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The Enduring Mystery Of England's Stones
Dr. Robert Sprackland
The dew was collecting faster the longer we stood there, and my feet were quite wet, yet I didn't care. The cold June air was pierced by the sounds of a wind from the channel and a pair of didgeridoo players under a dim spotlight from the midsummer's moon. Around us in the wet, ankle-deep grass, stood the oblong shapes of the Merry Maidens, a circle of stones placed here who-knows-when by who-knows-who. This could have been an occult gathering, the five of us drawn magically to share a prehistoric ritual on one of the high days of the Pagan calendar. In fact, my wife, our cab driver, and I just happened to run into the two musicians when we decided we wanted to see the stones at night. True, I was riveted to that damp spot. Was it the music, the rhythm of wind and primal instrument? Or could it have been a great revelation, as some long-buried memory surfaced? It was neither; I was transfixed, as had been many others before and after me, by the mystery of the stones.
England is full of these Neolithic remnants, placed in deliberate patterns, most often circles, and left on the plains from one end of the island to the other. They are often in serene, isolated places, and rarely attract crowds of tourists. These locals, coupled with the ongoing mysterious atmosphere posed by the stones, makes them wonderful places to go when getting away from the noise of civilization is foremost in your plans. On my first visit to England in 1989, I had a vague knowledge about Stonehenge, and even less interest in it. But our visit began in Cornwall where lives, my novelist wife informed me, the soul of mystery and romance. She had come to do historical research for a novel set in 1807, but we soon became fascinated by a far older story.
Subsequently, we have joined the ranks of the thousands of people who have visited Neolithic stones throughout western England, and remain more fascinated than ever. Even better, from a tourist standpoint, most of these sites are freely available. Many are on private property, and as landowners may not alter historic sites, it is customary to ask permission from the landlords before trodding on to examine their charges. Stonehenge remains one of the few sites for which one must pay an admission fee; it is also one of the few sites that one may not approach closely.
The first question asked by visitors or armchair Indiana Joneses is either "who built these structures," or "what are they for?" Archaeologists have a variety of techniques available that allow them to give us a variety of clues. For example, the most famous prehistoric monument of them all, Stonehenge, is located atop a chalk formation. Experts tell us that if you haul heavy objects, such as, say, twelve-ton stones, across chalk, it will shatter. Based on their examinations of the chalk around the monument, these archaeologists tell us that all the stones were hauled in from one direction, along the same path, which has been called "the avenue." The stones are not local, but come from 35 or more miles away. They had to be cut carefully, shaped, and moved, all at considerable effort, suggesting both aesthetic sense and careful engineering. (I should also think “strong backs” goes on the list, but as we really don’t know how the stones were cut or transported…)
Stonehenge had been abandoned long before the Roman conquest of Britain, and lay unknown until rediscovered in 1130 A.D. With each passing century, hypotheses about its use and builders reflected more about the ideological biases of the questioners than the identity of the architects. A pervasive and popular explanation held that the circle was built by Druids, and used for human sacrifices. Alas, this explanation is another case of exaggerated anachronism (as is Robin Hood's Friar Tuck, a Franciscan in England about 150 years before the founding of the Order), for the Druids came along thousands of years after Stonehenge was built. This does not, however, mean they might not have used the ruins long after their creators had disappeared. Other colourful ideas suggest the circle was a terminal building for UFOs, or the tomb of a truly great leader.
Smaller stones have a variety of forms. Some, called quoits, are now known to be burial places. But others remain enigmatic despite all attempts to get them to reveal their secrets. One, the Men-el-Tor in Cornwall is unique, the only hollowed-out, round stone known in Europe. Nearby is an upright spire. Legend has it that by passing through the circle three times, you can be healed from a variety of ills. I can vouch that it does not work for all ills. My favourite explanation for this structure (and also, my own hypothesis) is that, back around 7333 B.C., Grog invented the wheel. He showed it to his brother in law, who replied, "what are you gonna do with that?" Grog thought a bit, shrugged, and tossed the prototype in the trash, next to another aborted invention, the axel (ah, had he but built two wheels first, how different might history be). More scholarly thinkers suggest that these paired stones were used in fertility rights. In fact, no one knows for sure.
