"There is something in Stonehenge almost reassuring; and if you are disposed to feel that life is rather a superficial matter, and that we soon get to the bottom of things, the immemorial gray pillars may serve to remind you of the enormous background of time." ~ Henry James 1875 CE
I love Stonehenge. When I visited the site it seemed to have a weird emotional effect on me, like some lost civilization had found a way of reaching out to me across the ages, annihilating all the time that separated us.
A long time ago, people built the mysterious thing. Even back when the Romans Centurions were first exploring the British Isles looking for more stuff to steal, and establishing their northernmost outposts in an effort to bring palatable cuisine to the Brits, even back then Stonehenge was already considered a curiosity and an ancient mystery.
The stones didn't survive undamaged. At various points in history people have chiseled down and stolen bits of the pillars for personal projects, a bridge here, and a wall there. A nearby farmer use to rent out hammers to visitors who wanted to whack off a souvenir. It's a wonder there is anything left at all. Today there is a thin rope stretched around the monument to deter the chiselers.
People back then loved it when stuff was overwrought with symbolism. They still do actually. Stones represent permanence, like death. Wood is more ephemeral, like life. About a day's walk from Stonehenge there is the remnant of another ancient monument, Woodhenge. It was made out of logs that have since decayed down to almost nothing. I met a self-proclaimed witch there one foggy morning and she told me she was channeling an ancient energy that emanated from a triangle whose vertices were Woodhenge, Stonehenge, and the Space Needle in Seattle. True story. I guess mystic energy is where you find it so I'll just let this claim speak for itself.
Some people think about Stonehenge and they focus on the bygone practice of ritualistic sacrifice. I think Christianity especially enjoys painting the pagan religions as bloody. I find that immensely ironic. In fact I find myself hard put to find any culture without an embarrassingly bloody past. In general, I think much undue suffering throughout history probably boils down to the high price of real estate. Meanwhile Stonehenge is smack dab in the middle of the lush, beautiful, rolling, life-giving Salisbury Plain. It's prime real estate now, so why not then.
Here's what we think we know. Research and excavations have revealed that Stonehenge was around way before the druids found it. Construction was possibly started by the celtic tribes, but maybe even earlier. It was built in phases, beginning perhaps as early as 3,100 BC, and reaching a final form around 1,800 BC. You know how contractors can really stretch out a job.
The overall design seems to correspond to the observation of many astronomical events such as solstices, eclipses, moon cycles, and more. Some theories of these alignments are widely accepted. Others are controversial because they could have developed by chance. If you blindly throw two rocks on the ground and wait a week or two, it's pretty much certain they are going to point to something in the sky. "Oh look they point to Betelgeuse on my birthday! How did they know?"
There is clear evidence that at one time the famous Heel Stone that stands just outside the main circle had a partner, and the sunrise on the summer solstice was framed by the huge pair of standing stones when viewed from the center of the circle. Six months later at the winter solstice the sunset was framed by one set of the big Sarsenstone Trilithons whose shape (the greek letter pi) is the most familiar feature of the monument.
How did these people know so much about obscure cycles in the sky? Well let's face it, they had their geeks, we've always had our geeks. I figure humans have always survived and thrived thanks to a small percentage of logical and inquisitive science-types, without whom we would still be trying to make fire, probably by praying two sticks together.
The ditch was dug by hand using animal bones. Deer antlers were used as pick-axes to loosen the underlying chalk and then the shoulder blades of oxen or cattle were used as shovels to clear away boulders. Don't worry, the animals were probably dead before their antlers and bones were borrowed for the purpose. Excavations of the ditch have recovered antlers that seem to have been left behind deliberately, placed carefully, and it was by radio carbon dating of these items that researchers concluded that the first henge was built over 5,000 years ago.
By the way, the English Heritage website has a warning notice, declaring that no one is allowed to quote them. Yeah well that's just how radical I am EH, and I'll do again.
Around 2,500 BC (a whopping 2,400 years before the Romans bothered with Britain), Dirthenge was rebuilt using stones. Bluestones were used first, which are the smaller giant stones of the monument. Geologist have determined that these came from the Prescelli Mountains in Pembroke, South Wales, 380km (245 miles) away, perhaps dragged on rollers and sledges or something to the headwaters on Milford Haven, maybe, and then maybe loaded onto rafts and floated, maybe. Placed on a raft, maybe, because a large mass is relatively easy to transport by raft.
The rafts could have traveled by water along the south coast of Wales and possibly up the rivers Avon and Frome, before maybe being dragged overland again to near Warminster in Wiltshire, possibly. The final stage of the journey could have been mainly by water, down the river Wylye to Salisbury, then the Avon to west Amesbury with stops for snacks and beverages.
The journey from the quarry to the monument covers nearly 240 miles. It was an amazing feat when you think about it. Consider that each stone weighs about five tons! It required unbelievable dedication by these people with their ancient technology to bring giant stones all the way from South Wales. Such huge expenditures of man-hours in the ancient world are usually thought to be associated with spiritual motivations, but I think people just like big rocks and circles.
Before Stonehenge 2.0, was complete, work stopped and there was a long period of abandonment. Their unions may have been on strike. Then some later generations upgraded and renovated the site, building a bigger and way more complicated monument. That construction phase lasted until about 4,300 years ago. The remnant of that effort is the Stonehenge we know and love and charge people £13.90 to see today.
The main feature of the final renovation, about 4000 years ago, was that the bluestones were dug up and rearranged and this time some even bigger, better, awesome-er stones were brought in from the Marlborough Downs, 25 miles away. These giant sandstones, or Sarsenstones as they are now called, were hammered to size and finely shaped using balls of stone known as mauls. Balls of stone also served as wrenches and screwdrivers back then.
Exactly how did they move those big Sarsenstones, some weighing more than 50 freakin' goddamn tons? How did they get them to stand upright? How many people got squished in the process? Nobody really knows for sure. It required sheer muscle power and hundreds of men with ropes to move each of these megaliths. Modern calculations show that it would have taken 500 men using leather ropes to pull one stone, and another 100 men to move and lay the huge rollers in front of the sledge, and 30 women correcting all the mistakes. By making wild-ass guesses, scientists estimate that those ancient tribes could have managed to bring in and finish about one of the Sarsenstones per year.
Recent discoveries have at least revealed the size of the massive raving hoedown that ancient tribes threw for themselves in the area around the monument. The artifacts now generate a general image of thousands of parties, games, shopping centers, costume competitions, sheep races, and a first class food court unlike anything seen since in the area, although there are still some lovely pubs in nearby villages.
Stonehenge was once part of a huge cultural center where many people lived and many more visitors arrived constantly throughout the year for business and pleasure and to stand in awe of the cosmos. It was the Vegas of the ancient world (trade shows are nothing new).
So, what will our own culture leave to the ages? I'm leaving my bath robe. I won't be needing it.