The Stonehenge Sentinel

by Dennis on February 1, 2008

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“And there is also on the island (Hyperborea) both a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple decorated with many offerings…spherical in shape [and] a city is there which is sacred to this god…and the kings of this city and the supervisors of the sacred precinct are called Boreades, since they are descendants of Boreas…”

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Elsewhere on this site, I’ve written in detail about the passage above, which is part of an account of a journey made to Britain by the ancient Greek mariner Pytheas of Massilia; to my mind, there is no doubt that when he wrote about a notable temple and city sacred to Apollo, he was referring to Stonehenge and to the nearby Vespasian’s Camp.

Writing about events in the middle of the fourth century BC, Pytheas specifies that there were kings of the city and supervisors of the sacred precinct. The Attic Greek word for supervisors conveys the sense that these people were in charge of the precinct and temple, so as the structure probably required little in the way of maintenance, it strongly suggests that they also guarded the place in some way, either symbolically or otherwise.

Is there any evidence that guardians or sentinels watched over Stonehenge before Pytheas arrived in 350 BC and that he was writing of something that was a long-established tradition? Everything I’ve seen suggests to me that this was the case, while I believe that the mortal remains of one of these sentinels can be seen at Salisbury Museum.

Before we proceed, it’s reasonable to ask if there is any other instance of a temple in remote times possessing what we would call a sentinel. The answer is yes; by far and away the most famous example that I know of was the Temple of Diana at Nemi, in Italy, which was described in detail by classical writers such as Suetonius, Ovid, Strabo and others. The incumbent priest of this temple precinct was known as Rex Nemorensis, or the King of the Grove, a man who was constantly forced to defend his position and his life against any challenger who dared to intrude into his realm.

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The would-be successor or “The Man who would be King” would offer a formal challenge by plucking a golden bough from one of the sacred trees in the temple precinct, then he would engage in a fight to the death with the resident priest. To win the priesthood in this way was a poisoned chalice, however, because the victor spent the remainder of what was presumably a short life anxiously patrolling his domain, ever fearful of the approach of another murderous usurper.

The grim scenario was admirably described by the poet Macaulay, who wrote:

The still glassy lake that sleeps
Beneath Aricia’s trees -
Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign,
The priest who slew the slayer
And shall himself be slain.

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In 1978, an excavation by Professor Atkinson and J.G Evans, an environmental specialist, unexpectedly revealed a human skeleton buried in the ditch surrounding Stonehenge. The man whose grave it was had been killed by at least four arrows, while the manner of his death has been described as either an accident, a robbery, a human sacrifice or as some other vague form of “ritual killing”. There’s also the suggestion that he was simply a victim of what were apparently extremely violent times, but I think there’s more to the matter than just that. So, what exactly do we know about this burial?

The man whose grave was discovered at Stonehenge in 1978 possessed a powerful, muscular build. He was around five feet ten inches tall and he was between 25 and 30 years old when he met his death around 2,300 BC, a time when Stonehenge was being completed or had entered active use as a stone monument. Details of the lower four thoracic vertebrae show that the man had been working hard over an appreciable period of time and that this work entailed lifting. There are signs of trauma on the fifth lumbar vertebra that may have caused him some pain, but otherwise, he was healthy, heavily muscled and in the prime of life.

As a result of an infection or an accident, he had lost the upper incisor tooth on the right side of his face long enough before his death for the wound to have completely healed, but otherwise, his teeth were in such remarkably good condition for someone of this period that he may have enjoyed a special diet of some kind. Minute holes at the top of his eye orbits speak of a form of anaemia, or iron deficiency, but it seems that he’d have been unaware of this.

As for the manner of his death, he had been struck by at least four arrows and possibly by six, but there could have been still more arrows that either missed his bones or else were retrieved before he was buried. All the arrows had been fired from close range and there was nothing to suggest that any weapons other than arrows had been responsible for the man’s death. However, a polished stone wrist guard was also found in the grave, leading some people to suppose that he was an archer or bowman, while fragments of bluestone were also found with him.

There are many possible scenarios in which this man could have met his death, so let us go through them to see which, on balance, was the most probable.

Was it an accident? The marks on the skeleton showing the trajectory of the arrows clearly tell us that this man was shot repeatedly from close range. He was not accidentally hit by a shower of falling arrows intended to wound or kill a hunted animal.

Was this man an archer? His muscular build suggests that he may have been, as great strength was required to draw and effectively fire a Neolithic longbow, while what appears to be an archer’s wrist-guard was found buried with him. The wear and tear on his skeleton speaks of someone who had done a great deal of heavy lifting, but this doesn’t confirm or deny that this man was an archer.

As for what is almost always interpreted as being a wrist guard, however, there seems no doubt that it was a valuable object denoting status, so I find myself wondering why this wasn’t stolen, but left in the grave with him.

Was he some kind of criminal? It is possible that this man was fleeing towards Stonehenge when he was killed, perhaps to claim sanctuary. If so, it seems strange to bury him within the confines of the holy place, if we consider the counterscarp as the outer limit of the monument, while the same principle would apply if he were killed while fleeing the monument.

How many bowmen killed him? It is just possible that he was killed by upwards of six men, but the arrows that we know of were fired from behind. I personally find it hard to picture a scenario whereby such a large group of men, armed with bows and arrows, would not make another person at least mildly suspicious if they were grouped together within bowshot behind him.

If the killing had been planned in advance, then this suggests that none of the conspirators betrayed so much as a trace of their lethal intentions before a nod, or some other tacit signal, unleashed six or more simultaneous shots into the victim. It is of course possible, but I think it unlikely, while I also think it’s unlikely that the victim would have willingly accepted his fate and turned his back on his killers.

