On The Road Travel Essays

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(COURIER: Generally, it's best to avoid astronomical and geometrical details, as it would take maps and charts to explain them fully. Instead, concentrate on religious rituals, construction methods, general layout, and the continuing enigma of the whole thing.)

Name  The name "Stonehenge" comes from Stanhengest (Anglo-Saxon), "hanging stones," which is what the stones seemed to do to the early Anglo-Saxons. It's the most imposing "megalith" (large stone) monument in Europe. There are many others in England and in Brittany (France), but this is the largest and best preserved.

Why was Stonehenge built?  Tradition states that it was built by the Druids, a class of priest-magicians who held power in the days when England was inhabited by the Celts. But this has been disproved. The reason the myth got started is that each generation of Englishmen attributed Stonehenge to the earliest settlers they knew of. Year ago, the Celtic Druids were the earliest people known. But we now know that Stonehenge was very old when the Druids came to England in the 3rd century B.C. Of course, the Druids may have claimed to build Stonehenge, and certainly incorporated it into their rites, as the Romans did. But Stonehenge was built in a 400-year period between 1800 B.C., when the first ditches were dug, to 1400 B.C., when the tallest stones were erected. (This is ancient — yet the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt was built 1000 years before!) But why? We know that the monument was connected with sun and moon worship, since the stones are arranged in such a way as to mark the spot on the horizon where the sun and moon rise and set on certain days. All forms of worship require a calendar in order to keep their festivals on the right day, and that's what Stonehenge seems to be — a gigantic liturgical calendar in stone. But calendars are tricky: you're working with two phenomena which don't harmonize well: sun movements, and moon movements. Generally, nomadic peoples use the moon for their calendar, while sedentary, agricultural people use the sun. Stonehenge tried to reconcile the two in a single design, with less than complete success. E.g., the moon settings are obscured by some of the stones, showing that the sun was given prominence. This area of Salisbury Plain was the best for this purpose, since the whole horizon is quite flat; the ups-and-downs on the horizon are never very sharp, never exceeding 2 degrees in angle! This plain seemed a sacred place, favored of the sun-god, hence the burial mounds and other religious artifacts of the area. (Put in something about primitive man's fear of the natural elements, on which he was dependent for survival: the sun brought warmth and growth, the moon provided light by night. These were powers to be propitiated, but to do so, primitive man had to learn how they worked — where the sun rose on the longest day, or set on the shortest one.) Primitive man had keen powers of observation (keener than ours — since we use machines to do our "observing": cameras, telescopes, computers). These people saw things we barely notice: the longest day, moon phases, even leap years are taken into account in placing the stones.

The Earliest Constructions  Stonehenge wasn't built in a day — or a century. At first, there were only large ditches, traces of which can be seen (but only from the air). The largest ditch formed a huge circle (320 feet across) — the shape of the sun and moon. Think of what the circle means in the human subconscious: the shape of the womb, breast, horizon, human head, seeds, fruits and vegetables (tomato, apple, etc.), cyclic rhythm of seasons. The earliest religious activity here was burial; large burial mounds full of bones have been uncovered. (Two things most impressed primitive man: life and all that sustains it — e.g. sun, moon — and death. These were, and are, the two great "boundaries" of human existence, hence they've always been acknowledged in ritual.) In addition to the ditches, there were processional avenues leading up to it form the valley below. As time went on, these primitive works were refined by stone constructions, as always happens. In the middle of the ditch-circle was built Stonehenge.

The Shape  Stonehenge forms two concentric circles: outer and inner. Only about half of the original stones still stand. In the center of the inner circle is the long (16 feet) Altar Stone. Outside the circles of stones, in the field some 100 yards from the Altar Stone, is the famous Heelstone. (This is the only bit of geometry-astronomy you need include.) The Altar Stone and Heelstone are aligned so that on the summer solstice (June 21 — the longest day of the year), if you stand at the Altar Stone, you'll see the sun rising just over the Heelstone. (The "Heelstone" comes from a reference to an imprint that looks like a heel, which can be seen in another stone, but which was transferred by mistake to the current Heelstone; don't look for any heel-prints on it!) Other stones mark the place where the sun sets on winter solstice and where the moon rises and sets on certain days.

Types of Stones Used  Most of the stones are called "Bluestones", and it is known that they came from Pembrokeshire (the county that takes up the Southwest tip of Wales) — a long distance! Some of the stones are not really "stones" in a technical sense (coming from a quarry), but simply sand held together by cilica cement. These "sandstone nodules" had to be tested for cracks or flaws.

Transporting the Stones  Since many of the stones were brought from great distances, various theories have arisen about the route taken. One theory holds that they were floated all the way around Land's End (the Southwest tip of England); but the problem is that heavy seas off Land's End would have made this risky. Probably they were brought down rivers, and dragged some of the way overland. A modern experiment was made some years ago with large, Stonehenge-type boulders: teams of geologists, using the network of rivers in this area, managed to carry comparable boulders fairly easily, without hauling them more than two miles overland! How were the stones originally floated on rivers? Probably by suspending them in the water from fleets of canoes or rafts. For land transport, the people probably used sleds (made from the fork of a tree), possibly in winter time when frost made the ground smoother. Much larger stones have in fact been moved by sheer manpower (the pyramids, etc.), so we know it could easily have been done.

