You can’t live in England without a trip to Stonehenge… at least as a visitor; half the indigenous that I work with have never seen Stonehenge! It’s a place kinda like Pisa, Italy: you go to see the big attraction (the leaning tower) and that’s about it. So to Stonehenge we went.
The site has been around for about 10,000 years. 10,000 years! The site mind you, not the stones… the stones are only a paltry 5,000 years old. I honestly think this is the oldest manmade thing I’ve ever laid my eyes on. 5,000 years ago as the stones were pulled along from a quarry 25 miles away, the human population was 15 million (to put this in perspective, this is the double the amount of people that live in New York City today… spread throughout the world, not NYC). So in this area of ‘Stonehenge’, the population probably numbered a few thousand at best spread out amongst a bunch of little villages. That’s the number of people that live in the current town of Olney, Texas. Unless you live there, you’ve never heard of it… and there’s a reason why: it’s only 3,000 people strong! This is a town where everyone knows everybody. It just blows me away that the New York Cities of 2500 BC were only a few thousand strong… no wonder why families and genealogy was such a big deal back then! Here’s a representation of their 2500 BC NYC flats:
So this small village of people got together and decided to build a cathedral of stones on the Salisbury plains. They pulled the large stones from Marlborough, about 25 miles away, and the smaller stones from Wales, about 100+ miles away. Then they set up some sort of system to upright them and lift the top stones in place. What’s cool, from a woodworker’s perspective, is that these cavemen used the mortise and tenon to attach the ‘roof’ to the ‘door frames’. It got the name Stonehenge because in Medieval-speak, I guess “hang” (like by a rope) was spoken as “henge,” because of how the structure looked like a hanging gallows (or scaffold). By the way, the monument really is larger than life.
At this point in World time, Egypt had just decided to start building the pyramids. The Parthenon of Athens was still another 2000 years out.
Throughout the ages, the ‘Henge has been well known. During Medieval times, the peasants and nobility alike truly believed in some guy’s story of Merlin (that wizard guy that looked after King Arthur) putting Stonehenge there. Around the 1700’s I think people started to wise up a little and call “bullshit,” but it wasn’t until pretty recently (like mid-1900’s) that people realized it was built by cavemen that actually lived on the island (rather than the Romans or some other continent-dwelling group). What amazes me is apparently the structure was in pretty bad ruin by the time the 1900’s rolled around. Stones had fallen over, others were teetering precariously and about to fall over. So what you see today is not how the site was, say, 100 years ago. Since then, archaeologists and philanthropists have been restoring the site back to how they believe it looked originally: righting the fallen stones, straightening the crooked ones, and concreting the ground underneath them to permanently set them in place!
Even with modern research and theories, no one really knows what the hell Stonehenge was used for, though the popular theory favors religious/astrologious (yeah, I know I made that one up) celebration. And thanks to Kelly and Jim, as I walked around taking in the antiquity of the site, I couldn’t get this damn song out of my head:
When you’ve seen enough, there’s always Salisbury 8 miles down the road. Pam and I were interested in checking out this town because of a mini-series we really enjoyed watching on Starz: Pillars of the Earth. It’s a fictional, but semi-historically accurate (at least much more so than Braveheart) story about a stonemason that builds a cathedral in the made-up town of Kingsbridge during the 1100’s. Of course, the mini-series is based off a book called Pillars of the Earth, which is a good read if you like the medieval time period. Anyway, the cathedral the guy builds is based off the Salisbury cathedral (below).
I took that picture from a hill that’s about 2 miles away and overlooks the entire town.
An aside: this hill that I stood on for the picture, Old Sarum, was an Iron Age stronghold that the Roman’s took over and later, when William the Conqueror conquered, became a major strategic location for him and his armies. He built a stone castle with a moat as well as a cathedral. The only problem? Water was almost inaccessible from the hilltop. So 200 years later, the dukes and lords that be decided to move the population somewhere water was more prevalent (like by a river or something). The myth has it that they ordered their best longbowman to loose an arrow toward the river and wherever it landed would be the new location for the new cathedral and town. So there you go… though Marissa and I, after many attempts to validate the myth, found it highly unlikely a longbow can shoot an arrow 2 miles away.
Other than it’s reference in Pillars of the Earth, the “new” cathedral (by the river this time) has a lot of other feats of accomplishment:
- It has the highest spire in all of England (which is sort of what Pillars was all about); this is pretty significant seeing that it was completed in 1258 and only took 38 years to build!
- It has the oldest working clock built in 1358. It doesn’t have a face and uses bells to tell the time, but to watch the naked metal gearing in action is cool… for at least a minute or two until you lose interest and move on.
- It has on display the best-preserved copy of the original Magna Carta, only four of which are left in existence. To us ignorant Americans, the Magna Carta was a “Constitution” that the lords and barons forced King John (you know, the evil guy in Robin Hood that teams up with that nasty Sheriff of Nottingham) to sign. It’s “Amendments” include the right for due process for nobility (King John just can’t throw these rich guys in jail without a hearing), the guarantee of freedom for the English church, and my favorite: established the pint and quart as a standard of measure for one unit of beer or wine, respectively, to prevent merchants from ripping off people with their interpretations of what a pint was (see clause 35). Just ingenious!
So to anyone out there looking to explore Stonehenge: there’s more to do and see in the area (that can even fill up an entire weekend) rather than wasting a round-trip taxi ride for an hour or two at the monument and heading back to London.