All things considered, I think that the simplest and most likely explanation is that there was a single killer who succeeded in taking his victim unawares.

Why were so many arrows used to kill this man? As we’ve seen from the evidence of the excavations at Durrington Walls by the Stonehenge Riverside Project, the use of arrows during this period may well have had a specific ceremonial use, as opposed to a purely practical one. Almost 2,000 years later, Pytheas wrote of Stonehenge being linked with Apollo, a god intimately associated with archery, so killing with arrows alone may possibly have been a specific requirement.

If the primary aim of the killer was simply to extinguish life with a maximum of speed and a minimum of fuss, then it would seem logical to incapacitate the victim with one or perhaps two arrows, wait until he collapsed, then either cut his throat, break his neck or crack his skull before retrieving the valuable shafts and continuing on his way. But the killer did not do so.

Otherwise, there are obvious practicalities involved. Otzi the Iceman didn’t die immediately from being shot in the back by one arrow in 3,300 BC, so it’s perfectly possible that the brawny young man in the ditch refused to lie down and die after being hit by one or more arrows. As he was so clearly a formidable opponent by virtue of his youth, size, fitness and physique, it strikes me as perfectly reasonable that an assassin might need to fire a number of arrows into him at close range to make absolutely sure that he wouldn’t get up and violently retaliate.

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Why did the killer not attempt to retrieve these arrows from the corpse? One possibility is that these shafts were required by ceremony to remain in the victim, but if that were the case, why was at least one retrieved? Perhaps as some kind of trophy or memento of the occasion?

The killer may have believed that his victim was tainted in some way, either physically or spiritually, which might explain why the valuable wrist guard was left in place, but this man had been deliberately buried in a grave cut into the ditch, as opposed to merely being dumped there. If he had been physically tainted, then I think it unlikely that the killer would have torn an arrow from the body, while whoever buried him obviously wasn’t concerned by any notion of contagion.

Yet another possibility for the arrowheads and wrist guard being left in place is that the killer was anxious to leave, but why? To evade detection for what was a murder? To escape pursuit by his victim’s friends? This would imply that the killer was in too much of a hurry to retrieve his arrowheads, but that others later buried the body in the precinct of this monument (which suggests that the corpse could not have been tainted in their eyes) and left the wrist guard in place as some kind of mark of respect. If the killer was the same person who buried the body, which I doubt, then he clearly had time to dig a grave in a highly venerated location and he had ample time to retrieve his arrows, but he did not.

The tip of one arrow was found embedded in the man’s sternum, so the killer or those who buried him retrieved the shaft and the rest of the arrow. They may not have immediately noticed that the tip or the arrowhead was missing, but why retrieve one broken arrowhead, yet leave the more valuable wrist guard?

On balance, the evidence suggests that the actual killer was in a hurry to leave, but he may have simply been eager to get away from what he regarded as a cursed or terrifying place. Otherwise, custom might have required him to depart before a specific time such as sunrise, sunset or another time indicated by a shadow of one of the stones reaching a given point.

This would imply that those who later buried the body did not share the killer’s beliefs about the place, or else that they were custodians whose duty it was to inter such fatalities. There is also the remote possibility that the killer(s) or gravedigger(s) deliberately placed the stone wrist guard with a body that did not previously possess one as a mark of honour and respect, or a symbol of status.

I could continue for hours yet, exploring the various shades of possibility attached to this killing, but you’re welcome to look into it yourself, if you wish, and draw your own conclusions. The best sources that I know of are Salisbury Museum itself, Mike Pitts’ Hengeworld and the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, volume 78 (1984), pp 7-30, while there are various mentions and analyses in other books, and some material on the internet. For my part, every detail of the man’s life and death, including the precise location of the grave, points towards him having been a sentinel of some kind.

Stonehenge was undeniably a special place for numerous reasons, not least because it was capable of attracting visitors or pilgrims from as far away as continental Europe at the same time as this man met his death, while this man was buried at the entrance to a unique, complex and undoubtedly imposing monument that dominated the surrounding landscape.

The time was roughly 2,300 BC, when the stone monument had superseded the previous timber and earthwork structures. It seems that this was roughly when Stonehenge as we know it had just been completed or was approaching completion – at any rate, it was a significant or special time, because an unparalleled monument had been raised.

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The manner in which this man met his death was unusual, inasmuch as he was killed from behind by what was most likely a solitary opponent, who fired numerous arrows into him. The dead man himself was notable, not only on account of his youth, build, musculature and age, but also because he had been fed a special diet, while I can’t help thinking that a special diet is fed to a special person, especially in an age such as this.

I’ve always been baffled by the many modern assumptions that the sunrise on Midsummer’s Day, when Stonehenge was in active use, was automatically a cause for rejoicing, because it occurred to me that it was just as likely that someone inside the monument might have good cause to fear the sunrise.

I think that the dead man from the ditch was a guardian or Sentinel, whose function it was to ceremonially guard the monument. I think that he was killed by an Assassin in the form of a bowman or archer, who caught him unawares when he was squinting into the rising sun after a sleepless night spent keeping watch, while I also think that this death was a ceremonial killing rather than one motivated by personal animosity or greed. If this matter of custodianship was an ongoing tradition, where are the other sentinels?

One other skeleton was discovered buried lying across the axis of the monument and this body was probably contemporary with the building of the stone structure – in the words of one of the authors of English Heritage’s Stonehenge in its Landscape, this body “hints at an otherwise unattested use of the monument”. Others were found in the early years of the twentieth century, but they were either poorly recorded or else have been lost or dumped before they could be properly studied, while a significant portion of the northwest of Stonehenge remains unexcavated by archaeologists.

