It probably seems as though I’ve decided not to go on with my recounting of the Big Trip, but in fact, I’ve just been stymied by the next portion of it: our visit to Stonehenge. Seeing Stonehenge the way we saw it was so profound, it’s been hard to think how to put it into words. But that’s my job, as a writer, and so I will attempt to convey the marvel that is Stonehenge as we saw it. I’ve had some time to process the experience, and in looking over my pictures, some of the emotion and sense of mystery I felt at the time comes back. That’s why we take pictures, isn’t it?
First of all, I must highly recommend Pat Shelley’s after-hours, special access tours of Stonehenge. Pat has guided folks from National Geographic and other big-wigs to see Stonehenge as he has learned it, and he puts the landscape surrounding Stonehenge into archeological and cultural perspective in a way that simply walking around the fence at the monument cannot do. I am linking Pat’s website to this post in several places, because I do not want to paraphrase him and get it wrong, but also because his photographs far outshine anything I could present, although I’ve included some of mine too.
Amy and I left Salisbury for Pat’s special access tour at about 3: 45 in the afternoon, after we loaded up into a small bus with about 25 other people. As the bus headed out towards Stonehenge, we passed Old Sarum, the original city built by the Romans, along the way, but did not stop. Amy and I had hoped to visit there before we left Salisbury, but we were unable to. However, Pat talked about Old Sarum as we went past it on our way to Woodhenge.
At this point, I should probably tell you what Pat drummed into us all afternoon, the definition of a henge. A henge is a flat area, usually circular or oval, enclosed by earthworks consisting of ditch and bank, with the ditch inside the embankment, the soil and stones from the ditch being used to form the embankment. The ditch and bank define the limits of the henge.
When Pat took our small group out to Woodhenge, a true henge with ditch and bank originally set with wooden posts rather than stones (the holding pits for the timbers now marked with concrete posts), he explained that archaeologists still don’t know what it was used for. Various theories have been expounded and rejected. As Pat says, all we know is that Woodhenge was used for ceremonial and ritual purposes, a phrase he would reiterate all afternoon.
Two bodies were discovered buried at Woodhenge: the remains of a young child in a cairn of flints in the center of the henge, and the body of a young man at the base of the ditch. Why these bodies were buried here, no one knows.
For more about Woodhenge, Pat’s site, with his photographs, is invaluable.
From Woodhenge, we walked across the lane to a viewing point above Durrington Walls. Durrington Walls is an enormous henge, sans stonework, far larger than Stonehenge itself. It is the largest henge in Britain (and the world). What is visible to the naked eye (and impossible for me to get completely into one picture on my camera) is the vast near-circle of the embankment.
As I stood at the top of the embankment, surrounded by sheep pasture (redolent with the aroma of sheep), and looked around at the area of the henge, I thought about the hours and hours of labor it would have taken to dig the ditch (with stone or bone tools) and erect the embankment. What induced the people of this place, or surrounding places, to devote so much time and energy to such a process? The effort would have taken time away from agriculture and hunting/gathering, and served no defensive purpose, for the embankment was not high enough, about 3 meters (although that’s almost 10 feet) and the internal ditch not deep enough, about 5 meters (about 16 ½ feet) to keep determined marauders out. The area is so large, it would have taken hundreds, if not thousands, of defenders to repel invaders. The enclosure measures about 500 meters or about 546 yards in diameter with an area of about 30 acres. The embankment seems not to have been built for defensive purposes, but for some other purpose of demarcation, perhaps for religious or even political impulses. Religion and power often go hand in hand—it’s easy to interpret the henge at Durrington Walls this way. But nothing is known for certain of the impulses behind the building of Durrington Walls. Archaeologists believe that the houses discovered along the river at Durrington Walls were the dwelling places of the workers who built Stonehenge. For more about this, please see Pat Shelley’s website, linked here.
Pat also pointed out the location of a smaller timber circle at Durrington Walls, similar to Woodhenge, called the Southern Circle, and the location of an even smaller timber circle which now lies beneath the road built in 1967 which bisects the henge of Durrington Walls.
Pat worked on digs at Durrington Walls and was on the team that discovered the first complete Neolithic house floors in England. For more about his experience on that dig, please visit his website, linked above. Replicas of the some of the houses found at the Durrington Walls site have been built outside the new visitor’s center at Stonehenge. My pictures of them are here. It’s clear that some had different purposes than others; the first reconstructed house was obviously for living and sleeping.
The second type of house seemed more like a meeting house, perhaps where workers gathered for storytelling or singing, or perhaps where supervisors met to discuss how the work of building Stonehenge was going.
