Revisiting Stonehenge

A site like Stonehenge is always worth revisiting, and so, sometimes is a memory of it! This is what a wrote as part of an archaeological course I was taking:

Elly wanted to visit Stonehenge. She’d taken us to many interesting places when we’d visited her in the Netherlands, now she was visiting us we were delighted to plan a trip to Salisbury Plain, to the ancient stones.

I’d seen them before, once when visitors were still allowed to touch them, sit on them, climb them. The last time I’d visited there was a fence round them and they were huddled into the landscape, looking less than impressive.

I wanted them to look wonderful for Elly, she was so looking forward to the trip. It was a hot journey, only a couple of hours but much of it behind lorries and trucks; we arrived and the site was crowded, the carpark full, a long queue to get to the site. We didn’t mind and we stood and chatted and laughed about silly things.

I turned to look round; the land rose away from us, and on the nearby ridge was the hump of a burial mound.  Stonehenge was not an isolated structure within a lonely landscape it was in a context of ritual and ceremony and meaning that we’d never know, only guess at. The earliest found evidence of this site being of special significance is from over 10,000 (yes, ten thousand) years ago. The henge itself was just part of the whole experience, but I’d never realised or thought of this before.

Through the barrier, we collected our audio-guides and walked through the tunnel under the road, taking us to the henge itself.

The path wound round and we traipsed along with the visitors from every corner of the world… five, four, three thousand years ago other visitors would have come, a throng of people speaking different languages, wearing different garments, bearing  different tattoos and weapons, all coming to celebrate some special moment. Travellers also came from far away in ancient times, as far away as the Orkney Islands… the stones themselves, the bluestones of the inner circle had been brought by Neolithic technology from the Preseli Hills, 150 miles away.

The stones were cordoned off by a low rope strung between short, slim, non-threatening metal posts; there was no sense of being cut off from the henge, nor of the henge being aggressively contained; we were just kept at a respectful distance. The stones are on a slight rise so as we looked at them we could barely see visitors on the other side of them and there was a sense of space and openness beneath the wide sky.

We followed the path round, taking our time, I gradually became aware of the henge within the landscape; the site had been chosen not by chance, but specifically because this was where it was right. There was no random positioning, plans had been made, the site must have been measured, cleared, and maybe even levelled. A wooden circle consisting of mighty timbers was here prior to the stones, maybe as many as 6,500 trees had been cut down with flint axes. Four massive ‘station’ stones were placed well outside the circle, positioned at the corners of a perfect square; where the diagonals intersected, the ‘alter’ stone was placed.

We walked slowly, stopping to stare, and each time I turned away from the stones and looked away to the horizon, knowing that within this area there are hundreds of other contemporary sites, burials, barrows, tombs, Woodhenge… for there were other henges than just those made from stone.

Because we were apart from the stones the banks were clearly visible, showing what a huge area the site was. These vast circular ditches would have been dug with deer antlers and the shoulder blades of cattle, thousands of tons of soil shifted. It must have been a stable and fairly secure society to be able to devote the amount of labour needed for construction. I looked to the distant hills, fields full of golden grain ripening in the summer sun.

At the south side of the site was the Heel Stone, aligned with the Slaughter Stone (it turns red when wet, there is no reason to believe it was a sacrificial alter) and standing by it and looking south I could make out a faint trace of The Avenue, twelve metres wide, descending to the River Avon.

I stood for many minutes, just looking at the henge, and then with my back to it again, looking at where it sat in the landscape.

“It’s wonderful,” Elly said. “Het is geweldig, echt geweldig”

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/content/imported-docs/p-t/Stonehenge_plan.pdf

 

 

Archaeology… my final assignement

We walked slowly, stopping to stare, and each time I turned away from the stones and looked away to the horizon, knowing that within this area there are hundreds of other contemporary sites, burials, barrows, tombs, Woodhenge… for there were other henges than just those made from stone.