Before the period in which this particular Sentinel died, many other individuals were buried or “ritually deposited” at Stonehenge. On page 121 of Hengeworld, Mike Pitts hazards an informed guess and writes of “two hundred and forty people, perhaps specially selected people, laid out on wooden pyres, burnt, their remains carefully collected and buried in holes in the ground on the edge of the circular Stonehenge enclosure.” He goes on “And we are not even guessing the number of people represented by bodies that were not burnt. We are talking big place, big events.”

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After a number of years of working on the Stonehenge Riverside Project, Professor Mike Parker-Pearson is inclined to believe that people brought the remains of their relatives or friends from far and wide for burial at Stonehenge, but I can’t help thinking that a high proportion of these dead people first of all walked to Stonehenge before meeting a violent end there. Professor Richard Atkinson was in little doubt that it was a place of human sacrifice, while Aubrey Burl says very much the same on page 214 – 216 of his book The Stonehenge People, but there are others as well.

And what of any Sentinels who died after the man in the ditch had been killed? Stonehenge is surrounded by barrow cemeteries, so as these burial mounds are patently linked in some way with the monument, it seems perverse to suggest that at least some of the occupants were not guardians in some way of the ominous stone circle in their midst. Even before looking into the matter of the man found in the ditch in 1978, the whole landscape struck me as being a place where, in what were unquestionably violent times, guardians were buried around a structure they had revered and protected.

Nor am I alone in getting this impression. In a diary entry written on July 22nd 1654, John Evelyn wrote “Now we were arrived at Stone-henge, indeed a stupendous monument…about the same hills are divers mounds raised, conceived to be ancient entrenchments, or places of burial, after bloody fights.”

If the man found buried in the ditch was indeed a Sentinel, then it’s reasonable to ask what protection he would have had against an archer, because on the face of it, such a contest would have been a hopelessly one-sided affair.

In 1620, the Duke of Buckingham dug a large pit in the centre of Stonehenge, in which he found “…Batter-dashers, heades of arrows….bones rotten, but whether of stagges or men they could not tell.” The reference to men’s bones and arrowheads are clear enough, while I’m assuming that the “batter-dashers” were clubs or maces, judging from the sketch reproduced on page 47 of Christopher Chippindale’s Stonehenge Complete. Pieces of rusting armour were apparently found there as well, so it may possibly be that these maces or “batter-dashers” were mediaeval rather than prehistoric, but otherwise, polished stone maces have been found in surrounding barrows, fields and at Stonehenge itself.

One of the most notable characteristics of Stonehenge is its capacity for concealing what lies inside, from the internal bank that once stood as much as six feet high, to the narrow apertures between the sarsen and bluestone structures. I don’t doubt that these constricted gaps were employed as sighting aids for astronomical observations, but they would equally well have concealed or obscured the movements of a lone individual inside the monument, as far as an outside observer was concerned. There may once have been as many as ninety bluestones, each standing roughly six feet high, arranged inside Stonehenge, so these alone would have provided ample cover for an individual such as the Sentinel, or the man found buried in the ditch in 1978.

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If it was a gloomy place full of drifting shadows at sunrise or sunset, then all the better for concealing a sentinel, while the same principle would have applied when Stonehenge was full of ceremonial posts and passages during its timber phase. As I pointed out in a previous post, Stonehenge has the curious property of apparently “drawing down starlight” or otherwise allowing an observer inside the ruins to spot someone else approaching in pitch blackness – all things considered, I think that a brawny and fit Sentinel armed with a stone mace waiting inside Stonehenge would have an equal chance against even a skilled hunter or archer trying to catch him unawares.

This leaves us to ponder the question of the wrist guard found with the body. The man found in the ditch may have been an archer himself, but I personally doubt it. If one archer was prepared to inflict such a violent end upon another and furthermore left three arrows inside his defeated opponent or quarry, then it seems overwhelmingly likely to me that he would have taken the stone wrist-guard before he left, either as a trophy or out of pure greed. However, he did not, nor did whoever buried the fallen man, but I can’t help thinking that the gravedigger, or more likely the killer, if they were different people, relieved the fallen man of a highly attractive polished stone mace head.

I suspect that the wrist-guard is somehow linked to the Sentinel’s missing incisor tooth, which he had lost so long before his violent death that healthy bone had naturally grown back over the gap. To quote the osteoarchaeologist Jackie McKinley from page 102 of Hengeworld, “He’d received a blow, or fallen over…he met with an accident, or had a bit of a punch-up.”

I may be in a minority of one, but it seems highly probable to me that this man had previously encountered another archer and had overcome him in a violent struggle – the Sentinel had lost a tooth in the process, but his opponent had lost his treasured wrist-guard and possibly his life as well. Am I reading too much into this matter of violent ceremonial encounters at Stonehenge? Possibly, but then again, I can’t help recalling what I thought were some striking details of the Amesbury Archer and the Boscombe Bowman, two discoveries I worked on during my time at Wessex Archaeology.

  • Both men have been conclusively linked to Stonehenge.
  • Both men originated at a place other than the Wessex region.
  • Both men came from “across the water” – in the case of the Archer, a voyage over the Channel was involved, while the (senior) Bowman presumably crossed the Severn Estuary.
  • Both men were buried with a beaker decorated with a rare plaited cord inlay made on the wet clay before it was fired.
  • Both men were buried with relatives close by.
  • Both men lived at roughly the same time, around the date of the raising of the stone circles at Stonehenge.
  • Both men were the same age when they died, between 35 and 45 years old.
  • Both men were buried on their left sides with their heads facing north.
  • Both men have been described as archers or bowmen by the archaeologists, by virtue of the finds in their graves.
  • Both would have used short bows, necessitating a close approach to their enemy or quarry.
  • Both men had savage wounds to the bones of their upper left legs.
  • Both men survived the infliction of these wounds.
  • Both men spent some years after suffering these wounds made conspicuous by their limp, which was centred on the left upper leg.

