Was Stonehenge mathematically structured?

(Originally posted at The Growlery, 2008/06/07)

Stonehenge is never really out of the news; in fact, it’s probably the archaeological site that enjoys the most media exposure. Even so, it has been in the news quite a lot lately, what with the recent report of work by Mike Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge Riverside Project, which has given us radiocarbon dates from burials excavated in the 1920s, suggesting that the site was used for burials from around 3000 BCE, several centuries earlier than previously thought and really quite early in the British Neolithic.

I must insist, however, that Parker Pearson’s theory that Stonehenge stood in contrast to the much larger timber circle at Durrington Walls, is plausible at best but completely unproven. Based on an ethnographic analogy resulting from some earlier fieldwork he did in Madagascar, Parker Pearson has sought to revive structuralist archaeology with his contention that the two British sites were conceptually binary opposites, the stone of Stonehenge representing permanence and ancestry, with wood representing transience and impermanence. Okay, so far so good (though still ‘not proven’). However, he goes on to assert that stone is not only ancestral but also male, while wood is (quoting PP himself) “soft and squishy, like women and babies.” (1) At which point my inclination is to get out a Walloping Cod and suggest that he keep his structuralism to himself until he has archaeological evidence for all this.

But lost amidst all this highly-funded work is a new book by Anthony Johnson, Solving Stonehenge: The Key to an Ancient Enigma (Thames and Hudson, 2008), offering clues to the mathematical abilities of the builders of the monument. I haven’t read the book (which isn’t published for another week) , but an article in the Independent suggests that the geometrical knowledge of the builders was more considerable than previously believed (by some). I hadn’t heard of Johnson before (despite having a very strong research interest in the prehistory of mathematical thought, and a secondary interest in the archaeology of megaliths). He appears to be a doctoral candidate at Oxford working on geophysical techniques in archaeological survey, but has not published before on Neolithic mathematics. One does need to be cautious when dealing with topics in ancient science, which are particularly prone to attracting the attention of pseudoarchaeologists, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.

How, then, do we evaluate what an ancient monument can tell us about the mathematical abilities of its creators? The most important finding that Johnson is suggesting, from my perspective, is that other than the well-known solar alignments of the monument, no significant astronomical knowledge was employed in the orientation of the site. Rather, it was in geometry, and the creation of complex polygons using ‘rope-and-peg’ technology (making arcs and lines on the landscape using physical means), that the Stonehenge builders excelled, creating, over 1000+ years of the site’s history, a palimpsest of complex polygons among the various features of the site. By ‘experimental archaeology’ I take it that Johnson used this technique himself to show that using modest technology and a modicum of geometrical knowledge about the relationship between circles and squares, the monument’s shapes could have been constructed precisely. This is fascinating stuff, and gets us away from Alexander Thom’s ‘megalithic yard’ and Gerald Hawkins’ ‘Neolithic computer’ theories, both of which start from the assumption that astronomy was the function of the site.

My only major issue (prior to reading the book, which I’ll have to do over the next few months) is Johnson’s claim that “It shows the builders of Stonehenge had a sophisticated yet empirically derived knowledge of Pythagorean geometry 2000 years before Pythagoras”, mostly because Pythagoras was essentially a fiction about whose work we know almost nothing, and because it suggests inappropriately to the untutored reader that in fact the Stonehenge builders had proven the Pythagorean theorem, which is not what is being claimed. It’s not quite the same kind of error as asserting that sunflowers ‘know’ the Fibonacci sequence because their florets are arranged in such a pattern (okay … no one actually claims that, as far as I know). The point is, though, that there is always a danger in inferring specific mathematical knowledge from the outcomes of processes such as the rope-and-peg technique. Similarly, while it is plausible that “this knowledge was regarded as a form of arcane wisdom or magic that conferred a privileged status on the elite who possessed it”, we don’t actually know who exactly controlled this knowledge (and how), whether in fact the engineers/surveyors/artisans involved were part of the (as-yet incipient) social elite at the site, whether that status changed at all over a millennium or more (almost certainly!), and whether in fact geometrical knowledge was perceived as ‘magic’ in any sense.

In my ‘Prehistory of Language and Mind’ seminar, I emphasize the real dangers in attempting to hermeneutically insert oneself into the minds of prehistoric individuals based on their material culture, a caution that is worth repeating here. This is particularly true in the case of megaliths, which archaeologists approach too often on the basis of intuition, faulty ethnographic analogies (I’m looking at you, Parker Pearson…) and wishful but unsupported thinking, as Jess Beck and I show in a forthcoming publication (2). All of which is fine when one is speculating idly, or creating one’s own personalized or intuitive understanding of the past, but is pretty shoddy evidence-based scholarship. Accordingly, I’d insist that even Johnson’s work (to which I am initially positively disposed, and whose use of experimental archaeology is a definite advantage here) needs to be treated with the utmost caution, due to the exceedingly high risk of erroneous interpretations of ancient scientific abilities.

