Stonehenge a unique symbol of mystery, power and endurance
Edited by Lynne Hand
Stonehenge is a mystery, and most scholars would agree with that statement. They also agree that it is a megalithic ruin on the open downland of Salisbury Plain two miles (three kilometres) west of the town of Amesbury, Wiltshire, in Southern England. That's about all they agree on though.
The name Stonehenge is derived from the Old English words Stanhen gist meaning the 'hanging stones' and has given its name to a class of monuments known as henges. It was first mentioned as one of the wonders of Britain only seventy years after the Norman Conquests and if you are lucky enough to visit it you can't fail to be moved.
Who built It?
No one really knows who built Stonhenge. Its construction has been attributed to many ancient peoples throughout the years from the Druids and Celtic priesthoods to the theory that the site was begun by the people of the late Neolithic period (around 3000 BC). However it is known that the Stonehenge complex was built in several construction phases spanning around 2,000 years and there is even evidence for activity both before and afterwards on the site.
My favourite theory was in a recent report on the BBC, which stated that archaeologists thought remains found near Stonehenge were almost certainly those of the ancient people who helped to build the monument. Tests on teeth found in a 4,300-year-old grave at Boscombe Down suggested the prehistoric workmen were Welsh.
Why was it built?
No one really knows why it was built. The original purpose of the stones is unclear, but there has been much speculation, some say it was a temple made for the worship of ancient earth deities. It has been called an astronomical observatory for marking significant events on the prehistoric calendar. Whilst others claim that it was a sacred site for the burial of high-ranking citizens from the societies of long ago.
What is certain is that the whole place is a uniquely powerful symbol of mystery, power and endurance.
Formed and reformed over a number of years, it is an example of outstanding primitive engineering. Constructed from the most basic tools, including picks which were made out of antlers and used to dig the main ditch. Attempts to reconstruct its building during 2001 ended in disaster when an attempt was made to transport a large stone along a land and sea route from Wales to Stonehenge. Volunteers pulled it on a wooden sledge over land but once transferred to a replica prehistoric boat, the stone sank in rough seas in the Bristol Channel.
The first monument consisted of a circular bank and ditch enclosure measuring around 115 m (320 feet) in diameter with a large entrance to the north east and a smaller one to the south. The builders placed bones of deer and oxen in the bottom of the ditch. These bones were considerably older than the antler picks used to dig the ditch and had been well looked-after for some time prior to burial. Within the outer edge of the enclosed area was dug a circle of 56 pits. The pits may have contained standing timbers although there is no excavated evidence of them. Perhaps it was originally called Woodhenge.
Evidence of the second phase is no longer visible. It appears from the number of postholes dating to this period that some form of timber structure was built within the enclosure during the early 3rd millennium BC . Further standing timbers were placed at the northeast entrance and a parallel alignment of posts ran inwards from the southern entrance
Archaeological excavation has indicated that around 2600 BC, two concentric crescents of holes were dug in the centre of the site. Again, there is little firm dating evidence for this phase. The holes held 80 standing bluestones brought from the Preseli Hills, 250 km away in modern day Pembrokeshire in Wales. What was to become known as the Altar Stone, a six ton specimen of green micaceous sandstone twice the height of the bluestones, was also brought from Wales and may have stood as a single large monolith.
Another major phase of activity at the tail end of the 3rd millennium BC saw 74 enormous Sarsen stones brought from a quarry around 20 miles (30 km) north to the site on the Marlborough Downs. The stones were dressed and fashioned with mortise and tenon joints before 30 were erected as a 30 m diameter circle of standing stones with a 'lintel' of 29 stones resting on top. Each weighed around 25 tons and had clearly been worked with the final effect in mind. Just getting the stones there must have been an incredible undertaking.
Myths and Legends
The Heel Stone was once known as the Friar's Heel. A folk tale, which cannot be dated earlier than the seventeenth century, relates the origin of the name of this stone: The Devil bought the stones from a woman in Ireland, wrapped them up, and brought them to Salisbury plain. One of the stones fell into the Avon, the rest were carried to the plain. The Devil then cried out, "No-one will ever find out how these stones came here." A friar replied, "That's what you think!," whereupon the devil threw one of the stones at him and struck him on the heel. The stone stuck in the ground, and is still there.
Some claim "Friar's Heel" is a corruption of "Freya's He-ol" or "Freya Sul", from the Germanic goddess Freya and (allegedly) the Welsh words for "way" and "sun day" respectively.
Stonehenge is associated with Arthurian legend . Geoffrey of Monmouth said that Merlin directed its removal from Ireland , where it had been constructed on Mount Killaraus by Giants who brought the stones from Africa. After it had been rebuilt near Amesbury, Geoffrey further narrates how first Ambrosius Aurelianus, then Uther Pendragon, and finally Constantine III, were buried inside the ring of stones. In many places in his Historia Regum Britanniae Geoffrey mixes British legend and his own imagination; it is intriguing that he connects Ambrosius Aurelianus with this prehistoric monument, seeing how there is place-name evidence to connect Ambrosius with nearby Amesbury.
Unfortunately over the years there was a lot of destruction to the monument. At various stages stones had been removed for construction work, people had defaced them and pushed them over and with the proximity of the A303 road generally the site was in poor condition.
Now for the good news, the site and its surroundings were added to the UNESCO 's list of World Heritage Sites in 1986. It is also a legally-protected Scheduled Ancient Monument and the monument itself is owned and managed by English Heritage whilst the surrounding downland is owned by the National Trust. So it's about as protected as you can be in the UK.
Stonehenge remains a place of pilgrimage for neo-druids and those following pagan or neo-pagan beliefs. The midsummer sunrise began attracting modern visitors in 1870s, and according to a recent report as many as 20,000 people visited Stonehenge during the 2005 summer solstice.
However growing evidence indicates that the ancient druids did not visit at all in the summer, but rather during the winter solstice. The most recent such evidence being bones and teeth from pigs that were slaughtered during the rituals, the age of which indicate that they were slaughtered either in December or January every year.