Reading About Stonehenge

Self saw Stonehenge for the first time in 2014. Her only souvenir from that time was an English Heritage Guidebook she found in the gift shop. All these years later, while dusting her bookshelves (which haven’t been dusted in probably a decade, she’s a very bad housekeeper) she finds it again and sits down to read it.

Stonehenge consists of a ditch, some animal bones (which in some cases pre-date the ditch, by hundreds of years), and a mixture of rock types.

The largest stones, “some of which weigh over 35 tonnes, are known as sarsens … a type of extremely hard sandstone.” The most likely source of these sarsens are 19 miles to the north, in Wiltshire.

The smaller stones, “known collectively as bluestones,” come from Wales, over 150 miles to the west. “There were originally at least 80 bluestones at Stonehenge, some weighing up to three tonnes.”

How did these stones get to Stonehenge?

Start with the sarsens: “… experiments have shown that stones this size can be dragged on a simple wooden sledge by a team of about 200 people. To drag a stone from the Marlborough Downs to Stonehenge, using a route that, wherever possible, avoided steep slopes, would take about 12 days.”

But why on earth — ? This is, for self, the real mystery of Stonehenge: not the origin of the stones, but why people would dedicate themselves to such a project.

It must have been during a long period of peace — for Stonehenge took time to assemble. And the society must have been fairly organized — or maybe they used slaves? The community that built them must have been fairly large, to spare the use of 200 men dragging stones for 12 days. Maybe they had hundreds of slaves?

Not only that, the stones were worked over, shaped into their current forms. Self can’t even. The strength it must have taken. Perhaps they used the equivalent of a wrecking ball. Did any workers die from accidents during the pulling upright of those stones? Maybe if some of them slipped … self’s imagination goes into such strange places!

What about the smaller stones, the bluestones? They were transported from much farther away (150 miles!) There is evidence that the sarsens were in place starting from around 2500 BC, and were subsequently never moved (Ha!), but the smaller stones were re-arranged several times.

Self remembers that she chose very carefully what kind of tour to take: she found a small group tour, led by a retired military officer, which left Southampton at sunset (since she arrived in London only a few hours before, and had to make a mad dash to Southampton after dropping her suitcases off at her hotel, she kept falling asleep on the bus and nearly missed the tour) and arrived at the stones by walking over a sheep meadow littered with sheep dung. She hadn’t slept at all on the plane from San Francisco and it was bitter cold on that tree-less plain. Her first sight of the monument was a very small bump on the horizon that grew ever larger until it began to resemble a claw against the sky. The approach was almost religious in feeling? The last big tour bus had pulled away. And suddenly: the stones! Approaching them on foot was the right thing: it’s how the earliest people would have approached. In fact, there would have been a long procession of people. Since there were no signs of human habitation in the vicinity, it’s clear the site was considered a place for one activity only: worship.

But worship of what?

Hopefully there will be an answer before she finishes reading the guidebook!

Stay tuned.

Anthony Johnson on ‘Folk Memory’

Oh what a treasure trove of riches is this book Solving Stonehenge (which self had in her possession for at least over a decade, which she never had the time to read properly until now)

Mystery: Who/ What transported the stones to Stonehenge? (The stones are “bluestones” from west Wales)

In pre-literate societies the shaping of important facts into narrative form was a sure way of ensuring their survival in the collective consciousness of the community.

My Irish grandmother would often say that a kettle, on taking a long time to boil, ‘had stones in it.’ I was six or seven years old at the time and had no idea what this meant and, more importantly, neither did she … almost 20 years later while working on an archaeological excavation … I was examining a collection of large, scorched and fire-cracked pebbles that had been subjected to a greater episode of burning than represented by the small prehistoric hearth on which they lay. Similar stones had been found elsewhere on the site, remote from any burning — they were of course ‘potboilers.’ My grandmother was, unknowingly, referring to the use of stones to boil water by heating them and dropping them into earthenware pots which would have been incapable of withstanding the direct heat of a fire. This was a revelation; an ancient memory had been relayed to me from days when water was boiled not in metal pans or kettles, but in pottery vessels … Archaeology and oral tradition are not necessarily incompatible.

Self has a question: HOW were those bluestones transported from Wales? They look hella heavy. Another question: WHY? Seems like such an enormous investment of labor and time. She means: if people were laboring to transport, they couldn’t be hunting. Only large, settled communities could spare that much manpower for the time it took to transport and erect the stones. It involved organization — the assigning of specific tasks.

A Bronze Age man did not in isolation have an AHA moment where he said: let me try and move these BIGASS stones from Wales to here. He wouldn’t even have had the imagination to think up such a project. He didn’t up the ante by saying: I’m going to put two lintels here, and then raise a massive horizontal slab to lie on said lintels (which BTW must have been required enormous, enormous strength — the strength of many people. There had to be a fairly large human settlement.