Because we were apart from the stones the banks were clearly visible, showing what a huge area the site was. These vast circular ditches would have been dug with deer antlers and the shoulder blades of cattle, thousands of tons of soil shifted. It must have been a stable and fairly secure society to be able to devote the amount of labour needed for construction. I looked to the distant hills, fields full of golden grain ripening in the summer sun.

At the south side of the site was the Heel Stone, aligned with the Slaughter Stone (it turns red when wet, there is no reason to believe it was a sacrificial alter) and standing by it and looking south I could make out a faint trace of The Avenue, twelve metres wide, descending to the River Avon.

I stood for many minutes, just looking at the henge, and then with my back to it again, looking at where it sat in the landscape.

“It’s wonderful,” Elly said. “Het is geweldig, echt geweldig”

Seeing Stonehenge with different eyes

I’m coming to the end of my on-line archaeology course from Brown University; I’ve really enjoyed it and i think I’ve learned quite a lot. However it isn’t facts or even skills I’ve learned most, it’s much more fundamental than that. I’ve learned to use my eyes in a different way. I realised this gradually, as I walked round our little village, focussing not on the particular but looking at the familiar places as a ‘site’. This new way of appraising what I saw really impacted when we went to Stonehenge last week.

Stonehenge, that mysterious and atmospheric place, a wonder of the world. Many answers have been revealed about its construction, its age, its chronology and maybe even its purpose or function, through archaeology and archaeological research. it was built about 5,000 years ago, although the first construction on the site (the first known at the moment)  was an earthwork of ditches and banks and wooden posts. There were several stages in the erection of the circle as we know it, made from local stones, but also huge stones brought somehow from Wales; no-one can be certain how these huge, 4 tonne bluestones were brought 150miles from the Preseli Hills, but they were erected into a circle on Salisbury Plain.

Stonehenge is the centre of a vast site which includes other monuments and features, some of which seem to be linked to the henge (henge means earthwork, and can be just banks, or a stone edifice, or wooden timbers – there is even a Seahenge in Norfolk on the coast) There are over 700 recognized features on the site, including more than 350 burial sites. There is a huge amount written about Stonehenge, which you will soon discover if you search the internet, or go into a bookshop.DSCF3892

I had visited Stonehenge several times before, the first time when I was about 16 and in those days you could walk right up to the stones and touch them, sit on them, climb on them. They were amazing, but there was no mystery when I went on a beautiful sunny day along with a swarm of other tourists. The next times I saw the stones the weather was not as nice and the way they were displayed was unsympathetic so again there was no mystery and they looked less impressive, hunkered down in the gloomy landscape.

DSCF3929

Now visitors are kept well away, but only by a low rope, nothing intimidating or intrusive, and there is a walkway around it with no notices, signs, or information boards, just a little post indicating a number which links to an audio-guide you are given. It was phenomenally busy on the lovely sunny day we went; literally thousands and thousands of visitors and we had to wait over half an hour to get to the site (after parking the car, this was waiting in a queue)

DSCF3894

We walked round the site… and suddenly it was wonderful. Despite the number of other people, by the time they had spread out along the path and anyone could just stand and look, and wonder. The stones are set on a slight rise in the landscape and the path was below the rise so we looked up at them; this meant that quite often you couldn’t see the other visitors on the other side, and the stones seemed alone and marvellous in the vast ancient landscape. The commentary on the audio-guide was excellent; there was a brief version, or extra features if you were interested.

Despite the throng, it was wondrousness, wonderful, moving and in fact, having people from almost every corner of the world was wondrous too.DSCF3906 So how did I see it differently because of the course? I saw the henge within its landscape. I kept turning round so my back was to the stones and looking around, imagining what else would have been visible, following the line of the Stonehenge Avenue sweeping away, noticing the burial mounds along the rise in the landscape, imagining approaching the henge from below and seeing it gradually appear on the horizon, seeming to levitate as it was neared… I saw it not in isolation and just as itself but as it fitted into a context of a network of special and reverenced places.

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/stonehenge/world-heritage-site/why-is-stonehenge-a-world-heritage-site/facts-and-figures/