February 8, 2015

Astronomy, History

photo by Brad Snowder

“There is something in Stonehenge almost reassuring; and if you are disposed to feel that life is rather a superficial matter, and that we soon get to the bottom of things, the immemorial gray pillars may serve to remind you of the enormous background of time.” ~ Henry James 1875 CE

cornhengeI love Stonehenge. When I visited the site it seemed to have a weird emotional effect on me, like some lost civilization had found a way of reaching out to me across the ages, annihilating all the time that separated us.

A long time ago, people built the mysterious thing. Even back when the Romans Centurions were first exploring the British Isles looking for more stuff to steal, and establishing their northernmost outposts in an effort to bring palatable cuisine to the Brits, even back then Stonehenge was already considered a curiosity and an ancient mystery.

The stones didn’t survive undamaged. At various points in history people have chiseled down and stolen bits of the pillars for personal projects, a bridge here, and a wall there. A nearby farmer use to rent out hammers to visitors who wanted to whack off a souvenir. It’s a wonder there is anything left at all. Today there is a thin rope stretched around the monument to deter the chiselers.
Over the millennia there have been many attempts to explain the purpose of Stonehenge. What could possibly have compelled ancient people to build a modern tourist attraction? How did such primitive feeble-minded ape-like barbarians muster the raw brain power needed to put a bunch of big rocks in a circle? It must have been magic. How did they know how to align them just so, without phones and wifi and laser levels? Did they contract extraterrestrials to do it, like our government would secretly do today?
Some say a powerful magician floated the stones into place from far away. The source quarry of the stones varies according to the telling of the story. Some of those yarns hold that the stones were floated in from Ireland. Some say they came from Egypt. There may be some correspondence between the distance and precisely how much ale the story teller had to drink. We’re still gathering those data.

People back then loved it when stuff was overwrought with symbolism. They still do actually. Stones represent permanence, like death. Wood is more ephemeral, like life. About a day’s walk from Stonehenge there is the remnant of another ancient monument, Woodhenge. It was made out of logs that have since decayed down to almost nothing. I met a self-proclaimed witch there one foggy morning and she told me she was channeling an ancient energy that emanated from a triangle whose vertices were Woodhenge, Stonehenge, and the Space Needle in Seattle. True story. I guess mystic energy is where you find it so I’ll just let this claim speak for itself.
Potatohenge by Captain Henge 2007

Several archaeological blunders in the last couple of centuries led to the misconception that Stonehenge was built by Druidic tribes. As a result, there is currently a fun hippie social club that retains an official legal right to access the site on holidays and dance about in bath robes, in celebration of the Earth’s orbit and axial tilt and such. Which is fine I guess, as long as whatever it is they’re smoking is the only thing sacrificed. And as long as they don’t lose the robes until the kids are asleep.

primerealestateSome people think about Stonehenge and they focus on the bygone practice of ritualistic sacrifice. I think Christianity especially enjoys painting the pagan religions as bloody. I find that immensely ironic. In fact I find myself hard put to find any culture without an embarrassingly bloody past. In general, I think much undue suffering throughout history probably boils down to the high price of real estate. Meanwhile Stonehenge is smack dab in the middle of the lush, beautiful, rolling, life-giving Salisbury Plain. It’s prime real estate now, so why not then.

Here’s what we think we know. Research and excavations have revealed that Stonehenge was around way before the druids found it. Construction was possibly started by the celtic tribes, but maybe even earlier. It was built in phases, beginning perhaps as early as 3,100 BC, and reaching a final form around 1,800 BC. You know how contractors can really stretch out a job.

The overall design seems to correspond to the observation of many astronomical events such as solstices, eclipses, moon cycles, and more. Some theories of these alignments are widely accepted. Others are controversial because they could have developed by chance. If you blindly throw two rocks on the ground and wait a week or two, it’s pretty much certain they are going to point to something in the sky. “Oh look they point to Betelgeuse on my birthday! How did they know?”
The most widely accepted astronomical aspect of the design is the axial alignment of the monument with the summer and winter solstices. People love solstices. I’m mean they are crazy in love with solstices, and always have been. The winter solstice is especially important because that’s when the Sun accepts our apologies and begins its return northward, putting the beat-down on old man winter and chasing him back to the Arctic Circle where he belongs.

There is clear evidence that at one time the famous Heel Stone that stands just outside the main circle had a partner, and the sunrise on the summer solstice was framed by the huge pair of standing stones when viewed from the center of the circle. Six months later at the winter solstice the sunset was framed by one set of the big Sarsenstone Trilithons whose shape (the greek letter pi) is the most familiar feature of the monument.
2006 by David LewisScrabblehenge by David Lewis 2006

A complex 18.6 year cycle of the Moon may have also played a major role in the design, could be, maybe, possibly. At the very least, large “Station Stones” are aligned in the direction of the northernmost moonset and the southernmost moonrise for sure. Are they simply markers that bracket the Moon’s movement? Perhaps they are a form of mystical containment keeping the Moon from misbehaving. Either way, the stones are connecting the Earth to the sky, in a manner of speaking. The purpose of Stonehenge may have always been both about connecting people to the stars, and connecting the mundane to the divine. It’s easy to confuse the two.

How did these people know so much about obscure cycles in the sky? Well let’s face it, they had their geeks, we’ve always had our geeks. I figure humans have always survived and thrived thanks to a small percentage of logical and inquisitive science-types, without whom we would still be trying to make fire, probably by praying two sticks together.
Dubhenge was made in 1996 at a ‘Beetlebash’ at Avon Park Raceway by a group of artists who called themselves Hugh Jart and photographed by Ian Lloyd.

