Stonehenge


The illustration above, and at the top of the Home Page, is a photograph of Stonehenge in the 1960's, before more recent alterations to handle the large numbers of tourists visiting it. Stonehenge is about 8 miles north of Salisbury, Wilts. on the A303 highway, two miles west of Avebury, the site of another such object, but without the central arrangement of stones that is characteristic of Stonehenge. The easiest way to visit Stonehenge from London is to take the train from Waterloo to Salisbury, then join one of the regular bus tours that begin from the railway station. The site is on high ground on the Salisbury Plain, an area much changed by human occupation in the past few millennia, and a short ways above the Salisbury Avon that flows down to the Channel near Bournemouth. Avon is Welsh for river, spelled afon in Cymraeg. When the Saxons asked the locals what the name of that was, pointing to a river, the helpful Welsh told them it was a river. So there are Avons all over Britain. These downs were once an extensive hardwood forest, of which no trace remains.

A henge is a circular ditch surrounded on the outside by an earthen bank, with one or more interruptions giving access to the interior. They are of all sizes, and generally quite clean of the debris of occupation. Stone circles, inside the ditch, are a frequent accompaniment. The stones at the center of Stonehenge are practically unique. Such structures are known only in Britain; there are none on the continent, though stone monuments are common enough. The sites are generally on low, indefensible ground. A fort has the ditch outside the bank, and is preferentially located on high ground as well. They are, therefore, not military structures of any kind, but sites of ritual activities. Stonehenge has the ditch outside, like a fort, but is not on a hill.

The first phase of construction at Stonehenge resulted in the henge and a wooden palisade of which only the post holes remain. From the few artificial remnants picked up on the site, it was dated to the neolithic, perhaps about 2000 BC. There since has been evidence that it could be considerably older. Nothing is known of the people who built it, and nothing whatever of its use and appearance in these times, other than what the relics tell us. The tall heel stone was an early addition, and probably aligned with the direction of the rising sun at the equinox as seen from the entrance across the circle. Of course astronomical alignments exist; these people were much more acquainted with the sky than moderns, and it might have figured in their religions. The community was settled and agricultural, and probably had developed enough to have created an oppressive religion full of fear and human sacrifice, as if existence itself were not enough of a burden.

Later construction phases added the rings of bluestones and sarsens that made it a megalithic structure. (A sarsen is an erratic sandstone boulder found on these plains.) There were probably wooden structures of various kinds, such as roofs and walls, but evidence of them has long since disappeared, except for the ring of 56 Aubrey holes at the inner side of the ditch that once held wooden posts. Some of the remnants of the wood have been radiocarbon dated. The henge itself is about 110 m in diameter, the ring of central stones about 35 m in diameter. The large stones are hard sandstone from the Marlborough Downs to the north, the smaller ones are dolerite bluestones like those of the Prescelly Mountains in Wales, and how they came to Wiltshire is a mystery. They could have been glacial erratics collected from the surrounding plain, but this would imply the existence of many smaller stones in the area, which are absent. These were the first stones at Stonehenge, arriving by 2500 BCE. There have been silly attempts to bring such stones from Wales by incompetent moderns, but this proves nothing. There is a broad way down to the Avon, up which the stones may have been dragged, but which was probably usually a processional way. Stonehenge seems to have been abandoned as a ritual site around 1500 BCE, but remained an object of mystery, and was perhaps the site of dark deeds.

There are many speculations about Stonehenge and its people, but they are just that, speculations. This includes stories about its use and construction, which you can read in many sources. There is, however, no basis in fact for these flights of imagination, merely enthusiasm. You are completely free to make up your own conceptions, and they have as much authority as any others. The Celts came across the Channel in the first millennium BC, settled, and suppressed the original population (which, however, have recently been shown to contribute the majority genetic source of today's population). Celts brought with them iron weapons, incessant warfare, and perhaps an even more oppressive religion. They came down from their palisaded hill settlements, or oppida, to raid each other, or to perform gruesome ceremonies in the mysterious, ancient relics like Stonehenge. When the Romans brought peace to the region, people moved out of the hillsides down to normal towns, and the bloody Druidic ceremonies were suppressed rigorously. Stonehenge appeared much the same then as it does now, and just as little was known about it. It was probably the site of something frightful now and then, but by and large it was just a tourist attraction.

The illustration was selected for this website because: (1) it is instantly recognizable, (2) the photograph was atmospheric and colorful, and (3) it represents time, mystery, and humanity.

References


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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 15 January 2001
Last revised 17 May 2008