“Stanenges, where stones of wonderful size have been erected after the manner of doorways…no one can conceive how such great stones have been so raise aloft, or why they were built there.” ~ Henry Huntingdon (History of the English People c. 1130).
When we arrived at Stonehenge early on 30th December 2016 it was shrouded in a thick mist and we couldn’t see much. It felt cold too. We were surrounded by a soft, ethereal light however, as the sun was trying to burn the mist away, it suffused the air with a warm shimmer.
By the time our American and London relations arrived the mist was thinning, and the patches of visible sky were bright blue and devoid of cloud. It illuminated beautifully the captivating atmosphere of an ancient, Stone Age landscape that had been so venerated by our early ancestors.
I’d never visited Stonehenge before. I’d been close by several times, but I’m glad we did it that day. I’ve included a selection of my photographs.
When we finally got on the bus and walked up close to the stones it took my breath away. Along the walk information plaques were placed so that you could learn about the actual site in its entirety, not just the stones. Most of us had audio guides, which were highly informative, but I had to concentrate on what my daughters were doing so I couldn’t totally immerse myself.
The Neolithic temple of Stonehenge is something to behold. You may wonder why a group of old, sturdy stones elicits such touristic fervour, (1.3 million people visited the site during 2013), and I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on it, except to say it’s something of a spiritual experience.
Even though other people are milling around you, the general mood is one of quiet fascination. To be so close to something that was built with such skill and precision four and a half thousand years ago that is still standing tends to pull an all-encompassing blanket of awe over you!
I’m sure the Pyramids at Giza (built around the same time period), would do that and more, but for us Brits, Stonehenge is a profound and enduring monument of determination, perseverance, ingenuity and devotion. The crows seemed to admire the sarsen stones as well, they were hopping about on top of them and circling above the horseshoe while we were there.
The stones have an intense air of mystery about them, as if they are proclaiming their sacred heritage and history, but at the same time keeping some of their recondite secrets to themselves…
When I saw the news today in The Guardian that the government has given the go ahead for a new road tunnel under the site my heart sank. I can’t help feeling this is a terrible mistake. I understand they are trying to reduce congestion, which is considerable, but in the process of coming up with a solution to one problem they are perhaps creating an even bigger one.
Stonehenge stretches over a huge area. Although the actual stones only cover a limited space, the burial mounds, the avenue and surrounding land is sizable. Surely such disruption will damage the aesthetics and archaeology of the site, making it less of an attraction? This smacks of putting profits before protection and preservation.
The audio guides made it clear that although they do know a lot about how the site was created and amended over the centuries, the materials that were used and the type of dwellings that the builders lived in, they still don’t know the exact reason for its construction.
One of the clear ways in which it was used was to measure and track the movements of the sun and the changing seasons.
Winter would have brought immense hardship for the Neolithic and Bronze Age people, not just because of the cold weather and lack of light, but scarcity of food and crops. They would have been keen to know the turning point in the levels of daylight during the sun’s annual journey. They must have been very in-tune with nature, for the alignment and positioning of the stones was achieved with startling accuracy to highlight the shortest day of the year: the Winter Solstice.
The axis of Stonehenge creates an alignment that runs north-east to south-west, up the straight section of the avenue and through the enclosure entrance. Because of the way the sun moves through the sky during the course of the year, the sunset at the winter solstice occurs on exactly the opposite side of the horizon from the midsummer sunrise.
When the Great Trilithon stood intact the effect would have been even more dramatic than it is today, with the setting sun dropping rapidly down the narrow gap between the two upright sarsen stones.
Burial and worship
Other thoughts were that it was a place of burial, (cremated and buried human remains have been found at the site), as well as animal bones and artefacts in the surrounding ditch, it therefore also served as a place of worship and procession. One theory is that the stones represented their ancestors and the wooden equivalents present at the time represented living people.
The name Stonehenge is derived from the large, outer ditch and bank (a ‘henge’, meaning ‘hanging’) enclosing the stone circle within. It was used for cremation burials early in the area’s history.