Enter Henry VIII and his personal project: the cataloguing of England’s antiquities (Wasn’t Henry VIII the one with the many wives? Self knows him so well for one reason only: he beheaded Anne Boleyn, lol) The job was assigned to John Leland, who labored FOR TWELVE YEARS (from 1533 to 1545)

This is all so RUSSELL HOBAN. His novel, Riddley Walker, is about bards who travel up and down Britain, singing songs about a man named Adam whose body was pulled in two directions at once and who eventually split in two. Way to keep the memory of the atom bomb and the nuclear holocaust alive! After the apocalypse, there are no more libraries. No more books. No internet. But, there ARE ‘walkers’ to tell the tale.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Currently Reading SOLVING STONEHENGE, by Anthony Johnson

The book was a gift from the author, who self has never met. He mailed it to Redwood City from Oxford University, where he taught. Self was blogging about Stonehenge (and was also writing flash about Stonehenge — those flash can still be found in Wigleaf). He left her a message on this blog. Then sent her the book.

In 1992, a burial site was discovered, 5 km east of Stonehenge. It was the grave of an adult man, “around 35-45 years old.” The man was deemed to be important because “ten times the usual number of finds accompanied the body.” He “had been laid on his left side … facing north.” Buried with him were:

  • two archer’s wristguards (one of which was made from black sandstone and came from the coast, 50 km away)
  • three copper knives
  • He must “have been buried with a bow and a quiver containing arrows, for 17 flint arrowheads were also present.”
  • a type of miniature anvil known as a ‘cushion stone’
  • a pair of sheet gold loop earrings

In 1993, a second grave was discovered, 6 km east of Stonehenge. This contained “the remains of seven individuals, all males: three adults, a teenager, and three children.” The oldest individual was “buried with his legs tucked up” and his head again pointing north.

The man in the 1992 grave has been given the name the Amesbury Archer.

In 2001, at Rameldry Farm, in Fife, Scotland, “a farmer’s plough caught the capstone covering an early Bronze Age” grave. Inside “a stone cist lay the skeleton of an adult male around 40 – 45 years, whose bones produced a radiocarbon date of 2280 – 1970 BC.”

Why is self reading so diligently about Bronze Age graves? She’s trying to finish her horror story and it’s about a team of scientists who stumble on some very disturbing findings in Antarctica. Hoping she can absorb some of the language.

She has so many questions: Why were people buried with heads facing north? Did they come from the north? Why were the oldest individuals around 40-45 years old, was that the normal life expectancy in the Bronze Age? Why were the graves of males exclusively? Where were the females buried?

More:

Suddenly, around 1700 BC, there is a disruption in the quality and quantity of metalwork found in graves in Britain. This coincided with “the apparent abandonment of Stonehenge.” By 1400 BC, “it appears that Stonehenge, already some 1,000 years old, had been abandoned.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Stonehenge/Pacifica

In 2014, self went to see Stonehenge.

She signed up for a small-group tour, the only one allowed on the site towards sunset. All the big tour buses had left. The guide, a retired military officer, led the group across a sheep meadow.

This is unquestionably the best approach. It allows the view to unfold gradually. You are reminded that this was how people, in time immemorial, must have approached the monument: in procession. Self could hardly contain her excitement at her first glimpse of the pillars of stone.

The mystery of the site has stayed with her. The fact that no human habitations were ever built around it. What was it used for?

DSCN4964

From this vantage point, we could clearly see the jagged outline of the stones, just above the rise.

Well before she saw Stonehenge, she’d written about it in a piece called Stonehenge/Pacifica, published in Wigleaf, 2012.

It was a dream I had, some restless night. One of those weeks or months or years when we were worried about money.

But when were we ever not worried?

First there was the mortgage, and then the two.

And then your mother got sick, and your father died.

And my mother I think developed Alzheimer’s, but we never mentioned it.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Stonehenge Appears Off California Highway 1 Near Pacifica

From self’s short short in Wigleaf: “Stonehenge/Pacifica”:

The whole rose, majestically, from the waves. I had seen this stone monument before, in a photograph in some book. Water sluiced over the massive grey stones, which had a greenish tinge, as though layered with many centuries of moss. The mighty pillars were pitted with hollows.

