Maggie and I finally got to see Stonehenge in real life. The pictures and stories we’d seen didn’t prepare us to understand impact the site had on prehistoric Europe. There’s a lot more to the story than just the stones. First of all, there is the site itself: the surrounding area is dotted with mysterious constructions of various sorts. Clearly this was a significant place in the religions of the time. Then there was the difficulty in assembling and carving the stones themselves. Based on the technology of the time, getting the stones to the site was a tremendous task; it consumed immense resources of time, manpower and materials. The evidence of the distances people traveled to be here was a revelation to us. Being here answered a lot of our questions about what happened here, but didn’t answer the questions of why: Why these stones? Why this arrangement? Why here?
It’s no accident that Stonehenge is in this precise location. In the surrounding area, there are dozens of human-made constructions, some in large, definite patterns, and some that date back 10,000 years. There are circular ditches, groups of post holes, causeways and burial mounds large and small. Half a mile north, there’s the Cursus, built about 3500 BCE, a rectangular ridge two miles long and about 400 feet wide that marks the positions of sunrise and sunset on the summer solstice. There are the remains of Woodhenge, a forest of stakes a couple of miles away, built about 2500 BCE. Stonehenge is actually a set of features: it’s bordered by a circular ditch and ridge 300 feet in diameter that dates back to about 3000 BCE. The circle of standing stones dates back about to about 2500 BCE (about the same age as the pyramids of Egypt); it was modified from time to time over the next 900 years or so, which makes it one of the newer features in the area.
Building Stonehenge took tremendous effort. The first stones (“blue” stones), placed in the inner ring, came from the Preseli Hills in western Wales, a distance of about 150 miles. They might have been hauled on rafts down the Bristol Channel, then dragged on sledges to get them to Salisbury plain.
The larger stones, weighing up to five tons, were brought in from the Marlborough Downs, about 20 miles north. The stones would have been carried on a wooden platform that rested on logs, that weren’t attached to the cart, but rolled underneath. (The wheel had been invented, but wouldn’t make it to Britain for another thousand years.) As the cart moved along, the rollers would have been left behind one by one, so another group of people would have been needed to carry the last roller around and put it back at the front. Pulling the cart any distance would have take 100 strong men – a twenty mile trip would have needed several teams of men relieving each other at intervals. It’s not clear if animals were also used in the hauling, but there were domesticated cattle in the area at the time, so it’s possible.
Each stone was carved into a specific shape and fitted to its location. The vertical stones are each standing in a post hole, with a bump carved on on its end that fits into a groove carved into the horizontal stone on top, which was hauled into place with ropes and ramps. There must have been some tremendous scaffolding around the vertical stones to support their weight, plus the weight of the top stone, the men, carts, possibly oxen and everything else needed to delicately place a stone weighing several thousand pounds in exactly the right position 18 feet above ground level.
As famous as Stonehenge is today, it must have been equally well known in its time. Based on the artifacts and human remains left here, people traveled long distances to be here: as far away as present-day Turkey, a distance of 2000 miles.They would have come on pilgrimages: there is evidence of ancient dwellings, not permanent residences but only used during ceremonies. These temporary villages were in use for hundreds of years. There was a wide road that led from the river Avon into Stonehenge; Magie and I imagined processions of ancient kings, arriving with great ceremonies of music, dancing, feasting to celebrate the union of the people with their gods.
What we don’t know is why. We don’t know why these particular constructions were built in these exact ways in this spot. It’s obvious that some of the features of Stonehenge line up with the summer and winter solstice, but there’s only a few stones that have any part in those observations – what are the rest of them here for? Why were the stones brought such tremendous distances? One theory is the blue stones were venerated because of their color, or the ringing sound they make when they are struck; it may be that the source of the blue stones was itself a holy place: either because of the presence of healing waters, an origin myth that is lost in time, or the presence of Psilocybe mushrooms. That works for Wales, but doesn’t say why these plains were considered holy. Clearly it was highly significant, otherwise they wouldn’t have taken all of these people away from everything else they would have been needed for: growing crops, tending livestock, defending their land from invaders, raising children and so on.We don’t even know why the site fell out of use, about 1600 BCE; Druids, Romans, and Christians wouldn’t arrive for another 1000-2000 years, so that sun-worshiping religion was replaced by something we have little knowledge of.
We will never have all of these answers – writing had been invented, but hadn’t made it to Britain yet, so the only evidence we have is the stones themselves, and what few artifacts were left. The people left no other trace, not even an oral history, so it’s left to us to invent our own stories and rituals around the stones.