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Stonehenge: no more going round in circles

After decades of delay, Stonehenge’s new visitor centre finally opens to tourists today. So has it been worth the wait? Simon Calder takes a tour round this gateway to the Neolithic past

Stonehenge 2013

Stonehenge 2013


The ancients might be amused that the problem of “What shall we do with Stonehenge?” has lasted about as long as Neolithic man took to construct England’s emblem in the first place. Conflict between the preservation of this astonishing temple to the sun and the demands of tourists, motorists and the military is as old as the Wiltshire downs. But from this morning, the struggle may be over.

“Standing here now it is hard to describe the feeling of relief, excitement and elation that I feel,” says Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage.

“Here” is the new visitor centre, gateway to the nation’s most significant ancient site. Late Neolithic man bequeathed us the only lintelled prehistoric stone circle in the world – and the lintels are responsible for the allure. While Scotland has more impressive stone circles, at Callanish on Lewis and Brodgar on Orkney, the structure here resembles a series of doors that invites the onlooker to gaze in on the past. But how to make sense of it all? Interpretation for the million-plus annual visitors to Stonehenge has, up to now, been dismal.

Among the many planning outrages that were being perpetrated in the Sixties, Stonehenge escaped relatively lightly. While Euston station was being demolished and Plymouth city centre was being constructed, the 4,500-year-old circle of English “sarsen” stones and Welsh bluestone was given a 1968 upgrade of its own. The quasi-military bunker has served, for 45 years, as a visitor centre in the loosest sense of the term. Hemmed in by car and coach parks, it felt like a suburban muddle rather than a gateway to the past – more Penge than henge. Its doors closed yesterday, thank goodness, and from this morning the site will be treated with more dignity.

The elegant new visitor centre is a post-modern solution to a prehistoric problem. It is the heart of a much-delayed £27m package of improvements designed to rescue the temple complex from centuries of abuse. The director pronounces herself “hugely pleased” with the results. “It’s such a beautiful building that sits so well in the landscape,” says Loraine Knowles.

Were I called upon to sum up the design in three words, they would be “Nordic airport terminal”. Which suggests either that the needle-thin columns soaring to perforated eaves like a deconstructed Rubik’s Cube are a touch adventurous for Wiltshire, or that I have spent too long hanging around Tromso and Turku. The materials, though, are strictly local.

The platform upon which the new tourist temple sits has travelled far less distance than the stones – it is a limestone raft quarried near Salisbury. And the wooden benches in the light, spacious café look as though they may have been purloined from the branch of Wagamama in the same city. But high-spec furnishings are the least you’d expect after paying £14.90 to get in – up from £8 since yesterday.

After experiencing the breathtaking new exhibits on the south side of the terminal – sorry, visitor centre – however, you will probably judge the 86 per cent admission hike to be fair. Expertise, electronics and hard cash have combined to explain the Stonehenge saga eloquently.

Over a few centuries, archaeologists’ understanding of the “what”, “when”, “how” and “why” of Stonehenge has steadily refined – but until the 21st century the notion of “who” has been as opaque as the morning mist.

“In the past 10 years, our understanding of Stonehenge has been revolutionised,” says Simon Thurley.

Today, the visitor gets to stand amid a virtual stone circle at the start of the exhibition area, as projectors play a continuous cycle through the seasons of Stonehenge, catching the rising sun on the summer solstice and the setting sun of midwinter. Then the scale of the sacred engineering is explained: 35-ton lumps of ultra-hard sandstone – known as sarsen – were dragged south from the Marlborough Downs, while smaller slabs of bluestone were fetched from the Preseli Hills in west Wales, 150 miles away.

The building of a temple, initially for cremation ceremonies, was carried out with only the most rudimentary of tools; antlers were a favourite for earthworks.

But what did the builders of Stonehenge look like? English Heritage has commissioned a best guess. A Swedish expert in forensic reconstruction has created a handsome, bearded head from studying a skull found on the site.

