STONEHENGE: " ... STRONG, SILENT, MYSTERIOUS ..."
by Stan Griffin
Throughout Europe there are approximately 50,000 structures described as " ... curious constructions in stone ..." All were built by prehistoric men thousands of years ago. Despite their age, they survive in amazing numbers: monuments " ... reaching for the sky ..."
In southwest England there were once hundreds of such landmarks. Many have disappeared entirely or remain only as "grassy bumps." They were made from timber, earth, chalk, or stones (giant boulders called "megaliths"). There are now 40-50 prehistoric enclosures in the British Isles. One of them is world famous; it is "Stonehenge."
Years of archaeological investigations indicate that Stonehenge is what remains of a series of successive structures on the same site over a period of approximately 1,500 years (2950 B.C.--1600 B.C.). It is likely the oldest and most complex in Western Europe.
Of all the European monuments, Stonehenge is most frequently investigated, yet probably the least understood. Many of its secrets remain hidden, even today. It is located eight miles north of Salisbury. From an Old English word, "henge," the name means literally "stones hanging." (Some of them are placed on top of others and seem to be suspended in the air.)
Stonehenge was ravaged by time, ruined as the milleniums marched by. Some changes have been the result of natural forces like storms, winds, rain, etc. Other alterations were man-made, like missing stones stolen by builders for projects of their own ( bridges and dams); there was no suitable building material within 13 miles of Stonehenge.
Vandalism, something we are acutely aware of today, has been a problem there for hundreds of years. Travelers stopped at Stonehenge and did more than look--many chipped off pieces of rock to take away with them. For a time, a hammer was even provided for their convenience!
Investigations of Stonehenge have been conducted by scientists from around the world. It was first written about in the 11th Century A.D. The first architectural study was performed in the 17th Century A.D. The most extensive research has taken place from the mid-20th Century to the present. Scholars have unearthed many facts, " ... exposing the complex sequence of ... construction ..." but their "knowledge" is constantly changing. As late as 1995 new radio-carbon dating altered the chronology of events at Stonehenge.
It was 1922 when the English government finally took charge of Stonehenge's restoration. Some of the stones have been moved to what is believed to be their original locations. They also supervise the thousands of tourists who visit yearly. The aforementioned hammer is no longer in evidence!
Stonehenge has been described as an "ancient building of great upright stones ...", " ... a jumbled pile of very large rocks ...", and " ... (a) circular setting of large standing stones surrounded by a circular earthwork ..." Some stones are standing erect (a few to heights of near 20 feet), others are leaning or have toppled over completely and are lying flat on the ground. Still others have been broken apart with the fragments scattered around. There are also stumps partly buried in the earth.
As seen today, Stonehenge consists of 91 separate pieces; but scientists believe that at one time there were 141.
It is generally thought that Stonehenge was completed in several phases. (The years given here are approximate; not all authorities agree.)
(1) 3000 B.C. - 2000 B.C. Herdsmen-farmers of the Neolithic era (Stone Age, before the use of metal) who later merged with invaders from the European continent and Megalith builders began construction. (These individuals were part of the first agricultural colony in Britain.)
(2) 2100 B.C. - 1600 B.C. The Beaker people who worshipped the sun had come from Europe across the North Sea to eastern and southern England. They made bell-shaped, red and dark-brown drinking cups later called "beakers."
(3) 1600 B.C. - 1400 B.C. People of the Wessex culture completed Stonehenge. They were part of the Bronze Age, likely coming to England from different locations. They were the most advanced society outside of the Mediterranean area.
The question "Why was Stonehenge built?" has a number of possible answers. Many scientists are certain that it has religious origins. It could have been a temple for conducting ceremonies, possibly for worship of the sun or sky. One or more of the stones may have been used as a sacrificial altar.
Another explanation is that it was intended to be used as a social center: an assembly hall or a dance floor. Finding remains of human bones has convinced many investigators that Stonehenge was at one time used as a graveyard.
