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The Megaliths of Stonehenge
Stonehenge is one of the oldest and most mysterious archaeological sites in the world. Solitary in the midst of the chalk uplands of southern England, five giant trilithons—two vertical stones with a third lintel laid atop—stand at the focus of a ring of upright stones one hundred feet in diameter. The largest stones weigh over 40 tons, and visitors since Roman times have been baffled by their purpose and the secrets of their construction.
Although Stonehenge is not the only stone circle in Britain, it is one of the most impressive, and through the ages all sorts of theories have purported to explain its origins. In 1136 the medieval English chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that its megaliths (from the Greek word for "large stones") had been brought to Ireland by an army of giants from Africa. From there he believed they had been transported to England by the "wondrous engines" of the wizard Merlin. Geoffrey also wrote that the grave of Uther Pendragon, King Arthur's legendary father, lay beneath the stones. In 1650 a leading architect under King James I stated that Stonehenge had actually been a Roman temple. Another authority proclaimed that it had been built by Danish Kings when the Vikings overran England in the 9th century AD, and had been used for coronations. Undoubtedly the most popular theory, however, was first offered by the antiquarian John Aubrey in 1666. He argued that Stonehenge had been built by Celtic priests from western Europe—the Druids—during Roman times.
The truth behind Geoffrey's strange tale
Of all these theories, surprisingly it is Geoffrey's tale that contains the most truth. The first structure at Stonehenge was built around 3000 BC when ancient Britons, using deer antlers for picks, dug a simple circular ditch and earth bank. They surrounded this with a ring of fifty-six evenly-spaced wooden posts (now called "Aubrey posts") and then erected two parallel entry stones to the northeast. The great circle of megaliths appeared about a thousand years later. Precisely how such enormous stones were dragged overland to Stonehenge from the Marlborough Downs 20 miles away remains unknown, but they were likely erected by being eased into sloping pits and then pulled upright with the aid of ropes. Yet all this occurred long before Danish Kings, Romans or Druids ever appeared in England.
Sometime between 2000 and 1500 BC, however, a large number of bluestone pillars were erected in two arcs near the center of Stonehenge. The source of these unusual stones remained unknown until 1923, when an English geologist discovered their origin: the Preseli mountains in Wales, over 240 miles away. In the 1920's archaeologists also discovered that the Aubrey post holes contained cremation burials. Amazingly, Geoffrey's fanciful story—of wizards and hidden burials and stones being transported great distances—may thus be a distorted folk memory of the actual building of a part of Stonehenge.
The astronomical alignments of Stonehenge
The most controversial aspect of Stonehenge involves its astronomical alignments. It has long been known that a person standing at the center of the stone circle will see the sun rise over the so-called "Heel Stone" on the summer solstice. In the 1960's, however, some eminent astronomers argued that the lunar alignments at Stonehenge proved that it was used to predict eclipses. One astronomer even referred to Stonehenge as a "Neolithic computer." Many others have contested this remarkable conjecture, and believe that Stonehenge was simply a ceremonial center. Some of the lunar alignments involve joining together features from different periods in the monument's history, and statistical analysis has also shown that there may be fewer alignments than could be expected by chance alone.
Cold and silent, the megaliths at Stonehenge leave us few clues to resolve the issue, and we may never know with certainty what secrets lie hidden in their crumbling patterns. But the megalith builders left hundreds of other puzzles scattered across the British Isles and Northern France, such as the stone circles at Callanish and Castlerigg, the rows of menhirs at Carnac, and the Newgrange tomb in Ireland. Perhaps these hold the key that will decode Stonehenge.
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