The final element of the visitor centre is an area for temporary exhibitions – the first of which is an enchanting account of how Stonehenge has been interpreted over the centuries. Medieval man believed it to be a marvel brought by Merlin from Ireland. The circle was also attributed over the centuries to Romans and Druids, before finally being marked down as the work of good-natured ancient Britons.

The visitor centre is opening just in time for this Saturday’s winter solstice – and not a moment too soon for anyone, such as Dr Thurley, who agrees that the presentation of Stonehenge has been “a national disgrace”. That was the term used by the Public Account Committee 20 years ago. Since then, successive governments have come up with a range of proposals that typically involve doing to the A303 what Neolithic man did to the deceased: bury it in the downland.

The main road between London and the South-West still rumbles above ground, 200 yards south of the stone circle, but at least the A344 has closed. Previously, the short-cut from Amesbury to Warminster tore along the northern flank, but now the two-mile highway is no more. The busy junction with the A303 has been grassed over, a mere 29 years after Lord Montagu, the first chairman of English Heritage, called for its closure.

The former roadway has been put to use to provide access to the stones. Tourists are towed to the periphery aboard the sort of sightseeing shuttle normally found at the seaside.

If you book an early-morning or after-hours tour with English Heritage, you can enjoy a gratifying close-up of ancient Britain. Daytime visitors are kept at much more than arm’s length. But that distant encounter is at last properly poignant. “It allows us to reunite the stones with the grass downland,” says Dr Thurley.

The low roar from the A303 may still be too close for comfort, but no longer is the ancient stone circle trapped in the headlights of progress.

Travel essentials

Getting there

By road, the new visitor centre is a mile north of the A303 on the A360; the postcode is SP3 4DX.

The nearest station is Salisbury, on the London-Exeter and Bristol-Southampton lines. Buses run to Stonehenge.

Getting in

The site opens 9.30am-5pm daily, though over Christmas and the New Year there are some shorter hours and closures; see bit.ly/GoStone. That is also the place to make advance bookings, which English Heritage says will be mandatory from 1 February. The advance adult admission is £13.90, or £14.90 for walk-up arrivals.

Aricle by Simon Calder : http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/uk/stonehenge-no-more-going-round-in-circles-9011327.html

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Before Stonehenge – did this man lord it over Wiltshire’s sacred landscape?

Archaeologists have just completed the most detailed study ever carried out of the life story of a prehistoric Briton

What they have discovered sheds remarkable new light on the people who, some 5500 years ago, were building the great ritual monuments of what would become the sacred landscape of Stonehenge.

A leading forensic specialist has also used that prehistoric Briton’s skull to produce the most life-like, and

How 21st-century science is recreating the life story of a neolithic leader - what he looked like, where he grew up and what he ate

How 21st-century science is recreating the life story of a neolithic leader – what he looked like, where he grew up and what he ate

arguably the most accurate, reconstruction of a specific individual’s face from British prehistory.

The new research gives a rare glimpse into upper class life back in the Neolithic.

Five and a half millennia ago, he was almost certainly a very prominent and powerful individual – and he is about to be thrust into the limelight once again. For his is the prehistoric face that will welcome literally millions of visitors from around the world to English Heritage’s new Stonehenge visitor centre after it opens tomorrow, Wednesday. The organisation estimates that around 1.2 million tourists from dozens of countries will ‘meet’ him as they explore the new visitor centre over the next 12 months.

The new scientific research has revealed, to an unprecedented degree, who this ‘face of prehistory’ really was.

He was born around 5500 years ago, well to the west or north-west of the Stonehenge area, probably in Wales (but conceivably in Devon or Brittany)

Aged two, he was taken east, presumably by his parents, to an area of chalk geology – probably Wiltshire (around the area that would, 500 years later, become the site of early Stonehenge). However, aged 9, he then moved back to the west (potentially to the area where he had been born) – and then, aged 11, he moved back east once more (again, potentially to the Stonehenge area).

Aged 12, 14 and 15, he travelled back and forth between east and west for short durations and at increased frequency. Scientists, analysing successive layers of the enamel in his teeth, have been able to work all this out by analysing the isotopic values of the chemical elements strontium (which changed according to underlying geology) and oxygen which reflected the sources of his drinking water.