There is a segment of scientific opinion that believes Stonehenge was meant to be an astronomical observatory. The people may have studied stars, used the stones to predict the onset of seasons, eclipses, etc., or to keep track of time: an early calendar. Supporting this theory is the fact that some of the stones are in position to reflect movements of the sun and the moon. (For example, on June 24 a person who stands in the center of Stonehenge's circle can see the sun rise directly above the Heel Stone.) Even the very modern word "computer" occurs in some technical descriptions.
Many archaeologists have disagreed with previous theories. These scientists believe that the culture of Stonehenge's builders was on a much lower level that that of the very advanced eastern-Mediterranean peoples. They doubt their knowledge was deep enough to study the sun and stars intensively.
An archaeologist from Wales wrote the following: "Most of what has been written about Stonehenge is nonsense or speculation. No one will ever have a clue what its significance was." At varied times in its early history, Stonehenge consisted of the following elements:
(1) Surrounding it was a circular earth wall about 350 feet in diameter. This embankment was interrupted by an entrance gap on the northeast side leading to the "Avenue," a "road" that goes across Salisbury Plain to the Avon River.
(2) Inside this wall was a circle 97 feet in diameter with 30 blocks of gray Sarsen stones, natural sandstone. Their average height was 13 feet (the tallest was 24 feet), weights ranged from 28 tons to approximately 50 tons, thicknesses of 3-4 feet, and widths of 7 feet. These were once (but no longer) topped with a complete circle of smaller square blocks to form an unbroken lintel (crosspieces joining the base stones in pairs).
(3) Inside this second circle was another circle with 60 bluestones; their weights were about 4 tons each.
(4) Within this inner circle were two concentric horseshoe-shaped sets of Sarsen stones, one group inside the other. In the outer ring were five massive trilithons (two tall stones capped with a smaller stone) These were called "stone doorways," stood 22 feet tall, weighed from 30 - 40 tons, and opened toward a northeasterly direction. The inner ring consisted of a number of smaller bluestones.
Stonehenge also included the following:
(1) a so-called "Altar Stone" was situated in the center of the inner circle and was stained with sacrificial blood. It came from the same locality as the bluestones and is the only one of its type in the monument.
(2) the "Slaughter Stone" located at the gateway to the "Avenue."
(3) two "Station Stones";
(4) the "Heel Stone" which stands on the "Avenue," just outside the entrance. It is 20 feet tall and weighs 35 tons.
(5) two "Barrows" (mounds of earth covering tombs) placed on opposite sides near the circular earth wall.
Most stones used in other monuments were installed just as they were found, with no alterations. However, those at Stonehenge were shaped to different sizes, fitted together and were " ... smoothed ... (and) well dressed ..." (polished, rubbed, treated, etc.)
The Sarsen sandstone rocks used in Stonehenge were brought from Marlborough Downs, Wiltshire District, about 20 miles north. The bluestones, however, had to be moved a much longer distance (135-140 miles) Their source was a mile-square area of Wales: the Prescelly Mountains in Pembrokeshire. Archaeologists estimate that transportation time for all stones used at Stonehenge was over 500 years and that it took several thousand workers from several generations.
Scientific theory says that the trips from Wales were made with sledges running on rollers to convey each stone across the portages between the rivers and other bodies of water. To transport stones over the water, hollowed-out tree trunks (canoes) were lashed together with a deck on top (making a raft) to hold the rocks.
After all the time and manpower used to construct Stonehenge, why was it eventually abandoned? The following ideas have been put forth: (1) The locals couldn't protect themselves from invaders and were forced to flee. (2) The builders became interested in other activities and so neglected their monument. (3) As time passed, the newer generations forgot why it was built, whose idea it was, and why they buried the dead in circles. So they went on to other projects.
Stonehenge remains " ... a riddle wrapped within an enigma ..."
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