Monday, 6 May 2013

Preview: Stonehenge

What is Stonehenge? It's an easy question. It's this:

Big rocks in a circle, put there thousands of years ago. That's pretty much Stonehenge. More specifically, it's four separate stone circles around a common point, two of them actually being circular, two being in a horseshoe shape, with the largest stones weighing up to 50 tons and being over 7 metres tall. Assembled over a 1500-plus year period, from around 2600BC, they're on a site going back at least to 3100BC, and they can be found in the south of England, about 90 minutes drive from London. Of course, they pre-date England and London by at least double.

They pre-date most things to be honest. Aside from the Pyramids of Giza, and the inconceivably ancient Gobekli Tepe, 11,500 years old!) in Turkey, Stonehenge is the oldest Wonder on my list. It's been there since before England was England, and it quietly sat through the Roman era - according to archaeological evidence, the Romans certainly visited, but didn't bother mentioning it in their records. Throughout the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages it was mostly ignored, and only in relatively modern times have people started to notice it and say, "Hey, these rocks seem to have been here a while. I wonder what they're for?"

Indeed. What is Stonehenge for? That's a far trickier question, and one that generations of archaeologists have devoted themselves to answering. The name itself gives a suggestion of what people once thought it did. Obviously, its original name is long forgotten, but from around a thousand years ago the Old English "stan" for stone and "hengen" for hanging appear to have been combined: the large stones with lintels on top reminded the locals of old-style gallows. For the English during the Dark Ages, it must have seemed a grim monument. Other Old English etymologies are suggested, with derivations from "supported stones" and "stone-hinge", but the gallows one rings truest to me. In a world filled with superstition and violence, a mysterious set of stones in semi-collapse with more than a passing resemblance to gallows would surely pick up an appropriate title.

Clearly though, Stonehenge wasn't built as an elaborate set of gallows. Neither is there any evidence of it being used for human sacrifice, despite having the rather evocatively named "Slaughter Stone" among it. This is a toppled stone a little away from the main circle splashed with a patch of red, caused by rain reacting with iron in the stone; the over-active imagination of the Victorians jumped to the conclusion it must be the blood spilt of sacrificed victims.

It also has nothing to do with the Druids, no matter how much their modern-day counterparts dance around it during summer solstice. This is entirely anachronistic - the real Druids appeared in England well after Stonehenge was built and abandoned. The association is entirely due to more conclusions being jumped to in relatively recent history, this time during early attempt at archaeology in the 1720s by a man called William Stukely (who, in fairness, given that archaeology as a concept barely even existed back then otherwise did a pretty good job). Neither was Stonehenge built by the Romans, the Danish, or even by Merlin, as was claimed centuries back; nor by an Egyptian astronomer priest, an architect from the ancient Greek site of Mycenae, or invariably some passing bloody aliens, as have been claimed more recently.

“God knows what their use was," wrote Samuel Pepys upon a visit on January 11th 1668. In the 1720s, Daniel Defoe added, “All that can be learn’d from them is, that here they are.” Happily, Defoe's delightfully defeatest sentiment has been proved wrong, though it's taken a while. Only in the last century, and really only in the later parts, has serious archaeology come up with some answers, or pretty well-judged guesses at the very least.

And that is: Stonehenge was a great temple, a cemetary, and a sophisticated monument to mark the passage of the sun. Not only that, it was a focal point for primitive British society. Many of the stones (the smaller "bluestones") are thought to have come from Wales, in what would have been a Herculean feat of transportation. Theories abound that the construction of Stonehenge was an overall British effort, requiring the efforts of people from across the land. What is certain is that animal bones found at a nearby contemporary habitation were from across the country. By analysing the teeth, chemical isotopes can be measured and matched by location, which reveals animals from as far away as the Orkney Islands. Additionally, these animals were all slaughtered at the same time, in midwinter. Stonehenge must surely have been a special place for people and their animals to make a month-long journey on what might have been an ancient version of a religious pilgrimage.

The precise mystical nature of the site is uncertain, but the cremated remains of 63 men, women and children have been found in an outer ring of holes, and the entire surrounding countryside is dotted with burial sites. An early burial site for early British royalty, that kickstarted the area as a place for the dead? Certainly, that Stonehenge is aligned with the rising and setting sun is beyond question. It is aligned south-west to north-east, and on midsummer the sun rises behind an outlying stone - the Heelstone - into the heart of the monument. This is no coincidence - many stone circles are like this. Additionally, the entrance is precisely positioned at the north-east, for midsummer sunrise. The opposite is true - in midwinter, the sun sets in the south-west. It is perfectly positioned if you were to have stood at the entrance thousands of years ago and watched it set. Setting directly, as it happens, between the gap of the Great Trilithon, the largest of Stonehenge's stone trio.

There was no precedent for Stonehenge. Built over a 1500-year period - over 70 generations! - and very probably more, it was seemingly in continuous existence as a functioning monument for around 2500 years. That's longer than the Christian era to date. Did the last builders there know the intentions of the first? We have no idea. It's very likely the exact functions and beliefs around Stonehenge changed over the many centuries. The stones were moved a few times over the years - not the big ones, but the smaller bluestones - suggesting a change of emphasis or beliefs. The area has evidence of European influence, with analysis of bones indicating individuals from the Alps and the Mediterranean. Society moved in a more individualistic direction with single burials rather than communal, and shiny metals being buried with them. Society went "bling" you could say, and at some stage Stonehenge became irrelevant - just an old, ruined circle of stones from a different age.

I'm looking forward to visiting Stonehenge, but am wary too. By all accounts, the atmosphere and sense of mystery of this ancient stone circle is depleted somewhat by a main road running by it, and the visitor car park not far also. Roads and tourism, in their early days, took precedence over historic monuments, and Stonehenge now suffers the A344 road passing right next to it.

 The larger A303 goes pretty close too. Stonehenge is almost a traffic island.

Also, to avoid more stones toppling over, the existing ones have been cemented in, although I'm assuming this is done discreetly. Visitors aren't allowed into the circles, unless specially arranged in advance (as I intend to do), and so have to make to with looking at it from the outside behind a rope barrier. Stonehenge suffers from its surroundings - as even its own guidebook admits. And despite serious proposals to put the A303 in a tunnel and close the A344 and give this ancient monument the dignity it deserves, it seems the time, expense, and hassle just don't make it feasible. Of the 850,000 visitors annually, the average time spent there is just 20 minutes. The average time! Many must spend less. For most tour operators, it's simply a convenient toilet stop for the tourbus on the way between London and Bath. Get out, have your piss, take a photo of the mysterious stones, and get back in the bus we've got a schedule to keep folks.

I'm not sure when I'm visiting Stonehenge, but it will hopefully be this year, and not as part of a tourbus convoy. I'll try and bump up that average visit, and will arrange to be able to walk within the circle, which I believe is the most impressive way to view the stones. If I manage not to convert to modern day Druidism, I'll write a full account of the experience and my impressions, as well as going into a little more details about the site.

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