He grew into a taller than average man, reaching an adult height of 172 centimetres. In Neolithic Britain, the average height for adult males was 165 centimetres, while in Britain today it is 176. He probably weighed around 76 kilos (12 stone) and had fairly slender build. Throughout his life, he seems to have consumed a much less coarse diet than was normal at the time . His teeth show much lighter wear than many other examples from the Neolithic. He also had a much higher percentage of meat and dairy produce in his diet than would probably have been normal at the time.

By analysing nitrogen isotope levels in his teeth, a scientific team at the University of Southampton, led by archaeologist Dr Alistair Pike, have worked out that he obtained 80-90% of his protein from animals – probably mainly cattle, sheep and deer.

A detailed osteological examination of his skeleton, carried out by English Heritage scientist, Dr Simon Mays, has revealed that he probably led a relatively peaceful life. The only visible injuries showed that he had damaged a knee ligament and torn a back thigh muscle – both injuries, potentially sustained at the same time, that would have put him out of action for no more than a few weeks.

There is also no evidence of severe illness – and an examination of hypoplasia (tooth enamel deformation) levels suggest that at least his childhood was free of nutritional stress or severe disease. Hypoplasia provides a record of stress through a person’s childhood and early teenage years.

But he seems to have died relatively young, probably in his late 20s or 30s. At present it is not known what caused his death.

However, he was probably given an impressive funeral – and certainly buried in a ritually very important location.

Initially his body was almost certainly covered by a turf mound but some years or decades later, this mound was massively enlarged to form a very substantial mausoleum – one of the grandest known from Neolithic Britain. He was the only individual buried there during his era – although a thousand or more years later, several more people were interred in less prominent locations within the monument.

This great mausoleum – 83 metres long and several metres high – was treated with substantial respect throughout most of prehistory – and can still be seen today some one and half miles west of Stonehenge. Fifteen hundred years after his death, his tomb became the key monument in a new cemetery for the Stonehenge elites of the early Bronze Age.

All the new evidence combines to suggest that he was a very important individual – a prominent member of the early Neolithic elite.

The research into his life has yielded a number of fascinating new revelations about that period of British prehistory.

First of all, it hints at the degree to which society was stratified by this time in prehistory. Far from being an egalitarian society, as many have tended to think, the evidence points in the opposite direction. Most early Neolithic people were not given such grand mausolea . The type of monument which was constructed over his grave (known to archaeologists as a long barrow) was primarily a place of ritual, not just a place associated with burial. By having one erected over him, he was being given a very special honour.

Of the 350 such long barrows known in Britain, it is estimated that 50% had no burials in them at all, that a further 25% had just one person buried in them – and that most of the remaining quarter had between five and 15 buried in each of them.

Secondly, it shows, arguably for the first time, that high social status in the early Neolithic was already a matter of heredity. The isotopic tests on the man’s teeth show quite clearly that his privileged high meat diet was already a key feature in his life during childhood.

Thirdly, the scientific investigation suggests that at least the elite of the period was associated with a very wide geographical area. In other words, they were not simply a local elite but, at the very least, a regional one. The fact that he seems to have moved back and forth between the west of Britain (probably Wales) and the southern chalklands (probably the Stonehenge area) every few years, at least during his childhood and teenage years, suggests that his family had important roles in both areas.

Given the ritual significance of the Stonehenge area, even at this early stage, it is possible that he and his father and other ancestors before him had been hereditary tribal or even conceivably pan-tribal priests or shamans in a possibly semi-nomadic society. It is also likely that such people also played roles in the secular governance of emerging political entities at the time.

Most tantalizing of all, is the newly revealed likely link between Wales and the pre-Stonehenge ritual landscape. When the first phase of Stonehenge itself was finally built in around 3000 BC, the stones that were probably erected there were not, at that stage, the great sarsens which dominate the site today, but were probably the much smaller so-called ‘bluestones’ (some of which are still there).