(1) Caroline Alexander. 2008. If the stones could speak. National Geographic, June 2008, p. 50.
(2) Jess Beck and Stephen Chrisomalis. Landscape archaeology, paganism, and the interpretation of megaliths. Forthcoming in The Pomegranate.

ETA: Anthony Johnson himself has now commented on the post, noting that the quotation from the news article about Pythagoras does not actually reflect his words. The blog for his book can be found at Sarsen56.

Is your pet smarter than a first-grader?

(Originally posted at The Growlery, 2008/05/23)

Geoff Pullum over at Language Log has been raising issues with purported ‘animal language’ news stories for several years now, with very good reason.   In this case Pullum’s post is on target, taking on a BBC report on an African grey parrot in Japan that was reunited with its owner after it said its owner’s name and address, is a classic example of science journalism sensationalized.  The notion that biologists, linguists, or random ‘experts’ agree that grey parrots have the cognitive capacity of a six-year-old human child is laughable at best.   They (the experts) don’t, and they (the parrots) don’t.

I don’t always agree with Pullum’s reasoning or the extent of his arguments, however; I am cognizant that our species is an evolutionary cousin to apes that do possess considerable communicative capacities, and I try to remain equally cognizant of the fact that the definition of ‘language’ can be shifted to reaffirm one’s prejudices about humanity’s special place in the cosmos.  An evolutionary perspective always takes account of the fact that our capacities came from somewhere and that the antecedents of language must also have been adaptive for some purpose.   Unfortunately, several of the comments on the LL post seem to take the narrow perspective that animal communication can tell us very little about ‘language’, defined as ‘human language’ involving recursion, arbitrariness, ‘discrete infinity’, or whatever other feature is seen as necessary and sufficient to distinguish language from non-language.   There is an ongoing turf war, unstated for the most part, between evolutionary and non-evolutionary perspectives on language, and one of the key battlegrounds is this debate (now decades old) about whether the comparative evidence tells us much.   Don’t get me wrong: I do think there is a substantial difference between human language and whatever it is that other animals do; I don’t think that it is useful at all to borrow terms like ‘grammar’ and ‘syntax’ willy-nilly into nonhuman studies.  Nevertheless, unless you want to be a linguistic creationist, the evolutionary evidence (and the comparison with nonhuman animals) must be part of theory-building and the redefinition of language.

For my part, and here I don my anthropologist hat, my concern is that so much attention seems to be paid to cetacean and bird communication, when in fact, if we are looking for comparative material, we ought to rely heavily on material from African apes and only lightly from our more distant evolutionary cousins.    It seems to me almost as if, over the past five years or so, the apes have occupied a secondary role in animal communication debates in the popular press, which is a shame since I don’t think it accurately reflects the state of the field.

Front matter

Welcome to Glossographia, a blog dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of language from a social scientific perspective. I am Stephen Chrisomalis, an anthropologist working at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. I will be writing about the intersection of linguistics, archaeology, anthropology, evolutionary theory, cognitive science, epigraphy, literacy studies, and the history of science and mathematics, among other things. While my focus will be academic, I’m aiming to present material that will be accessible and interesting to non-specialists and specialists alike.

My primary research focus is on the anthropology of mathematics, specifically numerical systems.  My forthcoming book, A Comparative History of Numerical Notation, is a cross-cultural cognitive history of all attested systems of written numerals from 3500 BCE to the present.   It is the sort of work that takes me into cognitive neurolinguistics one day, and Near Eastern epigraphy the next, and I will undoubtedly write about it here.

In my non-professional life I am the creator and maintainer of the Phrontistery, a site dedicated to the love of English lexicography and specifically rare and obscure words.  Some of the posts that will appear here over the next few months will be older posts from the Phrontistery, and I will occasionally cross-post material at both sites, but largely the two should remain distinct.

The name of this blog is taken from the title of a dictionary by Thomas Blount (1618-1679), an English antiquarian and philologist.  The original Glossographia was one of the first ‘hard words’ dictionaries to reflect a historical perspective on the English language.  Blount was a true polymath who also wrote on topics such as ancient folk customs and the history of legal terminology, and it is in that spirit that I begin this namesake project.

While I’m not a great fan of the word ‘blogosphere’, I see academic blogs as a modern, egalitarian equivalent of literary salons – the sort of place where like-minded (and not-so-like-minded) people, regardless of status or profession, can talk about ideas informally and get to meet one another.   Please feel free to comment with relevant news, questions, or links of interest.    And once again, welcome!

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