May 31, 2011

Seven Wonders of the Medieval World - Part One

Stonehenge

While no one can say for sure what the original purpose of the Stonehenge was, there has been a great deal of speculation. Some say it was a temple created for the worship of ancient earth deities. Others believe its purpose to be that of an astronomical observatory. And still others claim it was a sacred burial site.

Its creation has been attributed to many ancient peoples, but the most belief is that it was built by the Druids. Julius Caesar and other Roman writers told of a Celtic priesthood who flourished around the time of their first conquest (55 BC). However, by this time the stones had already been standing for 2,000 years.

The most likely theory is the Stonehenge was begun by the Windmill Hill people of the late Neolithic period (around 3000 BC). These people were semi-nomadic hunter/gatherer tribes with a strong reverence for circles and symmetry. They had collective burials in large stone-encased tombs. These people also built the large circular furrows and mounds near Stonehenge.

In the first phase of construction, Stonehenge was a large earthwork or henge, comprised of a ditch, bank, and the Aubrey holes. It is believed that the ditch was dug with tools made from the antlers of red deer and, possibly, wood. The underlying chalk was loosened with picks and shovelled with the shoulder blades of cattle. It was then loaded into baskets and carried away.

The Aubrey holes are round pits in the chalk, about one metre wide and deep, with steep sides and flat bottoms. They form a circle about 284 feet in diameter. Excavations have revealed cremated human bones in some of the chalk filling, but the holes themselves were probably made, not for the purpose of graves, but as part of the religious ceremony. Shortly after this stage Stonehenge was abandoned, left untouched for over 1000 years.

The second stage of Stonehenge started around 2150 BC by the Beaker Folk, who were thought to have migrated from Spain. Their name comes from their tradition of burying beakers, or clay drinking cups, with their dead. They showed more reverence for death by placing their dead in small round graves instead of mass graves, and included weapons in the graves. The Beaker Folk were highly organised and industrious, using sophisticated mathematical concepts, and they managed their society by using a chieftain system.

The first stone circle (which is now the inner circle) was comprised of some 82 bluestones from the Preseli mountains, in south-west. It is thought these stones, some weighing 4 tonnes each were dragged on rollers and sledges to the headwaters on Milford Haven and then loaded onto rafts. They were carried by water along the south coast of Wales and up the rivers Avon and Frome, before being dragged overland again to near Warminster in Wiltshire. The final stage of the journey was mainly by water, down the river Wylye to Salisbury, then the Salisbury Avon to west Amesbury.

Once at the site, these stones were set up in the centre to form an incomplete double circle. Also during this time the original entrance of the circular earthwork was widened and a pair of Heel Stones were erected. The nearer part of the Avenue was also built, aligned with the midsummer sunrise.

The third, and final, group considered to have worked on the Stonehenge were the Wessex. They arrived around 1500 B.C. at the height of the Bronze Age. They were among the most advanced cultures outside the Mediterranean during this period. Since their tribal bases were located where ridgeways, or ancient roads, met, it can be assumed they became skillful and well-organised traders, controlling trade routes throughout southern Britain.

The third stage of construction saw the arrival of the Sarsen stones, which were believed to have been brought from the Marlborough Downs near Avebury, in north Wiltshire, about 25 miles north of Stonehenge. The largest of the Sarsen stones transported to Stonehenge weigh 50 tonnes and transportation by water would have been impossible, the stones could only have been moved using sledges and ropes. Modern calculations show that it would have taken 500 men using leather ropes to pull one stone, with an extra 100 men needed to lay the huge rollers in front of the sledge.

Once on site, a sarsen stone was prepared to accommodate stone lintels along its top surface. It was then dragged until the end was over the opening of the hole. Great levers were inserted under the stone and it was raised until gravity made it slide into the hole. At this point, the stone stood on about a 30° angle from the ground. Ropes were attached to the top and teams of men pulled from the other side to raise it into the full upright position. It was secured by filling the hole at its base with small, round packing stones. At this point, the lintels were lowered into place and secured vertically.

The final stage took place soon after 1500 BC when the bluestones were rearranged in the horseshoe and circle that we see today. The original number of stones in the bluestone circle was probably around 60, these have long since been removed or broken up. Some remain only as stumps below ground level.

The stones we see today represent Stonehenge in ruin, although it is still an impressive ruin. Many of the original stones have fallen or been removed by previous generations for home construction or road repair. There has been serious damage to some of the smaller bluestones resulting from close visitor contact (prohibited since 1978) and the prehistoric carvings on the larger sarsen stones show signs of significant wear. There is a major highway running no more than 100 yards away from the stones, and a commercial circus has sprung up around it, complete with parking lots, gift shops and ice cream stands.

Some people see Stonehenge as a place steeped in magic and mystery, some as a place where their imaginations can be fired and others believe it to be a sacred place. Despite its dilapidated state and the advance of the modern world, Stonehenge is still an awe-inspiring sight, truly a wonder of the world.

1 comment:

ralfast said...

Interesting stuff. But while the most famous in Britain, Stonehenge is not the only standing stone monument in the island(s). I have to visit one of these days.