Again, there may well be many convincing reasons why two such men connected with Stonehenge should both suffer crippling wounds to their upper left legs, but an encounter with a right-handed, heavily-muscled man in the prime of life wielding a stone mace has to be a distinct possibility, especially if that man was around at the same time as the two wounded men (circa 2,300 BC) and if the mace-wielder were later found buried at Stonehenge, filled with arrows from yet another bowman.

As for the bows used at this time, I referred to a Neolithic longbow at the beginning, when discussing the physical strength of the Sentinel. However, the Wessex Archaeology website carries an intriguing observation by Dr Alison Sheridan of the National Museums of Scotland, which is especially interesting when we bear in mind the precise nature of the wounds found on the man in the ditch and the cover that Stonehenge would have afforded to anyone deliberately trying to conceal themselves inside the monument.

“Only a very few prehistoric bows have been found in Britain and Ireland. The earliest one dates to around 4,000 BC and was found at Rotten Bottom, in the Moffat Hills in south-west Scotland. This was a single-piece yew flatbow, which had probably broken during a deer hunt in the hills. The Amesbury Archer’s bow may well have been of a different kind – shorter, curved, and possibly made of one material. Such bows were adopted from Europe around 2,500 BC, and used alongside the older type. The Amesbury bow need not have been particularly powerful. If used for hunting, or even for combat, the archer would have tried to get as close to his prey/enemy as possible, to ensure that the arrows struck their target.”

When I think of the Sentinel and the manner in which he met his death, the famous passage by Strabo comes to mind; “But they would not sacrifice without the Druids. We are told of still other kinds of human sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples…”

In a similar vein, Caesar told us that the British Druids would sometimes fight or actually do combat amongst themselves to become the High Priest. “Of all these Druids one is chief, who has the highest authority among them. At his death, either any other that is pre-eminent in position succeeds, or, if there be several of equal standing, they strive for the primacy by the vote of the Druids, or sometimes even with armed force.”

Quite simply, when I read details of the ancient British priesthood, temples, arrows and an armed struggle to become the highest in the land, it’s impossible to avoid thinking of the powerful man filled with arrows, buried in the ditch at the entrance to a unique monument whose aura was potent enough to draw men from as far away as the Alps in 2,300 BC. There is something mesmerising about the manner of his death, not least because there are obvious religious overtones on account of the mysterious monument overlooking his grave, while if you look on this link, you can see for yourself how the matter of a holy man pierced by arrows has obsessed painters and artists through the ages.

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There are echoes of the Sentinel’s death in what we know of the Druids, but there are also parallels between the story of Rex Nemorensis, the King of the Grove, and the scenario at Stonehenge. Pytheas wrote that the temple that was almost certainly Stonehenge was sacred to Apollo, a god intimately connected with archery, while as you can read elsewhere on this site, Professor Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University has recently advanced a similar theory. The temple in the grove at Nemi was dedicated to Diana, the Roman counterpart of Apollo’s sister Artemis, while Diana herself is invariably pictured with a bow.

Oak groves were especially sacred to Diana; according to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, one of her most famous shrines was on Mount Tifata near Capua, while the name Tifata means “holm-oak”. Stone 16 at Stonehenge is carved to represent the bark of an oak tree and there may have been others like it, while the Druids famously held many of their observances in oak groves; as for the subject of the Druids and Stonehenge, I’ve written about this in detail elsewhere on this site.

The twelfth century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth left us details of the supposed origin of Stonehenge and his account includes the following details “For in these stones is a mystery, and a healing virtue against many ailments. Giants of old did carry them from the furthest ends of Africa and did set them up in Ireland what time they did inhabit therein. And unto this end they did it, that they might make them baths whensoever they ailed of any malady, for they did wash the stones and pour forth the water into the baths, whereby they that were sick were made whole.”

Professor Darvill has further explored this matter in his most recent book Stonehenge, the Biography of a Landscape, where he points out that Preseli, the source of the Stonehenge bluestones, possessed many springs believed to have healing properties. What has this got to do with Nemi? Well, Diana wasn’t the only deity worshipped there, because the ancients also worshipped Egeria, a water nymph who presided over springs whose waters were believed to have healing properties, in this case, for women in labour. These elements of archery, healing waters, oak groves and human sacrifice in the stories of Nemi and Stonehenge are surely coincidences, but to my mind, they evoke the image of “the priest who slew the slayer, and shall himself be slain,” an image that comes to life when I contemplate the circumstances and details of the life and death of the Sentinel.

The Greek historian Strabo recorded the curious succession at Nemi, pointing out that “accordingly the priest is always armed with a sword, looking around for the attacks, and ready to defend himself.” Again, it is surely a coincidence, but the most famous prehistoric engraving at Stonehenge is that of a dagger, which can be seen in the centre of the photo below or else on this link.

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Is there any other remote thing in the fabric of Stonehenge that might point towards the existence of a human functioning as a sentinel there? Possibly. In 1999, Dr Terence Meaden discovered what certainly appears to be a face carved in stone at Stonehenge. This stern, frowning countenance gazes in silence towards the west, the direction of the setting sun and the land of the dead, so if this idol was carved by human hands in prehistory, it may have represented or personified a lethal function carried out by beings of flesh and bone who once patrolled the perimeters of this gloomy site.

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And so it goes. I’m not suggesting that any ceremony or ritual at Stonehenge in prehistory was the inspiration, direct or otherwise, for the murderous priesthood at Nemi, but both sites regularly witnessed the violent death of individual humans, both sites were linked with archery, both sites had an obvious religious significance, both sites were associated with healing waters, both sites had a sword, real or engraved, at their heart and both sites had groves – in the case of Stonehenge, its earlier timber phase may well have constituted an artificial grove of sorts.

