Romancing the Stones | History | Smithsonian
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One of the most striking arrays of Neolithic monuments in Britain, the Ring of Brodgar is on the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. Dating from about 2500 B.C., the ring's stones form a perfect circle 340 feet in diameter. (The tallest of the surviving stones is 14 feet high.) A ditch surrounding the ring, dug out of bedrock, is 33 feet wide and 11 feet deep. Archaeologist Colin Renfrew, who partially excavated the site in 1973, estimates the ditch would have required 80,000 man-hours to dig. (Macduff Everton)

Romancing the Stones

Who built the great megaliths and stone circles of Great Britain, and why? Researchers continue to puzzle and marvel over these age-old questions

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Steady rain fell diagonally, driven by a raw wind out of the north, and I narrowed the hood of my parka. With neither tent nor bag, I faced an unpleasant night on southern England's Salisbury Plain. At least my vigil would not be solitary. Around me a boisterous crowd of some 7,000 was camped on the turf at Stonehenge, the enigmatic circle of towering sandstone slabs capped with heavy lintels, whose origins lie in the Neolithic age, some 5,000 years ago. "The most celebrated prehistoric monument in the world," the distinguished archaeologist Sir Colin Renfrew called Stonehenge.

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In 2000, fifteen years after the British government closed it to large groups of revelers—following desecration of the site and the death by drug overdose of a young woman in 1984—Stonehenge was reopened to groups, and a long tradition of celebrating the summer solstice resumed. Now, as I huddled in my foulweather gear, I observed an odd assortment— neo-hippies, self-styled latter-day Druids in white cloaks, Goths in black, New Agers of all persuasions, tattooed bikers, drunken "brew crew" louts of the sort that have given English football a bad name, along with suburban-looking families with young kids, and elderly couples. For hours, people played drums, zithers, horns and didgeridoos; hugged the stones, eyes shut in beatific trance; kissed each other as they stood inside the trilithons (as the assemblies of uprights and lintels are called); and danced upon the recumbent boulders. There were drugs, drink and a little nudity, but came a bleak, misty dawn and not one person had been arrested. The celebrants had even picked up their trash.

No matter how much mumbo jumbo gets projected onto Stonehenge, the intensity of the feelings of my fellow campers testifies to the enduring power the austere stone ring exerts upon human souls. Currently, a million visitors a year walk the designated path just outside the stone circle, marveling at the trilithons. Despite a century of serious archaeology, we still have only the foggiest ideas about why and how Stonehenge was built.

From Caesar's invasion of the British Isles in 54 b.c., which brought literacy to the country, until the 1130s a.d., Stonehenge went strangely unmentioned in the written record. Yet when Geoffrey of Monmouth set down his pioneering History of the Kings of Britain around 1136, he purported to know exactly how the stone circle had come into being. It first had stood "in the remotest confines of Africa," he wrote, "until a race of whimsical Giants transplanted it to MountKillaraus in Ireland." Then, in a.d. 480, the stones were moved to England.

Over the centuries since, British commentators have attributed the monument variously to Romans, Danes, Phoenicians, Druids, or the denizens of Atlantis—just about everyone but the native Brits themselves. As late as 1960, Richard Atkinson, then the leading expert on Stonehenge, argued passionately that a Mycenaean or Minoan architect must have directed native builders. And in 1966, Gerald Hawkins argued in Stonehenge Decoded that the megaliths made up a sophisticated observatory in which the stones served to record solstices and equinoxes and even to predict lunar eclipses. The book was hugely popular, but Hawkins' conclusions have been largely debunked.

Exactly how people with neither metal nor the wheel were capable of quarrying, dressing, transporting and erecting huge stones has been the subject of intense debate for centuries— though an experimental archaeology project in 1994 proved that, with a deft use of sledges, rails, ropes, ramps, pivot blocks and "tilting stones," as few as 100 people would have been needed to move and raise the 40-ton Stonehenge uprights.

For all its inscrutable majesty, it would be a mistake to view Stonehenge as one of a kind—an anomalous temple incomprehensibly erected on a treeless heath in the middle of nowhere. All over Western Europe, Neolithic (roughly 4000 to 2000 b.c.) builders constructed startlingly sophisticated monuments: not only stone circles but huge earthworks containing chambered tombs for the dead. Across Britain alone, there are some tens of thousands of ancient sites, each of which has it own unique stamp, its own idiosyncratic mysteries.

Twenty miles north of Stonehenge stands a monument every bit as enigmatic as its more famous rival, and because of its size, possibly more important. Avebury, which dates from about 2600 to 2400 b.c., does not strike the eye at first glance, as Stonehenge does. A town that first sprang up around a.d. 600 sprawls on top of it, and a paved road cuts through it.

Yet Avebury's grandeur slowly unveils itself. More than a thousand feet in diameter and composed of some hundred stones, it is the largest prehistoric stone circle in the world. Those stones that remain standing today are not dressed and squared like the pillars of Stonehenge. Instead, they reflect all the erratic, lumpy glory of nature's fashioning. Avebury's most astonishing feature, however, is a circular ditch that surrounds the stones, fully 25 feet deep and 60 feet wide. Archaeologists suspect that the principal tool used to dig the huge ditch was the red deer antler.

"[I]t does as much exceed in greatness the so reknowned Stonehenge, as a cathedral doeth a parish Church," wrote John Aubrey, the 17th-century antiquarian best known for his gossipy Brief Lives. Avebury has never been properly excavated. Its chief 20th-century investigator, an amateur archaeologist named Alexander Keiller (grown rich from the marmalade that bears the family name), "restored" it in the 1920s to the puzzling state in which it languishes today. He set a concrete plinth in the ground wherever he had reason to believe a vanished stone once stood.

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