelsberg Ideas editorial team.

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