The concept of a periodic ceremony at Stonehenge such as the one I’ve described would account for a great many aspects of the site, such as the human remains, the arrowheads, the stone maces, the surrounding barrows, the Avenue as a formal approach on Midsummer’s Day and of course, the Sentinel. One of the enduring mysteries about the place is why it was so little frequented, as there’s no evidence to suggest that large groups of people regularly visited the place, depositing “litter” while the monument was in active use.

To put it in unmistakably clear language, I suspect that this was because there was a large warning sign in the form of a watchful, muscular man periodically wielding a brutal stone mace at the point where the Avenue met the counterscarp. Numerous wooden posts once formed channels here, while later arrangements of stones, including the now-recumbent Slaughter Stone, may have constituted a portal into this Temple of Shadows.

Only shafts of sunlight could freely enter the monument, so perhaps shafts of another kind had to be successfully unleashed and human blood spilled to gain access into the Sanctum Sanctorum for the most important ceremonies or observances. There must have been a mighty prize indeed waiting inside to make such a perilous venture worthwhile.

“Res dura et regni novitas me tali cogunt moliri, et late fines custode tueri”.
‘Harsh necessity, and the newness of my kingdom, force me to do such things and to guard my frontiers everywhere.’ Virgil’s Aeneid, Book I, 563.

 

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I’m extremely grateful to Salisbury Museum and its staff for their generous assistance and for permission to use the photograph of the remains of the Sentinel at the beginning of this piece. I strongly suggest that you visit their website, or better still, visit the museum itself if possible. I’m also extremely grateful to Detective Sergeant Glyn Jones of the Metropolitan Police’s Homicide & Serious Crime Command for his time, his patience and for telling me something of the relatively new science of victimology.

Finally, I’m indebted to the award-winning stuntman and stunt co-ordinator Rowley Irlam, whose most recent film is the forthcoming Adulthood. Rowley’s worked on a huge range of film productions including period pieces such as First Knight, Ivanhoe, Merlin, Troy, King Arthur, Sleepy Hollow and Elizabeth, while he’s appeared as a stunt double for Daniel Craig in The Golden Compass, for Dennis Hopper in Jason and the Argonauts and for Colin Farrell in Alexander.

When you include other films such as the Harry Potter, Tomb Raider, Batman, Star Wars and James Bond franchises, it’s clear that Rowley knows a thing or two about armed combat and the surroundings that these encounters take place in, so I thought it was well worth asking him for his professional opinion on what I had to say about a Sentinel and other armed combatants at Stonehenge.

He doubted that an archer would have had any great advantage over a determined opponent lurking around the stones, banks and ditches, while he thought that Stonehenge would have constituted “an eerily perfect setting for prehistoric duellists”, something I entirely agree with, especially in light of the surrounding barrows, the ceremonial approach, the weapons, the human remains and the parallels with what we know of the long-ago events at Nemi.

Words by Dennis Price. Stonehenge picture above reproduced with the kind permission of Adam Stanford of Aerial Cam and Archaeology Safaris Ltd. Photograph of the Stonehenge Face reproduced with kind permission of Professor Terence Meaden.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Aynslie Hanna February 1, 2008 at 10:33 pm

From the start of this entry to its finish, I couldn’t help being reminded of the connections that John Darrah makes between the Nemi challengers, similar challenges in stories from various Arthurian romances, and his belief that the Arthurian ones are based on possible historical British cult practices from the period when Stonehenge was still in use in his book The Real Camelot. Your speculations would fit together very neatly with some of his.

Dennis February 2, 2008 at 12:07 am

Running this site’s like a dream come true. I enjoy writing the vast majority of the entries and it’s always good to learn that someone “out there” is reading them. Other than that, it’s wonderful to hear from someone who can add information for everyone else to see and ponder, while I often get sent other material that I can’t immediately post up for one reason or another. I’ve got a lot to say about Silbury Hill after my visit there in November, while there’s also a Stonehenge bluestone story that we’re working on.

Other than that, I’d not heard of John Darrah’s book, but it sounds fascinating and I’ll make a point of getting it. As for the “Stonehenge Sentinel” entry, there’s a great deal more material I’d have liked to have put up, but I thought I’d better call a halt when I did.

The English Heritage book Stonehenge in its Landscape contains many more references to physical features and artefacts that, to my mind, strongly support the ideas I’ve written about, while if you actually wander around Stonehenge and its landscape, there are further features that make it all come together. It’s a bit like one of those optical puzzles or illusions, because once you’ve finally seen the image, it’s hard to imagine how you could ever have missed it.

Or, as Magellan remarked “The church says that the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round; for I have seen the shadow on the moon and I have more faith in the shadow than in the church.”

Aynslie Hanna February 2, 2008 at 6:54 pm

Dennis,

At least one “someone out there” (namely me) has eagerly awaited your every entry since I first discovered Eternal Idol about a year ago! Not only is your site a wonderful way to keep up with what’s going on with current Stonehenge and Silbury discoveries and theories, but you have also presented many fascinating ideas and theories of your own that–whether they are ever able to be proven as historical fact or not–stretch the mind and explore new areas of possibility that some people may not have previously considered. Thank you for the time you take to share all that you do here.

Andy Marlow February 7, 2008 at 10:20 am

It is interesting that the previous commentator was reminded of similarities between your latest post and the Arthurian romances. From the first time I read of your theories relating the individuals you have sometimes identified as the “Lame Kings” I have been overwhelmed by the similarities with the stories of the Fisher King, which appeared in the later Arthurian tales. (Although they were apparently derived from earlier Celtic myth.) Now that you have identified the lame ones at Stonehenge as sentinels, this similarity has been further strengthened.

