“How grand, how wonderful, how incomprehensible!” These are the words used to describe Stonehenge in the introduction to the English Heritage’s guide to the ancient henge. At first sight, Stonehenge does appear somewhat baffling, not so much for its mystical past as for its stark and earthy rawness. It all looks so natural as if the stones had grown out of the landscape. Yet these immense stones were brought here from afar. Each individual stone is immense, but the henge is perhaps smaller than you had imagined it would be, but also more expansive, grander as it were, when seen in the context of the open landscape and the ditch and bank that surround it. There is also the broad avenue leading up to the stones.
But why was it built exactly here, in the middle of the Salisbury Plain in South West England?
The Stonehenge Stones
Stonehenge as it stands today is the ruins of a construction that began around 2500 BC. By then the largest stones, the sarsens weighing up to 35 tonnes, and the inner horseshoe shaped circles of smaller bluestones had been transported here from Wiltshire 30 km away and from Preseli Hills in Wales, 240 km away. Exactly how these massive stones were transported over long distances and subsequently erected is still an unresolved part of the larger Stonehenge puzzle but it is generally believed that they were brought here using water transport for the smallest stone from Wales, then dragged over land on wooden sledges of some kind. On the last stretch, they were possibly floated on the river Avon that flows nearby. It would take an estimated 12 days to transport a sarsen stone from Wiltshire to Stonehenge (30 km).
Stonehenge was never completely finished. Of the outer circle of sarsen stones only 17 out of a total of 30 stones still stand, while only 6 of the horizontal overlying stones, the lintels, are in place. The slightly curved lintel stones were fitted together with a vertical “tongue and groove” joint. You can clearly see the tongue and the protruding tenon bump on top of some of the sarsens (see photo above, left and centre). The lintels have a corresponding mortise hole, firmly locking the stones together.
Was Stonehenge a place of celebration of man’s relationship to the earth, the solid ground on which we all live and die, and of life’s inevitable dissolution – into the rays of the sun in the sky above?
Stonehenge’s past is shrouded in mystery. The stones do not seem to have a been put here only for practical purposes. Stonehenge must have had a spiritual dimension, much like churches and cathedrals have. It could possible have served as a temple of sorts, a sacred ceremonial site for seasonal sun worship and celebration, a place burial of important people, even of healing among the inner circle of bluestones. It has a powerful and commanding presence in the landscape.
A Mystery and a World Heritage Site
Stonehenge has a north-east and south-west alignment. On summer solstice June 21 the sun rises in the north-east, on the side where the Heel Stone stands (see photo above) and where the avenue is. The first sunlight on this day will then perfectly illuminate the inner part of Stonehenge where the altar stone stood, inside the innermost horseshoe circle with the most attractive of the bluestones. At winter solstice on December 21, the sun rises on the exact opposite side, six months and 180 degrees apart from the summer solstice. Nowadays “sun-worshippers” from all of over the world gather at Stonehenge every summer solstice to greet the rising sun and to experience what the “real Stonehenge” might have been like.
Stonehenge including Avebury and Associated Sites were inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1986. Avebury, situated 30 km north of Stonehenge, contain the largest prehistoric stone circle in the world, and Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. Together they demonstrate outstanding creative and technological achievements in prehistoric times. (Source: UNESCO)
All photos Asgeir Pedersen, IN Editions
This article was first published 29 June 2015.