A Henge of Stone
Yesterday we decided to take a bus tour to Stonehenge in the morning. It turned out to be a lovely day — the weather held (well, mostly), and there wasn’t too much traffic on the M4. Here are a few pictures from the Salisbury Plain.
Stonehenge sits near the villages of Amesbury and Salisbury, about 75 miles southwest of London. The area is known as the Salisbury Plain, and is a chalk plateau known for being windy and desolate. During the reign of Henry VIII, his first wife Queen Catherine of Aragon spent her later years imprisoned at a nearby estate, and often commented on the loneliness of the Salisbury landscape. Henry VIII acquired the land around Stonehenge when he closed Amesbury Abbey, and subsequently sold it to Marquis of Queensbury. It has since changed hands several times before being donated to the nation in 1918 by Cecil Chubb. Although the Crown technically “owns” Stonehenge, the land is managed by the National Trust and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Unfortunately there is not a great deal of definitive information about Stonehenge, at least regarding it’s history and purpose. We can carbon date the stones and artifacts in the area, which suggest that the location was used as early as 8000 BCE. Several large Mesolithic Postholes have been identified (unfortunately they are underneath the parking lot) that are the earliest known evidence of construction at the site. Stonehenge as it stands today, with multiple circles of stones of varying size and type, is a synthesis of several major phases of construction. Early phases consisted of wooden posts, a massive ditch, and an earthwork in a henge (or circle). Later phases added the various stones, barrows, and the avenue (or road, which leads to to the site).
The massive lintels that sit atop the Sarsen stones (the upright ones) have been fastened together using both mortise-and-tenon joints and tongue-and-groove joints, suggesting advanced skills in engineering and technical planning. It is not known HOW these stones were transported (some of them weigh up to 75 tons), but the various theories involve lots and lots of men, sleds, levers, scaffolding, etc.
I think it is really sad that so much of the site has been destroyed over the years. Many people used to come to the site with hammers and picks, to take a piece of Stonehenge home as a souvenir! There are even examples of graffiti carved into the stones (some of which are quite old!). It is so important to protect places like these.
The current visitor center at Stonehenge is both effective and subtle. The car park (or parking lot, if you like) sits over the rise and out of view of the site itself. There are, unfortunately, two roads that run quite close to the stones. I know there have been movements in the past to try and close and/or move these roads, and I think it really needs to be done to protect the area. This is a picture of Alex listening to the audio guide provided on the tour. It has a lot of information, but also a lot of annoying “mood music” to try and heighten the experience. I tend to think that the site, by itself, is stirring enough without lots of mystical flute music!
One thing that was quite cute (and unexpected) was the sheep! The area around the henge is roped off (you can’t get closer than 200 feet or so), and there is a tourist path that circumnavigates the circle (or henges the henge, if you will) — on the other side of the tourist walkway is a large field used for grazing by a herd of sheep! Although there were no lambs quite yet, I’m sure they are not far off.
I have to say that I really enjoyed our time at Stonehenge. Admittedly it was brief (about an hour) — and fairly superficial regarding the history and excavations at the site, but it whetted my appetite for more. There is a more in-depth tour you can take that also includes the henge at Avebury, which I would like to take some day soon!