From Durrington Walls, we visited a barrow site. Barrows were burial mounds, presumably of important persons, but since many of the graves were looted through the ages, it’s hard to know always what sort of person was buried in them. Also, some of the barrows may have been used and reused. The barrow we saw was one in a line of barrows that stretches for quite some distance across the landscape near Stonehenge, and in fact, we could see Stonehenge from the barrow.
The presence of so many burials near Stonehenge is one of the reasons a leading archaeologist (Mike Parker Pearson) working the area around Stonehenge calls it “a place for the dead.”
But the land doesn’t feel in the least bit dead. Obviously, Pearson is being both literal and metaphorical, but what struck me about the landscape around Stonehenge is how alive it is. Sheep are pastured all around (and we walked a long way through sheep-inhabited pastures to reach the Cursus and the elbow of the Avenue, the processional way that leads up to the Stones), berries grow in the hedgerows, birds are twittering and flittering everywhere, and trees, although post-World War II plantings, flourish. It is one of the most living, most present landscapes you could imagine, dominated by the monuments of the past, henges and barrows.
The three shots of Stonehenge, above, were taken from the barrow site. The first one was taken without zoom, the second and third were zoomed in. You can see that people were still visiting the site, but behind the fence that surrounds it. We were going in, after a nice, long trek across the sheep pastures.
From the barrow, we crossed another lane and struck off into the heart of sheep land. Sheep scampered away from our progress, baaing madly, as we walked toward the Cursus. The Cursus was so named by a fellow in the 1700s who thought it looked like chariot raceway. It is a set of parallel ditches and embankments creating a processional pathway with an opening that leads to the elbow of the Avenue. Presumably, it had ritual and ceremonial purpose. Pat says that’s archaeologist speak for “we don’t know what it was for.”
According to an article in the Smithsonian that arrived at my house just a couple of days ago, a new survey by geophysicists using magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar (yep, that stuff they use in the military to detect underground bunkers) has located a number of previously unknown or little-studied monuments (other henges!) lying beneath the surface in the area around Stonehenge. (The article, “What Lies Beneath,” was one stimulation for me to finally get this post written and my pictures shared. It was a sort of refresher to Pat’s talk on the tour.) One discovery from the survey was the existence of a huge pit at the east end of the Cursus which lies along the line of the last section of the Avenue from the elbow straight through to the heelstone outside the circle. There’s another pit at the west end of the Cursus whose line through to the circle creates a triangle with entrance to Stonehenge at its apex. Apparently, there’s a new film about Stonehenge coming out, Stonehenge Empire, which will use all kinds of special computer-generated effects to demonstrate what the survey found. However, the article makes clear, until spades hit the ground, nobody knows for sure what might be found. I can’t help wishing that my health and finances would allow me to join a dig. What a thrill it must be to work on such a project.
From the Cursus, Pat took us across the sheep pasture to the elbow of the Avenue. There he gathered us, pointed out the way up the hill, and turned us loose to discover what the great monument looks like as the people who built it would have seen it during a processional. You see, for parts of the journey up the Avenue from the River Avon, Stonehenge and Durrington Walls and other henges would have been in view. But at the elbow of the Avenue, which lies in a gentle declivity, Stonehenge is upslope and out of sight. As we walked up the hill, walking on the Avenue toward the monument, with the sun declining in the west, the stones gradually became visible, first the lintels, and then the uprights, seeming almost to rise out of the ground as if on mechanized platforms in some theater production. Indeed, there is no doubt that what we call a sense of theater animated the builders of Stonehenge and the Avenue. That perception of the stones rising out of the ground must surely have called on a feeling of wonder, even magic.
The first shot below was on zoom; the second was taken afterwards, with Amy in front of me, to show how far away we still were from the monument. At this point, we were on the Avenue. I have a short, bumpy video I’ll post on my Jean L. French Facebook page that illustrates the way the stones seem to rise out of the ground.
And then, as one nears the stones, even from behind the fence, their grandeur and majesty, their sheer size more than impress; they overwhelm.
As we walked up the Avenue toward the Stones, the heelstone greeted us.
The heelstone is the marker stone for sunrise on the summer solstice. It is a massive sarcen that now leans toward the henge, although it may have once stood upright, and apparently had a companion stone beside it. The light from the summer solstice sunrise would have beamed directly between the heelstone and its companion. The heelstone lies just inside the chain-link fence that now surrounds Stonehenge, keeping out all visitors except those few of us who are willing to pay for an after-hours tour, and the thousands who throng there midsummer’s day, when the monument is open to all-comers and the stones are desecrated by drunks and idiots. Frankly, I would rather pay more to see Stonehenge in the company of a few like-minded, reverent individuals than see it desecrated for free.
