Stonehenge, ancient DNA, ancestry, and art

Posted on April 5, 2019


This is a guest post by Katy Whitaker. Katy was looking to create a longer form version of a Twitter thread she created and I offered up my blog as a platform for her to use. All credit for this interesting piece goes to Katy.

Katy is an archaeologist and archivist. She works for Historic England, and is conducting doctoral research at the University of Reading into the quarrying and use of sarsen stone in southern Britain. You can find out more about her work, including archaeological comics, at

Here is her full piece:

Why are the genetic fingerprints of pastoralists living in Britain and the European continent 4,000 years ago so different to the Neolithic farmers who preceded them? A New Scientist magazine article titled “History of Violence”, written by Colin Barras and illustrated by Simon Pemberton (issue 3223, 30 March 2019), interprets recent ancient DNA studies to answer this question. Its conclusion is that warlike groups of young men from the Yamnaya cultural region of the Eurasian steppe travelled west and south across Europe in a violent mass migration, that led to the near-complete replacement of local populations by c4,400 BP.

Characterised by vivid language and provocative quotations from scientists involved in the research programmes, the article typifies poorly nuanced public-facing discourse surrounding ancient DNA studies that numerous archaeologists have started to critique. Phrases including “devasting conquest”, “wiped out by newcomers”, and “a kind of genocide” pepper the article, despite there being other possible reasons for the genetic change observed in the prehistoric human remains that have been analysed. One reason for urging caution about the words and tone deployed in popular science outlets describing such research is that political groups with new nationalist, ultra-racist, and white supremacist agenda are drawing on these studies to buttress their claims (see for example this exploration by Lorna Jane Richardson and Tom Booth, But setting aside the text, what role does Simon Pemberton’s artwork have in supporting Colin Barras’s article?

My attention was drawn to the article by a tweet from Becky Wragg Sykes. This blog post is a slightly extended version of a visual commentary that I posted on Twitter (29 March 2019, available as a Twitter Moment). It’s my initial response to seeing Simon’s paintings, and is about aspects of how effective the artwork is in illustrating the article.

First, you can find out more about Simon’s fantastic practice at his website. He’s produced excellent, impactful work for many organisations. I encouraged Twitter readers to click though to this example, not only because it’s a powerful image but also because it immediately makes the point that Simon’s politics are completely the opposite of the right-wing extremists I mentioned above.

My commentary begins with the placement of New Scientist magazine on the supermarket shelf, where I bought a copy. It was next to BBC History magazine which includes a #BrexitHistory article (describing five times in the historical past that Britain has isolated itself from mainland Europe, in a way similar to Theresa May’s UK Conservative Government trying to leave the EU) and below Private Eye. Private Eye is a popular satirical magazine and unsurprisingly its cover was all about the latest Brexit debacle as Theresa May has tried, and yet again failed, to get her negotiated EU Withdrawal Agreement approved by the UK Parliament (it’s proving not so easy to leave Europe this time around).

This placement was significant, because the New Scientist magazine cover-story “The Tribe That Rewrote History. DNA reveals the untold story of the ultimate Stone Age conquerors” was the ancient DNA article. Kenny Brophy has described his #BrexitPrehistory hypothesis in which studies, including ancient DNA research, can and will be appropriated for political ends in the pro/anti Brexit debate. And this is one of the things that made alarm bells ring in the minds of tweeting archaeologists who saw Becky Wragg Sykes’ tweet drawing attention to the New Scientist article in the first place.

Fortunately, on the other side of the New Scientists were the copies of Mojo music magazine, which was celebrating 50 years of Fleetwood Mac, so it wasn’t all horribly Brexity.

Let’s look at the magazine front cover. Other than the word conquerors in the headline subtitle, the text elements relating to the ancient DNA article could be leading in any number of directions. It’s the artwork that tells us where the article will go. Stonehenge is in the distance under fiery skies, approached through muddy, bloody, fields; three tall, heavy, armed figures in anonymous, threatening, silhouette look on at the monument. We are set up for a violent story by the combination of three things: the weapons in the hands of the three figures; the striking combination of vivid colours which play off each other; and the silhouetting which ‘others’ the figures. We have learnt to be afraid of that which is unknown or foreign to us.

