By Henry Bates
|Stones of Stonehenge|
STONEHENGE, ONE OF THE STRANGEST AND MOST FAMOUS OF PREHISTORIC MONUMENTS, AND THE UNSOLVED MYSTERY OF ITS DATE, MEANING, AND CONSTRUCTION.
In southern central England, on Salisbury Plain, stand a number of huge, rough-hewn stones, which have stood there since before the dawn of English history; but who set them there, why they were set there, when they were set there, is wholly unknown. Some of them must have been brought from a distance of a hundred miles or more.
They are so arranged that on midsummer day the sun rises directly above an outlying monolith known as the Friar's Heel, and its first rays pass through one of the great triliths and fall upon a central slab called the Altar Stone. Hence it is conjectured that they formed a temple built by some vanished tribe of sun worshipers, who perhaps offered human sacrifices to their deity; but conjecture is all that we have to tell us the origin and history of this, one of the most singular and striking of ruins.
This is an age of the solving of mysteries, when the past is giving up its long hidden secrets, and when the history of generations living anterior to the flood is being written. The domestic life of the cave men on the banks of the Seine or Thames, and of the lake dwellers of Switzerland, are almost as well known to us as are the modern habits of the Australian aboriginal. Egypt, Assyria, and India are as an open book, only some few pages here or there being closed, and that merely for lack of inclination or of funds to carry on the work of exploration.
But with all our wisdom we cannot read the riddle of Stonehenge. Stonehenge, like its mythical prototype, sits by the wayside and propounds to all passers the riddle of its origin—the wherefore of its existence. All we know for certain about this wonderful collection of stones is the fact that before English history commenced they stood, even as they now stand, the marvel of the plain. Myth and tradition have certainly been busy with tales of the building. Rival archaeologists have waged a friendly warfare on behalf of their own favorite hypotheses, but none can speak with a definite certainty and tell us what tribe or nation or sect placed the stones in position. Learned societies have held their judgment courts on the spot and weighed the pros and cons of the case with Pickwickian deliberation without being able to return a definite verdict against either the men of the stone, the bronze, or the iron-age.
No; there they stand, built for eternity, and we can only surmise and wonder and place together-the various traditions and myths relating to the -spot in the hope that one may give a clue to the correct interpretation of the riddle. Our photographs will give a better idea than words can describe of the relative proportions of the stones and their general appearance, but they must be seen to be properly appreciated; and like "fair Melrose,” moonlight is the best time to get their weird effect and to be impressed with their immense size.
Stonehenge looking from the Altar Stones through the
outer Trilithons to Friar’s Heel
They stand on rising ground, almost in the center of Salisbury Plain, far from any village, and, until lately, miles from human habitation. From a distance one can imagine they are the ruins of some ancient watch tower, whose watchman might have descried the march of the Roman legions under Vespasian to take up a position in their camp hard by.
But as we drive nearer, and as they stand out against the sky, we begin to perceive their peculiar shape and get an idea of their tremendous size.
Surrounding the stones at a distance of about one hundred feet is a slight bank of earth. The principal entrance to Stonehenge is on the northeast, and is marked by a bank and a ditch, the latter forming an avenue which leads straight to the temple. Directly in this entrance line, and about two hundred feet from the stones, stands an unwrought sarsen monolith known as the Friar's Heel, sixteen feet high.
On the morning of the summer solstice, June 21, the sun rises immediately over this stone and casts its first rays through two uprights of the outer circle of Stonehenge upon a horizontal stone lying nearly in the center, and known as the Altar Stone. This interesting sight has become quite an annual outing for the scientifically inclined of the neighborhood, who, on bicycles and tricycles and in conveyances of every description, repair thither in the early-morning hours to await the rising sun and, if they are fortunate enough, to see its beams fall upon the ancient stone.
|General view of Stonehenge|
Stonehenge consisted of an outer circle, of upright stones standing about four feet apart and sixteen feet high. Others were placed horizontally on their tops and touching one another, forming a continuous corona. This outer circle bears evident marks of having been wrought with tools. The uprights have each two tenons on their upper surface which fit into mortise holes cut into the under surface of the horizontal stones. At a distance of about nine feet within the outer circle were thirty single stones, each four feet high; and again within this double circle stood the most imposing feature of Stonehenge, the five great trilithons. They rose from those standing nearest the northeast entrance, sixteen feet high, to the central group, towering nearly twenty three feet in height. It has been computed that the weight of the Great Trilithon is no less than seventy tons. Within the horseshoe figure formed by these five trilithons was another series of single stones, fifteen in number, whose average height was eight feet.
Lying within this second horseshoe, if we may be allowed the term, at the foot of the Great Trilithon, is a large slab, sixteen feet long. This is the Altar Stone, and on it, tradition says, sacrifices were offered by the Druids.
It is a nice fancy to imagine the sun rising on the summer solstice immediately over the Friar's Heel and pouring its first rays on the altar stone, where a victim has just been slaughtered by the sun worshipers as an offering to their deity. Indeed, some go so far as to point out certain marks on this ancient stone and gravely to aver them to be the bloodstains of human victims.
