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Inspired by Stonehenge

Stonehenge from Arts Society image gallery
Review of the Special Interest Day led by Julian Richards
on November 24th 2018

Our Special Interest Day was presented in three sessions by Julian Richards BA FSA PhD.  He has studied Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape for 40 years.  His publications include the current English Heritage guidebook “The Amazing Pop-up Stonehenge” and the recently published “Stonehenge the Story so far”.

Session 1 – What, when and how?

What makes Stonehenge special?  It is not the oldest megalithic site, as there are many stone circles older – for example at Carnac in France, and on the Orkneys, but all are constructed of rough stones.  The difference with Stonehenge is the regularity and symmetry of the construction, with flat stones atop – which equates to a supreme achievement.  The large stones were transported from about 25 miles away, but the smaller stones came from Wales – 125 miles to the west.

An aerial view shows an avenue leading to the entrance of the circle, with 4 station stones forming a perfect rectangle.  The outer circle comprised an extraordinary piece of Stone Age engineering.  The lintels had curved edges and locked together with joints and mortice holes.  The gaps in the outer circle were uniform, except between 1 and 30, to allow for the solstice alignment.  The inner circle of smaller welsh stones (the Blue stones) were natural, not worked.  80 of these were transported from the Preseli Hills of Wales – probably overland, but no one is certain.

By 2500 BC the trilithons had been installed, not all of the same height, but built using one smooth stone and one rough stone and an elegant upright.

By 1500 BC Stonehenge was an obsolete monument!

In the 1950s the stones were discovered to be decorated with daggers and axes, which probably dated from around 1800 BC.  There is a suggestion that Christopher Wren’s name is carved, but this is doubtful!

According to mediaeval history books, Stonehenge was built in Ireland by giants, and flown over by Merlin’s wizards!  “Henge” means gallows, and so the site might have been a place of execution.  Other similar theories were that it was a Danish memorial, or built by the Romans – as the natives were not capable of its construction!

An 18th century antiquarian believed it to have been a temple, and introduced the idea of the Druid priests using it – but they were first heard of during the Iron Age, centuries after Stonehenge ceased to be used.

Stonehenge was fenced in 1901, and major restoration took place after WWI, but to date only 50% of the site has been excavated.  Roman activity has been discovered during those excavations.

Session 2 - The History of Study

Stage 1 of the construction of Stonehenge was simply a ditch and bank in the shape of a circle, and subsequently the question remains as to whether there was a timber stage with scaffolding in use to erect the stones.  By 2500 BC an outer stone circle of large upright “sarsen” stones was in place; inside that a circle of smaller stones known as “bluestones” because some of them are a bluey colour.  Next come more massive sarsens in a horseshoe shape, inside which is a large upright slab of bluestone known as the “Altar Stone”.

How was it built?  Deer antlers have been excavated, which must have been used as pickaxes.  If a timber A-frame and pulleys were utilised, they have disintegrated and been lost.  It has been suggested that smaller stones could have been moved on rollers, but not the larger ones, which would have squashed the wooden rollers.  Several theories on how the stones were moved have been promulgated, but really nobody knows for certain what method was used.  It is known that stones were “sculpted” on site, by the use of sarsen mauls.  The lintels were possibly installed with the use of a timber platform, with final workings once the lintels were in place.

The “Stonehenge Archer” – a skeleton was discovered buried in a ditch, but it was later realised that he had been shot, probably by the use of flint arrowheads.  This suggests a sacrifice.  Evidence of both cremated burials and bones have been found, but they have been dated prior to the building project commencing.  However, Stonehenge is surrounded by burial mounds, and so it can be surmised that wealthy local inhabitants were buried within the environs of Stonehenge.  The remains of 7 houses have been found – clearly there was a village nearby.

Why was Stonehenge placed in this location?  The avenue leading to its entrance is based on the natural alignment with the solstice – plus a supply of natural stenson stone.  There is a theory that the Welsh stones had healing powers, but nothing has been proved.

The one positive element is the importance of the solstice – both summer and winter.  At midsummer’s day, anybody is allowed onto the site, which Julian dislikes, but he loves the midwinter solstice when the sun sets through the two uprights of the tallest of the great “doorways”.  The sun is a life-giver; the key element to Stonehenge is the midwinter solstice, in Julian’s opinion.

Session 3 – Inspired by Stonehenge: art, icon and fantasy

In the 18th Century, the notion that Stonehenge was a Druidic temple was suggested, but this was not the case, as the Druids had lived at least 1000 years after it stopped being used as a temple.

Then in the 19th Century an artistic element started to appear.  Colthorpe and Wedgwood made copies of pots discovered; William Blake invoked Stonehenge as part of Albion.  It was painted by Constable and Turner, both drawn to Stonehenge as a romantic setting, full of drama and mystery.  The earliest photographs were taken in the 1850s, when increasing numbers of tourists visited the site.  The fabrication of memorabilia started to proliferate, such as pottery, toasting forks and letter openers.

At the end of the 19th century, Stonehenge was in a ruinous state.  It was registered as an ancient monument, but the owners would not allow any restoration.  In 1901 it was fenced, and admission charges instituted.  In 1915 it was bought by Cecil Chubb, who gave it to the nation 3 years later.  The first guide book was printed.  Stonehenge continued to inspire artists – Epstein, Gill and Henry Moore were amongst those influenced.  Graffiti artists desecrated the stones, with some weird but interesting creations, easily misinterpreted.

Stonehenge is iconic, and instantly recognisable.  It is the lintels which are unique, and thus make the monument an icon, frequently used in advertising campaigns.  Vogue magazine used it as a backdrop in a 1969 cover (photographed by Norman Parkinson).  Wedgwood and Poole Pottery have used it, as have Marvel Comics and the creators of Wallace & Gromit.  Even Japanese phone cards have used its image!  Inevitably, it inspired musicians and bands such as Spinal Tap, and appeared on record sleeves.  The Stonehenge Festival was created, which proved popular until it was stamped out in the mid-1980s by the police.  100 years of State ownership have been celebrated this year.

Stonehenge was built as a temple to the sun, and may be construed as a giant solar calendar.

In conclusion, I must say that I found Julian’s lectures outstanding.  His knowledge of his subject was exemplary, his presentation relaxed, and he spoke for 3 hours without notes.  He engaged with the audience, and it was a pleasure to be part of that audience.

Philip Akroyd

Julian Richards
Our lecturer Julian Richards
who inspired us with the breadth and depth of his knowledge
and the clarity of his presentation (photo: Jonathan Cross)

Related links

Stonehenge English Heritage official site
Stonehenge Wikipedia article
ARCHAEmedia Julian Richards' personal website