Significantly, it is known from geological analysis that those bluestones originally came from south-west Wales – and were therefore almost certainly brought from there to Stonehenge by Neolithic Britons.

Indeed, as late as the 12th century AD, the Anglo-Norman chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth, wrote down an ancient legend also suggesting that the stones had come from the west (albeit, in his account, from Ireland, rather than Wales). Archaeologists will now be investigating whether the Stonehenge landscape’s link with Wales was in reality even older than that first phase of the monument.

In that sense it is spookily relevant that the mid-fourth millennium BC man chosen by English Heritage to be the ‘face of the Neolithic’ may actually have been a key part of the original cultural process which ultimately, five centuries later, led to early Stonehenge being erected.

The new visitor centre – built with steel, wood and glass in ultra-modern style – tells the story of Stonehenge and its prehistoric ritual landscape and illustrates it with 300 mainly stone and ceramic artefacts from antiquarian and archaeological excavations carried out around the great stone monument over the past two centuries
David Keys: Archaeology Correspondent

Full article in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/before-stonehenge–did-this-man-lord-it-over-wiltshires-sacred-landscape-9008683.html

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Stonehenge story to be retold in Wessex Gallery of Archaeology at Salisbury Museum

Salisbury’s exact connection to Stonehenge and the story of Bronze Age Britain will be told in spectacular style at a new gallery set to open next year

The remains of the Amesbury Archer, the Bronze Age man whose arrow-littered grave held the largest

Polished macehead made from gneiss, found with a cremation burial at Stonehenge (3,000 – 2,500 BC)

Polished macehead made from gneiss, found with a cremation burial at Stonehenge (3,000 – 2,500 BC)
© Salisbury Museum

collection of artefacts ever found in a burial from the era, will form the skeletal centre of a much-anticipated new gallery full of Stonehenge stories at Salisbury Museum.

A gneiss mace-head, found by Colonel William Hawley in 1924, and an axe and dagger which were found to match the carvings on stone 53 when they were discovered in 1953, will appear in the Wessex Gallery of Archaeology.

The £2 million space will knock through and combine the astonishing Pitt Rivers Archaeological Collection and the Early Man gallery.

Nottingham-based architects Metaphor will emphasise the theme of discovery in their design, with building beginning this week. Curators say the corridors will explain precisely why the Wiltshire town and its World Heritage Sites play a crucial part in the history of Britain, using timber flooring and glass-reinforced concrete to recreate the feel of the terrain through the centuries.

“By Christmas this year the major construction work will be complete,” revealed museum director Adrian Green, pronouncing himself “absolutely overjoyed” to be creating a “world class gallery of archaeology”.

“We are developing an integrated approach to the interpretation of Stonehenge.

“It means that the Salisbury Museum will be able to create exhibitions directly relating to new displays in the Stonehenge Visitor Centre.

“If you like, we will all be part of the same extended conversation.

“Metaphor have a very impressive CV. Their recent work includes the Holburne Museum in Bath and the Ashmolean, Oxford, in addition to smaller projects such as the refurbishment of the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell.”

Despite being Grade I-listed and facing Salisbury Cathedral, Green says the museum’s finds from Northern Europe have long been a “best-kept secret”, and expects the museum to “step out of the shadows” when the gallery opens next summer. Antler picks, animal bones, flint and stone tools, chalk plaques and pottery all feature.

The museum has already lent around 250 objects to the visitor centre at Stonehenge.
Full story: : http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/archaeology/megaliths-and-prehistoric-archaeology/art460402#.UqVl6oUD_Ug.twitter

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The Battle for Stonehenge: the aerodrome, the monument and the landscape

The desire to provide Stonehenge with a more appropriate setting lies at the heart of current developments around the monument, of which the new visitor centre and the closure of the A344 are the most visible. However, this desire is far from new, and first came to the fore in the wake of the First World War. stonehenge-airFrom 1917 to to 1921, Stonehenge had a military aerodrome – the No. 1 School of Aerial Navigation and Bomb Dropping – as a near-neighbour. After 1918, the aerodrome became a focus for debate about just what constituted acceptable and unacceptable modern intrusions into the Stonehenge landscape, ironically at a time when Stonehenge itself was undergoing considerable transformation involving concrete and heavy machinery.

