Witnesses of Eternity
The first place I visited while learning English in Bournemouth this summer was Stonehenge, my beloved subject from plenty of books and articles I had collected at home. One sunny Saturday I took my friend, a map and a camera, and we hitch-hiked those forty miles north. Since there are only shalow hills all around, we saw the gorgeous place already from a long distance... and one of my dreams was coming true.
Here I am to share it with you.
The most remarkable prehistoric monument and archaelogical site in Great Britain has been standing on Salisbury Plain in the county of Wiltshire for about 5,000 years. Older than the first Egyptian pyramids it has always been surrounded by a mystery coming from the fact, that no one knows exactly who and why has built it. There are many different theories and folk legends full of Celts and their magic priests, the Druids, who used to practise human sacrifice and cannibalism there. It is also a favourite topic of various science-fiction stories which say that Stonehenge was used for storage of terrestrial power, a stone-computer or as a certain sign for an extraterrestrial civilization when they are approaching to the Earth. Some of the stories are pretty silly while the other almost make you believe, as usual.
But the reality probably wasn't any less fantastic.
The scientists say that Stonehenge was a sort of prehistoric calendar and an astronomical observatory. The huge stones weighing several tonnes were placed very precise on certain places so that the constructors could observe the beams of Sun, Moon and the stars by a sophisticated system of holes, station stones and imaginary axises. Such a system allowed to follow not only simple calendar, but also very exact observations of more complicated astronomical phenomena as the equinox, extreme risings and settings of Moon and eclipses of Sun. The use of such knowledge is partly obvious - recognizing the right moments for sowing and harvest, for preparing the stocks for winter and all the other things so important for agrarian societies. We can also presume that the significance of the system was used, as known from ancient Egypt, for religious reasons - simple folks have never got to know how it works and had to believe in their Gods' influence and the priests. However, Stonehenge means more questions than answers...
Which race created Stonehenge? Why, when and where have they gone? Why there are so incredibly few remains found from them? We know that it was used as a Druid temple, but the stones of Stonehenge had been standing two thousand years by then and were probably already in ruins. Somebody else had to invent and build it. The Megalithic People, as the unknown race is called, didn't leave us almost anything except mysterious erected stones. Though not knowing how to write they had to have large abstract knowledge of prehistoric mathematics, geometry, astronomy and maybe also geodesy - it is proved that whole system wouldn't have worked in any other latitude. The scientists presume that the constructors' lore was enshrined in a series of interminable verses, which a novice might take up to twenty years to learn by heart...
And it's only the first part of the mystery. The second bunch of unanswered questions pops into your mind when you realize the huge size and unbelievable weight of used stones and their transport... The fantastic theories and myths solve the problem using extraterrestrials or Cyclopes. Or - or the Devil, as one of local legends says:
"Stonehenge was built by the Devil in a single night. He flew backwards and forwards between Ireland and Salisbury Plain carrying the stones one by one and setting them in place. As he worked, he laughed to himself: "That will make people think. They'll never know how the stones came here!" But a friar was hiding in a ditch nearby. He surprised the Devil, who threw a stone which hit the friar on the heel."
I'm not sure the friar survived it since the Heel Stone is much taller than I am, and weighing at least twenty tonnes - it marked the original approach to Stonehenge. But as the geologists discovered, the stones weren't brought from Ireland. Eighty stones of certain kind (bluestones) were brought from 240 miles (385km) distant Preseli Mountains in Wales and used as lintels; each weighing seven tonnes. In Marlborough Downs, which is about 20 miles (30km) far from Stonehenge, were mined another eighty stones of other kind (sarsens) and other weight - each was weighing about twenty-five tonnes. Thirty of them were erected and thirty lintels were put onto them in main circle which has 100ft (30m) in diameter. The heart of the monument - the five sarsen trilithons, also from Marlborough, are weighing each up to forty-five tonnes!
