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Stonehenge, Wiltshire. Of all the ancient sites in Britain, this is probably the most impressive, and certainly the best known. Standing in isolation on the wide expanse of Plain, it is to many visitors at once a familiar and yet strange sight — because of the thousands of photographs that have been published, and strange because no picture can do justice to the magnificent concept of this huge stone construction.
The tallest stones are the uprights in the centre group of trilithons (trilithon = two upright stones supporting a third across the top). The tallest of these is 22 feet (6.7 metres) high and has another 8 feet (24 metres) below ground. This weighs about 45 tons (45 tonnes). The stones in the outer circle are slightly less massive, but these form the well-known Stonehenge outline of a row of openings. These stones are no rough lumps of material but have been carefully shaped in several ways. First observe the tops of some of the uprights which have lost their lintel, or top, stone. A 'knob' can be seen projecting from the top of the stone, and this is part of the mortice and tenon joint which locked the lintel in place on top. Also the lintels were dovetailed into each other. The lintels of the outer circle were also shaped on both inner and outer faces to make a smooth curve round the circle, and the uprights were also shaped, with a slight bulge in the middle to alter the apparent perspective, perhaps to make them appear even taller to someone standing below and looking up.
Current archaeological research shows that these stones were erected nearly 4,000 years ago. Carvings of a Bronze Age dagger (c. 2100 BC) and axe heads can be discerned on the righthand upright of the trilithon furthest from the present entrance (i.e. the most southerly stone) in a suitable sidelight. Beyond the stone circle is a low earth bank and ditch, and this, along with the Heel Stone which stands alone by the roadside, is even earlier. It has been dated to 4,600 years ago, and is thought to have been the first construction on the site.
This great edifice has suffered over the centuries from the depredations of local people who, ignorant of its value, broke up and dragged away many stones to use for building purposes, and in more recent centuries visitors would stop at Amesbury to hire a hammer, which was used to chip off lumps of stone as souvenirs.
Although popularly connected with the Druids and their supposed sacrifices, Stonehenge was completed long before they came to Britain (which was around 250 BC. nearly 2,000 years after Stonehenge was finished). It was the romantic notions of the eighteenth-century antiquarians which populated the site with Druids and named the Altar Stone and the Slaughter Stone, and it is now thought unlikely that human sacrifice was ever practised here. As with many other ancient sites, its true purpose remains unknown, though recent research has resulted in some startling conclusions. In 1963 a professor of astronomy, G.S. Hawkins, announced that Stonehenge had been built for astronomical purposes, the alignment of stones pinpointing the positions of the midsummer and midwinter sunrises and sunsets, likewise those of the moon. It was also, he said, used to calculate eclipses of the moon. Although not all his ideas are fully accepted by archaeologists, there is little doubt that these features were part of the reason for the construction of Stonehenge. Read his book Stonehenge Decoded for the details.
Stonehenge's astronomical possibilities were in fact noticed many years ago, as the following quotation from the Scotsman's Notes and Queries section of 31 July 1875 shows. The writer states that 'a party of Americans went on midsummer morning this year to see the sun rise upon Stonehenge. They found crowds of people assembled. . . The point of observation chosen by the excursion party was the stone table or altar near the head of, and within the circle, directly looking down. The morning was unfavourable, but, fortunately, just as the sun was beginning to appear over the top of the hill, the mist disappeared, and then, for a few moments, the onlookers stood amazed at the spectacle presented to their view. While it lasted, the sun, like an immense ball, appeared actually to rest on the isolated stone of which mention has been made.' Commenting on this, a writer in the New Quarterly Magazine for January 1876 said: ‘In this we find strong proof that Stonehenge was really a mighty almanack in stone; doubtless also a temple of the sun, erected by a race which has long perished without intelligible record.' It is true that no intelligible record exists, but both geology and folklore have provided clues to help solve the mysteries associated with the erection of Stonehenge, apart from the evidence unearthed by archaeologists.
Though some of the smaller stones, the bluestones, were probably brought from the Prescelly Hills in south-west Wales, the larger sarsen stones are thought to have come from the Marlborough Downs a few miles away. But ancient legends suggest that all the stones came from Africa by way of Ireland, where they were set up by a race of giants who used their healing properties. Then they were known as the Giant's Dance, and were later moved by the wizard Merlin to the present site, by decree of King Aurelius. He had them erected as a monument to commemorate the treacherous action by Hengist the Saxon who had murdered a British prince and his commanders while they were conducting a peace treaty. In 1724 Daniel Defoe noted in his Tour Through England and Wales a local tradition about an unsuccessful attempt to count the stones: ‘a baker carry'd a basket of bread, and laid a loaf upon every stone, and yet could never make out the same number twice.'
The stones have now had 'official' numbers allotted to them, so that counting them should be no problem. However, despite the vast amount of research which has been done, there is still controversy about Stonehenge's function, and probably always will be. This noble structure remains an enigma.
Nearby towns: Amesbury, Andover, Devizes, Pewsey, Salisbury, Warminster
Nearby villages: Berwick St. James, Bulford, Durnford, Durrington, Figheldean, Fittleton, Great Wishford, Idmiston, Lark Hill, Little Langford, Longstreet, Maddington, Milston, Netheravon, Orcheston, Porton, Rollestone, Shrewton, South Newton, Stapleford, Winterbourne Dauntse, Winterbourne Earls, Winterbourne Gunner, Winterbourne Stoke, Woodford
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