Stonehenge Essay, Research Paper
Stonehenge is surely Britain’s greatest national icon, symbolizing mystery,
power and endurance. Its original purpose is unclear to us, but some have
speculated that it was a temple made for the worship of ancient earth deities.
It has been called an astronomical observatory for marking significant events on
the prehistoric calendar. Others claim that it was a sacred site for the burial
of high-ranking citizens from the societies of long ago.
While we can’t say with any degree of certainty what it was for, we can say
that it wasn’t constructed for any casual purpose. Only something very important
to the ancients would have been worth the effort and investment that it took to
The stones we see today represent Stonehenge in 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 and the prehistoric carvings on the larger
sarsen stones show signs of significant wear.
In its day, the construction of Stonehenge was an impressive engineering
feat, requiring commitment, time and vast amounts of manual labor. In its first
phase, Stonehenge was a large earthwork; a bank and ditch arrangement called a
henge, constructed approximately 5,000 years ago. 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 shoveled with the shoulderblades of
cattle. It was then loaded into baskets and carried away. Modern experiments
have shown that these tools were more than equal to the great task of earth
digging and moving.
About 2,000 BC, the first stone circle (which is now the inner circle),
comprised of small bluestones, was set up, but abandoned before completion. The
stones used in that first circle are believed to be from the Prescelly
Mountains, located roughly 240 miles away, at the southwestern tip of Wales. The
bluestones weigh up to 4 tons each and about 80 stones were used, in all. Given
the distance they had to travel, this presented quite a transportation problem.
Modern theories speculate that the stones were dragged by roller and sledge
from the inland mountains to the headwaters of Milford Haven. There they were
loaded onto rafts, barges or boats and sailed along the south coast of Wales,
then up the Rivers Avon and Frome to a point near present-day Frome in Somerset.
From this point, so the theory goes, the stones were hauled overland, again, to
a place near Warminster in Wiltshire, approximately 6 miles away. From there,
it’s back into the pool for a slow float down the River Wylye to Salisbury, then
up the Salisbury Avon to West Amesbury, leaving only a short 2 mile drag from
West Amesbury to the Stonehenge site.
The giant sarsen stones (which form the outer circle), weigh as much as 50
tons each. To transport them from the Marlborough Downs, roughly 20 miles to the
north, is a problem of even greater magnitude than that of moving the
bluestones. Most of the way, the going is relatively easy, but at the steepest
part of the route, at Redhorn Hill, modern work studies estimate that at least
600 men would have been needed just to get each stone past this obstacle.
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 by mortice and tenon
joints and horizontally by tongue and groove joints. Stonehenge was probably
finally completed around 1500 BC.
The question of who built Stonehenge is largely unanswered, even today. The
monument’s construction has been attributed to many ancient peoples throughout
the years, but the most captivating and enduring attribution has been to the
Druids. This erroneous connection was first made around 3 centuries ago by the
antiquary, John Aubrey. Julius Caesar and other Roman writers told of a Celtic
priesthood who flourished around the time of their first conquest (55 BC). By
this time, though, the stones had been standing for 2,000 years, and were,
perhaps, already in a ruined condition. Besides, the Druids worshipped in forest
temples and had no need for stone structures.
The best guess seems to be that the Stonehenge site was begun by the people
of the late Neolithic period (around 3000 BC) and carried forward by people from
a new economy which was arising at this time. These "new" people,
called Beaker Folk because of their use of pottery drinking vessels, began to
use metal implements and to live in a more communal fashion than their
ancestors. Some think that they may have been immigrants from the continent, but
that contention is not supported by archaeological evidence. It is likely that
they were indigenous people doing the same old things in new ways.
The legend of King Arthur provides another story of the construction of
Stonehenge. It is told by the twelfth century writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in
his History of the Kings of Britain that Merlin brought the stones to the
Salisbury Plain from Ireland. Sometime in the fifth century, there had been a
massacre of 300 British noblemen by the treacherous Saxon leader, Hengest.
Geoffrey tells us that the high king, Aurelius Ambrosius, wanted to create a
fitting memorial to the slain men. Merlin suggested an expedition to Ireland for
the purpose of transplanting the Giant’s Ring stone circle to Britain. According
to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the stones of the Giant’s Ring were originally brought
from Africa to Ireland by giants (who else but giants could handle the job?).
The stones were located on "Mount Killaraus" and were used as a site
for performing rituals and for healing. Led by King Uther and Merlin, the
expedition arrived at the spot in Ireland. The Britons, none of whom were
giants, apparently, were unsuccessful in their attempts to move the great
stones. At this point, Merlin realized that only his magic arts would turn the
trick. So, they were dismantled and shipped back to Britain where they were set
up (see illus. at right) as they had been before, in a great circle, around the
mass grave of the murdered noblemen. The story goes on to tell that Aurelius,
Uther and Arthur’s successor, Constantine were also buried there in their time*.
Situated in a vast plain, surrounded by hundreds of round barrows, or burial
mounds, the Stonehenge site is truly impressive, and all the more so, the closer
you approach. It is a place where much human effort was expended for a purpose
we can only guess at. Some people see it as a place steeped in magic and
mystery, some as a place where their imaginations of the past can be fired and
others hold it to be a sacred place. But whatever viewpoint is brought to it and
whatever its original purpose was, it should be treated as the ancients treated
it, as a place of honor .
The modern age has not been altogether kind to Stonehenge, despite the lip
service it pays to the preservation of heritage sites. 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. The organization, English Heritage, is committed to righting these
wrongs, and in the coming years, we may get to see Stonehenge in the setting for
which it was originally created. Despite all its dilapidation and the
encroachment of the modern world, Stonehenge, today, is an awe-inspiring sight,
and no travel itinerary around Britain should omit it.