By: Rebecca Coffey ……
Even Sigmund Freud knew that “shorter is better.” Granted, he wasn’t talking about phalluses or cigars. In Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, he spelled out why successful humor (and, I’m thinking, storytelling) makes its point quickly.
Alas, the makers of the documentary “Stonehenge: Land of the Dead,” which premieres tonight (November 28) on the Science Channel, don’t seem to be either humorists or Freud fans. The nut of the tale is a good one but the documentary itself takes too darn long getting to its punchline.
The nut: In 2020, archeologists discovered on the Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge a circular pattern of enormous, underground pits. There are nine of them, each one about ten meters across and five meters deep, and each has a flat bottom. The circle of pits partially surrounds Durrington Walls, which is a ring-shaped earthen bank with a ditch on its inside. (“Henge” is the term for such a bank/ditch structure. Durrington Walls is sometimes referred to as the Durrington Ring or the Durrington Henge. A henge gives Stonehenge its name, too. The elaborate stone monument is surrounded by an earthen bank with a ditch on the inside.) The area inside the ring at Durrington Walls is known to have been the site of a large, Neolithic farming community.
Professor Vince Gaffney of Bradford University is the archeologist whose research team discovered the pits. Although one likely explanation for the pits is that they were naturally occurring sinkholes, Gaffney and his colleagues suspected that they were human-made and that they and other pits that normal land use may have since eradicated once encircled the Durrington Walls. According to Gaffney, if the pits were made by humans, and if they date from anywhere near the time that Stonehenge was built, understanding their purpose might clarify remaining mysteries about both Stonehenge and the Durrington Walls.
Using remote sensing technology, Gaffney’s team mapped out the dimensions of the nine pits. They found that all nine are nearly identical, which suggests that they were not accidents of nature. Then the archeologists retrieved materials from the pits’ floors. Dr. Tim Kinnaird of the University of St. Andrew used a technology that flags the last time a substance was exposed to daylight. He found that the floors last “saw” the sun about 2,400 B.C. From this, Gaffney has surmised that humans fashioned the pits a little after Neolithic people built the Durrington Walls and Stonehenge. They maintained the pits for what seems to be about 500 years.
Holy cow, right? A circular henge of dirt and ditch surrounded a Neolithic community. Stonehenge is surrounded by a circular henge. A circle of pits surrounds the two henges. What do all the circles have to do with each other?
The new documentary, unfortunately, stretches what could have been 30 minutes of fascinating answers into about an hour and a half of over-the-top enthusiasm accompanied by zooming camera shots and what sounds like recycled movie music from the Star Wars era. A news presenter whose every word is infused with a heaping tablespoon of awe walks the landscape with Gaffney and members of his team, explaining repeatedly that the pits’ “unprecedented discovery” could be the “biggest discovery at Stonehenge in decades” and the “discovery of a lifetime” or even “the biggest prehistoric discovery in the world” while also being the “most significant prehistoric discovery in the world.”
Make the claim once, please, Mr. Presenter. Maybe say it two more times if you think your viewers are young or especially uninformed. But please, get to the punchline.
Which he does, eventually. Gaffney’s ideas constitute a neat tying together of evidence. (I won’t iterate them here for fear of spoiling the fun of anyone who stays with the documentary all the way to the end.)
To its credit, “Stonehenge: Land of the Dead” succeeds in a few ways. One is in its demonstrations of the tools that Gaffney’s team used in piecing together the history of Stonehenge, the Durrington Walls, and the circle of pits. It also does an excellent job of describing the gargantuan, coordinated effort required of the Neolithic community that built Stonehenge.
“Stonehenge: Land of the Dead” premiers on Sunday, November 28 at 8 PM ET/PT on Science Channel.