According to the English Heritage Organization, the first stage of construction of Stonehenge was a just a circle of upright heavy logs (like Woodhenge) surrounded by a deep ditch and a big circular berm of dirt. In fact the word “henge” means “big circular berm of dirt.” It’s a hill that goes around in a circle with the ditch just inside. Digging out the ditch is what provided the material for the berm.

The ditch was dug by hand using animal bones. Deer antlers were used as pick-axes to loosen the underlying chalk and then the shoulder blades of oxen or cattle were used as shovels to clear away boulders. Don’t worry, the animals were probably dead before their antlers and bones were borrowed for the purpose. Excavations of the ditch have recovered antlers that seem to have been left behind deliberately, placed carefully, and it was by radio carbon dating of these items that researchers concluded that the first henge was built over 5,000 years ago.
“That’s where the mystery begins. We haven’t just found old bones, around the edge of the bank we also found 56 holes now known as Aubrey Holes, named after the 17th century antiquarian, John Aubrey, who found them in about 1666. We know that these holes were dug to hold wooden posts, just as holes were dug later to hold the stone pillars that you see today. So this was the first stage built about 5,050 years ago, a wooden post circle surrounded by a deep ditch and bank.” ~ English Heritage Organization

By the way, the English Heritage website has a warning notice, declaring that no one is allowed to quote them. Yeah well that’s just how radical I am EH, and I’ll do again.
krispiehengeRice Krispie henge, made and photographed by Brock Davis in 2011

Around 2,500 BC (a whopping 2,400 years before the Romans bothered with Britain), Dirthenge was rebuilt using stones. Bluestones were used first, which are the smaller giant stones of the monument. Geologist have determined that these came from the Prescelli Mountains in Pembroke, South Wales, 380km (245 miles) away, perhaps dragged on rollers and sledges or something to the headwaters on Milford Haven, maybe, and then maybe loaded onto rafts and floated, maybe. Placed on a raft, maybe, because a large mass is relatively easy to transport by raft.

akiaThe rafts could have traveled by water along the south coast of Wales and possibly up the rivers Avon and Frome, before maybe being dragged overland again to near Warminster in Wiltshire, possibly. The final stage of the journey could have been mainly by water, down the river Wylye to Salisbury, then the Avon to west Amesbury with stops for snacks and beverages.

The journey from the quarry to the monument covers nearly 240 miles. It was an amazing feat when you think about it. Consider that each stone weighs about five tons! It required unbelievable dedication by these people with their ancient technology to bring giant stones all the way from South Wales. Such huge expenditures of man-hours in the ancient world are usually thought to be associated with spiritual motivations, but I think people just like big rocks and circles.

Before Stonehenge 2.0, was complete, work stopped and there was a long period of abandonment. Their unions may have been on strike. Then some later generations upgraded and renovated the site, building a bigger and way more complicated monument. That construction phase lasted until about 4,300 years ago. The remnant of that effort is the Stonehenge we know and love and charge people £13.90 to see today.
‘henj’ infographic by british writer Justin Pollard, designed with input from creatives Stevyn Colgan and John lloyd.

The main feature of the final renovation, about 4000 years ago, was that the bluestones were dug up and rearranged and this time some even bigger, better, awesome-er stones were brought in from the Marlborough Downs, 25 miles away. These giant sandstones, or Sarsenstones as they are now called, were hammered to size and finely shaped using balls of stone known as mauls. Balls of stone also served as wrenches and screwdrivers back then.
French toast and baconhenge by Carin Huber, photographed by Carol Squires 2009

Today you can see the drag marks apparently created when the stones were moved into place. Each pair of stones was then heaved upright and linked on the top by the cross members called lintels. To get the lintels to stay in place, they made joints in the stones, linking the lintels in a circular manner using a tongue and groove joint, and subsequently the uprights and lintels were connected with ball and socket joints, also known as mortise and tendon. This was all cleverly designed to be in alignment with celestial markers.

Exactly how did they move those big Sarsenstones, some weighing more than 50 freakin’ goddamn tons? How did they get them to stand upright? How many people got squished in the process? Nobody really knows for sure. It required sheer muscle power and hundreds of men with ropes to move each of these megaliths. Modern calculations show that it would have taken 500 men using leather ropes to pull one stone, and another 100 men to move and lay the huge rollers in front of the sledge, and 30 women correcting all the mistakes. By making wild-ass guesses, scientists estimate that those ancient tribes could have managed to bring in and finish about one of the Sarsenstones per year.
Cheesehenge by Prudence Staite 2012

The largest stones were arranged in an outer circle with a continuous run of stone lintels on top. Inside the circle, the five huge famous trilithons were placed in a horseshoe arrangement. And this was before horseshoes were even invented. The open end of the horseshoe faced towards the Heelstone (and missing partner) and beyond that they built a nice 1.8 mile long avenue leading down to the river Avon, for parades or something.

Recent discoveries have revealed the size of the massive raving hoedown that ancient tribes threw for themselves in the area around the monument. The artifacts now generate a general image of thousands of parties, games, shopping centers, costume competitions, sheep races, and a first class food court unlike anything seen since in the area, although there are still some lovely pubs in nearby villages.

maybelaterStonehenge was once part of a huge cultural center where many people lived and many more visitors arrived constantly throughout the year for business and pleasure and to stand in awe of the cosmos. It was the Vegas of the ancient world (trade shows are nothing new).

So, what will our own culture leave to the ages? I’m leaving my bath robe. I won’t be needing it.

Carpe Noctem.

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