As well as looking at the brief history of the aerodrome itself, this talk will also look back at the Stonehenge landscape prior to 1917 – was it really a timeless landscape of rolling downland pasture, occupied mainly by sheep, shepherds, antiquarians and the occasional landscape painter? And what happened to the aerodrome and its buildings? And did the Royal Flying Corps really ask for the stones to be removed because they were a hazard to low-flying aircraft?

A talk by Martyn Barber, English Heritage. This lecture is in the Salisbury Museum Archaeology Lectures (SMAL) series.  SMAL lectures are held on the second Tuesday of the month at 7.30pm from September to April.

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 – 19:30
Salisbury Museum: http://www.salisburymuseum.org.uk/whats-on/lectures/battle-stonehenge-aerodrome-monument-and-landscape

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The Interesting New Theory Behind Stonehenge

The question as to how Stonehenge’s bluestones travelled about 200 miles from Wales, where they’re thought to have originated, to Wiltshire, England, is only one part of the historic rock site’s mystery. Why these stones hundreds of miles away were chosen for the rock structure is another.

 DSCF0313A new study suggests the stones could have been chosen for their acoustic properties.

“What might Stone Age eyes and ears have perceived in this landscape, and what aspects made it become important to the builders of Stonehenge?”

That’s the question researchers at the Royal College of Art in London have been working toward answering, according to a recent study, part of the Landscape & Perception project, published in the the Journal of Time & Mind.

Researching the rock outcrops in areas where some Stonehenge rocks are thought to have originated, the team found a higher percentage of “sonic rocks,” also known as “lithophones” that produce metallic sounds when hit with a hammerstone. They can sound like a bell, gong or tin drum, according the RCA.

In July, the researchers also tested the rocks at Stonehenge. The RCA’s article about the study stated that the team didn’t expect too much of this test because lithophones require space for the sound waves to vibrate. The researchers also felt the stones being anchored to the ground would dampen any acoustic properties they might have.

The researchers were therefore surprised when they found the rocks still produced sound and had sufficient space to vibrate.

Here’s more about the findings from the Royal College of Art:

Magical stones. So were the bluestones, coming from a mysterious soundscape, invested with special magic, special sanctity, in the eyes of the megalith builders? The L&P project investigators believe so, and that this may have been the prime reason behind the otherwise inexplicable transport of these stones nearly 200 miles from Preseli to Salisbury Plain. There were plentiful local rocks from which Stonehenge could have been built, yet the bluestones were clearly considered special.

The old stones speak. Today, ringing rocks, lithophones, are considered as mere curiosities, but it’s a mistake to project our modern prejudices on to prehistory: we know from cross-cultural studies that in much of the ancient world, echoes from rocks, cliffs or inside caves, or rocks that made musical or unusual sounds when struck, were thought to contain spirits or magical forces. In particular, ringing rocks, ‘lithophones’, were held in high regard. The architects of Stonehenge may well have held similar beliefs.

Watch the video here: http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/12/02/stonehenge-may-have-been-built-for-ritualistic-concerts-study/ (article source)

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Major source of Stonehenge spotted dolerites located

Researchers have uncovered in west Wales, another major source of one of the bluestone types found at Stonehenge.

Experts have argued that the large sarsen stones at Stonehenge are local to the Salisbury Plain area. However, the origin of the smaller bluestones has been the topic of research for many years, although there has been little refinement of the research conducted by geologist Herbert Henry Thomas in 1923 about their original sources.

