Henges and Stones

I finally found out what a henge is.  It’s not the towering dominos of stone.  It’s a ditch dug in a circle, with the dirt mounded up outside the circle.  The henge is the earthwork, a bit like a moat, except it doesn’t keep anyone out, and after four thousand years the sides are no longer steep.  The day before yesterday, we visited two henges, one very shallow and the other quite a bit deeper.   The first was Stonehenge, reached on foot or by shuttle bus from a wonderful Visitors’ Centre about a mile away.  You don’t see the stones until the very last minute, when you come to the top of a rise in the road.

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As you get closer, you can make out the tall outer circle of stones, originally all united by a horizontal series of lintels.  There is an even taller Inner Five, arranged to mark the solstices, and a small ring of simple posts that look something like gravestones.

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In the painting below, people about 4500 years ago, in the Neolithic (New Stone Age) are pictured paying respects to a woman who has died.  Her body lies in the center of a henge they have dug.  The soil around Stonehenge is very thin, with a deep layer of chalk below, so the white of the dug-up chalk contrasts vividly with the green grass.  After she is buried, a “barrow,” or burial mound will be left to mark her grave.  Other barrows are seen in the background, including a somewhat new one still chalky in color and big enough for many graves.

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The people took care with their dead, and many were buried with jewelry or tools, likely as signs they were moving to some kind of life after death.  About Neolithic religion in ancient England nothing is really known.

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It was a brilliantly sunny day, and cars on the nearby road were backed up for what looked like a mile to see the famous stones.  The henge, however, is invisible unless you get nearby, or from the air.  Below is another painting showing people using antler horns to dig, and wooden ladders and woven baskets to bring the chalky soil up from the pit to the mound.

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Their henge is only waist-deep.  Archaeologists have discovered many remains of their huts and hearths preserved in the chalky soil, and guided the reconstruction of what their dwellings might have looked like.  Here is a model of their wall-construction technique, with flexible willow poles and sticky chalk plaster.

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If you keep at it, you can make a nice thick wall and add a thatched roof:

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If this reminds you of Kenya, it’s because they use a very similar technique.   For the stones of Stonehenge, the engineers of 2500 BC took thick rope and logs and rolled the giant stones from ten or more miles away.  Then they dug six-foot holes and tipped the stones into place.  The modern building behind the replica below is the three year-old Stonehenge Visitor Center, with contrastingly thin verticals and horizontals and a roof that undulates like the Salisbury Plain landscape itself.  Really cool!

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That same day, we drove about an hour north to the village of Avebury, which is built across a much bigger and deeper henge, though the stones there are un-hewn and smaller.  The gently-sloping ditch was once thirty feet deep, and the stones can be seen along the inside of the curve, center left, with people walking around them.  At Stonehenge, the public is kept thirty or more feet away.  (Fear of vandalism and graffiti.  Sigh.)

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Our guide was a retired flight engineer for an airline, named Keith.  He lives nearby and volunteers for the National Trust as a tour guide.

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His aerial view shows the circular henge (400 yards across) and the location of the 98 stones in the outer circle.  There are also several inner circles including the smallest one below.  If you can’t see that it’s a circle, you aren’t alone.  It was originally just three huge uprights, but in the 1790’s a farmer broke one up so he could build his barn with the stone.  The two remaining stones and the barn with the remains of the third are shown below:

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The stones were almost all knocked down and buried in the 1300’s, when the church was fierce in purging paganism, but these and a few others seem to have been untouched.  In the 1800’s, amateur archaeologists began poking around; and the eccentric marmalade heir Alexander Keiller oversaw the digging up of many stones in the 1930’s.  He had twenty or more put back up to vertical.  Below is an artist’s conception of the Avebury Henge and Stone Circles from the late 1800’s.

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It’s hard to say what the religious function of these henges truly was.  Many people were buried in and around Stonehenge, but none at Avebury.  One theory suggests that these were sites for rituals at the solstices, planting, or harvest time, but they were doubtless important enough that tens of thousands of worker hours were spent on digging and moving vast amounts of earth, stone, and (now lost) wooden posts.  Very precise avenues were also carved out of the soil to expose the chalk below, and can easily be seen from the air.

Religion, art, music, dance, and literature, whether oral or written, are all examples of the sort of self-expression humans seem to have inevitably produced in every generation stretching back far longer than these fantastic works.  There are basic truths that go beyond simple market exchange or basic economic tending to survival needs.  There are questions about those truths whose answers are, so far, hidden from science, and so we turn to other ways of knowing.  Whether the answers are spiritual or supernatural is the subject of many an argument, but human beings have always and everywhere created–or discovered–truths of faith.  The questions about life’s biggest dimensions require trust.

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Above is one of the few structures inside the henge at Avebury.  Mr. Keiller bought many more and had them razed.  In one case, he figured out that the stone floor of a blacksmith shop had once been one of the stones in the outer ring.  He had it re-assembled and cemented together (photo below) !

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John.bellaimey@breckschool.org

I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on amazon.com. I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

3 thoughts on “Henges and Stones”

  1. Thanks much, John. Much of this is entirely new to me. I’ve not been there, but Wendy and Nia have. You’re going to see lots more evidence of, for lack of a much better term, organic vernacular architecture on your travels. Human structures that not only fit the places where they were built but also materialize as a direct product of those places.

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