At the heelstone, I turned around and took a picture looking back down the Avenue. If you look carefully, you can see the banks on either side which define the Avenue, and you can see the curve of the elbow in the distance.
At the fence line, we turned and walked around the fence to a gate that gave access to the bus parking area where we rode a small bus to the new visitor’s center. We spent an hour there, waiting for the last of the regular tours to finish and the site to close. The new visitor’s center has so much information, an hour wasn’t really enough to thoroughly explore. But I found one of Dennis’s ancestors in there! The skeleton of this Neolithic man was found buried in a long barrow about a mile and a half from Stonehenge. It’s been 5500 years since anybody’s seen his face. And he looks like he could be my husband’s cousin!
When the site had closed to regular visitors, we got back on the bus and were driven to the locked and guarded gate that accesses the stones themselves. At the guarded gate, we were accompanied by our guide, Pat, and security guards who patrolled the perimeter of the stones, making sure we did not touch them. It is forbidden to touch the stones (which makes the free-for-all at the summer solstice that much less comprehensible). The stones are also open to the public at the winter solstice, but almost no one ever shows up, Pat says. It’s too cold, and often there is snow on the ground. How I would love to see Stonehenge then! I have a photograph Pat took during the winter solstice that is so beautiful, I can’t wait to get it framed and on the wall. I wish I could link to a copy of it to show it off, but I think Pat only sells them during his tours.
As we walked the paved pathway that runs from the locked gate up to the stones, ravens were everywhere on the grass, flying from roosts on the stones themselves, and looking for something, perhaps insects, moles, or mice, on the ground. Dozens and dozens of them, like seagulls at the beach, but black, glossy, vocal. I couldn’t help thinking of how ravens feature in Scandinavian myth and wondered if they might have been sacred birds to the builders of Stonehenge as well. I reached down and picked up one shiny, black feather from the grass as a gift for a friend with an affinity for ravens.
As we entered the ring of stones in twos and threes or singly, marveling at the size of them, for a while the only thing you could hear besides the quork of the ravens was the appreciative murmur from 26 throats.
After a short time to wander around, Pat called us back together and began to talk to us about Stonehenge, which, he explained, is not actually a henge because its ditch is outside its embankment. I must confess that much of what Pat had to say inside the circle is lost to me because I was so awed by the monument itself. So 0ver-awed, in fact, that I tripped over a small, partially-buried stone and nearly cracked my head on the downed lintel that reveals that even the craftsmen who built Stonehenge could make a mistake. The lintels aren’t just balancing atop the sarcen uprights. They have mortise and tenon joints. The mortise is the cup-shaped hole carved into the lintel. The tenon is the rounded base cut to receive it on the top of the upright. In the one I almost fell on, mortises are carved into both sides of the lintel, except that on one side, the second mortise is unfinished, as though an overseer had discovered the stonemasons chipping away at mortises on the wrong side of the lintel stone. Of course, I remembered that tidbit, after nearly falling into the lintel. I wonder if the security guards would have hauled me off if I’d actually touched the thing in falling down. Fortunately, I caught my balance in time and avoided that crime.
In the pictures below, on the left you can see the completed mortise on the end of the fallen lintel in the center of the picture, and the one on the end of the lintel on the left side of the picture that wasn’t completed because it was on the wrong side of the stone! In the other photo, you can see the tenon on the top of the upright sarcen, upon which the lintel’s mortise would have fitted. The other sarcen of the pair is lying face forward beside the one still standing.
When we see Stonehenge, we think of it as existing always pretty much as it is now, except with all the stones fixed in their upright positions, lintels in place. But the truth is that the monument was modified several times during the centuries of its use as a place of ceremony and ritual. Stones were added and moved. Stonehenge was a work in progress until circa 1600 B.C. when the last construction was done. It isn’t known how long the monument was in use for ritual and ceremonial purposes following this period.
After Pat’s talk inside the circle at Stonehenge, we were free for a little while to wander amongst the stones, to find what solitude was possible, and to contemplate the kinds of questions Stonehenge gives rise to: What did the builders believe and how does that differ from my beliefs? What was life like for the builders? How was it different from mine? And for me, finally, how much do we share, these distant humans and me? One thing I know, we shared a reverence for the earth, and for the bones of it, these stones.
For more of my pictures of Stonehenge, inside the circle, and Woodhenge and Durrington Walls, please visit my Facebook page, (Jean L. French). Also there, eventually, will be the rest of the pictures of our trip to Great Britain, including photos of Maiden Castle, the Hurlers on Bodmin Moor, Tintagel and Caernarvon Castle in Wales, and sights in York, Northumberland and Hadrian’s Wall, and Scotland, where we saw Pictish stones and the Clava Cairns, among other things.