Stonehenge: the mysterious stones

Stonehenge is arguably one of the most famous megalithic monuments in the world. It’s also one of the most mysterious, with its prehistoric concentric rings garnering plenty of speculation as to why and how they were constructed.
Theories about Stonehenge range from the plausible, to the virtually impossible. One theory includes the legendary wizard Merlin who used magic to help move the stones (believed to have healing powers) from Ireland. Another theory revolves around the sites’ astrological alignment properties, and that alien beings helped with the construction because ideally, to move such a large amount of rock to build such a monolithic stature, it would have required an operation consisting of at least 1,000 people and taking roughly 30 million man hours to complete since a slightly advanced technology wasn’t available to the Neolithic tribesmen. Or was it? The thing is, yes, anything is possible with a thousand people, but during this period that type of population simply did not exist in that particular geography.

Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England. One of the most famous sites in the world, Stonehenge is the remains of a ring of standing stones set within earthworks. It is in the middle of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds. Archaeologists believe it was built anywhere from 3000 BC to 2000 BC. Radiocarbon dating in 2008 suggested that the first stones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC, whilst another theory suggests that bluestones may have been raised at the site as early as 3000 BC.

Stonehenge is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage, while the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust. Why the Crown owns it is not clear.

Mike Parker Pearson, leader of the Stonehenge Riverside Project based at Durrington Walls, noted that Stonehenge appears to have been associated with burial from the earliest period of its existence.

Stonehenge was produced by a culture that left no written records. Many aspects of Stonehenge remain subject to debate. This multiplicity of theories, some of them very colourful, are often called the “mystery of Stonehenge”. A number of myths surround the stones.

There is little or no direct evidence for the construction techniques used by the Stonehenge builders. Over the years, various authors have suggested that supernatural or anachronistic methods were used, usually asserting that the stones were impossible to move otherwise. However, conventional techniques, using Neolithic technology as basic as shear legs, have been demonstrably effective at moving and placing stones of a similar size. Proposed functions for the site include usage as an astronomical observatory, or as a religious site.

More recently two major new theories have been proposed. Professor Geoffrey Wainwright OBE, FSA, president of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and Professor Timothy Darvill, OBE of Bournemouth University have suggested that Stonehenge was a place of healing – the primeval equivalent of Lourdes. They argue that this accounts for the high number of burials in the area and for the evidence of trauma deformity in some of the graves. However they do concede that the site was probably multifunctional and used for ancestor worship as well. Isotope analysis indicates that some of the buried individuals were from other regions. A teenage boy buried approximately 1550 BC was raised near the Mediterranean Sea; a metal worker from 2300 BC dubbed the “Amesbury Archer” grew up near the alpine foothills of Germany; and the “Boscombe Bowmen” probably arrived from Wales or Brittany, France. On the other hand, Professor Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University has suggested that Stonehenge was part of a ritual landscape and was joined to Durrington Walls by their corresponding avenues and the River Avon. He suggests that the area around Durrington Walls Henge was a place of the living, whilst Stonehenge was a domain of the dead. A journey along the Avon to reach Stonehenge was part of a ritual passage from life to death, to celebrate past ancestors and the recently deceased. It should be pointed out that both explanations were mooted in the 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who extolled the curative properties of the stones and was also the first to advance the idea that Stonehenge was constructed as a funerary monument. Whatever religious, mystical or spiritual elements were central to Stonehenge, its design includes a celestial observatory function, which might have allowed prediction of eclipse, solstice, equinox and other celestial events important to a contemporary religion.

The biggest of its stones, known as sarsens, are up to 30 feet (9 meters) tall and weigh 25 tons (22.6 metric tons) on average. It is widely believed that they were brought from Marlborough Downs, a distance of 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the north. Smaller stones, referred to as “bluestones” (they have a bluish tinge when wet or freshly broken), weigh up to 4 tons and most of them appear to have come from the Preseli Hills in western Wales, a distance of 156 miles (250 km). It’s unknown how people in antiquity moved them that far; water transport was probably used for part of the journey. Recently, scientists have raised the possibility that during the last ice age glaciers carried these bluestones closer to the Stonehenge area and the monument’s makers didn’t have to move them all the way from Wales. I personally disagree with that. As a geologist, i do believe Striations and/or other features of Glaciation should be visible. Opinion of a ‘small’ geologist.

Before Stonehenge…

Although construction of Stonehenge began about 5,000 years ago, the area appears to have been of symbolic importance for a much longer period of time. As early as 10,500 years ago three large pine posts, which were totem poles of sorts, were erected at the site. Then around 5,500 years ago two earthworks known as Cursus monuments were erected, the longest of which ran for 1.8 miles (3 km). The purpose of these structures is unknown.

Significance to its makers
There are numerous theories as to why Stonehenge was built. At the time it was made, people in the area were herders and farmers. They left no written records behind.

A link connecting Stonehenge with the River Aven is aligned with the solstice. In addition, research at the nearby ancient settlement of Durrington Walls, a site that also contains a series of wooden pillars, shows that pigs at the site were slaughtered in December and January, suggesting that the winter solstice was marked at Stonehenge.
The burials at Stonehenge offer another clue. Recent research indicates that the burials took place from its beginning, around 5,000 years ago, to its high point when the sarsen stones were set down. Among the burial goods is a mace head, an item historically associated with elite members of society. This discovery raises the question whether the people buried at the monument were local leaders and Stonehenge, in some way, commemorated them.

The Heel Stone

The Heel Stone lies just outside the main entrance to the henge. It is a rough stone, 16 feet (4.9 m) above ground, leaning inwards towards the stone circle. It has been known by many names in the past, including “Friar’s Heel” and “Sun-stone”. Today it is uniformly referred to as the Heel Stone or Heelstone. At summer solstice an observer standing within the stone circle, looking north-east through the entrance, would see the sun rise above the heel stone.

A folk tale, which cannot be dated earlier than the seventeenth century, relates the origin of the Friar’s Heel reference.

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.

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