DSCN4926

Stonehenge/ Pacifica

Self’s short piece, about Stonehenge, published in Wigleaf:

(Excerpt)

It was a dream I had, some restless night.
Perhaps one of those weeks/ months/ years
when we were worried about money.
But when were we ever not worried?
First there was the mortgage,
and then the two.
Then your mother got sick,
and your father died.
And my mother I think developed
Alzheimer’s
but we couldn’t ever mention it.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Adventure 2: WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge

On the way to the Grand Canal

On the way to the Grand Canal:  Self took a trip to Venice with Margarita Donnelly, retired managing editor of Calyx, in April 2013

Pat Shelley, who led the tour to Stonehenge self took in April 2014

Pat Shelley, who led the tour to Stonehenge self took in April 2014

Holy Mother of All Monuments!  Our little band of walkers approached the monument in early evening.

Holy Mother of All Monuments! Our little band of walkers approached the monument in early evening. We had to walk across a sheep meadow. That time of day, the tour buses were finally beginning to thin out.  Our group had the monument almost all to ourselves. It was CHILLY.

Between 6: Stonehenge

Self has been fascinated by Stonehenge for a very long time.  Finally, in April this year, she got to make the trek to the site.

From the English Heritage Guidebook in the visitor centre, self learns about the alignment of the stones.

“Stonehenge has an axis — an alignment that runs north-east to south-west.” This axis is closely tied to “the way the sun moves through the sky during the course of the year; the sunset at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs on exactly the opposite side of the horizon from the midsummer sunrise.”

“So the alignment of Stonehenge works for both the summer solstice and for the one that happens in winter. But there is increasing evidence from other Neolithic sites such as Newgrange in Ireland and Maes Howe in Orkney, as well as closer by at Durrington Wells, that the winter was the more significant.  At Durrington, there is evidence for feasting and celebration at just this time of year.”

Stonehenge, April 2014:  What you see between the stones is of equal importance as the stones themselves.

Stonehenge, April 2014: What you see between the stones is of equal importance as the stones themselves.

Pat Shelley, who led the Stonehenge tour self took, standing between the stones to give a lecture on the significance of the stones and their positions.

Pat Shelley, who led the Stonehenge tour self took, standing between the stones to give a lecture on the significance of the stones and their positions.

Fascinating to think that the stones were positioned to control what one sees BETWEEN them.

Fascinating to think that the stones were positioned to control what one sees BETWEEN them.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

On the Move: Documenting Our Lives

This week’s WordPress Photo Challenge is ON THE MOVE.

“On the move whether . . .  on foot, in a kayak, or on a train . . . ”

The prompt on the WordPress Daily Post asks bloggers to document “moments of our in-betweens” that are nonetheless “photo-worthy.”

Here are self’s three representing “not-quite-there-yet” but soon.

London cab, Russell Square, April 2014

London cab, Russell Square, April 2014

To get to Stonehenge, you have to cross a sheep meadow. Here's our group with our excellent guide, Pat Shelley.

To get to Stonehenge, you have to cross a sheep meadow. Here’s our group with our excellent guide, Pat Shelley (You can just see the monument itself, a jagged edge on the horizon. The sense of anticipation was palpable)

Salisbury. Most tours to Stonehenge originate here. It is a very picturesque town. Self tried the cupcakes and a local bookstore and missed seeing everything else, including the Salisbury Cathedral.

Salisbury. Most tours to Stonehenge originate here. It is a very picturesque town. Self tried the cupcakes and a local bookstore and missed seeing everything else, including the Salisbury Cathedral.

 

Letters 5: Approaching the Stones (Stonehenge)

The stones are a kind of code.  A language, like semaphores.  Only, this code was written in stone.  Massive stone.

The feeling is a little like that of seeing the great Olmec heads (which, BTW, were also made of stone, and were also massive).

The stones seem to say:  We are here!  Throw anything you like at us:  disease, starvation, freezing winters.  We will still be here! We will endure.

Wonder what the ancient Romans thought when they first discovered the site?  They must have recognized and appreciated it, for they never did anything to deface or dismantle it.

Here is the way we approached them (via sheep meadow.  If you happen to see one or two white dots in any of the photographs, those represent actual sheep)

Two of the members of the tour, approaching the monument from the sheep meadow.

Two of the members of the tour, approaching the monument.

From this vantage point, we could clearly see the jagged outline of the stones, just above the rise.

From this vantage point, we could clearly see the jagged outline of the stones, just above the rise.

Holy Mother of All Monuments!  We are getting close.

Holy Mother of All Monuments! Getting close.

If you are going to visit Stonehenge only once in your life, then take a late afternoon or early evening tour.  The shadows are lengthening and the stones look absolutely massive in the fading light.  By then, also, most of the big tour buses stop coming.  When self was there on Saturday, there were only a few people, aside from the 12 in our group.

Also, try to go when it’s cold.  In the summer, this place must be jammed.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

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