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Aubrey holes are a ring of 56 pits at Stonehenge named after the seventeenth century antiquarian, John Aubrey. They date to the earliest phases of Stonehenge in the late fourth and early third millennium BC. Despite decades of argument and analysis, their purpose is still unknown.
Whilst visiting the monument in 1666, Aubrey noticed five circular cavities in the ground and noted them in his records. These features were ignored or not seen by the later antiquarians to investigate the site, and it was not until the 1920s during the work carried out by Colonel William Hawley that Hawley's assistant Robert Newall identified a ring of pits he attributed to Aubrey's discovery.
The depressions seen by Aubrey himself are more likely to have been different features to those that now bear his name. Mike Pitts in a 1981 article in Nature pointed out that the holes had been backfilled thousands of years before Aubrey visited the site. Later cremation burials and sarsen stone chips in the holes' upper fills supports this. That none of the other antiquarians who visited the site noticed any such holes implies that they were not permanent features either. Pitts argues that they were more likely to be the cavities left by features that had recently been removed. He has suggested that perhaps further megaliths stood at Stonehenge which occupied these other holes and are now lost. Alternatively, the cavities may represent grubbed-out bushes or trees.
The Aubrey holes themselves
Twenty-five of the holes were excavated by Hawley in 1920 and seven more in 1924. In 1950 Stuart Piggott and Richard Atkinson dug two more Aubrey Holes which brought the total excavated to thirty-five, including one that Richard Colt Hoare may have encountered whilst digging beneath the fallen Slaughter Stone in the early nineteenth century. It was found that the pits were an average of 0.76m deep and 1.06m in diameter. Twenty five of the pits contained later cremation burials inserted into their upper fills along with long bone pins which may have secured leather or cloth bags used to hold the remains. Their presence makes Stonehenge Britain's oldest cremation cemetery.
The pits appear to have been refilled with the freshly excavated chalk rubble soon after being dug as no weathering has been noted on the chalk sides if the pits. They may also have been dug out and refilled numerous times. The holes are in an accurate, 271.6m circumference circle, distributed around the edge with an average standard deviation in their positioning of 0.4m. The circle they describe is around 5m inside the monument's surrounding bank. Twenty-one of the holes remain unexcavated and no reliable dating material has been recovered from the other thirty-five. The only available carbon date from the holes comes from charcoal in one of the later cremations. It gives the broad range of 2919-1519 cal BC. That sarsen stone chips have only been found in the upper fills of the excavated pits implies that the digging of the holes predates the megalithic phases of Stonehenge. From this stratigraphic evidence it is therefore likely that the holes were dug during the first phase of the monument, Stonehenge 1 (around 3100 BC) and were then reused for burials during Stonehenge 2 in successive centuries. By the time the standing stones of Stonehenge 3 were erected (around 2600 BC), the holes had fallen out of use.
The positions of the holes are today marked at the Stonehenge site by white discs laid in the ground surface. Archaeologists number them 1 to 56 counting clockwise from the later Slaughter Stone at the eastern side of the north east entrance. Hawley reburied the human cremations he found, placing them in a hessian bag in the backfilled hole number 7.
Theories about the holes
Many interpretations prefer an astronomical explanation for the purpose of the holes although this is by no means proved. It was thought that when the Aubrey holes were first dug, the only standing feature at Stonehenge was the Heel Stone which may have had astronomical significance as it marks the midpoint of the moon's journey across the sky during the year. The Heel Stone is now attributed to Stonehenge 3 and was therefore not contemporary with the holes. Arguments over further astronomical significance are detailed below.
It has been suggested that the Aubrey holes were originally intended to be postholes containing timbers or stones but this is far from certain. Analogous timber circles at sites such as Woodhenge have influenced this interpretation. The positioning of the Aubrey Hole circle relative to the earth bank and ditch at Stonehenge is also reproduced at similar sites with rings of timber postholes. That the holes appear to have been filled soon after excavation and then possibly redug does not exclude the possibility that they held timber posts which were replaced intermittently. No evidence of postpipes has been recovered with the holes although modern archaeological excavation techniques have not been applied to the pits. If the putative timbers were purposefully removed when they fell out of use, then even this evidence would be difficult to spot however. The lack of full documentation from the early Stonehenge digs in the twentieth century and the disturbance caused by the insertion of the later cremations during Stonehenge 2 has also added to the uncertainty of the function of the holes.
In the authoritative survey of twentieth century excavations at Stonehenge, Stonehenge in its Landscape the archaeologist Karen Walker collated and studied the surviving records from all the early work on the holes and concluded that:
Although the evidence is inconclusive, and will no doubt be the subject of continued debate, the authors are inclined to support the view that the Aubrey Holes held posts, which were removed, rather than burnt in situ or left to decay.
Excavation of some of the remaining unexamined Aubrey Holes may well help illuminate this issue.
Archaeoastronomy and the Aubrey Holes
The astronomical readings of the holes are largely a product of the interpretation of them as being simple pits without any structural features. This approach has required finding an explanation which tends towards the theory that the holes were repeatedly dug, filled and redug and excludes possibilities relating to any possible timber posts standing in them. The theory that they may have been used to hold temporary markers for use in astronomical observations gained credence in the 1960s.