The new paper by Dr Richard Bevins (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales), Dr Rob Ixer (Institute of Archaeology, UCL) and Professor Nick Pearce (Aberystwyth University), will soon be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Carn Meini bluestone.  Image: Ceridwen (Wikimedia, used under a <a href='http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/'>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>)  <img width="88" height="31" alt="" src="http://i.creativecommons.org/l/by-sa/3.0/88x31.png">

Carn Meini bluestone. Image: Ceridwen (Wikimedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0)

Spotted dolerite location

In 2011, Bevins and Ixer confirmed for the first time the exact location of some of the bluestones known as rhyolites (a type of silica-rich igneous rock). Their research identified the source of the stone to the prominent outcrop of Craig Rhos y Felin near Crymych, Pembrokeshire. Now – along with Pearce – they are confident of the location of another major type of bluestone – the spotted dolerite (a type of relatively silica-poor igneous rock containing distinctive alteration spots).

H.H. Thomas from the Geological Survey published a paper in The Antiquaries Journal in which he claimed to have sourced the spotted dolerite component of the Bluestones to hilltop rock outcrops, exposed in the high Preseli, to the west of Crymych in west Wales. Specifically, he thought that the tors on Carn Meini and Cerrig Marchogion were the likely source outcrops. He went on to speculate about how humans had transported the stones to the Salisbury Plain, favouring transport across land rather than a combined land and sea journey. As a result of Thomas’s views recent archaeological excavations have concentrated on finding Stonehenge-related quarries at Carn Meini.

The current findings conclude that the majority of the spotted dolerites analysed actually come from Carn Goedog which is about 1.5km away from Thomas’s originally proposed site of Carn Meini. Image: National Museum Cardiff

The current findings conclude that the majority of the spotted dolerites analysed actually come from Carn Goedog which is about 1.5km away from Thomas’s originally proposed site of Carn Meini. Image: National Museum Cardiff

Carn Goedog

Using geochemical techniques, Bevins, Ixer and Pearce have compared samples of rock and debris from Stonehenge with Thomas’s findings and also geochemical data published in the early 1990’s by Richard Thorpe and his team from the Open University. The current findings conclude that the majority of the spotted dolerites analysed actually come from Carn Goedog which is about 1.5km away from Thomas’s originally proposed site of Carn Meini.

Dr Richard Bevins (Amgueddfa Cymru) who has been studying the geology of Pembrokeshire for over 30 years said:

When the first part of our research was announced in 2011, we communicated our commitment to continue to work in the area and we have added to that initial work with papers in 2012 and 2013. I am very pleased that we have continued to revisit the area and be able to further study the standing stones and debris from Stonehenge!

“The geology of Pembrokeshire is unique, which is why I have spent so much time in the area. The area has much to offer in helping us understand what happens when magma is erupted from underwater volcanoes, and how those igneous rocks are transformed by the effects of increased temperatures and pressures during later mountain building events. Equally interesting of course is the fact that these igneous rocks have been used in the construction of Stonehenge and only once we know their correct geographical origins can we fully interpret the archaeological significance.

“I hope that our recent scientific findings will influence the continually debated question of how the bluestones were transported to Salisbury Plain.”

Continue the research

Dr Rob Ixer who studied his first Stonehenge bluestone twenty-five years ago said:

As this and earlier papers show, almost everything we believed ten years ago about the bluestones have been shown to be partially or completely incorrect. We are still in the stages of redress and shall continue to research the bluestones for answers. This paper is a very important component  of this search and must re-direct us (and others) to relook at the standing stones, their debris and possible quarry sites so that we can correctly determine their origins.”

Source: National Museum Cardiff

Cite this article

National Museum Cardiff. Major source of Stonehenge spotted dolerites located. Past Horizons. November 20, 2013, from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/11/2013/major-source-stonehenge-spotted-dolerites-located

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Avebury to Stonehenge. Walking Through History with Tony Robinson.

Join us on a guided tour from Salisbury and explore the Stonehenge and Avebury landscape with an expert guide. http://www.StonehengeTravel.co.uk

Stonehenge Stone Circle News and Information

Tony Robinson embarks on spectacular walks through some of Britain’s most historic landscapes in search of the richest stories from our past

Tony heads off for a 45-mile walk across Wiltshire to tell the story of life and death in the last centuries of the Stone Age. His route over chalk downlands and Salisbury plain takes him through the greatest concentration of prehistoric sites in Europe.

