Power of Stones

The day I knew I will be ending up in UK, I knew that this would be the first place I will end up going, if I have to indulge in any excursions outside of college premises. And the expectation that I had built up, has definitely lived up to all that I imagined. Seeing Stonehenge for the first time is a bit of a surreal experience since it is one of the few remaining prehistoric monuments in the world, and as the most famous stone megaliths, the structure represents thousands of years of human history – they survived the Saxons, the Romans, the Victorians – all the way through to today’s hyper-digital age and even COVID. As a silent spectator, the weathered rocks that were once fresh in their new arrangements and now stand in an equally familiar ruin, have been studied more by artists than archaeologists. Infact, the first proper analysis of their shapes and surfaces was made as recently as 2012.

The very first known mention of Stonehenge on paper appears in the archeological studies of Henry Huntingdon as ‘Stanenges’ in 1130 AD. The name has since evolved over time, being written as Stanhenge, Stonhenge, and Stonhenge throughout history. It’s been suggested that the term Stonehenge is an adaptation of an ancient phrase meaning ‘floating stones’ – perhaps after their remarkable shape. Interestingly, it is not a henge. There are many henges in Britain, but you can’t count Stonehenge among them. The term ‘henge’ describes a raised earthwork with an internal ditch; Stonehenge’s ditch is outside its earthwork, meaning it isn’t a true henge. Avebury, several miles to the north, is probably the most famous real henge.

It is said that Stonehenge may be the only megalithic monument with jointed stones in the world, apart from a small, and totally unconnected structure in Tonga in the South Pacific. As a prehistoric monument, the Stonehenge comprises of concentric circles and semi-circles of earthen ditches, mounds, standing timbers and upright carved stones, built on the Salisbury Plain, in the county of Wiltshire, in southwest England. Some stones were freestanding, while others were topped by lintels. However, every stone is different, from small shapeless boulders to massive, variously dressed slabs. The largest stones reach 4 meters (13 feet) high, and are 2.1 meters (7 feet) wide, weighing about 25 tons. A circle of 56 pits, known as the Aubrey Holes (named after John Aubrey, who identified them in 1666), sits inside the enclosure. Its purpose remains unknown, but some believe the pits once held stones or posts.

Over the years, many theories have been raised to answer the question of why this pre-historic giant was built. From magicians to pagan altar to aliens, we have heard it all! Honestly, even I have associated the structure to some kind of mysticism based completely on Matthew Reilly’s series. However, the earliest interpretation was provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth who, in 1136, suggested that the stones had been erected as a memorial to commemorate British leaders who were treacherously murdered by their Saxon foes in the years immediately following the end of Roman Britain. The stones were, Geoffrey wrote, part of an Irish stone circle, called the Giant’s Dance, which were brought to Salisbury Plain under the direction of the wizard Merlin.

The mysticism associated with Stonehenge also became quite popular after William Stukeley published theory of the circle being built by a pre-Roman Celtic priesthood of Sun-worshippers descended from the Phoenicians, who had travelled to Britain from the eastern Mediterranean “before the time of Abraham”. Maybe that’s why its a fan favourite since the central “avenue” of the monument is aligned to the sunset of the winter solstice and the sunrise of the summer solstice. There are numerous instances that explores the interesting connection between the prehistoric megalith and astronomy. In 1720, Dr Halley used magnetic deviation and the position of the rising sun to estimate the age of Stonehenge. He concluded the date was 460 BC. And, in 1771, John Smith mused that the estimated total of 30 sarsen stones multiplied by 12 astrological signs equalled 360 days of the year, while the inner circle represented the lunar month. In fact, in his 1965 book Stonehenge Decoded, astronomer Gerald Hawkins suggests that the stones had been positioned to accurately predict major astronomical events.

Plan of Stonehenge by W.M. Flinders Petrie in the late 19th century (left) and Map showing the locations of Stonehenge and West Woods with possible transport routes. (David Nash, University of Brighton)

Unlike popular belief, construction of stonehenge began in several stages about 5,000 years ago, from a simple earthwork enclosure, to the erect stone circle in the centre of the monument in the late Neolithic period (around 2500 BC). The Stonehenge site incidentally includes hundreds of ritual burial mounds, called barrows, as well as cremated remains. Many of those buried at Stonehenge did not come from England. Archaeologists have unearthed remains of people from Wales, Brittany (on France’s Atlantic coast), the Alps, and even the Mediterranean. However, what is more interesting is that there is an unusual number of illnesses and injuries suffered by those buried at the monument, which gives rise to the myth of Stonehenge as a place of healing.

However, what is more unusual about this megalithic monument is the distances over which its materials were transported to the site. The smaller bluestone (dolerite and rhyolite) pillars are of volcanic and igneous origin, were quarried in south west Wales (Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, 220 miles to the west). However, the really big hard sandstones known as the sarsens, and the ones that give Stonehenge its distinctive silhouette, were found in southern England (Marlborough Downs, 20 miles to the north). If imagining the journey of these stones were not hard enough, archaeologists in the last century have found lumps which they call it as Chilmark ragstone within some of the pits holding up the megaliths. The nearest source for this is 12 miles to the south-west, but no modern geologist has yet been able to find a specimen to examine, and the stone’s presence remains a mystery even today!

Carved joints and natural hollows and wrinkles are unique to every megalith and lintel. All are covered with lichens which, in the four decades since daily visitors have been excluded from the central part of the monument, have grown into delicate and fragile gardens, pouring in streaks down faces and painting them with splashes of translucent pale greens, spattered with purple and dark brown. And every sight is different, as rain darkens and emphasises, sun animates, and times of day and seasons bring their own distinctive light and shade.

Archaeologist Mike Pitts

Typical tourist problems are common in all locations I guess! While Charles Darwin may have blamed the earthworms for causing the stones to sink through the soil during his first series of excavations in the 1880s, in the words of historian Miles Russell – who was part of a team excavating within the central uprights of Stonehenge in the first archaeological investigation 70 years ago, the damage is definitely not earthworm related:

  • The military | Salisbury Plain has been a training ground for more than a century. Today the army is mindful of the monument, but it was not the case always. Mine tests during World War I, together with tank and artillery firing practice, caused some stones to move and fracture. Then came the arrival of the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, whose aircraft skimmed the tops of the lintels as they came in to land.
  • Hands-on tourists | Until the late 19th century, visitors regularly chipped off pieces to take home and engraved their initials into the monument. Campers set up within the circle, digging fire pits that undermined the stability of the stones.
  • Human-made eyesores | Unrestricted access to the interior of Stonehenge in the mid-20th century resulted in significant erosion and an increase in picnic-related litter. Fences, paths and custodians’ huts helped to reduce the damage, but added unsightly new elements.
  • Festival goers | The Stonehenge Free Festival, timed to coincide with the summer solstice, brought thousands to Salisbury Plain in the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in significant damage to the landscape. It came to an end in 1985 after the so-called Battle of the Beanfield, in which riot police prevented travellers from entering Stonehenge to set up the festival.
  • Increasing traffic | To the north, the A344 passed within a few metres of the site, whilst the A303 – a main route between London and several popular holiday destinations – is close by to the south. Together, they generated ground vibration. The removal of the A344 has reduced the threat, although the A303 still remains.

Damaged and distant though it undoubtedly is, Stonehenge still remains awe inspiring, especially when one considers the fact that it was put together 4,500 years ago by a pre-industrial farming society using tools made of bone and stone.

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