I have described Stonehenge according to Dr. Stukeley's restoration, which is probably correct. What we see of it today bears a resemblance to the original form, and by a careful study we can trace out its configuration for ourselves. But it is only a resemblance. Many of the mighty monuments of a prehistoric age have succumbed to the ravages of time and the storms of centuries. They lie in all positions, some broken by their fall, others resting on their fallen comrades, and some, as Stukeley puts it,
Ready to fall, arrested there,
They seem impending in the air.
|The Great Trilithon|
Yet there is enough left of the stones still erect, as well as of those lying prostrate, to fill us with wonder and admiration at their colossal size and the force and skill which must have been exerted to carry them to their present site and set them up. In our day, with all our mechanical inventions, it is no joke to convey a mass the weight of Cleopatra's Needle and fix it in position. How much more difficult for the barbarians of ancient Britain, even supposing that the greatest stones were found in the immediate neighborhood, to haul them over Wiltshire hills and dales to this lonely spot on the plain, and then, after digging the holes and sinking the great uprights, to hoist up the masses of stone to form the corona; and what a labor of love to fashion them with rough tools of flint or bronze, to hollow out the mortise holes and chip off the stone to form the tenons. Ruskin tells us, in his "Seven Lamps of Architecture," of the Lamp of Sacrifice. Surely the religious idea must have prompted such a herculean task as the building of Stonehenge. No wonder that conjecture has conjured up a race of African giants, ascribed their origin to some satanic influence, or advanced the strange theory that the stones are made of a wonderful concrete, which was gradually built up to the required height.
The stones are of three different varieties, the sarsens (the large stones found in the neighborhood), syenite, and a foreign greenstone. The presence of these foreign stones, which must have been brought from a considerable distance, either Anglesea or the continent, certainly lends color to the belief, held by some archaeologists, that Stonehenge must be attributed to one of the continental tribes, who in their periodical visits to the shores of Britain brought these sacred tribal stones and erected them here as being necessary adjuncts to their worship of the sun. Of course, the argument against this supposition is that a foreign tribe would never have troubled to convey the heavy masses so far inland; that suitable positions nearer the coast, more accessible than a Wiltshire down, could readily be found; and that it is ridiculous to suppose that any tribe would undertake the prodigious task of water carriage. Supposing the English were aggressive enough to invade France or Germany, can we by any stretch of fancy imagine their workmen conveying St. Paul's Cathedral, and setting it up on the plains at Carnac, or in the Black Forest? Would it not be something of a parallel case for any foreign visitors to have brought Stonehenge to England?
Within sight of Stonehenge, and surrounding it on every side at a respectful distance, are a number of tumuli. About three hundred have been counted. Many of these ancient burying mounds have been opened, and have been found to contain in some cases skeletons and in others merely the charred remains of a funeral pyre, showing that the mode of burial varied during the time in which the tumuli, or barrows, were formed.
The articles accompanying the human remains also vary nothing but flint implements and stone utensils being found in some, while in others articles of bronze, and even of gold, have been discovered, along with pieces of stone which had evidently been chipped off in the fashioning of Stonehenge. If these tumuli are coeval with the building and use of, Stonehenge, they certainly are a strong argument in favor of Sir John Lubbock's assertion that we may place the age of Stonehenge in the later Neolithic or early bronze-age.
It would have been an interesting sight to have watched the construction of Stonehenge. First of all, to have seen those patient early astronomers marking the periods of the sun's annual journey and drawing the plan of their temple; and then to have seen hundreds of our prehistoric ancestors harnessed to a rough sledge and dragging, by means of coarse hide ropes, the ponderous masses of stone across the plain; to have seen them digging the pits to receive the great uprights, probably carrying the earth in wicker baskets to help raise the bank encircling the place; then, after the shaping of the tenons and mortise holes, to watch the gradual levering until the stones slid into the pits and remained upright. Then the building of a rude platform, and the bringing of two strong young trees to be placed slantwise against the huge pillars, to form a slide up which to drag the stones to form the corona. Labor was cheap then, and tine not precious, as it is today. But they were no jerry builders, those ancient workmen, and their work remains after the lapse of untold centuries, while towns and nations have been built, crumbled into dust, and passed away, as a monument of what patient perseverance can accomplish.
|The Friar’s Heel|
It is a ruin now, but magnificent in its fall. It is to be regretted that, in the strict sense of the word, it is not public property. Such a relic, should belong to the nation, and receive the most careful attention from responsible architects and archaeologists, to assure its proper preservation and to hand it down to become the wonder of future generations. Not that we can believe the present owner would ever be persuaded to allow the great monument to suffer injury—the Antrobus family have ever been too good guardians for that; but there always remains a possibility that one day some enterprising citizen of Chicago or Omaha may ship it off to adorn a park in his own city. As much as the Wiltshire Downs, on which Stonehenge stands, it belongs to the Old World. To what era in that world we cannot say with certainty. Pepys enters in his diary after a visit. "God only knows."
From the Junior Munsey, May 1900.