For thousands of years, the rough-hewn megaliths of Stonehenge have mystified and hypnotized visitors with a seemingly unanswerable question: Why would anyone, especially a prehistoric people working without the benefit of modern technology — or even the wheel — lug several dozen massive bluestones across Britain and arrange them in an enigmatic ring?
Julian Spalding, a British art critic and historian known for being a “maverick,” believes he has a solution no archaeologist has considered. Instead of looking at the stones for answers, Spalding says, we ought to be looking above them.
“The current theories about Stonehenge are based on looking across the ground, which is a modern, materialistic perspective,” he wrote in his new book “Realisation.”
The people of 5,000 years ago would never have been so low-minded, Spalding argues. In ancient times, spiritual ceremonies were conducted above ground level, so as to be closer to the heavens. He proposes that rituals at Stonehenge were performed in the same way — not among the stones, but on top of them.
In “Realisation,” which comes out Monday, Spalding reimagines Stonehenge as the foundation for a vast, circular platform. He calls it an “ancient Mecca on stilts,” a raised altar reached via ramps or stairs where thousands of prehistoric people might have worshiped in a more elevated style.
To support his theory, Spalding listed other examples of how ancient cultures scorned the earth: Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese emperors were carried everywhere they went; the three-tiered Circular Altar in Beijing; the mysterious Nasca lines in Peru, which can be viewed only from above.
“All the great raised altars of the past suggest that the people who built Stonehenge would never have performed celestial ceremonies on the lowly earth,” he wrote. “That would have been unimaginably insulting to the immortal beings, for it would have brought them down from heaven to bite the dust and tread in the dung.”
In a phone interview with The Washington Post, Spalding pointed out that post holes found in the ground around the site indicate that there once were wooden pillars where we now see stones. This supports the idea that Stonehenge was at one time a wooden structure, and that something other than the stones may have been the most important part of the monument.
Spalding is neither an archaeologist nor scientist, and he acknowledges it’s “a bit cheeky” for him to propose a new theory of Stonehenge based on no physical evidence.
But, he said, examining only the physical evidence may have been what prevented archaeologists from considering this theory before.
“I think they welcome the idea that there’s a very fresh way of looking at this remarkable place,” Spalding said.
In interviews with the Guardian, Stonehenge archaeologists expressed interested skepticism about Spalding’s theory.
“There could be something in it. There is a possibility, of course,” said Aubrey Burl, author of about a dozen books on stone monuments. “Anything new and worthwhile about Stonehenge is well worth looking into, but with care and consideration.”
Prehistorian and Oxford University archaeology professor Sir Barry Cunliffe was also unconvinced.
“He could be right, but I know of no evidence to support it,” he said.
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