The Telegraph: Women’s rights were never sacrificed at Stonehenge

The ancient Stonehenge site will be illuminated by a sparkling fire show from Compagnie Carabosse, during the London 2012 Festival

The ancient Stonehenge site will be illuminated by a sparkling fire show from Compagnie Carabosse, during the London 2012 Festival

Nobody really knows why Stonehenge was built, or what it meant to the Neolithic Britons who congregated beneath. But that matters far less than the stupendous findings in Aubrey Hole 7, one of many burial pits around the stone circle.

Thanks to painstaking bone analysis by British archaeologists, it has been confirmed that Stonehenge wasn’t a refuge for fed-up male druids so they could hang out together without being bothered by the ladies. Women were there too – and what’s more, they enjoyed the same status as men. All those children’s history books showing a bunch of hairy men doing man-things around a fire are going to have to redo their artwork.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the news that gender equality existed in Britain as late as the Third Millennium BC. It means that a thousand years after agriculture reached the islands, the sexes were still living and functioning together along egalitarian lines. It means that many of our modern notions about the primacy of men, about women being the second sex, and inequality being intrinsic to the human condition, are just dead wrong. We can move on to other battles. Thank the Lord.

Friedrich Engels, the other half of the Marx-Engels double act, has a lot to answer for. The German philosopher fell for the crackpot theory, first proposed by a Swiss antiquarian named J J Bachofen, that humans started off in matriarchies when we lived in a state of nature. Only after the men wrested control from the sappy women and started building civilisation did the right and proper state of patriarchy come into being. Engels went to town on the idea in his 1884 book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, calling progress “the world-historical defeat of the female sex”. Where he went, an army of Marxists and chauvinists followed.

But Engels’s theory doesn’t fit the evidence. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have had a penchant for carving full-bosomed figurines, but they lived in small, family-bonded communities, not “-archies”. The kinds of markers that demonstrate the rule of one sex over the other, such as the gendered division of labour, or different diets, different living quarters, or burials, simply aren’t there. Catalhoyuk in Turkey was the largest of the first towns, with up to 8,000 inhabitants in 7000 BC. Archaeologists initially believed it was a kind of ground zero for the mother-goddess movement. But we now know that its proto-agriculturalist residents were fanatically egalitarian.

As late as 4,500 BC, there’s no evidence either in the ancient Near East or in Europe to support the idea that men were out and about getting on with establishing civilisation while women stayed at home, gossiping and menstruating, waiting for the good times to roll.

The new burial finds at Stonehenge push back the date for the emergence of patriarchy still further. The bones don’t lie: when it came to honouring high-status individuals at Stone Henge, that holiest of sites, women feature as prominently as men. This evidence means we can forget what Engels said. A permanent state of war between the sexes is not and never has been the natural or inevitable state of things. Go forth, Sisters, history is on our side.

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