Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The History of Stonehenge

Stonehenge is one of Britain's most recognizable landmarks. Symbolizing mystery, power and endurance, no one knows what its purpose was or who built it. Lying in the heart of southern England and surrounded by the Wiltshire countryside, some speculate that the large standing stones were erected to serve as a temple made for religious worship, while others have said the assemblage of stones was used for astronomical purposes. We can't say with any degree of certainty, which theory is more likely, but for over 5,000 years visitors from around the world have come to gaze onto the majestic feat of engineering.The Construction of Stonehenge Stonehenge was constructed in several phases. In its first stage, Stonehenge was a circular excavation of earth that was surrounded by timbers, a ditch and a bank. It is thought that builders dug the ditch with tools made from animal bones and deer antlers. Underlying chalk was then loosened with picks and then shovelled away with the shoulder blades of cattle or oxen.Modern experiments on bones retrieved from the site reveal that this was the first incarnation of the Henge at about 3,100 BC. But in addition to the old bones, 56 holes were uncovered in 1666 by John Aubrey. Known as Aubrey Holes, archeologists think these holes at one time held wooden posts in the same manner that later holes were dug to hold the stone pillars visitors can see today. At around 2,100 BC, the circle was rebuilt in stone. Made up of about 80 bluestones, weighing up to four tonnes each, which came from the Preseli Mountains in southwestern Wales, the stones made the approximately 390-kilometre journey to Wiltshire through a myriad of waterways. Once these were laid down, giant sarsen stones, which form the outer circle, were brought in from Marlborough Downs and these huge formations weighed as much as 50 tonnes each. Although most of the distance is relatively flat, at Redhorn Hill, modern work-studies estimate that at least 600 men would have been required to help each stone up the incline.Each pair of stones were hauled upright and linked by stone beams along the Henge's top surface. To get the beams to stay in tact, constructors etched out joints in the top of each stone that allowed the beams to be dragged in place. Ropes were used to ensure the stones were pulled upright and kept in place by a base packed with stones. The linking of the stones vertically, through mortise-and-tenon techniques, and horizontally, by tongue and groove methods, is an imitation of contemporary woodworking.Who Built Stonehenge?No one really knows who the many men that excavated the first ditch and then brought stones from Wales and Marlborough Downs were. Although many ancient people shared in the construction of the site, archeologists suggest that the structure was initiated by people of the late Neolithic period (around 3,000 BC) and was continued by the Beaker Folk. But the legend of King Arthur provides an alternate version for the construction of Stonehenge. Twelfth century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, King Arthur's biographer, said in his History of the Kings of Britain that Merlin, a prophesier and wizard, brought the stones to the Salisbury Plain from Ireland to satisfy the high king, Aurelius Ambrosius and his desire to erect a memorial to British noblemen slain by the treacherous Saxon leader, Hengest. As the story goes, Merlin wanted to go to Ireland to transplant the giant's Ring Stone Circle to England. And according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the stones that he hoped to ship across the Celtic Sea were originally from Africa where giants carried them.The stones Merlin wanted to move were located on "Mount Killaraus" and were used for performing rituals and for healing. Ambrosius dispatched Merlin and fifteen thousand men to retrieve the stones. The Irish heard of the expedition and King Gilloman raised his own army to stop the British, but Merlin and his men prevailed in their battle with Gilloman and proceeded to Mount Killaraus. Once there, the British were unsuccessful in their attempts to move the great stones. It is then that Merlin uses his magic arts to dismantle the stones that were then shipped back to Britain where they were erected in a great circle on the ground of the murdered noblemen. In a footnote to this tale Aurelius, and Arthur's successor, Constantine, are all eventually laid to rest at the megalithic monument.Stonehenge TodayThe modern era has not been kind to Stonehenge, despite the fact that the monument was added to UNESCO's World Heritage list in 1986. Many of its stones have been stolen by medieval and early modern builders (there is no natural building stone within 21 kilometres of Stonehenge), and therefore several of the stones visitors see today are marred by years of weathering. There is a major highway that passes by Stonehenge and with it comes a swath of commercial businesses. But despite the degradation and encroachment of the modern world, the structure remains a breathtaking spectacle and it serves as the ultimate testament to the power and resolve of its builders.


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