The Fisher king of the Arthurian Romance was a high-ranking individual, who suffered from a debilitating leg injury. Furthermore, he was tasked with the duty of protecting the most potent of earthly powers, the grail. The similarity with your description of the Stonehenge sentinel is, I believe, inescapable. I am unsure as to what this may mean, but it is clear that whatever was taking place at this time at Stonehenge has reverberated through human history, leaving echoes in the culture and religion of every subsequent age.

Keep up the excellent work, I am very much looking forward to reading more of discoveries relating to Silbury.

Dennis February 9, 2008 at 12:09 am

I’m having to rely purely on memory here, but Mike Pitts makes a very good point about the “forgotten uses of Stonehenge” – my words, not his. It’s either in Hengeworld or somewhere on the internet and I think was to do with another body from the ditch that turned out to be Saxon.

His point, and I’m paraphrasing poorly from memory, was that we tend to think that nothing happened at Stonehenge for considerable periods until such time as we find documentary evidence or other proof to the contrary, at which point the period in question comes alive, as it were. What he describes as an execution at Stonehenge in the seventh century is a perfect example of this.

For my part, I’ve always thought it madness to suppose that such a staggering monument could ever have been ignored or neglected, or that it could have failed to play a significant part in human affairs in each era of its lifetime. In our own times, it has taken on a life of its own with the one million or so visitors that travel there each year to stand and stare in wonderment, while there are also the various pagan groups who have adopted it as their own for one reason or another, not all of them bad ones, either.

Elsewhere on this site, I’ve written about Grime’s Graves and Grim’s Gates, the last being the original name that I think was bestowed upon Stonehenge by the Saxons. I don’t doubt for a moment that it was a highly significant place during Arthurian times as well, but I’ve got a lot more to write about the Stonehenge Sentinels first, while Pete and I are still casting about for the best way to present our Silbury Hill material. In the meantime, I’m interested in hearing from anyone who cares to write in and if you want to post a comment so that everyone else can mull over what you have to say, then all the better.

In the meantime, I’ve been meaning to post this up for weeks, so you might like to have a look at this page sent to me by Dean Talboys. Dean’s clearly taken a lot of time and trouble to put it together, so I’m grateful to him for sending me the link, as it provides something else to ponder over. I’m not too hot on the mathematics of Stonehenge, so I can’t really express an opinion, but any and all positive contributions towards Stonehenge thought are welcome here.

Michael Bott February 10, 2008 at 5:41 pm

Dennis,

this is great stuff and I’m only sorry that Rupert Soskin and I did not come across your thoughts before we made our film ‘Standing with Stones‘. This research merits a film in it’s own right and I would hope that someone picks up the idea because, whether the theories are agreed with or not, it touches on so much wonderful material that is fundamental to the heritage of the British Isles.

In ‘Standing with Stones‘, although it is a 2 1/4 hour film, we rarely have the luxury of going into such detail as our aim was to cover the whole of Britain and Ireland – there are over 100 sites in the film. However, we do broach the subject of the Druids (how could we not?) and make the point that the idea that the Druids should be associated with Stonehenge, or any other megalithic monument at all, largely springs from the pen of William Stukely. Without his fervent belief that they were built by the Druids and the propogation of the idea by William Blake many years later, would we be so readily disposed to speak of Druids and Stonehenge so synonymously? I’m not saying we shouldn’t – far from it – it’s just that the popular notion of association is very powerful thanks to those gentlemen and given the wide spread popular acceptance of the idea it is quite hard to approach the subject afresh.

Nevertheless, a fresh approach is what you seem to have. The question I have to ask about the Druids if (as you hint) we are allowing departure from the usual association with the Celts in order to push them back in time, is; was the Druidic ‘cult’ associated with race or with culture? For me, this is where confusion seems to arise because my understanding is that ‘The Celts’ are those peoples that adopted the Celtic culture through time – there is no such thing as Celts as a race. I am no expert, or academic, but surely there is no evidence to prove attachment of Druidism to Celtic culture or visa versa, only an observation that both things are evident in the same place and the same time.

I am perfectly willing to accept that Druidism takes us far further back in time than the Iron Age. I find the notion exciting and challenging and I wish you luck Dennis, with proving your argument.

Dennis February 10, 2008 at 11:12 pm

Hello Michael,

First of all, thank you very much for your kind words – I’m very glad you’ve enjoyed reading through various entries on this site and it is always good to hear from anyone who’s done so, or who disagrees with me, for that matter.

I’m flattered that you think my material’s worthy of inclusion in a film, but I’m confident that the Universe is unfolding as it should. I’m sure your film is excellent, so all credit to you and Rupert for going ahead and making it, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who looks forward to seeing it. It’s always heartening to hear that independent-minded people like yourself and Rupert are prepared to put in the effort to promote the truly stunning prehistoric monuments with which the British Isles are blessed, especially when the excavations at Silbury Hill, for example, Britain’s only pyramid, have been virtually ignored (and yes, I have seen the recent BBC productions).

I’m pleased that you think I’ve got a fresh approach, but all that Pete Glastonbury and I have done, really, is to take an intense interest in Stonehenge and Silbury Hill, then to report our various findings and the findings of archaeologists and locals as best we can. As for the business of the Stonehenge Sentinel, for example, I’m certainly not trying to be different for the sake of it, but some of the elements associated with Stonehenge itself and with the “body from the ditch” seemed to be crying out for attention and recognition.