Placing the Stones  How were the stones put in place? We have evidence that holes were first dug, then the stones propped into them. (Some of the stones go down 8 feet into the ground.) It was a difficult task: heavy boulders would sink down unevenly, making it hard to have the tops all of the same height for the lintels. In some cases, undoubtedly, stones had to be lifted and repacked to match the height of the others. A big hole was dug, with one side inclining diagonally up to the surface. The stone was slid down the incline, then lifted upright. The walls of the stones were lined with timber to prevent the heavy stone from collapsing the sides. Then the tops of the stones were all "trimmed" to match, and the lintels were put on. How? Probably by building large wooden ramps around the upright stones. The stones were notched so that they would fit together snugly, with no slippage. This design was so complicated, that a full-scale wooden model was undoubtedly built first, the pieces of the model taken off and used as guides in S. Wales where the initial cutting was done. There is clear evidence of this wooden model: the notching patterns in the stone are those characteristic of timber construction. Once each stone was pulled upright, the task was to fill in the hole. We have evidence that the workers were fearful that the stone would fall down, since they threw everything they could lay their hands on — even their own tools! Archaeologists have found many stone hammers in these holes, some of them weighing 60 pounds!

Dressing the Stones  This refers to smoothing down the sides of the stones. Stonehenge is unique in that its stones are highly dressed, compared with Avebury (another "henge" not far away), whose boulders are much rougher and cruder. Most of the initial dressing was done at the place of origin; only the final touches (especially the tops) were done after installation. This process of dressing required stupendous labor, using a round stone as an axe. Think of the hundreds, even thousands, of hammer blows it would take to smooth down one side of one stone! Looking closely, you can see occasional grooves that show the work of these primitive stone axes and hammers. (Look at the back of stone 59 for wide grooves.) On some of the stones, when a light is shined on them at a certain angle, a shadow appears on the surface in the shape of a bronze axe — not that a bronze axe actually made the incisions, but that the incisions were made to be a picture of a bronze axe. The bronze axe was a religious artifact to primitive man, the object of a cult which was widespread, including even ancient Greece. Reason: the bronze axe was regarded as a miraculous gift, with powers exceeding the more primitive stone tools. It is thought that these incisions were put in the stones by visiting individuals who wanted to make votive offerings.

Why have the stones fallen down?  Time is responsible for most of the falls, but man has helped the process along. Over centuries, treasure-hunters have dug around the stones, looking for hidden riches. This has led to many stones, collapsing. As recently as 1963, one of the boulders toppled over, but was restored. No archaeological digging is permitted around the stones, in order to avoid endangering them. And yet without such digging, we'll never really get the full story about Stonehenge, since there might be tombs, rare tools, and stone chips underneath which would answer many questions. Another reason for toppling stones was the coming of Christianity into England, when the Early Church ordered the destruction of all heathen monuments. Some attempts were made to do this at Stonehenge, since some of the stones were broken off just below ground level — indicated that they had been severed, and not fallen over naturally.


You should walk with the group to the monument, pointing out the Heelstone from a distance, and then taking your group to the Altar Stone, and possibly the Slaughter Stone. Use the following notes at your own discretion.

Altar Stone  The center of the two circles of stones. No one knows why it's called that; the conjecture is based on its prone position. It is from Pembrokeshire, S. Wales. It's broken in two, and lies partly under a fallen stone. Treasure-seekers did most of their digging around this stone, assuming that hoards of riches would lie under the altar. (Needless to say, none has been found.) From the Altar Stone, look toward the Heelstone. That's where the sun comes up on the summer solstice — and crowds of visitors come at dawn to behold the spectacle.

Heelstone  This stone is "undressed", its sides not smoothed down. It leans inward, toward the monument, as if bowing in respect. It came to be called the Heelstone in the 1660's, when Aubrey, studying stone no. 14, and finding a heel-like imprint, called it that. The name was transferred, in confusion, to the present Heelstone. The Heelstone marks the place where the sun comes up on the summer solstice, as viewed from the Altar Stone.

Slaughter Stone  There is no evidence to justify the name, although who knows what strange goings-on might have taken place in primitive times? (Think of the human sacrifices at the Aztec pyramids in Mexico.) The Slaughter Stone was probably once upright, but was leveled because it obscured the view of the Heelstone from the Altar Stone. There are no grooves or notches on the Slaughter Stone: hence, it was not part of a "trilithon" (two stones with a lintel overhead).

Processional Avenue  You can't make it out from the ground, only from the air. The avenue ran from the valley below up to the Heelstone, and then on to the central monument. This was where the processions took place, obviously with much ceremony, on the solstices and at the other astronomical high points.


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