Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Stonehenge and the Round Table
Here is what I think is another piece of the Arthur story and how it delineates British culture on a deeper level than previously understood.
Last Sunday Channel 4 did a programme on new archaeological discoveries at Stonehenge.
It centred on the post holes that make up an outer circle around the famous stone circle and predates it
The results of his latest investigation:
reveal that the first stones at Stonehenge were put up 500 years earlier than previously thought at around 3000 BC. The monument we see today was not the original Stonehenge;
prove that Stonehenge as it looks today was built 200 years earlier than previously thought, around 2500 BC;
explain the choice of the site on Salisbury Plain;
prove that Stonehenge was once the site of vast communal feasts attended by some 4000 people, a substantial proportion of the British population (then estimated at only tens of thousands), with people coming from as far afield as highland Scotland to celebrate the solstice.
Professor Parker Pearson believes his findings provide compelling evidence that Stonehenge once united the people of Britain. And his analysis of the bodies and grave goods found on and around the site and around it also offers an answer to the mystery of Stonehenge’s decline.
The 3,000 BC Stonehenge was the outer circle with 53 "bluestones" marking the graves of high status people from all over Britain. Ignore all the modern stuff in the middle - it wasn't there when the place really was an annual winter (Yuletide) celebration site for a large proportion of the entirety of Britain. The bones of animals eaten in the feasting came fom across the British Isles, as far away as Orkney, but not from across the Channel, proving a political or at least cultural unity even 5,000 years ago.
What the central stones, added 500 years later show is that this site was remembered as being important long after, after the intervening arrival of the Beaker People in Britain. In many ways very like the way the written record of Arthur in the 12thC is far greater than that of the 5thC but the reality happened in the 5thC.
When I saw the layout of 53 separate graves round what is now the outer edge of Stonehenge I immediately said "Round Table".and subsequent thought fits with the idea.
The point about the round table was that it has no head and thus nobody there has the formal leadership role.
The concept of rulership by a group of people seated in such a way that they are all of equal rights fits this old Stonehenge. In fact it fits it better than in the Arthurian legend because Arthur was the leader (though he was the war leader not a king and certainly not the sort of Feudal king that existed at the time the legend was written down). Round Table as symbol of governance is indeed the complete antithesis of the sort of Feudal monarch Arthur was eventually writtin into being.
Was there a real round table in the centre of the open space that was/is Stonehenge or was it a metaphorical device? We cannot know because it is long gone but I suspect it is no metaphor and there actually was. Historians have a long record of assuming something was a metaphor when it wasn't - Atlantis, Agamemnon's crown and Troy. The remains of ones ancestors are of great importance in many cultures and common evidence of rights. If there was a central table each of these descendants of the original grave occupiers would be able to sit in front of their own ancestor asserting their hereditary right to be there and acknowledging that of all the others. That is as good a way of maintaining order as I can imagine for any political confederation of that level of technology.
The Round Table is not mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth's original book about Arthur of about 1236. It appears in Wace's Norman-French version of 1155 and is expanded by Laymon.
Wace says Arthur created the Round Table to prevent quarrels among his barons, none of whom would accept a lower place than the others. Layamon added to the story when he adapted Wace's work into the Middle English Brut in the early 13th century, saying that the quarrel between Arthur's vassals led to violence at a Yuletide feast. In response a Cornish carpenter built an enormous but easily transportable Round Table to prevent further dispute. Wace claims he was not the source of the Round Table; both he and Layamon credit it instead to the Bretons....
There is some similarity between the chroniclers' description of the Round Table and a custom recorded in Celtic stories, in which warriors sit in a circle around the king or lead warrior, in some cases feuding over the order of precedence as in Layamon.
The Bretons who settled Brittany had come from Britain when the Saxons were overrunning the country. It is thus in no way surprising that they would know ancient British lore as well as, or perhaps better than the inhabitants of England, who were as Saxon as they were ancient British. Geoffrey might not have heard of it but if Wace was in the process of transforming the Arthur legend from a mythic version of a historic person to an origin myth of the British people that is exactly when we might expect the addition of a Round Table myth (mythic only in the way that Troy used to be mythic) which was and had been for 4,000 years, central to the origin of the British people.
Many modern people may find it impropable that, without books, a historic story could be preserved for that many generations of bardic retelling. The Iliad was probably written within 1,000 tears of the events described but that is a much shorter time. The Epic of Gilgamesh survives but because it was written. Older stories, such as the Garden of Eden referring to either the Climate Optimum of about 5,000 BC or the flooding of the Black Sea are uncertain.
But there is something almost that old. The earliest written record of Merlin, written about the time of the historic Arthur, refers to him as having flown the Stones that make up the "modern" Stonehenge from Ireland. Obviously they weren't flown, but floated, and they came from Wales not Ireland, which in both cases can mean - from a little known land far away to the west. But the fact that they had been brought from such a distance, even by non-magical means, is not a random assumption. Clearly some memory of Stonehenge had been repeated down the millennia.
In which case a non-magical Round Table is no more difficult to remember.
With Arthur, finding that his name originated near Modena, where his first visualisation was, gave corroboration.
In the same way finding Laymon's unanticipated assertion that the Round Table was built to preserve peace at a mid-winter feast, when we know the main use of the early Stonehenge was around a mid-winter feast, seems to me to provide as much corroboration as we can currently expect.
If culture is important to social stability and progress and there is strong evidence that it is, finding part of a common egalitarian British political culture that has lasted 5,000 years is no small matter.
An extract: "Orthodox history has long taught that the Romans found a uniformly Celtic population throughout the British Isles, but that the peoples of the English heartland fell victim to genocide by the Anglo-Saxon hordes during the fifth and sixth centuries.
Now Stephen Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking genetic research has revealed that the ‘Anglo-Saxon invasion’ contributed only a tiny fraction to the English gene pool. In fact, three quarters of English people can trace an unbroken line of genetic descent through their parental genes from settlers arriving long before the introduction of farming."
In this case I had been wondering whether the Beaker People, were a large enough influx to affect DNA, though the fact that they built the inner Stonehenge 500 years after the previous culture built the outer circle suggests considerable continuity.
DNA Archeaology, if that is the term, seems to me to be an exciting field where much of what we think we know may be overturned with a level of certainty normally denied to historians.