Ruins are a strange thing. We are enchanted by buildings built long ago, as much as for what it says about civilizations long past as it is about admiring the buildings or what remains of them. Remains is a key word, as often not much remains, lone columns standing like the sun-bleached bones of a long dead animal picked clean by carnivores. This analogy is particularly accurate with many churches made from the ruins of classical buildings, like columns from the temple of Artemis (one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World) used in the construction of the Aya Sofia in Istanbul.
|All that remains of the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient World.|
What remains requires us to use our imagination, to remake the scene of a busy building as it may have been 1,000, 2,000 or even 5,000 years ago. It seems odd that we marvel at buildings made by our forebears that are many times smaller in stature to buildings built today. It is more the wondering how and why primitive people made certain buildings and structures is as, if not more important than the buildings or ruins themselves. Stonehenge is one such ruin where imagination and asking questions may produce more wonderment than gazing on the remains themselves. The first glimpse of Stonehenge is when you are approaching it down one of the motorways that frame it. It’s instantly recognizable, familiar, understated. It’s no Angkor Wat or Taj Mahal, merely a humble collection of undecorated rocks on a hill on rolling farmland in Wiltshire. Ancient burial mounds can be seen in the surroundings on the hills around it. There is a sense that Stonehenge looks the same as it did 2000 years ago, although I’m not sure if that is the case.
|Understated but still awe-inspiring|
Stonehenge may be one of the world’s most recognizable sites but that doesn’t stop the haters. A pile of rocks surrounded by a traffic island some say. Others would talk about its small stature (the replica at my work is taller). Indeed, the value of Stonehenge was not always recognized. Even until recent time, people were chipping off pieces of rock and carving their name into them. One man was caught bashing away at one of the stones with a sledgehammer. There were plans to build a rail-line right through the site- an official defended the decision by saying Stonehenge was “entirely out of repair and not the slightest use to anyone”. There were reports that an American buyer wanted to buy the stones, ship them to the States and re-erect them as a tourist attraction. Stonehenge was not protected until the 1920s. By this time, roads had been built close to it (but not as close as some people would have you believe). Buildings close to it were removed and the site was gifted to the National Trust. The significance of Stonehenge was belatedly realized, just in time to protect it.
The haters miss the point of Stonehenge and other such sites. It was produced by a culture that left no written records. How did they move heavy stones from a Welsh quarry hundreds of kilometers away? Why did they choose to erect them there? Why did they bother? What was it made for? Despite years of speculation, the questions regarding why and how Stonehenge and other similar stone circles were made are no closer to be answered. No-one is really sure what Stonehenge is or was. Was it a Druid temple, guide for aliens, a celestial calendar, a town, a gate, a burial ground, a healing ground or a place of worship? All have been proposed but all we know was that the stones are arranged in a way that they had some sort of a relationship with the sun and the seasons. Its design allows a celestial observatory function, which might have allowed prediction of eclipses, solstices, equinox and other celestial events. The best guess of the function of Stonehenge is that it use was multi-faceted, sometimes acting as a temple, sometimes a place of healing, sometimes a cemetery and always as some sort of a celestial calendar.
The site was probably not associated with druids, despite what neo-druids would argue. Neo-druids are advocates of neo-paganism and new age beliefs, who came to revere Stonehenge as a site of religious significance, believing that it was a site used by the original druids. The historian Ronald Hutton remarked that “it was a great and potentially uncomfortable, irony that modern Druids arrived in Stonehenge just as archaeologists were evicting the ancient Druids from it”. The neo-druids have held fast in claiming connections to Stonehenge, with Stonehenge Free Festivals held at the site between 1972 and 1984, when it was stopped after a series of serious incidents involving the police, the so-called Battle of the Beanfield. After this battle, access to the stones was stopped for several years and is now only allowed when on guided tours or during the summer and winter solstices or the spring and autumn equinoxes. In fact, even the neo-druidism movement that celebrates the summer solstice at Stonehenge has, most likely, been hi-jacked by people whose only purpose of attending is the unusual experience of being able to get loaded among the stones.
