Anyone with even a passing interest in Stonehenge or British prehistory in general "knows" that the megaliths that pepper the British Isles (and to a lesser extent parts of Continental Europe and the Mediterranean) were probably religious in nature--sites for rituals, probably having to do with solstices, etc. "Ritual purposes" is the standard explanation for archaeological features that don't appear to serve a practical purpose we can discern. But what if that's all nonsense?
The authors of the new book The Megalithic Empire, M.J. Harper and H.L. Vered, approach the problem of megaliths and other related phenomena by thinking a bit more carefully about their possibly practical purpose, forgetting (for the moment) any possible ritual significance. What they discover is that megaliths conveniently (and ingeniously) answer a very pressing pragmatic need, once you put yourself in the shoes of a prehistoric trader faced with the task of getting his product (the example they use is tin, a major British export in prehistory) to a buyer, traveling to some distant point over land without the aid of a map or written signposts. In short, the abundant standing stones, stone circles, menhirs, and various dikes and earthworks across Britain, along its coastlines, and in more far-flung locales with which pre-Roman Britain traded make perfect, beautifully simple sense as durable components of a comprehensive land- and sea-based wayfinding system that facilitated long-distance exchange of goods and people for thousands of years in the absence of literacy. Stonehenge, which certainly had an astronomical function, may have been the central observatory that calibrated the rest of the system.
Mainstream archaeologists don't dispute that Britain had major trade ties to the continent and the Mediterranean throughout the Bronze Age and before, but the practical particulars of moving goods around have generally been ignored. Few have grappled with the problems of conducting major trade in absence of writing and maps. By reconceiving of megaliths and prehistoric terraforming in terms of navigation and the moving of goods and animals over long distances, Harper and Vered fill this gap. In the process, they show that numerous details, not only of archaeology and geography but also of folklore, begin to make enormous sense as echoes of a pan-European trading society that needed to maintain the system with minimal labor and pay for its infrastructure and upkeep through the collecting of tolls. You'll never think about wishing wells, the location of pubs, or witches and their familiars the same way after reading this book. A lot of other conclusions and speculations also radiate from their central insights about "Megalithia Inc."--including some fascinating possibilities about the history of animal and plant domestication, the inside story of Celtic Christianity, and the true symbolic meaning of angels, to name just a few. The book is a goldmine of interesting ideas.
Harper, author of the equally dazzling Secret History of the English Language (published in Britain as The History of Britain Revealed) is sort of the "leader" of a small and intensely interesting group of outside-the-box, non- or para-academic revisionists calling themselves "applied epistemologists," whose snarky and endlessly fascinating trashings of received wisdom on everything from Beowulf to plate tectonics can be read and enjoyed at applied-epistemology.com. Their approach to debunking orthodoxy is based on ruthlessly applying a few simple assumptions to whatever question is at hand. When it comes to historical questions, assume that things in the past were the same as they are now, unless there's solid evidence they weren't. Historians make a living by telling stories, because stories are interesting--usually full of tumult and conflict and change--but the fact of the matter is that real history is more often than not dull. So, when it comes to historical evidence, ask: How do we really know? When you actually look at it, it turns out, a disturbing lot of what historians say (and I can vouch that it is the same in other fields) is either the parroting of unexamined orthodoxies or professionally motivated strategic overstatement ...when it is not outright fraud. On their site (and in his previous book) Harper and his friends show that when you actually trace much of orthodox history or linguistics, for example, back to its sources, you find that those sources, in many cases, were probable forgeries or hoaxes to begin with. Much of what we "know" about the history of pre-Renaissance Northern Europe is built ultimately on documents with very iffy provenance that always seem to have conveniently supported the particular national allegiences of the original owner or his patrons. Thus, much of what we "know" about the past is probably wrong--even wildly wrong.
Like a lot of revisionist history/archaeology, the hypothesis in The Megalithic Empire amounts to a version of "the ancients were cleverer than we give them credit." The key difference between their version of this story and the breathless "lost civilizations" fantasies spun by Graham Hancock and his ilk is that there is no whiff here of pareidola--seeing faces in clouds, or Orion's belt in the pyramids. (Well, the other key difference is, Harper and Vered are a lot funnier.) Yet The Megalithic Empire's proposal, and the picture of the ancient world that compellingly takes shape around it, is no less exciting. If they're right, Harper and Vered have "discovered" a pretty major secret about prehistory (and after) that is secret not because of conspiracy but simply because of silence and forgetting: Megalithia didn't use (and maybe even actively resisted) writing, so the only physical traces it left were in the landscape. This book offers a whole new way of seeing and reading that landscape--and on the book's website, themegalithicempire.com, the authors invite readers to test out the theory themselves by taking their own "megalithic walks" through the British countryside. If I lived there, I'd take up that challenge in a heartbeat.