Is the ‘lost city of Apollo’ in Wiltshire?

On 24 August 2007, This is Wiltshire ran a story claiming that a ‘lost’ Neolithic city has been found near Stonehenge. If true, this would be one of the most important discoveries ever made in England. The claims are made by Dennis Price, described by the newspaper as a ‘renowned archaeologist… an expert on the history of Stonehenge and who used to work with Wessex Archaeology’, so we have no need to worry, do we?

The story

The idea of a ‘lost city’ comes from the writer Diodoros Sikeliotes (or Diodorus Siculus, to use his Latinised name, c 90-30 BCE), who wrote Βιβλιοθήκη Ἱστορίκη (Historical Library) around 36 BCE. In Book II Chapter 3, he describes the ‘Far-Northerners’ (Hyperboreans), who worship Apollo and are favourably disposed towards the Greeks. The key passage used by Dennis Price is as follows:

ὑπάρχειν δὲ καὶ κατὰ τὴν νῆσον τέμενός τε Ἀπόλλωνος μεγαλοπρεπὲς καὶ ναὸν ἀξιόλογου ἀναθήμασι πολλοῖς κεκοσμένον, σφαιροειδῆ τῶι σχήματι. καὶ πόλιν μὲν ὑπάρχειν ἱερὰν τοῦ θεοῦ τούτου… βασιλεύειν δὲ τῆς πόλεως ταύτης καὶ τοῦ τεμένους ἐξάρχειν τοὺς ὀνομαζομένους Βορεάδας. ἀπογόνους ὄντας Βορέου, καὶ κατὰ γένος ἀεὶ διαδέχεσθαι τὰς ἄρχας

‘And in the island (of the Far-Northerners) there exists a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a noteworthy shrine, adorned with many offerings, ball-like in shape. And there exists a town sacred to the same god… The so-called Northerners – the descendants of Boreas – rule the same town and sacred precinct, the people deriving their leadership through descent.’

Stonehenge: the ‘noteworthy ball-like shrine’ of Diodoros?

Stonehenge: the ‘noteworthy ball-like shrine’ of Diodoros?

The ‘noteworthy shrine’ has often been identified with Stonehenge, its ‘ball-like’ shape explained as a reference to its circularity. While this is possible, it is by no means certain that the land of the Far-Northerners is Britain, which Diodoros describes elsewhere (V.21) without mentioning the Far-Northerners. Although Diodoros says that it is in the ocean by Gaul and is as big as Sicily, there are aspects of its description that do not really fit. The citizens are said to be mostly harp players who received Greek travellers in the past, who left inscriptions behind. The moon is apparently larger in their country, as it is said to appear closer to the earth. The climate is so good that it is possible to raise two crops in a year. This does not sound like the Britain we know!

Deconstructing the claims

Nevertheless, the idea that the temple can be identified with Stonehenge is accepted by many archaeologists. What is curious is that Diodoros is not writing about the distant past, when Stonehenge was used, but about the present (or at least, the time of Hekataios (Hecataeus), whom he cites as an authority for the Far-Northerners, c550-476 BCE); this is a long time after the third millennium BCE, the period of its construction. Even its use cannot be demonstrated for a thousand years or so before Hekataios was writing.

Another issue is whether or not we can accept that there were ‘towns’ in Britain either in the fifth century BCE or during the period of Stonehenge. Most archaeologists would either say not or would worry about definitions: can we call nucleated settlements in Early Iron Age hillforts towns and can we call places like Durrington Walls towns? Should we accept that Diodoros (or Hekataios) had no equivalent term in Greek for these types of settlements and simply used the closest available word? The claims seem very overblown and it is certainly a big stretch to suggest that Vespasian’s Camp can be identified with the site. It’s worth noting that Diodoros does not claim that the ‘noteworthy shrine’ and the ‘town’ are close together, merely that they are in the same island.

Fortunately, Dennis Price is a prolific blogger who has written up the results of his research in a more extensive format than is possible in a short newspaper piece. Okay, it’s not from a peer-reviewed journal and it doesn’t have the academic paraphernalia of references, but he does quote authorities and even gives Diodoros’s original Greek so that we can check the reference for ourselves. He gives only the section quoted above and does not give full references about where the passage can be found in Diodoros, so most visitors to his site, I suspect, will not follow it up. He cites Pytheas of Massalia as the source of information about Britian, which is true for the description in Book V Chapter 21, but that is not where the description of the ‘ball-like’ temple is found: getting a basic fact like this wrong does not make us confident about Dennis Price’s other assertions.

Dennis Price has undertaken no fieldwork to reach his conclusion, which has been launched straight at the local press, a typical technique of pseudoscience. He is keen to follow in the footsteps of Schliemann, like many Bad Archaeologists, in the hope that his reading of classical texts will lead him to important discoveries. The best evidence he can find to back up his assertion seems to derive from a description of Vespasian’s camp taken from English Heritage’s website. The presence of a Bronze Age burial makes it very unlikely that this was the site of a major population centre during the Age of Stonehenge: burials were kept distant from habitation.