Unbeknown to me there is a Woodhenge site not far from Stonehenge, to the south of Durrington Walls, also built in 2500 B.C., which was 50m in diameter and held large upright oak timbers. It was discovered in 1925 after aerial photographs revealed it to be a levelled henge.
The stones used in Stonehenge
The five large sarsen trilithons (from the Greek word for three stones), are arranged with a pair facing each other across the open end of the horse shoe, and the tallest, the Great Trilithon (only one stone now remains upright of this pair), which is 7.3 metres high and one of the tallest standing stones in Britain, faces the enclosed entrance. It has been noticed that of each pair, one seems deliberately more upright and well-shaped and the other is rougher. Perhaps this was meant to signify male and female or art nature?
“How grand! How wonderful! How incomprehensible! ~ Sir Richard Colt Hoare (Ancient History of Wiltshire)
On 3rd January 1797 an entire trilithon collapsed and was the first recorded fall of stones at Stonehenge.
These epic sarsen stones were taken from areas relatively close to Stonehenge, the Salisbury Plain and the Marlborough Downs. Still, transportation must have been a major undertaking. It’s thought they were maneuvered onto large wooden sledges with rollers that were pulled by a team of up to 200 people. Our ancestors knew a thing or two about teamwork and co-operation.
They were erected with considerable engineering skill considering the basic tools that were available to the builders, with the sarsens being put some way into the ground and the stone lintels sitting atop each pair were fixed into place using the tongue and groove method. Pretty impressive!
The other type of stone that was used in the temple are the bluestones. It’s thought that originally as many as 60 of these were placed in inner concentric circles to the sarsens, much of which is now fragmentary, indicating that many were moved or destroyed sometime after construction. The bluestones are a particular type of volcanic stone found in the Preseli Hills in Wales; an amazing achievement by itself to transport them a distance of 150 miles.
The Heel Stone
This massive, unshaped sarsen boulder was thought to be the only stone to originate from Stonehenge, and stands just outside the earthwork enclosure and within the line of the avenue.
It was raised to its upright position, being the first stone to be deliberately placed at Stonehenge. Although it stands alone today in a small ditch, archaeologists discovered a hole next to it in the roadside verge in 1979. The second stone may have held the heel stone in place or been placed as a pair with the Heel Stone as two upright sarsens just outside the entrance to the enclosure.
It’s thought that people travelled down from the far north of Scotland as well as from the south and from the continent to work on Stonehenge. Ancient Britons were the builders, perhaps a collective of farmers, engineers and tool makers etc. Local excavations have provided information about the types of dwellings they lived in.
All I can say is they would have been a tad drafty in winter!
This documentary by Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University, Barry Cunliffe and Social anthropologist Lionel Sims explain in much more detail than I can here; if you want to delve into the history and mystery of Stonehenge:
Excavations and restoration
Among the entire site items such as Roman coins (Roman Emperor Commodus) dating to about 186-7, as well as brooches and pottery were found during William Gowland’s excavations at Stonehenge in 1901. One theory is that the Romans altered and tried to adapt the site as their own shrine.
In 1883 Stonehenge was officially recognised as being of national importance and included in the monuments listed in the Ancient Monuments Protection Act. This did not offer any real protection in practical terms and Stonehenge remained neglected and crumbling a the close of the 19th century. On 31st December 1900 another stone fell.
Ongoing repairs and restoration were mostly undertaken during the 20th century and early into the current time period. Stonehenge was granted World Heritage status in 1986.
The visitor centre is fabulous. It comprises a spacious café, a shop and a museum/exhibition area, complete with artefacts, interactive media, historical stories and information about the Stonehenge site, and even a carbon-dated human skeleton complete with facial reconstruction, which provides a fascinating window into a mysterious past.
If you get the chance to go it’s definitely worth a visit, especially before they dig out the tunnel under it!
Pile of Stone-henge! So proud to hint yet keep
Thy secrets, thou lov’st to stand and hear
The plain resounding to the whirlwind’s sweep
Inmate of lonesome Nature’s endless year.
~ William Wordsworth