Copyright Simon Pemberton. Used here with his permission.

Stonehenge appears, by the way, because Colin Barras tells us that the people who raised its “iconic sarsen stones” around 4,500 BP were the folks “wiped out by incomers” over the next 100 years or so.

The next artwork is on p.29, making the article headline. This illustration is a kind of comic: that is, image and words are placed together, at once combined and offset against each other. The type-written article title, “History of Violence”, overlies the bottom of the painting. The image includes Stonehenge, immediately extending the title by suggesting deep history, or prehistory, of violence. This story of violence is made more relate-able because it’s today’s Stonehenge: the monument that you would recognise in a visit made now, not the monument as it may gave looked c4,500 BP at the time of the genetic changes described in the article.

We the observers stand back from the monument; onlookers from, if not afar, at least a generous distance. The article is about prehistory, but it’s our prehistory, not too distant that it’s hard to imagine connections with the people whose DNA this is about. A gowned and hooded figure with a staff stands in front of Stonehenge, looking towards the horizon. An Ancient, like a Gandalf looking out from an enclosure towards the armies of Mordor. On the horizon, a small group of silhouetted horse-riders, one of whom points a staff or spear towards the monument. Stonehenge and its protector, and us, are part of the green and pleasant land of the foreground. The distant riders are gathered under a vivid red-yellow-black sky.

The composition of this image is important in setting up the narrative. We read it from the bottom left up the grassy slope to the lone figure, then back across the horizon to the riders, the along the vivid sky to Stonehenge, and down the strong verticals of the standing stones. The whole story is set up by that compositional effect. It is combined with the way that the contrasting colours are associated with the actors in the image. The internationally-precious monument, its protector (and us the viewers), are positioned with the peaceful green grass of the foreground, whilst the riders bring with them the burning, threatening sky. This relates very clearly to the narrative of the article’s text.

The third painting is on p.32. It’s an uncaptioned depiction of violence by invading migrants on the local resident population, as narrated by the article. Same vivid colour palette. Scene: a village of round houses on fire. Blazing red-orange-yellow pulses from the roof lines. Above, a heavy black pall of smoke fills the sky. The horse-riders have turned their backs on the scene, ready to ride off

The composition again has a key role in story-telling. In the foreground, the upward grassy slope of the (peaceful) agriculturalists. Our eye is lead up to the ravaged settlement, then back across to the horse-riders, then up to the black smoke. The smoke fills the sky and most of the painting, so far and high into the air as to imply the far-reaching completeness of the incomers’ actions. Meanwhile, we the onlookers see this happening in the middle distance. It’s remote-but-not-remote. What a thought – that we are descended from these cruel and rapacious people? How does that make you feel? Is it real to you?

That is, if the substance of the claims made so strongly in the article are true.

The article doesn’t mention Brexit, but it does end by acknowledging that contemporary migration across continents is a complex social and political issue. Anti-freedom of movement sentiment was significant amongst many people voting ‘leave’ in the UK’s 2016 EU membership referendum, and pro-Leave propaganda before and after that vote has regularly deployed invasion tropes (like Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster) to pose a threat to the UK. Noticing that the Stonehenge threatened by invading, murdering, horse-riders depicted in the paintings is today’s Stonehenge – ‘our’ Stonehenge – led me to suggest that the monument represented in the images could be interpreted as standing for today’s ‘green and pleasant land’, and for a heritage, a country, perceived as under threat according to contemporary anti-migration rhetoric.

Whilst that reading is still possible, especially given the dominant rhetoric of the article, I don’t believe that’s the artist’s intent. On his website Simon Pemberton has expressed, in no uncertain terms, what he thinks about the Nigel Farage’s of this world. What I do think is important to discuss, is the way the artwork places us the onlookers in relation to the story, how it contributes to the rhetoric of the article’s dominant narrative line, and its emotional effects on us. There is a visual argument, just as there is a textual argument: and that visual argument can support readings that were never intended by the authors of the original research or its journalistic interpreters.


Katy Whitaker


April 2019




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