Rid­dles of Stone­henge

The de­bate still rages about the ori­gins of those fa­mous stand­ing stones

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - TIM GRIGGS

A PALE sun creeps over the rim of the world. Stone­henge throws a gal­lows shadow across turf crisp with frost.

Ro­man­tic? Yes. Mys­te­ri­ous? Oh, yes. Also, blink­ing cold. Sal­is­bury Plain in Wilt­shire on a bleak mid­win­ter’s dawn is the kind of place that in­duces dreams of mulled wine and hot roast pork.

Ap­par­ently our an­ces­tors felt the same way. Four and a half mil­len­nia ago, wild par­ties were all the go around here.

A cou­ple of miles away from Unesco-listed Stone­henge is Dur­ring­ton Walls, to­day j ust a hol­low of farmed down­land on the edge of a vil­lage. But arche­ol­o­gists have un­cov­ered some­thing star­tling here: a mas­sive en­clo­sure al­most 470m across, with ditches orig­i­nally 6m deep and walls of twice that thick­ness. A gi­ant cir­cle of wooden col­umns stood here, and from it a grav­elled av­enue led down to­wards the River Avon.

The av­enue has a sol­stice align­ment, which means it lines up with the point on the hori­zon where the sun sets on the short­est day of the year. Or, if you are an op­ti­mist and look the other way, the point at which it rises at mid­sum­mer.

Within the walls there were houses, per­haps hun­dreds of them, neat wat­tle- and- daub af­fairs com­plete with fur­ni­ture; traces of cup­boards, beds and hearths have been un­earthed. And be­tween the houses lay heroic quan­ti­ties of an­i­mal bones, mostly those of pigs, of­ten thrown away half-eaten. ‘‘These are do­mes­tic pigs, but they may have been rit­u­ally hunted,’’ says Su­san Gre­aney of English Her­itage, which has cus­tody of Stone­henge, ‘‘as ar­row­heads are found em­bed­ded in the bones.’’

The an­i­mals were mostly killed at about nine months old, and since pigs are born in the spring, it fol­lows that all this jol­lity was kick­ing off at mid­win­ter.

Mike Parker Pear­son, the Univer­sity of Sh­effield pro­fes­sor who led the ex­ca­va­tions at Dur­ring­ton Walls, says: ‘‘You could call it the first free fes­ti­val. This is where they went to party.’’

But who were ‘‘they’’? Parker Pear­son and his team date Dur­ring­ton Walls to about 2500BC, just when the great sarsen stones were be­ing erected at nearby Stone­henge ( the smaller blue­stones, from Wales, prob­a­bly came a bit later). So it looks as if the par­ty­go­ers at Dur­ring­ton Walls set up the sarsens at Stone­henge, while their work camp grew to be the big­gest set­tle­ment in the Bri­tish Isles, with thou­sands of in­hab­i­tants.

This is the Stone Age in Bri­tain, only a cen­tury or so af­ter the great pyra­mids of Egypt were built and 2000 years be­fore the an­cient Greeks. Stone Age peo­ple are sup­posed to have lived in scat­tered ham­lets of mis­er­able huts, scrap­ing a liv­ing from the soil and from herd­ing cat­tle.

But these peo­ple weren’t poor. A process known as ge­o­log­i­cal map­ping tells re­searchers that the slaugh­tered an­i­mals came from across Eng­land and even Scot­land. If the in­hab­i­tants of Dur­ring­ton Walls could af­ford to gorge on an­i­mals driven in from such dis­tances, and then toss the bones away half-gnawed, some­body was mak­ing a healthy sur­plus.

And their man­age­ment skills must have been im­pres­sive. The sarsen stones, some of them weigh­ing 40 tonnes, were dragged 30km from the Marl­bor­ough Downs to the north. Ex­per­i­ments show that it would take about 12 days for 200 men to drag a sin­gle stone along that route, us­ing a wooden sled on rollers or rails.

The sarsens then had to

be worked, set up in a pre­cise de­sign, and the mas­sive lin­tel stones raised (some­how) to lie across the up­rights, where they were locked in place with mor­tise and tenon joints carved out of solid rock.

Stone­henge must al­ready have been a big deal to war­rant such a build­ing pro­gram. And yet we still don’t know what it was for. An as­tro­nom­i­cal nav­i­ga­tion point for aliens? Un­likely. A con­fer­ence cen­tre for early Druids? Nope. Druidism evolved much later.

Wor­ship­pers prob­a­bly went in for rit­u­als to en­sure the re­turn of the sun. Stone­henge, like Dur­ring­ton Walls, is aligned with the sol­stice. Mid­win­ter in north­ern Europe was dark and bru­tal, and peo­ple prayed to have the lights and heat­ing back on.

