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Interpretations - Mystical Places - Stonhenge

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Stonehenge

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Stonehenge and its landscape illuminated by the sun behind the clouds.

More than 4,000 years ago, the people of the Neolithic period decided to build a massive monument using earth, timber and eventually, stones, placing it high on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England -- about 137 kilometres southwest of London. Why anyone ever decided to build Stonehenge remains a mystery, with theories ranging from religion to astronomy. Some of what was Stonehenge still stands today, as mysterious and sacred as it must have been to the hundreds of people who helped build the site.

The stones of the main monument appear to form layers of circles and horseshoe patterns that slowly enclose the site. First there is an outer stone circle, now mostly in ruin. Within this are a smaller set of stones, also set in a circle. Within the centre of the monument are trilithons -- two pillar stones with one stone on top -- in the shape of a horseshoe. Within this is another smaller set of stones, also in a horseshoe.

But it is a monument made of more than just rocks. There is the henge, or a ditch and bank, that surrounds the stone circle. There is also a laneway that extends from the northeast side of the monument from the open horseshoe to the River Avon, a few kilometres away. Several stones mark this laneway, just outside the henge of the monument.

It doesn't sound all that different from many of the other stone circles being constructed around this time. So, why does this megalithic monument draw so much attention? Christopher Witcombe, a professor of art history at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and an authority on Stonehenge, believes that much of Stonehenge's intrigue can be explained in terms of the advanced architecture shown in the erection of the site.

"The world seems to have gone through a kind of megalithic period where they were moving large stones around and putting them into various positions in the landscape," says Witcombe. "Stonehenge, compared to those, is a fairly sophisticated piece of architecture." The outside set of stone pillars, complete with linking top stones, called lintels, form a complete circle.

How the builders would have known how to shape the lintels in such a way so that they remain flat but still form a gentle circle would be considered architecturally advanced for the time period. In addition to this, these top stones were attached to the pillars in a technique still being used by carpenters today -- by mortice-and-tenon joints. The top of the upright stone would have been shaped to have a protruding section that fit into a carved out slot in the lintel.

Jutting out from the green landscape of the English countryside, the circles of stones and outlying monuments emit a power that must have been ingrained in the site itself. But it is a magnetism that can't be explained by architecture alone. Much of Stonehenge's intrigue stems from the fact that the stones are so shrouded in mystery, a characteristic that is magnified by its age. "The very fact that [the stones] have survived must mean they are special in some way -- and we afford them that sort of quality," says Witcombe.

Stonehenge was constructed in three phases, over a 2,000 year period between 3000 BCE and 1400 BCE. Erosion, time and human invasion has worn it down, leaving many of the stones in stumps similar to a set of baby teeth.

Although the site may not be as majestic as it once was, it still conveys a sense of power that seems to enclose people in its mystery, allowing no one to escape from the riddle of its purpose. Today, there is enough left of Stonehenge to speculate on its purpose, but not enough to say for sure why or how it was constructed. Astronomers, archaeologists and historians continue to debate theories on its construction and purpose, but the only thing that can be said for certain is a description of what still exists today.

On the outside of the main monument is a circle of 17 sarsen stones, or sandstones, left from a set of about 30. These rocks stand four metres high and weigh about 25 tonnes each. Some of them still retain their lintels, which would have been secured in a type of tongue-and-groove slot.

Within this is a larger sarsen stone horseshoe in the middle of the monument. There are remnants of what would have been five sets of two stones with a lintel on top -- called a trilithon after the Greek word for three stones. The tallest of these upright sarsen stones is about 7 metres tall with lintel, acting as a reminder that the word sarsen comes from "saracen", meaning heathenish, foreign and vaguely satanic.

Some of the most interesting theories still being generated about Stonehenge have to do with the bluestones, the small rocks set in a circle between the sarsen stone circle and sarsen stone horseshoe. Originally, there may have been as many as 60, but only a few stand today, two of which are believed to be lintels. A bluestone horseshoe can also be found within the large sarsen stone horseshoe, which would have originally been made up of 19 stones. Again, few of these are left. The stones were placed in such a way that they increased in size towards the centre and alternated in shape between tall, thin pillar-like stones and stones of a tapering obelisk shape.

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These bluestones, now severely weathered and covered in lichen, may not appear blue. But if freshly broken, most would have a slaty-blue colour. There are five colour variations represented in the bluestones found at Stonehenge. Some contain crystals that have given them a different shade when broken, such as the spotted dolerite, named for its pink crystals, which emits a pinkish hue. Within the bluestone horseshoe is the Altar stone -- a blue-grey stone from the shores of Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire. It may have once stood upright but now lays underneath one of the great sarsen trilithons, and is about five metres long.

Many other stones, of more historical and astronomical importance, also mark the site. One of the most intriguing is the "Heel stone." It stands along a laneway, known as the Avenue, that extends from the open horseshoe, on the northeast corner of the monument and down toward the River Avon, two kilometres away.

Along the Avenue, closer to the stone circles, is the "Slaughter Stone" that may have once been part of a pair of stones, forming a gate to the main monument. Shaped around the stone circles are two pillar stones, known as the "Station Stones." Originally there would have been four, placed in the shape of a rectangle.

A bank-and-ditch, or the henge of the monument, circles the main monument at about 91 metres in diameter. On the inside boundary of the henge are 56 pits, known as "Aubrey Holes" that can barely be seen. Closer to the stone circles are two other sets of pits, called "Z" and "Y" holes. These were the last additions to the monument and may have been carved out to accommodate more bluestones, but now lay empty.

All of the stones were brought far distances to Salisbury Plain, using only muscle and primitive tools, like ropes and wooden levers. The sarsen stones are believed to have been brought from Marlborough Downs, 30 kilometres to the north of Stonehenge, which is a feat incomparable by today's standards. But even more intriguing than this is the mystery of the bluestones. They are believed to have come from the Preseli Mountains in southwest Wales, nearly 385 kilometres away. How these stones, each weighing four tonnes, arrived at Stonehenge is still debated. But regardless of how they came to the site, it appears to have required much effort in a time before the invention of the wheel.

"Clearly, a lot of trouble was taken by the builders to put those things up -- and some of the stones were brought from a long way away," says Witcombe. "Which also, incidently, signifies how important that spot on Salisbury Plain must be if they went to all that trouble to get those stones to that particular place."

"It's not the stones that make it sacred. It's the spot that's already sacred, or holy, and then the stones are built," says Witcombe.

And construction couldn't have been much easier than hauling those stones all that way.

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