One of the things I learnt in England is that Stonehenge is not necessarily unique. It is unusual in that it is taller than other existing stone circles, and the lintel stones (the stones that “cap” the monument are held in place using mortise and tenon joints are unique, at least in surviving stone circles) but stone circles of Stonehenge’s ilk were relatively common around Neolithic Britain. A kind of sister site to Stonehenge is Avebury, 25 kilometres from Stonehenge, which is an older and much larger stone circle (it is the largest stone circle in Europe). Avebury lacks the relative completeness of Stonehenge (I use completeness lightly as many of Stonehenge’s stones have disappeared) and the dramatic hanging stones but 100 stones still stand in the circle that surrounds the village of Avebury. It is also less touristy than Stonehenge. Sheep graze in the fields the stones lie in and you can walk around, touch and even sit on some of the stones.
|Sheep graze among Avebury's stones.|
Europe’s largest burial mound, Silbury Hill, is close by and may have been a component of a greater Avebury complex. Men toiled building both Silbury Hill and a ditch that surrounds Avebury itself, using red-deer antlers as their digging implements. The function of Avebury is still unclear, with as many ideas existing about its function as there were for Stonehenge. Our audio guide mentioned something about a study that found that seeds germinated here produced higher than average yields. The reason given was something new-agey like ionic disequilibrium or something. Similarly, people were using dowsing rods in the belief that they can detect psychic emissions in the area. The audio guide ambitiously suggested that this could be a cure for world starvation (ignoring the fact that we already have an excess of food in the world, it’s just transportation that prevents us from feeding everyone). The building of Avebury around 2600 BC has been attributed to the druids, the Phoenicians and as a monument to honour King Arthur. It has even been suggested that Native Americans had built the megalithic monuments in Britain.
Avebury’s stone circle is several kilometers in diameter, enclosing an area of over 100 hectares. Many of the stones remain buried in the earth; others have long been demolished for use in other projects. With the rise of Christianity, stone circles were viewed throughout the Middle Ages as being the work of the devil; hence many stones were pushed over or otherwise destroyed. This apparently stopped after a falling stone crushed one unfortunate; his body was found in 1938, lost during the war and then re-found again in the 1990s. This may have discouraged the villagers from pulling down the stones. Certainly, the pulling of stones stopped and it has been speculated that the man’s death was seen as either a warning or retribution from the devil himself. Stones left standing acquired names like the Devil’s Chair or the Devil’s Brand iron.
|In the devil's chair|
By the 17th and 18th Centuries, the destruction of the stones increased. Obviously, the villagers no longer feared the devil. This time, many were destroyed by lighting a fire around the stone, pouring cold water on them and then attacking weak points of the stone with a sledgehammer. The stone fragments were then used in buildings in the local village, a village that grew over time to the extent that houses were now among the stones themselves. By the late 19th Century, the idea that Avebury was something worth preserving was gaining momentum. The site was bought and protected by two men of influence, initially by Sir John Luddock who bought the site when he learnt that a large portion of the remaining circle was to be removed to make way for new housing and subsequently by Alexander Keiller, a man who improbably was a marmalade heir, who removed many of the houses that lay near the stones and started excavations that uncovered many of the buried stones. He gifted the land to the National Trust in the 1940s, thus preserving it for future generations.
|View of the stone circle|
Stonehenge and Avebury pose many questions, with many of them unlikely to be ever answered. Will people 5,000 years from now stand before one of the ruins of our buildings and ask what was this for? What would people think were the purpose of vast sports stadiums, edifices of extravagance that some are, if they were to be rediscovered 5,000 years from now with no written clue as to their use. People would probably be as unlikely to guess correctly their proper usage as we are at ascertaining the role of stone circles in Neolithic Britain.