Tony Robinson at StonehengeFrom Avebury to Stonehenge and from spirituality to engineering, this is a journey through our ancestors’ remarkable development in the latter days of the Neolithic Age.

Windmill Hill near Avebury is the start of his route; with earthworks dating to 4500BC, it’s one of the most ancient sites in Wiltshire. From here, Tony moves on through 2000 years of the ‘New Stone Age’, encountering increasingly complex burial sites and processional routes that have helped make this area both captivating and intriguing.

As he…

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Stonehenge Myths and Mysteries – Some New Theories

Latest Research and Theories About the World’s Most Famous Standing Stones.

Stonehenge. It stands on Salisbury Plain, massive, isolated and mysterious. People have been trying to fathom the meaning and history of the UK’s – and probably the world’s – most impressive and important standing stones for at least 800 years.

Stonehenge close up.

According to English Heritage, which manages the site about 90 miles southwest of London, early references have been found in the mid 12th century writings of  Henry of Huntingdon, a Lincoln clergyman who wrote a history of England. Calling the site Stanenges, he wrote of stones of “wonderful size…erected after the manner of doorways, so that doorway appears to have been raised upon doorway; and no one can conceive how such great stones have been so raised aloft, or why they were built there.”

His questions – how was Stonehenge built, why was its location chosen and by whom – have puzzled generations of writers, researchers and visitors. Now, in the first decades of the 21st century, archaeologists are beginning to come up with some new answers – as well as a lot of new questions.

How Was Stonehenge Built and By Whom?

One of the great mysteries of Stonehenge is its actual creation. Some of its heaviest stones, the blue stones that make up the lintels, come from hundreds of miles away in the Preseli Hills of Wales. How were they transported by a society that did not use the wheel? And calling the monument  “the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world,” English Heritage points out that while other Neolithic stone monuments were essentially piles of natural stones and boulders, Stonehenge is made of dressed stones, fitted together with precise mortise and tenon joints. When all the lintel stones of the outer circle were in place, they formed a perfectly horizontal, interlocking circle, even though the monument stands on sloping ground.

Early writers have theorized the monument was built by Romans – Inigo Jones thought no earlier people had enough engineering skill. In about 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his history of Britain placed it in the heart of Arthurian legends and suggested that Merlin had a hand in building it. There are stories of Merlin flying the bluestones from Wales and levitating them to the top of the monument. And of course, there are plenty of stories of alien involvement.

Current theories are equally impressive though more down to earth. For ten years, in the Stonehenge Riverside Project, teams of archaeologists from the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Southampton and Bournemouth, along with University College London, have been studying the monument and the surrounding landscape. They suggest that it was built as a unification project between farming tribes of East and West Britons who, between 3,000 BC and 2,500 BC, shared a common culture.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, author of Stonehenge: A New Understanding,  explains, “there was a growing island-wide culture – the same styles of houses, pottery and other material forms were used from Orkney to the south coast…Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labour of thousands… Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification.” (Buy Prof. Pearson’s Book Direct).

In fact, a settlement being excavated about two miles northeast of the monument, Durrington Walls, indicates as many as 1,000 houses and 4,000 people from all over Britain took part in the building of Stonehenge. And this was at a time when the estimated population of the entire country was about 10,000. The village of builders was probably the largest Neolithic village in Europe.

So the manpower to undertake so much plain hard work was there. The stones were moved from Wales, via sledges and by boat, not by dark arts or secret sciences. Though the level of organization required at such an early period, is rather amazing.

Of course, that’s just the latest theory about the origin of the stones. Another idea is that the Preseli bluestones were carried to the Salisbury landscape by Ice Age glaciers and were found naturally littering the plain when Stonehenge’s builders walked the earth.

How Old is Stonehenge?

The common wisdom has been that the monument is about 5,000 years old and was built in several stages over a period of 500 years. In fact, much of the main building of Stonehenge, visible today, was probably built within that time frame.

