Sunday, October 9, 2011

Stonehenge: a darn big calendar that doesn't look anything like lady parts.

Though he's wild and he's bad
And sometimes just plain mad.
I need him to keep me satisfied.
--Misguided Angel, Cowboy Junkies
I watched This Is Spinal Tap a few nights ago, which gave me the idea for this Sunday’s Mythbusters.  If you are not familiar with the Rob Reiner mockumentary, there’s a scene based on the true story of Black Sabbath (sans Ozzy Osbourne) using a set inspired by Stonehenge.  There were some issues with the measurements, and a parody of microlithic proportion was born.  Go to 2:12 to see what I mean.

Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument found in Southern England about 90 miles west of London on the Salisbury plain.  The site was used for ritual as early as 7000 B.C., although construction of Stonehenge as we know it did not start until around 3100 B.C.  It has been proposed that the axis of the monument is based around the midsummer solstice sunrise, although recently others have suggested the opposite. 
Stonehenge today.

Aerial view showing the surrounding embankment and ditch.
There are believed to be three distinct phases of build.  The first detectable part created was an outer circular band of embankments and ditches, with an inner circle of 56 holes, named Aubrey holes for the man who described them.  During the second phase, these holes were partially filled with timber, and new holes created.  Some speculate that a temple of wood stood on the site during this period.  The third phase, which lasted until 1500 B.C., involved the erection of stones on the site.  
Phase One

Stonehenge is made from three types of rock--Welsh Cosheston sandstone, a hard sandstone with silaceous cement referred to as Sarsen stone, and Bluestone.  The outer circle consisted of 30 Sarsen stones (only 17 still stand), joined across their tops by what are called lintel stones.  An inner horseshoe of trilithons (pairs of stones with a single lintel) was also created from Sarsen stones.  The largest of these was 25 feet high, with another 8 feet below ground.
Trilithon stone at Stonehenge.

Stonehenge at completion.

The two Bluestone circles within the sarsen formations elicit the most controversy.  Bluestone is traced to the Preseli mountains in southwest Wales.  The distance to Preseli is 200 miles and involves waterways and rough terrain.  Although people have used techniques of ropes and pulleys and log rolling to move similar stones (i.e. like the pyramids), a journey of that proportion seems impossible--especially over water.  In addition, no evidence has been found in the mountains of significant quarrying.  A team of Stonehenge enthusiasts tried to recreate the journey, but they lost their bluestone at the bottom of one of the waterways.  A more recent theory claims that glaciation--not human effort--is the reason such stones were found in the area.  Still, there is no definite explanation for how the builders of this monument moved the stones on site--especially when the stones of the trilithons weighed up to 50 tons a piece, and the smallest stones are at least four tons.  Some suggest that the extra boulders and stones that have been found at the site were used as devices to move and pivot stones into position.
Schematic on how to place a 50 ton stone.
There are a few special stones that are part of Stonehenge lore.  The Heel stone (aka Friar’s stone or Sun stone) stands outside the main circle and is made from sarsen stone.  It is connected to the summer solstice and creates a frame for the sun when it rises.  The Altar stone is the central megalith and is the only stone made from a type of mica-filled sandstone.  The Slaughter stone, a stone with a reddish stain due to iron oxidation, was named when Stonehenge was still thought to be a place of ritual virgin sacrifice.  It is now felt to represent part of the main entrance to Stonehenge. 
Looking at Stonehenge from the Heel Stone, the Slaughter stone is in the foreground.
There is quite a bit of romance surrounding who actually built Stonehenge.  Celtic folklore links Stonehenge to Giants, which they thought were the progeny of fallen angels.  During one raging party, the Giants danced in a circle holding hands.  The noise alerted the heavens of their existence, and they were frozen into a stone circle for eternity.  Major party foul. 
The Devil also has been blamed for the creation of Stonehenge.  In Irish folklore, the Devil swindled an old Irish woman out of the stones, and then repositioned them on the Salisbury Plain.  He taunted the local villagers to give him the correct count of the stones, or face misery.  After the villagers had all guessed too few, a monk faced the Devil and gave his answer, which was simply “more than be counted.”  This enraged the Horny one, and he threw one of the stones at the monk, pinning him to the ground by his heel--which may be why the front stone is called the Heel stone.  There is still superstition today that if you count the stones you bring the wrath of the devil upon you.
You wouldn't throw stones at a monk, right Oz?
Arthurian legend is also connected to Stonehenge.  Supposedly, the stones were to be brought to the site as a war memorial.  However, since the stones were originally placed by Giants, there was no way to move them--until Merlin came along and zapped them to their current position.
Back in the realm of less magical species, another popular myth claims the Druids are responsible.  The Druids were an ancient priesthood of philosophers, poets, and seers.  They followed solemn--and sometimes gory--ceremonies of their religion, including human sacrifice.  However, the Celtic tribes that spawned the Druids did not exist until around 300 B.C., too late to take credit for the stone circle.  The Druids possibly used Stonehenge as a ritual site, although this seems to be a more modern practice.  In 1905 the Ancient Order of Druids performed initiation ceremonies at Stonehenge.  However, the debauchery at Druidic celebrations ultimately led to the group losing its privileges to hold their festivals there.
Druid initiation ceremony at Stonehenge, 1905.
Much less fantastic, but probably the most factual, is the suggestion that two neolithic agrarian tribes, the Beakers and their later counterparts the Wessex peoples, were responsible for the creation of Stonehenge and did so as part of their religious beliefs.
I built Stonehenge?
The question of why was Stonehenge built has been debated since the place was first discovered.
Most feel Stonehenge has religious significance and was a ritual burial ground for tribes and their ancestors.  The Beakers were sun worshippers and the connection of the stones with solstices seems to support this theory, as well as their arrangement along the lines of sunrise.  
Stonehenge at Sunrise, midsummer solstice.
Professor Geoffrey Wainwright has suggested that Stonehenge functioned as a healing commune.  Burial sites from around the area have showed remains of people with serious disease and injury, and over half of them were from places beyond the Stonehenge area.  However, there is no record of any special healing wisdoms passed down in the culture of this area.  Wainwright asserts that it may have functioned not for physical wellness, but as a religious healing center.
The idea of Stonehenge representing a prehistoric calendar has also been suggested.  It is an attractive theory, highlighting this period where hunter/gatherer tribes were transitioning to more agricultural based cultures.  The stones may have functioned like a primitive almanac using the moon's phases.
Gerald Hawkins, Professor of Astronomy from Boston University, expanded on the calendar belief by suggesting Stonehenge was an ancient observatory used to predict the movement of the stars and planets.  He and his team were able to predict cycles of planetary movements off of the stones, including eclipses.  His work was notable, partly because he used one of the first IBM computers to calculate his equations.  He coined the term “neolithic computer” when he later discussed Stonehenge's relationship to astronomy. 
Some less tangible theories include the idea that Stonehenge represents a portal to other worlds.  This idea was propagated by the Druid culture, who described each stone as a “gate” that gave the ability to enter certain Fey worlds.  Like Stargate, only without the flight suits.
I really loved this show.
This area is also famous for other oddities of nature, namely crop circles and UFO sightings.  It is reputed to have strong electromagnetic forces, and is the epicenter of several key ley lines, which are ancient pathways used for both travel and spiritual purposes.  When Stonehenge is combined with two other ley associated sites nearby, a right triangle pointing towards magnetic north appears. This has led to the claim that Stonehenge is an ancient radar beacon for extra-terrestrials.
The theory that suggests porn had loftier origins came out around 2003.  A scholar from British Columbia declared that Stonehenge was a prehistoric tribute to the Mother Earth Goddess.  The stones were basically a representation of Big Momma Gaia’s lady parts.  “The vagina monoliths”, as the media dubbed it, never really caught on as a seriously considered theory.
There have been many attempts to recreate the oddity of Stonehenge.  The first was the Maryhill Stonehenge in Washington, dedicated in 1918 as a WWI memorial.  In Ingram, Texas, there's a full scale replica using plaster and wire frames.  Burning Man offered their own interpretation in Twinkiehenge in 2001. 
But my favorite recreation of Stonehenge exists in my great state of Nebraska.  Carhenge is a Stonehenge replica built from 38 automobiles by artist Jim Reinders.  He constructed it in 1987 as a memorial for his late father.  A 1962 Cadillac takes the honor of being the heel stone.

Carhenge from above.
Detail of Carhenge.
Whether dedicated to a religion based on the sun or part of a greater tool to calculate the celestial measurements of our universe, Stonehenge is a truly amazing example of humanity’s ability to do the impossible.  We may never know what its original intended use was, although I have an idea . . . 

Those damn pigs.


  1. Hello Julie

    This is a fascinating account of Stonehenge. Thank you for the history lesson. I have been to Stonehenge and glad to have gone when one was free to walk close to and touch the stones, I believe there is now a barracade.

    Have a great week

  2. Another interesting post. You rock. Thanks for all the knowledge. (And for the pic of Beaker. I love him.) =o)

  3. That's a lot of conflicting information about Stonehenge.
    And Spinal Tap and Stargate both rock!

  4. Jules, it's interesting that you would choose to write about this, today. An interesting confluence of others posts I've visited and conversations I've had this week.

  5. What a great post for so many reasons.
    My favourite theory? It Was the Giants :-)

  6. I've been to car-henge. Oh, yes. And now you've got me wanting to rent Spinal Tap again. I had to watch that entire clip. So funny. Good post.

  7. Helen--I was surprised that at one time people could even walk and climb on the stones. I think it would be amazing to see them up close and personal, you are very lucky.

    B.E.--Beaker is one of my favorite Muppets--I can do an imitation of him and Animal with scary accuracy

    Alex--This one was actually pretty hard; for one monument, there was a lot of conflicting information out there.

    Suze--I should really plan these in advance, but I find that I have to be sort of inspired to really have fun with it. I usually figure out what I'm doing at the last minute--perhaps it was in the air this week?

    Sarah--I never knew that Giants were related to angels. It was a cool piece of folklore.

    L.G.--I still find Carhenge pretty amazing--the crazy things us Nebraskans will do out in the middle of the cornfields.

  8. I have a personal hypothesis that an ancient king wanted it built to be like, 20 inches tall, but he mistook the " and ' tick marks and the builders built it like, 20 feet tall. Hilarity ensued.

    In my mind, Spinal Tap built theirs correctly. The ancients are the ones who goofed.

  9. The last pic is priceless. ;) Yay, Angry Birds!

    Wow, I've never really looked into the Stonehenge history/mystery. Thanks for the info. Now I'm curious... *off to google some more*

  10. Love this post, especially the Angry Birds pic. LOLOL!!!

  11. Interesting. I would lean towards UFO's. It's a compass. =)

  12. I knew the ancients played Angry Birds. It all makes sense now. I love these posts!

  13. Man, you did some research, girl!
    Very interesting. Does carhenge get many visitors?

  14. Ha! You had me in stitches the whole time :) I can get behind Twinkiehenge!

  15. I LOVE Stonehenge. Have been there many times, including in years before they put walkways with railings around it so you could no longer wander among the stones. That was fantastic. How'd it get created? Hmmmm. . .I'm going with Merlin. Those sun worshipper Beakers just took advantage of an awesome opportunity that was already there!

  16. Yeah a collection of some weird old age stoney stuff. the spinal tap scene. Ozzy rules!

  17. Rusty--I never thought about it that way. I think you are right.

    Cherie--when I saw that pic, I had to put it in here. Love that mindless game.

    lb--thanks--that pic was one of the main reasons I had to do Stonehenge

    E.--I'm glad they make 'em more portable these days. Hard to take that one camping

    Lydia--little known fact half the destruction in ancient history was from those damn little bomb birds

    Kelly--Every Nebraskan I know has been there. As for anyone else? Not sure about that one.

    Angie--I might try making one out of gingerbread for Christmas

    Linda--I am jealous! Would love to see it someday. Merlin overall was a pretty awesome dude--a monument of stone would be like child's play for him

    Copyboy--I have to watch that movie at least once a year, it's too funny.

  18. Stonehenge has always fascinated me. We can each create our own story for it, and it will be as good as the next.

  19. It was pit there by aliens for a laugh! They pee themselves whilst watching earthlings try to figure out what it is :-)

    My favourite image of Stonehenge is in Roman Polanski's film "Tess". It's in the very last scene.

    I have visited Stonehenge several times and always feel a bit disappointed, you can't get close, you can't feel the stones, a bit of a let down, but the simple fact that I just keep going back could be the only message. Even though it's disappointing, I still keep going back.

    There is a better one in Avebury, you can actually walk about it, hug the stones, lay on the stones and leave spells beneath the stones, which many Wiccans do. There are always little posies and such at the base of the stones.

    I bought some divining rods there once and tried them around the stones. They went nuts - it was strange.

    Have a great day!

  20. Interesting! Stonehenge always has me so curious. :-)

  21. Spinal tap is a great movie! I always liked The Sword and The Stone and now I'm re-living the story through your beautiful photos! You certainly left no stone unturned with this one! Julie


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