Professor R.J.C. Atkinson, one of the most respectable Stonehenge archaelogists, presumes that transport of one of the heaviest stones from Marlborough Downs would have needed about 600 men continuously employed over the complete route, but even then the task would have taken more than a year to complete! Professor made an interesting experiment together with his students in 1954 - they tried to transport one of the smaller, seven-tonnes stone from Preseli Mountains to Stonehenge. As probably also the contructors did, they used boats on Bristol Channel, then they moved it on sledges and rollers. It took them several months not including the time for preparing the boats... Then erecting the stones and raising the lintels - also it is possible without modern technology, using only wooden scaffolding, ropes, levers, about 200 men and very good organization. Yet the construction and exact setting of the stones had undoubtedly to take several decades of years, probably much more than an average lifetime then.
How strong had to be the incentives of such long work if we consider the common picture of neolitic man who probably hadn't many more interests than hunting animals, picking the products of nature and protecting his life. He had mainly to survive, so what could force him to bother about some silly stones? And for that age extremely large group of six hundred people - where from? And all of them working together fifty, hundred or more years? Why that immense effort? Can it be explained only by worship motives or is there something we don't see? So many ancient nations on the Earth lived successfully and survived without such things. Mr. Atkinson suggests a brave thought - that the exact alignments of the stones perhaps weren't intended by the primitive neolithic people who raised the stones, that those had only a symbolic meaning for them. Who was the inventor, then, and how was such terrible work achieved only for some symbols? Are we even able to understand the way of thinking of the people in that dark, long past history?
After the mysterious stone-civilization was gone and also the Druids ended their rituals there, nobody else has used it regularly. But it doesn't mean nobody cared about it. Though the time and erosion couldn't bring it to harm, the human stupidity is infinite and nothing can resist it, so from time to time there were attempts to destroy Stonehenge saying it's the Devil's place. Also simple-minded people living nearby were systematicaly breaking the stones to build their houses and roads since the Middle Ages. Later on, surviving even to this century, it has been a meeting place for various extraordinary religious groups practising their own rituals there, always somewhat connected with drinking alcohol. It was stopped in 1978, when English Heritage banned going into the monument because of increasing annual number of tourists (about half a million) coming to see one of the most spectacular places of interest in England.
Also I was surprised by the large crowds there, though I was told it is not a quiet place anymore... I almost got sick when I saw the full parking lot and hundreds of visitors. Though I had regretted it, I finally appreciated it had to become a restricted area - that crowds would surely destroy it in several years. Not by any kind of violence; simply by 'touching for luck' and walking around... By the way, I definitely got sick then, as I saw that the admission, which is so much more expensive than any admission of that kind at home - £2.50 or £1.90 if you show your student card. But say, wouldn't you pay everything you have for your dream?
The Rocks, as the natives familiarly call Stonehenge, is not the only prehistoric stone monument. It's only one of the most sophisticated henges i.e. circular monuments containig trilithons... we know also Woodhenge, Coneyburyhenge and a few others. Besides rare henges there are many other kinds of neolitic stone monuments as cromlechs, walls, long and round barrows, dolmens, menhirs... Since the wave of the Megalithic People rolled over Europe continuously from the east and was stopped at the ocean, most of the megaliths were built on the coast, British Isles and Ireland. But you can find megaliths also in middle and eastern Europe - those are mostly simple erected stones called menhirs. In Czechoslovakia, the tallest menhir stands at village Klobouky near Kladno in Bohemia, it is 3.5m tall and people use to call it The Stone Man or The Stone Shepherd. Almost all the other menhirs in our country are of small size from one to two metres.
Well, in fact every stone you pick up from the earth is millions years old, but especially Stonehenge as well as a few other places on this planet has got the very ambience of eternity because it was made by man, by our early ancestry. All of them show you that there still are some romantic mysteries in this world awaiting solutions - a challenge also to you, dear readers. At Stonehenge I was getting weird feelings when imagined all the human loves and tears which have been passing by for five thousand years while these magic stones patiently stood there. They stood, and the shaggy English sheep were cropping the grass around peacefuly...
- Dr. Ludvík Souček: Tušenie tieňa (Tatran, Bratislava 1984)
- Karel Svoboda: Megality doby kamenné (Horizont, Praha 1990)
- Prof. R.J.C. Atkinson: Stonehenge and Neighbouring Monuments (English Heritage, 1991)