But the use of the Stonehenge site for important, and probably ritual purposes goes back much further – perhaps as long ago as 8,000 to 10,000 years. Excavations around the monument’s parking area in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s found pits that held wooden posts planted between 8500BC and 7000BC.

It’s not clear whether these are directly related to Stonehenge but what is becoming more evident is that the landscape of Salisbury Plain was important to early Britons for many thousands of years.

Why Salisbury Plain?

Nice big landing place for spaceships perhaps? Not very likely. What is more probable is that the landscape chose itself. Ancient Britain was covered by forests. A large open space, thousand of acres of chalk grassland, would have been rare and special. I can tell you myself, that even today, driving across Salisbury plain at in the dark, its mysterious earthworks looming blank against a starry sky, can be a transcendant, almost supernatural experience.

Then, there is the matter of the lines. No not ley lines. Aerial photography, excavations and geophysical surveys have revealed grooves – known as periglacial stripes – that run parallel to the Avenue at the Stonehenge site and coincidentally line up with the axis of the solstice. It is possible that the farming people who settled the area and who closely observed seasonal signs noticed the alignment of these natural geological features and chose the site and position of Stonehenge because of them.

That certainly was the conclusion reached by Prof. Pearson’s group. He said, “When we stumbled across this extraordinary natural arrangement of the sun’s path being marked in the land, we realized that prehistoric people selected this place to build Stonehenge because of its pre-ordained significance…Perhaps they saw this place as the centre of the world”.

Was the Summer Solstice Important to Ancient People?

Every year, Wiccans, Neo Pagans, New Agers and curious tourists flock to Stonehenge for the summer solstice. It is the only time that visitors are allowed to camp out around the site and spend all night waiting for dawn.

But findings at Durrington Walls suggest that midwinter, not midsummer was the most important and the time for rituals and feasting. Scientists have been able to date pigs teeth found at the site and say that they were slaughtered and consumed in winter, not summer. Most of the other monuments in the Stonehenge area are aligned to midwinter sunrise and sunset. That theory makes even more sense when you consider the fire festivals and observances of midwinter all over Northern Europe.

What Was Stonehenge Used For?

Take your pick: Druid worship, burials, harvest festivals, animal sacrifices, solstice celebrations, communal rituals, a healing center, a farming calendar, a defensive earthwork, a signal to the gods, an alien landing strip.  There are dozens of theories about what Stonehenge was used for. And over the years, archaeological excavations have found evidence of most of theses activities (except aliens – so far). The discovery of at least 150 burials in the area is a relatively recent finding, for example.

The fact is, the ritual landscape that Stonehenge is a part of was in use by different human societies for thousands of years. It’s likely that it, and the other monuments in the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites UNESCO World Heritage site, had a variety of different uses over the millennia. We may never fully understand this mysterious place, but archaeologists and historians are getting closer all the time. Article by By : http://gouk.about.com

Visit Salisbury, Stonehenge and its landscape with a local expert guide and hear all the latest theories about this mysterious monument.

The Stonehenge Travel Company, Salisbury.
www.StonehengTravel.co.uk

Wiltshire Museum Models: Replicas for Learning (and for Tourists!)

Clonehenge

One of the things that have become apparent in the last ALMOST FIVE YEARS that we have been posting on the Clonehenge blog is that there are many different categories of Stonehenge replicas—many reasons for making them, many sizes, many materials, many styles, many places where they are made and where they end up. Generally, each replica falls into several categories, for example: small, carrot, before-it-was-ruined, just-for-fun; large, metal, partial, sculpture/art, or full-sized, edible, citrus, trilithon, parade float (with druid).

There are several kinds of museums that may have Stonehenge replicas (large or small), as we have shown in posts over the years. A clock museum may depict Stonehenge as an early time piece. Astronomical museums often have replicas as examples of how even our distant ancestors were fascinated by the movement of the sun, stars. and planets. Archaeological and historical museums, of course, depict and talk about…

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Wiltshire Winter Wonderland – things to do around Christmas

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