Last week, I made a brief visit to Stonehenge. The weather was cold and windy, and it was only possible to spend five or ten minutes contemplating the stones. But what stones!
It is easy to run out of superlatives when considering the age of Stonehenge, and the human effort—intellectual as well as physical—needed for its erection. Consider: the great Sarson stone ring with its tongue and groove, and mortise and tenon joints was erected around four and a half thousand years ago. This was the time when the great pyramids in Egypt were being built. It was more than two thousand years before the time of Plato and Aristotle, and two and a half thousand years before the Romans invaded Britain. The monument was more than a thousand years old when Moses was said to have taken the Children of Israel out of Egypt.
Stonehenge has been the subject of study and speculation for hundreds of years, but the last fifteen years or so have been particularly fruitful. For anyone interested in the details, Mike Parker Pearson’s book Stonehenge, is essential reading. He conducted the archaeology that has made such extraordinary strides in the understanding of the monument.
Of the many astonishing facts to emerge recently three are worthy of note. The main stones at Stonehenge are so-called Sarcen Stones, that were transported somehow from the Marlborough Downs around twenty miles away. But there are also smaller ‘bluestones’, that may have formed an earlier ring. They have long been known to come from the Preseli Hills in Wales, and the physical and organizational problems that must have been overcome transporting them more than 100 miles, five thousand years ago, have generated many ingenious theories. But Mike Parker Pearson has not only found the actual outcrop—with clear evidence of stone being cut—in the Preseli Hills, but the remains of a stone circle close by, in which one of the stones at Stonehenge—identified because of its trapezoidal shape—was probably used first before being relocated to Wiltshire.
Excavations immediately north of Stonehenge have found large deposits of Sarson chippings resulting from the tedious work of shaping the stones by hitting them with large stone mauls or mallets. By carefully registering the position of 6,500 individual stone chips, the straight edge of one of the stones is clearly visible, indicating that they were worked in the vicinity of the monument.
But for me the most intriguing revelation from Pearson’s work is the identification of the very reason why Stonehenge is where it is. Every midsummer day, the TV channels report crowds who have assembled at Stonehenge to observe the midsummer sun rising in line with the axis of the monument. What is less well known, is that midwinter sunset takes place 180 degrees in the other direction. It is one of the very few ‘why’ facts about the stones that we know with a very fair degree of certainty: they were deliberately oriented to that compass direction. What has perplexed archaeologists, is: why was Stonehenge built where it is?
Anyone who has been there knows that it is on a slope. The first view from the A303 driving west is looking down on the stones. Henry Browne was an early self-appointed guardian of Stonehenge in the 1820s. He proposed a rather charming theory regarding its age. He accounted for its fairly damaged state by noting that Stonehenge is built on ground sloping down from the south west, and shows a number of stones on that side leaning in the other direction. He suggested that it was the torrent of water from The Flood, gushing downhill, that caused the damage. His hypothesis is consistent in one sense; Archbishop Ussher had famously dated The Flood to around 2,300 BC, and this is somewhat later, as we know now, than the great Sarsons were erected...
The position is not, therefore, either on a hill or in a valley so why was it built there? Pearson and his team noted that the entrance to Stonehenge—facing the midsummer sunrise—is positioned at one end of a pair of natural linear gullies caused by glaciation; the gullies, by pure coincidence, line up with the midsummer sunrise.
I wonder whether the builders of Stonehenge thought that the gullies—which they could see pointed towards the rising sun at midsummer—had magic significance; perhaps that is the reason that the bluestones were brought there all the way from Wales to a place of great magic...
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs