Description

In order to fully appreciate Stonehenge, we must first conduct an in-depth study of its structure and design. "Stonehenge was built between the years 1900 and 1600 B.C.-a thousand years or so after the pyramids of Egypt, a few hundred years before the fall or Troy.... The strange stone faces of Easter Island are relatively recent on the Stonehenge time scale-- they were carved and erected within the last 2,ooo years" (p.39-40, Hawkins, 1965). On the basis of artifacts recovered, William Gowland concluded that Stonehenge belonged 'to an age antecedent to the full development of the use of bronze.' Recent recalibration of radiocarbon dates, however, indicates a slightly older date for the erection of the stones. (Lawson, 1992) Stonehenge's famous lintelled stone arches are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Stonehenge is intricate in its design, consisting of many parts that are often overlooked by the causal observer and tourist.

The furthest outlying structure which is often overlooked is the ditch. Atkinson (1956) reports that the ditch was, although an accurate circle, highly irregular in both its depth and its width. The minimum depth found was 4 1/2 feet, with a maximum depth of 7 feet from the surface! The sides of the ditch were found to be quite steep, and in some areas, nearly vertical at the bottom. Because of the ditch's irregular shape, we believe that it served another purpose. The ditch was dug as a series of pits, rather than one continuous circle. After the pits were finished, the areas between them were demolished, forming the ditch. "Irregular ditches of this kind, like the outline of a string of very badly made sausages, are characteristic of neolithic earthworks in southern England" (p.8, Atkinson, 1956) The ditch is thus believed not to have been constructed intentionally, but rather served as a quarry for the gathering of material used in the building of the next inward structure, referred to as the bank.

The bank lies just within the ditch, rising, at the time of construction, to a height of about six to eight feet. Estimates of this height were made by calculating the amount of material excavated from the ditch. Today the bank barely stands two feet above the surface, much of it having collapsed into the ditch-- no effort was made to preserve it. "Tools such as picks, shaped like the figure seven and made of red deer antlers, and scoops made of the shoulder blades of oxen, meat bones (leftovers of on-the-job lunches?), and a few pottery fragments have been found at or near the bottom of the ditch, and have helped the archaeologists date its construction" (p.42, Hawkins, 1965). The bank is also a nearly perfect circle-- this was probably accomplished by attaching a cord to a point in the center, such that it could be rotated and used to trace an outline. The bank measures roughly some 320 feet in diameter, and all of the remaining structure is situated within its confines. On the north-east side of the entire structure, an area of the ditch was left untouched, and the bank in the corresponding section was not finished, forming a large entrance into Stonehenge.

Directly within the bank lie the fifty-six Aubrey Holes. These holes were discovered by John Aubrey in the 1600's. These fifty-six holes lie in circular arrangement, spaced sixteen feet from one another. Initially, the Aubrey Holes were believed to have been post holes, used to hold timbers in a similar arrangement to a structure know as Woodhenge. Cunningtons, for example, concluded in 1926 that judging from their size and shape, it seems not improbable that they once held timber uprights. (Lawson, 1992) This was later proven untrue, however, when thirty-four of the holes were later excavated. In many of these holes, the cremated remains of human beings were found, along with various items such as "long bone pins, resembling meat-skewers or short headless knitting-needles, which were probably hair-pins; and by rod-like instruments of chipped flint.... In addition to the cremated burials found in the filling of the Aubrey Holes, a number of others were found in the silting of the ditch and beneath the turf on the bank and just within it" (p.12-13, Atkinson, 1956). Some of the remains, however, are more recent than the prehistoric remains found in majority of the holes, but these recent remains amount to a very small portion-- the remaining deposits, however, are contemporary with the first phase of Stonehenge's construction.

Just on the outskirts of the bank and ditch, by the entrance to Stonehenge, lies a giant block known as the Heel Stone. This stone greets visitors entering Stonehenge with its truly mammoth proportions: it measures some twenty feet in length, with a maximum width of eight feet, and a weight estimated at thirty-five tons! Interestingly, the heel stone appears to be the only stone in the entire complex that was never carved or worked by human hands. It is entirely natural in origin. Even more amazingly, this huge natural boulder, made of a sandstone called sarsen, appears to have been transported to Stonehenge from the Marlborough Downs, an area approximately twenty miles north of Stonehenge! The heel stone itself is also surrounded by a small ditch, indicating the stone had some significance. The stone presently leans about thirty degrees towards the center of Stonehenge, although it was most likely constructed to stand straight up.

At the entrance to Stonehenge lies another large sarsen stone inappropriately named the Slaughter Stone. It measures similarly in size to the heel stone, but now lies flat and also shows work by human hands. The name was arrived at when earlier observers believed it an area for ancient sacrifice-- we now know that it once formed one of two entrance pillars to Stonehenge itself, as evidenced by a hole that once held a similar sarsen block directly adjacent to the Slaughter Stone. (It is interesting to note how preconceived notions can lead people to such false conclusions!)

Nearing the actual stones of Stonehenge are two concentric rings of pits called the Y and Z holes. These pits are all rather oblong and subrectangular in shape, with measurements averaging six by four feet. Within these holes were many archaeological discoveries. Among them were shards of Iron Age and Romano-British pottery of the third century, B.C. These finds led us to believe that the Y and Z holes were dug in the pre-Roman Iron Age, and were thus added to Stonehenge's construction long after it was already completed, when it was already in ruins. However, with the excavation of two more holes in 1953, we found that we cannot assume that the holes were dug at the same time as the pottery found within them-- the holes are all filled with bluestone, and were probably designed as a double circle, with their construction simply never being finished. (Atkinson, 1956)

At last, the main structure of Stonehenge begins to unfold. After the Y and Z Holes comes the so-called Sarsen Circle, consisting, as the name implies, of a network of sarsen uprights. These megalithic components once were linked together by an unbroken circle of lintels. At the finish of construction, the number of upright sarsen blocks would have been thirty, although today, only sixteen remain upright. The average stone in the Sarsen Circle measures seven feet wide by four feet thick, with a height of about thirteen to fourteen feet, and an amazing weight of about twenty-six tons a piece! (In actuality, the stones are buried up to five feet in the ground, leaving the total length at about eighteen feet!) Atop the sarsen pillars lintels of somewhat smaller sizes (10 x 3.5 x 2.5 feet) were placed forming a complete circle. Interestingly, these lintels were carved with curving faces to complete the circular appearance! Also, the lintels were not simply placed upon the pillars without an added form of attachment. They were, in fact, held in place using what are called mortice-and-tenon joints. Each upright pillar was carved such that a round knob, called a tenon, was left atop its surface. The corresponding lintel was carved such that a pit was left on its underside, allowing the two pieces to effectively mate securely! Furthermore, each lintel was joined securely to its neighbor with toggle joints! (These joints consist of a bulging strip of stone on one block and a corresponding groove on its adjoining piece.)

At last, we reach the very heart of Stonehenge. Here, five enormous sarsen structures were assembled into trilithons, a word coined by William Stukeley in 1740, from the Greek tris, three, and lithos, a stone. These trilithons are similar in design to the pillars and lintels of the sarsen circle, but stand alone, and are even larger-- the largest measures over twenty-nine feet in length, and had to be buried to a depth of over eight feet to match the height of its mate! This lone monolith weighed at least fifty tons, and was without doubt the largest hand-worked stone of prehistoric Britain. (Hawkins, 1965) In 1901 William Gowland excavated in the vicinity of the tallest stone, which was leaning at such a perilous angle that it had to be re-erected in the interest of public safety. (Lawson, 1992) It is interesting to note that even the giant trilithons were assembled using mortice-and-tenon joints as in the sarsen circle, and were arranged in a horseshoe opening to the north-east. "Particular care had been taken to give a smooth and even finish to the inner faces, and to the lintels" (p.30, Atkinson, 1956).

A final stone lies between the great central trilithon, and is referred to as the Alter Stone. Bluestones were also inlaid in the ground forming a circle around the sarsen horseshoe, with a second bluestone horseshoe laid within the trilithons. The unique quality of the alter stone is that, unlike the other stones in the complex, which are of sarsen or bluestone, the alter stone is of a pale green sandstone, so flecked with mica that it appears to glitter in spots. This stone, amazingly, seems to have been transported from Milford Haven on the coast of Wales-- about thirty miles from the Prescelly quarries!