Parker Pear­son be­lieves Stone­henge was a ceme­tery and that the stones rep­re­sented the eter­nal dead, while the wooden henges at Dur­ring­ton Walls sig­ni­fied the tran­sience of life. In his anal­y­sis, the peace­ful River Avon was a Stone Age River Styx. It’s true that the cre­mated bones of sev­eral dozen in­di­vid­u­als have been found near the stones. A man known as the Stone­henge Archer was buried in the ditch af­ter a vi­o­lent death: the three stone ar­row­heads have bro­ken off in his bones.

But Tim Darvill, a pro­fes­sor at Bournemouth Univer­sity, has other ideas. In 2008, Darvill and English Her­itage’s Ge­off Wain­wright be­came the first arche­ol­o­gists to dig at Stone­henge for more than 40 years. They be­lieve the se­cret lies with the smaller blue­stones.

These blue­stones come from the Pre­seli Hills in West Wales, 240km away. No one knows for sure how they got to Stone­henge. Per­haps they came by ship up the Bris­tol Chan­nel, and then along the River Avon, be­fore be­ing dragged over­land to the site.

‘‘Tra­di­tion­ally, blue­stones have mag­i­cal heal­ing prop­er­ties,’’ says Darvill. ‘‘To this day peo­ple drink the water from medic­i­nal springs in the Pre­seli Hills. Ge­of­frey of Mon­mouth, in the 13th cen­tury, is the first per­son to write about Stone­henge, and he specif­i­cally de­scribes it as a place of heal­ing.’’

Darvill points out that the Stone­henge Archer was found buried with a piece of blue­stone be­side him. ‘‘Maybe he was in­jured else­where and they brought him here in a des­per­ate at­tempt to save his life.’’

What­ever the se­cret of the stones, there’s no doubt that Stone­henge was fa­mous hun­dreds of years be­fore the Dur­ring­ton Walls rev­ellers be­gan their sea- sonal pig- outs. Some­thing has stood here at least since 3000 BC, and pos­si­bly for much longer.

Other mon­u­ments in the area go back even fur­ther. The creep­ily named Cur­sus, be­tween Stone­henge and Dur­ring­ton Walls, is a roughly rect­an­gu­lar earth en­clo­sure about 2.7km long and 100m wide. The an­ti­quar­ian Wil­liam Stuke­ley, who first spot­ted it in the 17th cen­tury, called it the Cur­sus be­cause he thought the Ro­mans might have done a Ben Hur and held char­iot races here.

But the Cur­sus is much ear­lier than the Ro­mans. It has now been dated to about 3500BC, and so have var­i­ous nearby bar­rows and burial mounds. And there’s more.

Pits found un­der the Stone­henge car park in the 1960s ap­pear to have held groups of ‘ ‘ totem poles’’ from a mind-bog­gling 8000BC, which seems im­pos­si­bly old — be­fore set­tled agri­cul­ture, and not long af­ter Bri­tain sep­a­rated from main­land Europe.

‘‘This adds up to a land­scape heavy with spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance to the peo­ple who lived here,’’ Gre­aney points out.

‘‘It’s clear that we have to see all the sites in con­text, to get some idea of how they must have re­lated to one an­other.’’ Which is why English Her­itage start­ing work in May on a

is new, Aus­tralian-de­signed vis­i­tors’ cen­tre more than 1km away from the stones. About one mil­lion vis­i­tors turn up ev­ery year and they will now be taken around on land trains pulled by four-wheel-drives.

There will be more tours on foot, too, to give a wider per­spec­tive of the whole area.

The mi­nor road that passes the stones will be closed and Stone­henge re­turned to its orig­i­nal open grass­land set­ting. But a long cam­paign to have the nearby south­west trunk route di­verted un­der Stone­henge in a tun­nel has been deemed too ex­pen­sive.

Still, any­one who drives that way down to the West Coun­try might not mind too much. The im­age of those great stones sil­hou­et­ted against a wild sky is a sight no one is likely to for­get.

There’s some­thing in­de­fin­ably weird about the whole place. Stop on a mid­win­ter’s evening within sight of the stones and get out of the car. And lis­ten. Do you hear the sound of rev­el­ling car­ried on the bit­ter wind? I dare you to try it. english-her­itage.org.uk visitbri­tain.com Tim Griggs is an Aus­tralian his­tor­i­cal novelist liv­ing in Ox­ford, Eng­land. His lat­est book is Dis­tant Thun­der (by T.D. Griggs; Orion).

Stone­henge re­mains an ob­ject of fas­ci­na­tion thou­sands of years af­ter its cre­ation; work be­gins this year on a new vis­i­tors’ cen­tre, be­low, de­signed by Aus­tralian firm Den­ton Corker Mar­shall, be­low

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