Stonehenge, Lizzie Borden, and the little old man in the well

Stonehenge, Lizzie Borden, and the little old man in the well

In my senior year at the University of Missouri- Columbia, studying art history and archaeology, I took a class in Iron Age archaeology. It’s a fascinating subject and the class was memorable for many reasons. The one thing that stays with me the most, though, all these decades later, is the story of the little old man in the well.

If you were excavating an Iron Age site in Northern Europe and you found a well, our professor told us, the smallest person on the team would get volunteered to be lowered into it on a rope to look for a body. In that civilization, when they dug a well, they would often sacrifice an elderly man and put him in the well to be its guardian.

I know. Gross, right?

The thing is, we had a classmate from Switzerland. She was more shocked about this than anyone. Coming from that part of the world, she’d never heard about the practice. But she said it was common, where she was from, for mothers to warn their children to behave and not to stay out too late or “the little old man in the well will get you.”

This is something that fascinates me: the way artifacts of the past survive in modern culture. “Lizzie Borden took an axe/ gave her mother forty whacks/ when she saw what she had done/ she gave her father forty-one.”

(She didn’t, of course. But that’s a topic for another post.)

These artifacts can be relatively recent, like the Borden murders, or incredibly old. By the middle of the 18th century the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. had been forgotten; a footnote in obscure history books. But the plain which hid the buried walls of Pompeii was still known locally as “The City”.

Which brings me to Stonehenge.

I watched a National Geographic special about it last week. I had a few reservations about the program because they seemed to me to be presenting suppositions as facts, but it was fascinating nevertheless. And it got me to thinking.

Construction at Stonehenge spanned 1500 years. The site was occupied for far longer. It involved transporting at least fifty sarsen stones weighing up to 40 tons each a distance of 25 miles and transporting at least 80 4-ton bluestones 200 miles. The stones were worked and hoisted into position. Some of the carvings on the stones have been dated to 700 years after they were erected. Evidence of occupation and use of the site as a ceremonial center spans from neolithic times to the Roman era.

There is no way that we don’t remember this. There is no way it didn’t leave traces in our culture. Even if we’re don’t recognize them, they’re there. They have to be.

Conventional wisdom says that, because Stonehenge is from a time and place without the existence of written history, nothing remains of it now but the stones. I think the little old man in the well would disagree.

8 Replies to “Stonehenge, Lizzie Borden, and the little old man in the well”

    1. I love this sort of thing. 🙂

      I have more examples. I’m saving them for later posts. So I’ll look productive. 😉

  1. Loved your book “Death and the Redheaded Woman” Are there more books about them?

    1. Hi Bette! Thank you for your comment! I’m glad you liked the book. There are three more books in the series so far, although the third book is currently out of print. (The publisher closed and my agent is trying to get the rights back to all four books so we’re calm look for another publisher.)

      The other three books are:

      Death and the Brewmaster’s Widow
      Death and the Gravedigger’s Angel
      Death and the Viking’s Daughter

      Thanks again! ?

  2. I hope you find another publisher soon. I have all 4 of your books and Wren, Death and the Keystones have become my favorite reads. I have looked every coulpe months for a new book. I hope you keep wrtting them. You writing grabbed my interest form the first.

    1. Thank you! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply! I just now saw your comment. ?

  3. Love your books; love your posts; love the way you handle language. I’m excited to see what you come up with next in the way of books.

  4. You had me hooked in the first book with the Lord Peter reference (and of course, the naked guy), and I liked them better the more I read. However, I’m a big audiobook listener, and I’m wondering if the 4th book has been (will be) recorded. I look for it every few months. I adored all of them, and hope there will be more.