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Saturday Review
February , 196, pp 52-54

The Beauty and Mystery of Stonehenge

Howard Fast


IT WAS a gray-silver day - which is something specifically English. It was neither raining nor sunny, but the sky was pearl and laced with sunshine one moment, sunless the next, and the rain came in short bursts like fine spray. On Salisbury Plain, the rain stopped, and a soft, cold wind blew. The plain offered an immensity that was an illusion, but an illusion never dispelled. In the distance, clouds piled up and here and there a thin black windbreak of trees or a clump of thicket - otherwise nothing. No dog or cat or man or car. It was the time of the day and the moment, yet here in the midst of the most populated area of one of the most heavily populated lands on earth was this great stretch of emptiness.
We were only a few miles from Stonehenge now, and already we had begun to feel the aura of the place - that indefinable sense that so many others had mentioned.
We parked our car. The British national monument people, who are a part of the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, have been scrupulously careful to do nothing that would lessen the impact of the circle of stones standing alone in the immensity of Salisbury Plain. The parking lot is in a fold of the ground, almost out of sight. Rest rooms are underground. You come to Stonehenge, and it still stands alone as it has stood for so long. You walk up to it - and you become a part of it. It is a very strange place indeed.
Technically speaking, Stonehenge is a cluster of dolmens - dolmen being a Cornish word that means holestone, namely any large stone upended and fixed in a hole in the ground. There are dolmens of one sort or another all over southern England and much of Western Europe. For the most part these dolmens, wherever they occur, are oblong slabs of stone, one end of which is set in a hole. Occasionally, they are finished stones; more often, they remain in their natural state and were chosen for their shape and symmetry.
All dolmens are related, perhaps through religion or magic, perhaps as the work of one people. We do not know just how, but this we do know: that Stonehenge is unlike any other group of dolmens in the world. It consists of dolmens, yet it is not another dolmen cluster; it is related to the people who created the other dolmens - yet it is different from all other dolmens, and among its many other qualities, it has become one of the most enticing mysteries on earth.
From the air, you would see it as a great circular dish about 100 yards in diameter. In the center, about 30 yards, a broken circle of giant stones; outside the stones, meadow; then an earthworks, grass grown; and then a wide ditch. There is a break in the ditch where the entrance road crosses it, and there is a big stone, fallen and called the slaughter-stone, although in all probability no slaughter was ever done upon it. Once, it was part of the entrance, the gateway to whatever Stonehenge was.
It is the inner circle of big stones that we think of when we say Stonehenge, and that is certainly the most dramatic part of the ancient ruin. This is called the Sarsen Circle, the stones that constitute it being of sarsen, a type of sandstone found on the Marlborough Downs, not very far to the north of Stonehenge. Originally, there were thirty of these great stones, standing upright to make the circle, and these were capped with thirty lintels, hardly smaller than the uprights. These thirty upright stones averaged about 25 tons each in weight, but within the ring were ten more upright stones, these also sarsen, and each of these almost twice as heavy as the 25-ton circlestones. The ten inner stones were arranged in a sort of horseshoe shape, every two uprights capped with a massive lintel.
Between this inner horseshoe-shaped arrangement and the outer circle of sarsen stones, there was originally a circle of sixty bluestones. Smaller than the sarsen stones, the bluestones were nevertheless substantial - each of them weighed between 11,000 and 14,000 pounds. Another circle of nineteen bluestones made an inner horseshoe, within the sarsen horseshoe.
Just inside the earthen bank that makes the larger circle of 100 yards, there are fifty-six pits or potholes set in a ring. They are called the Aubrey Holes after their discoverer, John Aubrey, and they are marked out in white chalk, and just what they are or were no one really knows; but they are the most fruitful source of speculation.
Such was the original construction of Stonehenge. There is enough left today to make it worth going a long way to look at. Seen from a certain angle, where four of the 25-ton standing sarsen stones still support three matched lintels, one can evoke Stonehenge as it was in the beginning, some 3,000 years ago; one can form the structure again, reconstitute it in the mind's eye, and partake of it. And that is the essence of Stonehenge - that one does not simply look at it; one partakes of it, recognizes it, and knows why it is there without knowing at all.

