This morning found us borrowing our friends, Ronnie and Janine Morgan’s, car and making the drive from Oxford to Wiltshire to see the Stonehenge and Avebury stone circles. The kids were excited about seeing the ancient sites; I was excited about testing my driving skills in a country that drives on the wrong side of the road ;^) Why else would they call the right side of the road the “right” side? I think that my expectations for the drive were higher than my expectations of the prehistoric sites we were to visit; we had received underwhelming reports from several previous visitors.
These two stone circles in the UK are not a regular part of my curriculum so I won’t even pretend to know much about them. All the same, they are pretty spectacular settings. Both sites date back to about 3000 BC and were built in spurts that sometimes had gaps of use or construction lasting as much as 500 years. For Stonehenge the first bit of construction was little more than a ditch with a circular mound of soil. Around 2600 BC a wooden structure of some sort was built in the center of this circle. And then finally from about 2500 to 1500 BC the all too familiar stone circle was constructed and rearranged several times. After that time it was apparently abandoned. That oldest stones used at Stonehenge are called Bluestones (from their original color) and come from the Preseli Mountains some 240 miles away. These were originally arranged in an outer circle around the center wooden structure area. Closer to 1500 BC the larger Sarsen stones from Marlborough Downs (19 miles away) were arranged into the familiar posts and lintel formations known as trilithons. It is estimated that dragging these 50-ton stones over the hills to Stonehenge would have required about 600 people per stone! About that same time the Bluestones were rearranged into the pattern that is seen today. Interestingly, the current arrangement of stones works as a sort of solar calendar casting shadows to the center of the ring at both summer and winter solstices. And while the construction at these sites lack the craftsmanship and artistry of temples built in Egypt and Mesopotamia from the same era, they still demonstrates some pretty impressive celestial calculations!
Around the countryside of Stonehenge and Avebury are several Barrows. I first encountered this term while reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In the Fellowship of the Rings Tom Bombadil warns Frodo and company to stay away from the barrows and their stones because there lived the Barrow Wights. I’m still not exactly sure what a Barrow Wight is, but I have a much better understanding for the barrows and cold stones. A barrow is simply a burial mound! Could Tolkien have been referring to the stones of Stonehenge or another of the numerous stone circles throughout southern England? Sure, why not? We picnicked at the outer circular mound and contemplated the scene with Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Meriodoc in the middle of the stone circle.
Avebury (c. 2600 BC) is equally impressive if not more so for two reasons. The first is obvious when you first arrive - you can walk right up to and touch the stones. It’s really cool. Of course you have to dodge mountains of sheep dip strewn every square inch of the fields, but you really get a chance to walk among the stones. Second is the size and arrangement of the stones at Avebury. The stone circle is huge -almost four football fields in diameter. The stones here were selected for their unique shapes and were uncut like the stones at Stonehenge. The largest stone on site weighs over 65 tons! An early archaeologist in the area named William Stukeley (c. 1720) observed that the arrangement of the circular ditches, mounds, stones, and surrounding barrows created a design reminiscent of serpent passing through a circle, an ancient symbol of alchemy. That’s cool! The most impressive barrow in this area is the Silbury Hill about a mile from the stone circle of Avebury. This huge volcano shaped mound is also surrounded by seemingly random stones and underground chambers. Turns out that these too line up with certain celestial events. And all this digging and hauling of soil was done by hand with antlers and bones. That had to have required a lot of cooperative work hours from the local people.
So what do these stone circles mean? Since there is no written record from the era of their construction nobody knows for sure. We do know that they are old. Neolithic people lived here as evidenced by the artifacts found at the sites and in the burial barrows. They do seem to line up with celestial events that we readily recognize. But the why question really remains a mystery. This has sparked numerous legends about their genesis and purpose dealing with everything from the Devil to King Arthur. Throw in some Druids with a little new age mysticism and you can have a lot of fun with these sites. So far none of these has any historical credibility. The circles predate all of them, except maybe of course the Devil!