Whoever the man in the ditch was, there was clearly far more to him than simply being a well-fed, muscular man who just happened to be filled with arrows right next to the most stunning monument in Europe, so I’ve tried to put some flesh on his life as well as on his bones, while the name, “The Stonehenge Sentinel” has got to do better justice to this man’s life and death than the previous title “The Man in the Ditch”.

As for the Druids, I’ve certainly not forgotten about them. Indeed, a little while ago, I was very pleased to receive confirmation for my notions about the Latin word “specus” and its links with the Druids from a well-known writer and classical specialist, but as always, it’s a matter of finding the time to write these things up properly and to do them proper justice.

Other than that, I know it’s not an easy thing to make a film and put a DVD together, so congratulations to you and I hope that your labour of love proves to be a big success.

Best wishes from

Dennis

Jasmine February 15, 2008 at 3:45 pm

Very interesting as usual, Dennis. Is this a case of The Hunter becoming The Hunted? What is the context of the stone wristguard? Was it actually on him, or just in the grave fill? That the wristguard was interred with him, as an object of his profession/ability and therefore the associated prestige suggests perhaps some ritualised element, or perhaps he was left with something that was significant of his or his dispatchers’ skills.

That the arrow heads were not removed maybe due to the possibility of being impossible to extract from flesh – often the internal pressures within the body are do great that it is almost impossible to pull blades/embedded objects free of the body. It seems possible that the arrowhead tip in the sternum that remained after the shaft was extracted was not shot with great force, this is usually an extremely fragile bone (or rather bones as the sternum is composed of 3 sections) and would easily be pierced by an arrowhead released by a longbow, one would think. Do we/can we know if the entry point is from the posterior or anterior? Likewise it is possible this was not manually extracted by was broken off as the body was turned over to ensure he was dead. The high poundage of draw of a traditional English longbow would be sufficient to pierce it even with a short draw. You wrote in an earlier article (Seeing Red & Pig Ignorance, February 7, 2007) ‘…the shafts were not intended to kill, but to produce the maximum amount of noise from the wounded animals, while in light of what we know of later Druid ceremonies involving humans, it is perfectly possible that some form of divination was being practised from the death-struggles of these creatures.’ Could the same be possible here?

We already know that Archers are extremely important to the Wiltshire landscape – that you mention the fear of sunrise – the notions of death and rebirth, ritual offerings to ensure the sun continues rising and all associated images of offering a strong, vital and robust living thing for sacrifice sing in my mind (though I may have been reading too much out-of-season Pratchett ;) ) perhaps our man here was indeed the Hunter turned Hunted for the continuance of The Hunt…

I am intrigued by the interpretation of this individual as a Sentinel – I couldn’t help but check for my own benefit the derivation of the word, and was surprised to find it also is from from Latin, sentire, ‘to feel’. If this man was to guard or keep watch over the henge, one might wonder at the man’s thoughts and emotions about his duty, in life he may have wondered about his role in death, which was then perpetuated by his interment in the ditch, thus he could continue his vigilance. (My penchant for the phenomenological working overtime again!)

The fragments of bluestone in his grave are interesting – could this be some small sign that this man was a native of the Preseli environs, come with the bluestones to guard the sacred site of their investiture as part of the social bonds that these welsh rocks perhaps suggest; and with his death the inclusion of the the rock of his homeland interred with him as a way of burying him ‘in the earth’ of his own land?

Thanks for a fascinating article and all the work you put into bringing these amazing concepts to the fore – I’ll be mulling this over for a while!

Dennis February 15, 2008 at 11:57 pm

Ah, the Agony and the Ecstasy, in reverse order. On the one hand, it’s great to get another opinion on this and to hear some pertinent questions asked; from what I understand, every shot came from behind when this man was killed. I don’t know how quickly he died, but while the idea of divination from death-struggles is certainly an appealing one,in a way, I can’t help thinking that the sheer quantity of arrows in this man’s torso was intended to bring him down as quickly as possible and to make sure that he stayed down. His good health and muscular build also incline me to this point of view, but you never know.

As for the word “Sentinel”, I thought it was appropriate, not least because my Concise Oxford Dictionary states that it’s of unknown origin, suprisingly enough. You might be right, though – he may have been left where he was to guard the monument in an afterlife, along with others of his kind, but all the parallels with what we know of Nemi makes me think that this was a secondary consideration to the circumstances of his violent death.

I’m not sure what to think about the bluestone fragments, nor do I know where this man originated, so that’s something for another time, perhaps.

As for where the wristguard was found, there are precise details in one of the links I’ve supplied in the text, while the same document also points out some anomalies in the description of the grave of the Amesbury Archer. Thanks to the miracles of modern technology and my almost complete inability to master them, I can’t reproduce the relevant link for you, I’m afraid, but it’s there all the same.

R cross March 10, 2008 at 11:58 am

Not a bad piece, as you say one could argue for hours, but in 350BC I do not think that Vespasian’s Camp had been built yet, and duels usually take place facing one another for obvious reasons, and while it maybe convenient to date Stonehenge, it is not yet possible, and I believe as with the Sphinx and the pyramids that these monuments are very much older than the science will admit.

Dennis March 10, 2008 at 1:49 pm

From everything I’ve seen and read, Vespasian’s Camp was in its most active period of use in or around 350 BC, but I’ve gone through all this in the Lost City entries.

As for duels or duellists, this was the most convenient term I could think of, but I didn’t mean to imply that I thought a set of sporting Queensbury Rules was in place at the time. There was a formal challenge at Nemi when the Man Who Would be King broke a bough in the grove, but otherwise, we get the impression that the resident priest went around in a constant state of apprehension, which implies he was worried about an unannounced attack, just as any other watchman, lookout, guardian or sentinel would be.

Otherwise, I’ve heard that there’s some new dating evidence on Stonehenge available, so as soon as I can get hold of it, I’ll post it up along with a link for everyone to see.