An early attempt to analyse the positions of the Aubrey holes was undertaken by Gerald Hawkins a professor of astronomy at Boston University in the 1960s using an IBM 7090 computer. In his book Stonehenge Decoded, Hawkins argued that the various features at the Stonehenge monument were arranged in such a way to predict a variety of astronomical events. He believed that the key to the holes' purpose was the lunar eclipse, which occurs on average about once a year on a 346.62 day cycle. Lunar eclipses are not always visible as the moon may be below the horizon as it moves across the sky, but over 18 to 19 years (18.61 years to be precise) the date and position of the eclipse will return it to the beginning point on the horizon again. As the motion of the moon's orbit also causes it to work its way across the sky on an 18.61 year cycle in what is known as the journey between major and minor standstill and back, the theory seemed attractive. Lunar movements may have had calendrical significance to early peoples, especially farmers who would have benefited from the division of the year into periods which indicated the best times for planting. 18.61 is not a whole number and so it cannot be used to predict an eclipse without precision equipment and using only crude stones or timber posts in a circle. Hawkins' theory was that three 18.61 year cycles multiply out to 55.83 however, which is much closer to an integer and therefore easier to mark using 56 holes. Hawkins argued that the Aubrey Holes were used to keep track of this long time period and could accurately predict the reoccurrence of a lunar eclipse on the same azimuth, that which aligned with the Heel Stone, every 56 years. Going further, by placing marker stones at the ninth, eighteenth, twenty-eighth, thirty-seventh, forty-sixth and fifty sixth holes, Hawkins deduced that other intermediate lunar eclipses could also be predicted
More recent examination, notably by Richard Atkinson, has proved Hawkins largely wrong as it is now established that the different features at the monument that he tried to incorporate into many of his alignment theories were in use at different times and could not have worked alone. The lateness of the installation of the Heel Stone being the final nail in the coffin. Furthermore, the 56 year period is not in fact a reliable method of predicting eclipses and it is now accepted that they never repeat their date and position over three consecutive lunar cycles. Hawkins' theories also required strict observance of the phases of the moon which further complicated predictions using his model.
In 1966 Sir Fred Hoyle examined the arguments in favour of an astronomical purpose for the holes and concluded that the 28 day lunar cycle could still have been indicated by moving a marker stone representing the moon anticlockwise by two holes every day, ending up with 56 holes in total. By moving another marker anticlockwise two holes every thirteen days and which represented the sun, an annual journey around the circle could also be made. Two further marker stones would also have had to be moved three holes per year to represent the points where the moon (or rather its marker) crossed the sun marker's path. Hoyle proved that this could have been used to produce a much more reliable method of predicting eclipses as whenever the moon and sun markers are directly opposite each other and the two other stones occupy those same opposing points, an eclipse can be guaranteed. This also has the additional benefit of not needing any standing stones to be present at the site.
Although less complex and romantic than Hawkins' 'stone age calculator' such a technique is certainly feasible if only in theory. Much more elaborate predictive practices have also been suggested for the holes although all these methods, including Hoyle's, require a high level of astronomical awareness and a grasp of some very abstract concepts including knowing where and when to first position the stones. It has also been pointed out by R. Colton and R. L. Martin that simpler methods exist, based on observing the position of each moonrise, which would have worked just as well and which would not require moving numerous markers amongst 56 holes. This diminishes the astronomical significance of the number of the Aubrey Holes and their circular arrangement and tends to suggest that any astronomical purpose for the site may have been only symbolic.
Mike Pitts has asserted that the Aubrey Holes did in fact originally hold timbers and compares the site at this stage to Woodhenge, The Sanctuary and other Neolithic timber circles. Such a view contradicts the archaeo-astronomical view of the holes as being a unique predictive device.
In fact, early Stonehenge may have been barely different from the other Neolithic timber circles of the British Isles which had varying numbers of postholes and orientations. The interpretation of such timber circles is unclear, although parallels have been drawn with Native American totem poles by Stuart Piggott in a 1946 BBC radio lecture. A 50cm high carved wooden figure found in the Thames Marshes in 1912 and carbon dated to 2460-1980 BC has been used rather tenuously to support the theory of carved wooden posts.
Another possible explanation for the holes suggested by Richard Atkinson, is that they were excavated in turn in some undefined ritual involving a procession around the inside of the monument. Others have pointed out the significance of the 28 day human menstrual cycle and argued that the holes may have been fertility indicators. Alexander Thom calculated that the circle of holes had been laid out in a circumference of 131 of his megalithic rods although this number has no known significance.
The true purpose of the holes may never be known, although future excavation of the remaining twenty-four, using modern archaeological techniques will certainly provide more information.
- Cleal, Walker, & Montague, Stonehenge in its Landscape. London, English Heritage, 1995
- Gerald S. Hawkins, in collaboration with John B. White. Stonehenge Decoded. New York: Doubleday, 1965.
- Mike Pitts, Stones, pits and Stonehenge, Nature 290, 46-7
- Mike Pitts, Hengeworld, London: Arrow, 2001.
- Mike Pitts, Post to Britarch mailing list, 2004
- John Edwin Wood, Sun, Moon and Standing Stones. Oxford University Press, 1980
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