Monday, February 11, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Mike Parker Pearson Researching Neolithic Life and Death at Stonehenge

Mike Parker Pearson
(Photo from UCL
Institute of Archaeology)
Mike Parker Pearson is an archaeologist in the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, who specializes in Funerary Archaeology and British Later Prehistory.   He's been excavating at Stonehenge and associated sites since 2003.  In 2010, he was named the UK's Archaeologist of the year by Current Archaeology and at the same time, the Bluestonehenge discovery made by his Stonehenge Riverside Project, was named the UK Archaeological Research Project of the Year.

How did he wind up profiled on this blog? After I interviewed Peter Ramsden about his Huron work, he recommended contacting Mike because a) he knows him and b) Dr. Parker Pearson is coming to town soon.  So for those of you reading this in Newfoundland, this interview is just a taste and you'll have an opportunity to hear a lot more about current Stonehenge research in person.  Mike Parker Pearson will be visiting St. John's and speaking at Memorial University of Newfoundland on March 22.  You can watch for details here and on the MUN Archaeology Department News website.


*Update: Mike Parker Pearson is speaking at MUN on March 22, 2013 at 4PM in A 1043 (Arts & Adminstration Building)*

Plans and Profiles #7. Mike Parker Pearson, Neolithic Life and Death at Stonehenge and Surrounding Area


1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project began in 2003 with investigations of Britain’s largest henge, Durrington Walls, less than 2 miles from Stonehenge. Over the next four seasons we uncovered remains of Neolithic houses dating to the same period as Stonehenge’s second stage of construction, around 2500 BC. We realized that this huge settlement was probably where the builders lived when putting up the huge stones at Stonehenge. We also found that Durrington Walls has its own solstice-aligned avenue leading to the River Avon. Another surprise was that, where Stonehenge’s prehistoric avenue meets the river, there lies a long since dismantled stone circle, ‘Bluestonehenge’. We are currently analysing the cremated remains of some 60 individuals buried at Stonehenge to find out who they were and when they lived. We are also finishing off a second project ‘Feeding Stonehenge’ to investigate the resourcing of Stonehenge – how the food and materials were obtained to build it. Our new project ‘The Stones of Stonehenge’ is investigating the sources of the megaliths in Wiltshire and Wales to locate the quarries and to find out why some stones were brought from over 140 miles away.

Stonehenge 2008

2) How did you become interested in this particular problem?

In 1998, after many years of working in Madagascar, I had the opportunity to invite my Malagasy colleague Ramilisonina to the UK. When he saw the stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury he was astonished that no one knew what they were for. His idea, based on religious practices in Madagascar that were not wholly wiped out by the missionaries, was a very exciting one, and he and I wrote a paper called ‘Stonehenge for the Ancestors’. I thought that other archaeologists working on Stonehenge would want to follow up our theory and dig to see if what we predicted was in fact the case. Four years later there had been plenty of talk but no action – I realized I was going to have to put a team together and do it myself. Before 1998 I’d always kept Stonehenge at arm’s length – too political and jealously guarded by many vested interests – but it had always been part of my growing-up, from first visiting it as a baby to going to the Stonehenge festival as a student.


3) Has your project changed since you originally began working on it? How?

Durrington Walls
We thought we’d only need to look at Stonehenge and its immediate environs but what started as the Stonehenge Riverside Project grew in several directions. The huge quantities of finds from Durrington Walls have prompted new and exciting research into the lives of the Stonehenge people – what they cooked in their pots, how they lived in their houses, and where they and their animals came from to build Stonehenge. In addition, we realized that we needed to look at the sources of Stonehenge’s megaliths – amazingly, very little has been done in identifying the quarries until recently, something that often surprises people who assume that everything to do with Stonehenge has been found out already.


4) If you could ask the people/person who lived at your site one question what would it be?

This one’s a no-brainer – “OK, so what was it for?” Then we’d discover just how far off the mark everyone has been!

5) Has your research taught you anything about yourself? What?

House 851 - spot the post holes...
Although people think I’m a big, jolly man impervious to criticism and setbacks, in private I’m actually a sensitive flower, and I have a glass forever half empty (or that’s what my wife says…) so I think I’ve learned that when life’s not fair, we have to get on with it.


6) When I started this research, I never imagined...

That there’d be such an unrelenting media circus over a pile of old rocks.


7) How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?

I teach and do admin and go to the pub. If I don’t want to do any of those, I watch TV and read, and there’s the cat, Captain Jack.


8) What is one thing that you can’t imagine doing fieldwork without?

A huge, well equipped and scarily talented team! It’s not just about doing the best job that you can, it’s also about the fun of working in a big group.

Stonehenge Team
9) What books or websites would you recommend if people want to learn more about your area of interest in general? Or your project in particular?

Marc Aronson’s ‘If Stones Could Speak: unlocking the secrets of Stonehenge’ (published by National Geographic) is an excellent and up-to-date book for older kids and grown-ups who prefer looking at pictures. My book ‘Stonehenge: exploring the greatest Stone Age mystery’ (published by Simon & Schuster) is a general book for non-specialists and specialists alike – even my mother-in-law has read it! The American edition – ‘Stonehenge: a new understanding’ (published by The Experiment) will be out in May. Our Google-under-the-Earth project on Stonehenge gives a virtual tour of our findings around the Stonehenge landscape at http://microsites.bournemouth.ac.uk/seeing-beneath-stonehenge/

We did have a website at Sheffield University but it was taken down when I moved to UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/archaeology/research/2.4329/index

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Are you an archaeologist or student with a research project that you'd like to share?  Maybe someone you know? Get in touch with me, I'd love to ask you a few questions... elfshot.tim@gmail.com.


Photo Credits: Mike Parker Pearson, Stonehenge Riverside Project

2 comments:

  1. Working at such a well known sites as Stonehenge must come with its own challenges. I'm used to working on sites that no one has heard of, so the challenge is to give those sites a voice. On a project like the Stonehenge Riverside Project, the challenge for the archaeologists must be having their voice heard over all the pseudo-science. I'll definitely check out the books recommended by Mike. Its interesting to know what someone in the thick of it all thinks are the good resources.

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  2. Great interview Tim and Mike. Thank you both.

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