You’re quite right – we could argue for hours – but thanks for writing in and thanks also for the compliment.

Best wishes from

Dennis

JohnWitts May 15, 2008 at 7:36 pm

I am new to this excellent site and in that brief time I have seen a very high standard of debate and well argued theories. Sorry if I contribute too much but I am a bit like a kid at Christmas at the moment with the various articles going beyond the mundane and relatively safe ground of where what and when with some very carefully reasoned and well written whys!

This article reminded me of a chapter in Janet and Colin Bord’s book “Earth Rites”. Chapter nine was entitled ‘The ritual sacrifice of the divine victm” It opens with this paragraph ” Among primitive societies in many parts of the world it was custom to kill their kings as soon as they showed the slightest sign of old age or whilst they still reigned with full health and vigour’ (referenced as Frazer, The Golden Bough ch XXIV).

William II (i.e Rufus third son of William The Conqueror) was named as a willing victim – killed by an arrow! That may be just a coincidence as Beckett was also considered to have been a willing sacrifice but the parallels to the article above was a bit of a “Eureka” moment.

Waiting to be “shot down” :)

Dennis May 15, 2008 at 10:36 pm

Au contraire – you’ve anticipated one of my future posts, because I’ve long been very interested indeed by William II, who, incidentally, launched an abortive invasion of Wales before he was killed. Still, that’s for another time.

As for sending in multiple comments, you’re more than welcome, as is anyone at all who can contribute any original thought on Stonehenge or Silbury Hill. Pete and I spend a great deal of time, in various ways, engaged with these two monuments, and we have a great deal to say about them, either by way of covering the excavations or else by putting in the public domain various matters we’ve discovered, such as the Altar Stone.

There’s no requirement for us to agree with what people have to say or vice versa, because anything that gets the grey matter working has simply got to be a good thing, as I never tire of writing. Non-specialists and non-archaeologists always welcome.

And thank you also for your kind words – they’re always welcome too!

Alun October 7, 2008 at 11:30 pm

Recent excavations to the west of the Henge (August 2008)confirm the existence of a long pallisade of oak trunks some 20 feet high running about a mile and a half long. A major piece of work and it’s only purpose according to the dig supervisors from the River Project (and I concur with them) would have been to screen Stonehenge from unwanted non-innitiates to the ceremonies at the Stones. Far more likely that your Sentinel was an interloper shot down by the real sentinels guarding the sacred area as he tried to enter it. Some anecdotal evidence that stones may have been garlanded with metals both bronze and precious may provide a motive for sneaking into the passes only area.

Jan January 2, 2009 at 7:52 pm

I am intrigued by this burial, which seems to get overlooked quite often. I think you are headed in the right direction here, though my gut feeling is that maybe he was intended to be a sentinel in death rather than life. I have been collecting data on burials at the terminals or in the ditches of various henge (and similar) monuments and found some decidedly ‘dodgy’ ones which do vaguely smack of ritual killing. The most interesting was a timber circle in Wales where a young man was found in similar position to our archer–and there was also an arrowhead embedded in his bones.

If anyone doesn’t know, they have done a holographic reconstruction of the archer’s face now, which you can see in Salisbury Museum.

Dennis January 2, 2009 at 8:16 pm

I couldn’t agree more about the matter of this man or this burial being overlooked, which is why I felt he deserved more than just being known as “the burial in the ditch.” As for your idea that he was intended as a sentinel in death rather than in life, I think it’s probably more of a convincing idea, all things considered, than what I originally wrote.

Thank you very much for writing in and if you’d like to tell us all more about your related discoveries or thoughts, then please feel free to submit all the material and links you like.

Dennis February 19, 2010 at 12:01 am

Thanks to Aynslie, here’s a fascinating archaeological development concerning the ‘Golden Bough’ and the Temple at Nemi.

Tom Murray March 20, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Have you given any thought to the biblical references concerning Nephilim being among the pre-flood population, ‘The mighty ones who were of old, the men of fame’ Genisis 6:4 and post flood, Numbers 13:33 ‘ and there we saw the Nehilim, the sons of A’nak, who are from the Nephilim so that we became in our own eyes like grasshoppers and the same way we became in their eyes. NWT.

Aynslie August 7, 2010 at 10:58 pm

You mentioned Stabo’s reference to Nemi, but he also spoke of one form of Druidic sacrifice that involved shooting a person full of arrows. See here: http://www.digitalmedievalist.com/faqs/sacrific.html

Dennis August 8, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Thanks for that, Aynslie – I could have sworn I’d mentioned Strabo’s reference to Druids piercing people with arrows, given the nature of this post, but I’d obviously missed it, so thank you very much for supply the link.

Mike Philbin July 14, 2014 at 1:32 pm

Dennis,
the way you describe it, it does sound like some ritualised CHANGING OF THE AXE-GUARD (Asgard ;) ), where an ‘imported’ Archer kills a sentinel or adopted or naturalised Stone-axer and then offers up the (bow and arrows) tool of his assassination to the pit containing his kill. A kinda weapon-role swap has taken place and the year can begin again. Maybe they would travel from far and wide, maybe even from Europe to take up this role. Maybe it was like our Olympic (or Coliseum (or Wood Henge)) Games?

Aynslie July 25, 2014 at 1:32 pm

An amazing “site with a page devoted to each stone at Stonehenge”: The Stones of Stonehenge.

What’s this got to do with the Stonehenge Sentinel? I don’t know. The first time I ever wrote anything here at EI was to comment on this post. I still think it’s one of the most intriguing and provocative of Dennis’s theories, so while I revisited — and reminded readers about — it, I decided to highly recommend the above web site at the same time.

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