IT means nothing to say that Stonehenge was a temple used for religious purposes, for when it was built, there was no separation between man and his religion and his life and work. All were one. It was once thought that Stonehenge was a Druid temple, used for strange rites and human sacrifice, but the people who built Stonehenge were long dead and gone when the Druids first came upon the scene.
As to who built Stonehenge, there, too, all the authorities are less than specific. Out of any book on Stonehenge, you will find a listing of prehistoric people who inhabited that part of England, down through the centuries from 4,500 years ago listed as: "Native Hunters," "Windmill Hill People," "Tomb Builders," "The Beaker Folk," etc. This is simply a historical calendar. Those who built Stonehenge left only Stonehenge and some barrows and dolmens, no history or record or explanation.
In the world of ancient man religion was something quite different than it is today. It was not a thing for Sunday, church, holy days, or respectability; or a matter of faith or sin or forgiveness. It was something else that we have forgotten - the interrelationship of man and the universe - the beat of the universe and man's response to it. Stonehenge is a measure of this beat, an instrument, a tool, a vast clock. Not a clock of minutes and hours to mark off an indecent race with time, but a clock of days and months, of seasons and years.
This notion has been raised and abandoned many times. I cannot abandon it, because it makes sense. If Stonehenge is a clock, then obviously it is a sun clock, and as with all sun clocks, the position of its axis holds the key to it. We are not absolutely certain when Stonehenge took its present form, but in the band of years that would make a good guess, it was constructed so that its axis would point to the sunset on the evening of the summer solstice, or the longest day of the year. From this, it is commonly deduced by various writers about Stonehenge that its builders were sun worshipers; and here again is the confusion of today's religion with ancient religion. There is no real evidence that they were sun worshipers, but sun worship is a tag to which we have attached our own meaning. The sun was a part of ancient religion, but so were many other things; and in terms of Stonehenge, there are many other factors besides sun worship.
What was the purpose and meaning of the fifty-six potholes that surrounded the stonework just inside the five-foot-high mound? These could have comprised an intricate system of measuring the year. A British investigator sees them as a sort of primitive calculating machine, and another British writer on the subject insists that they are a calendar. Why the circle of bluestones inside the circle of sarsen stones? The large sarsen stones were hauled only 20 miles over the gentle slopes of Salisbury Plain, but the smaller bluestones - the eighty weighing between 11,000 and 14,000 pounds each - were brought to Stonehenge from the Prescelly Mountains in Southwestern Wales.
Here, on a high, bare peak called Carn Meini, are the great outcroppings of dolerite where the bluestones were found, and from Carn Meini to Stonehenge - by water and land as the stones must have come - is a distance of almost 200 miles. I have been over all this land and I have observed the possible routes, and the task of bringing the eighty stones from Wales to Salisbury Plain staggers the imagination. And why? Why did thousands of men labor for months and years, build sledges and rafts, cut roads to bring these heavy stones over such a difficult distance?
There are two ways of looking at ancient man. Colored by our own racial prejudices, by all the lies and nonsense we have absorbed about primitive people in our own historic time, we can look back on ancient man as a sort of superstitious savage who acted senselessly and blindly and did nothing very much that made sense in our own scientific and pseudoscientific terms. On the other hand, we can regard ancient man objectively, observe how well he organized his own society, consider the longevity of his civilizations, examine his skill as architect and engineer and artist, and come to the conclusion that he was quite a fellow - with a great deal that we have lost, not only in terms of his knowledge of the world, but in terms of his knowledge of himself and his relationship to the universe.
It was in this latter sense that Stonehenge was built, a precise engineering achievement constructed primarily out of two sizes of stone and two kinds of stone. Not only were the bluestones smaller than the sarsen stones, but they did not have to be cut to shape and size. In the outcroppings on Carn Meini, hundreds of them lie waiting, split by nature into perfect size.
But size for what? For what is that size the perfect size?
Again we return to the religious interpretation that stops all thinking about Stonehenge. Certainly Stonehenge was connected with the religious practices of the people who built it - just as a computer is connected with the social and industrial life of our own society. We need computers for our own social ends; and the people who built Stonehenge needed it for their social ends. Religion could not be separated from their social life and needs.
They needed a machine - a great unwieldy machine - but they needed it sufficiently to spend enormous collective effort to make it. There were certain specifications for this machine. It began with a circle 300 feet in diameter. They had to dig a ditch and raise a circular barrow five feet high. Then they had to lay out fifty-six marks and dig fifty-six holes. Then they had to erect a circle of great stones, shape them, and connect them with a circular roof of lintels. Within this, they required a second circle of smaller stones - some sixty of them - and now they faced a difficult choice. They were engaged in a stupendous project and they possessed only the most primitive and inefficient tools. Should they attempt to cut sarsen sandstone to the size they needed? Or should they attempt to locate another quarry of a different type of stone that would perhaps lessen their labor very considerably?
They must have covered all of southern England and Wales in their search, and they must have weighed many possibilities before they decided to transport the bluestone from Wales to Salisbury. They made the decision because it was the best and quickest way to get what they were after, but they must have desperately needed whatever they were after. They were building a machine of sorts - a calculator, a calendar, a bridge for their dreams or a new doorway into the unknown. But they were not building a senseless tribute to superstition. That is the main thing.
As to who they were, what they were, and what was their way of life - this we can only surmise. In some ways they were a very primitive people, in other ways they were not. They had a door open to the world. Otherwise they could never have built Stonehenge. Knowledge never comes to maturity in one culture; it is always the result of an interchange among peoples and cultures.
Stonehenge is a superbly planned and executed architecture. There is the essence of its difference from all other dolmens in the British Isles and in Europe, and there is the key to a solution of its mystery. Who was the architect who built it?
Anyone who has seen a picture of the Lion Gate in the ruins of Mycenae in Greece will immediately note the similarity between the handling of these huge stones and the stones at Stonehenge, and the parallel can be continued by comparison with Agamemnon's ancient city walls. Take this together with a minor but unexplained mystery of Stonehenge, a number of Mycenaen axheads and daggers etched in the side of certain of the dolmens, and a delightful area for speculation opens.
The dagger and axhead marks are almost the signature of Greek civilization at the time. It was a time when Greek many-oared ships plied the Mediterranean from end to end, the time of the Homeric tales, the fall of Troy, the battles of heroes, a time of the individual. It was also a time of image-breaking, frontier-breaking, opening doors and expanding knowledge.
In this time, a Greek architect could have come to Britain. He must have found the people of Stonehenge engaging and rewarding, for he fell into the spirit of what they needed. Was he young or old? Did he die there in Britain or did he sail away with the memory of what he had created? And what were his feelings as he took the techniques learned in the building of palaces and city walls and turned them to the engineering of the strange sun clock and computer? How did he organize the job? Where were the hundreds and even thousands of workmen found? Interesting questions that cannot ever be answered.