If you love a mystery, you can hardly do better than try to fathom the stones. I had no interest in them until we actually arrived at a circle in 1989. The Merry Maidens, where my feet became dew-soaked, is a circle where my wife and I spent considerable time, mainly because it is so accessible. It is also surrounded by a very casual attitude from the locals, who don't seem interested in commercializing the ruins. Our cab driver, a native of Penzance, was filled with lore about these prehistoric relics. My favourite was the story about the farmer who, around World War I, tried to remove the stones from his field. He hitched strong ropes around a stone, thence his plow horse.
As the stone began to move, the horse dropped dead from a heart attack. Fascinating as this sounds, it is, like so many legends, unsubstantiated by facts. On my first visit, I noticed a pair of stones outside the circle that were not mentioned in the guidebook. They lined up with a stone inside the circle to point almost exactly north-northeast. I have no idea what significance that has, but I used a compass to verify the direction. Entering the circle, my compass spun slowly in all directions, a phenomenon observed by my wife and our guide. Outside the circle, it worked fine. When we tried a better compass two years later, the results were different, the needle pointing just a few degrees east of magnetic north. So far, that is the most mysterious thing we've encountered at a stone site.
Across the road and a short walk away from the Merry Maidens are the standing Pipers. Legend has it that the Maidens danced to the Piper's music on the Sabbath, for which indiscretion they were struck into stone. Vengeful gods notwithstanding, one approaches the Pipers with great care; from time to time a bull is grazing in their field. While the Maidens form a well-defined circle (with two outer boulders making a "gun-sight"), the tall, rectangular Pipers are in a straight row, bandsmen eternally at attention. As if some early Briton had engaged in a prehistoric version of urban planning ("boy, five thousand years from now the tourists are gonna eat this up!"), there is also an ancient burial chamber just to the west of the Maiden's circle, and easily viewed from the center of the circle. Face to the east, and you see the Pipers. Were they erected by the same people? Were their functions related?
Most spectacular of all the mysterious remains, to my mind, is Avebury, literally a town within a huge circle. There is a man-made mound and ditch surrounding the town, within which are a few places that still have huge stones forming partial circles. Most of the stones have long since been broken down and used to construct the buildings in the center, but the artificial ditches let you know both how advanced these people were and how hopeless we are to discover who they were. We made our visit on a moon-lit night (not planned, it just happened that way), and were impressed by the size of these remaining stones. Each ovoid monolith is about 15 feet wide, six feet deep, and twelve feet tall. It must have taken Herculean efforts to get them here and arrange them in a series of circles, one of which surrounded the city. The few remaining stones stand like billowing sails, forever adrift on a sea of time, iron age Flying Dutchmen that taunt us to understand them.
Astronomers and physicists have largely displaced archaeologists in interpreting the stones. Favored hypotheses say that the structures were observatories that allowed accurate prediction of the seasons. At Stonehenge, for example, the sun lines up with some very notable structures on important days of the year, including the equinox and solstice. No doubt, such alignment is probably more than merely coincidental. On the other hand, it seems odd that a culture would spend some fifteen years dragging and assembling stones just to provide a calendar (try hanging that on your wall!). As if to confirm the calendar hypothesis, the stones have recently been discovered to be carved with symbols of axes and other implements. Even after 800 years of observation, this massive structure has secrets only now being revealed, further enhancing its mystique.
Stonehenge was my most recent site to examine. We took a double-decker from Salisbury to the circle, some 8 miles away. Our first view of it was a tiny cluster of gray on a sloping field, wedged into a triangle of land between two highways. The close approach of not one but two modern thoroughfares seemed to ridicule this inexplicable remnant of Britain's past. Friends tell me it has lost much of its power and mystique. It hasn't, but the fact that it can no longer be approached makes it more distant than Avebury or the Pipers. Thus, even when on the site, it is little different from seeing a good photograph or T.V. documentary. To my mind, it was about two-thirds the size I had expected.
Stonehenge was begun about 5,000 years ago, more than a thousand years before the Pyramids were begun. It is ruined, weathered, and aloof, but it remains as the most elaborate capitol of a lost place.
To my mind, Stonehenge has a solution, one of a philosopher rather than a scientist: it is an eternal question mark, a monument to the fact that there are some things about which man will never know. A visit to England would be incomplete without a visit to one of these question marks, and it will provide you with a souvenir, an insolvable mystery, that will last a lifetime.
Dr. Sprackland is director of the Virtual Museum of Natural History at http://www.curator.org.
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