Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Stones

By Claire
August 6

Getting an early start has paid off so well on this trip we decided to do it again for our visit to Avebury and Stonehenge. Along the way we spotted one of the famous white horses carved into the chalk hillside. It was an hour’s drive from Bath and we had the place almost to ourselves—Avebury, that is—Chuck’s comments about Stonehenge are below. We ran into a herd of sheep, of course, and a guy who is writing a book about the stones. It was a gray and misty day, which just added to the mystery of this place. We were free to wander among 100 stones, ditches, mounds and curious patterns from the past, as well as the village of Avebury, which grew up in the middle of this 1,400-foot-wide Neolithic circle. It’s open 24/7 and the only charge is for parking, £5 (ours was covered by our National Trust membership).

What’s up with the bad haircut?

Avebury Henge is the largest stone circle in Europe, set within a massive bank and ditch—14 times the size of Stonehenge and 500 years older.
Just over 4,500 years ago a steep-sided ditch, 30 feet deep, was cut around an area of grassland where Avebury is now. Chalk was prised from the ground with antler picks and piled outside the ditch to form a bank 60 feet high. About 200 years later more than 170 sarsen stones were hauled into the enclosure and set upright in three circles and other settings.

The village of Avebury is inside and around the stones. It’s quite wondrous to drive along the road and come upon them! They’re just there, with life going on around them. I’m so glad we came.

Village house--we're seeing this style all over this area.

We were happy to find out that Avebury Henge is another National Trust site. We are always so impressed with how well the Trust takes care of properties and the number of things they have to offer. I had no idea the henge property included a Manor House and gardens. We were the only ones in the small museum and as we were chatting with the docent, she mentioned that there would be one guided tour of the house today at noon. She suggested that we go to the gardens as soon as they opened at 11 to get on the list since it would be limited. We had planned to spend only about an hour looking at the stones but realized that there was so much to do and see here we would put off the visit to Stonehenge until later in the day. We enjoyed the small museum housed inside 17th century stables, the vegetarian café, the archeological gallery and most of all, the guided tour of the Manor House with only 4 other people—perhaps the other people who began to show up didn’t know about it. We had cappuccinos in the café and wandered around the grounds and the gardens before our tour began.

This round 16th century dovecote once contained over 500 nesting birds. At one time the birds produced the only available supply of fresh meat in winter!

This Saxon church dates back to 1,000 A.D. Everything on this Manor property was very low key and relaxed. We were the only ones in the church, other than a woman who was dusting but interrupted herself to hand us a brochure about its history.

I liked this thatched house, with satellite dish, overlooking the cemetery.

We wandered through the gardens then met up with our tour guide who took her time explaining the history of this house which dates back to 1110 when it was a priory. The Trust bought it in 1991 but had tenants in it until recently. At the moment, it is mostly empty of furniture, which we liked—it gave us more freedom to really see the rooms. There have been changes and additions over the years but there is still a medieval section that is original. It also has several ghosts in residence which have been seen by some of the volunteers and visitors. We weren’t so lucky.

By Chuck

What is older than the Acropolis and the Coliseum, and a contemporary of the Pyramids? Stonehenge (literally, hanging stones). This is the only place in the world with standing stones that have lintels and that have been worked smooth and uniform. I am happy I went—we almost blew it off because of the tourist crowds and the fact that you cannot get up close and personal with the world's most famous standing stones. I thought Avebury would be enough; but, then Claire began to soften to the idea, and I had trouble seeing myself trying to explain how I just could not be bothered with this world class site, despite having 3 months in the British Isles and the Republic of Ireland.

Classic Stonehenge

It turns out that the cordon actually protects the viewer's experience, since you are far enough back to permit everyone a view or camera shot that is unobstructed by fellow tourists constantly darting in front of you. The free audioguide was quite helpful, too—both in terms of content and because it kept people moving around as different aspects of the site were explained. I am inspired to re-view video specials on Stonehenge. Another reason for protecting the stones from all of us is that Victorian, and earlier, tourists used to rent hammers to bang off souvenir chunks of stone. Also, some of the stones have been sandblasted to remove lichen and graffiti. I guess it is easy for us, in hindsight, to criticize; but, Good Grief, what were they thinking!?

The reality

We don't know a lot about the place. But, we do know that it was not built by or for Druids—it precedes them by many centuries. It was almost certainly a celestial calendar, which is fascinating and remarkable; but, why? For growing crops, for religious ceremonies...? It was significant to the prehistoric peoples who lived here: There are 500 burial mounds within a 3 mile radius; these probably belonged to kings or chieftains. Only about half the original site remains; but, this is misleading, since there have been several reconstructions over the millenia—from wood to stone to stone, with changes in size along the way. It is unknown how the stones were moved into place; but, it was a herculean task, since the uprights weigh between 20 and 45 tons each, with the cross-pieces weighing in at 7 tons! The tall, wide monoliths and lintels are made of sandstone blocks (sarsen stones) from 20 miles away. The shorter bluestones in the middle are from the south coast of Wales, 240 miles away.

Why didn't they use local stones? We really don't know; but consider that Stonehenge is built at the point where six ley lines intersect. These are alleged lines of magnetic power that crisscross the earth. Belief in these lines has varied across ages and cultures. In recent times, the New Age movement has picked up on them, again. “Many of England's modern highways are built on top of prehistoric paths, and many churches are built on the site of prehistoric monuments where ley lines intersect.” Supposedly, the guides can demonstrate their location with divining rods—in good weather; we could not find any out on the site in the rain. So, perhaps the stones were selected on the basis of their particular ability to better channel energy along the ley lines.

The builders used some woodworking techniques in the construction of the site: a rounded tip of the upright stones fit into a hollow gouge in the bottom of the lintels and a tongue-in-groove technique helped keep the lintels in place. You may disparage some aspects of ancient civilizations; but, you cannot simply say they were ignorant—they understood so much!

The feel of Stonehenge is far less casual than Avebury—it has over 1 million visitors a year: More than 3 times the volume at today's other site. But, if you have time, I would strongly recommend a visit to both.

As the builders say, the larger stones do not lie well without the lesser. ~ Plato


Elle said...

"STONEHENGE A Novel of 2000 BC" by Bernard Cornwell.
I know: pre-historical fiction, groan! But really, it postulates answers to the questions about the stone transport (slaves, oxen, rivers, pulleys) and the reasons for building it. Just got it out from storage under the eaves to check the pub date (1999 in GBritain). It sounded so plausible when I read it 5 yrs ago. Maybe give it a try if ur not both burnt-out on the phenomenon?

Chuck and Claire said...

Thanks for the tip! We'll give it a try.
Claire and Chuck