I don’t write about Stonehenge in public to the degree that I once did, but the ruins on Salisbury Plain remain a constant source of wonderment for me and as such, they’re never far from my thoughts. There has been an unprecedented degree of interest in the monument in recent times, with much subsequent analysis of the site and of the people who conducted their ceremonies there over the course of millennia. Many of these discoveries and observations have been startling and insightful, but I still don’t feel that the sheer enormity of what took place and what was raised at the site we now call Stonehenge has been adequately presented.
I don’t claim to have “The One and Only True Answer to Stonehenge” or anything of the kind, if only because it’s evident to any sane observer that there are many answers to many aspects of Stonehenge, while the physical location has been of intense interest to successive generations of human beings over the course of at least ten thousand years and probably longer. Something about the place drew our remote ancestors there as far back as 8,500 BC, when a curious monument fashioned from huge pine posts was built just to the north-west of Stonehenge and the site has haunted our imaginations ever since, regardless of what physical structures are put in place, destroyed or removed.
We know that countless pilgrims have made their way to the site of Stonehenge over the course of millennia, from those who travelled there from continental Europe in 2,300 BC to the million or so who appear at the ruins each year from every corner of the globe. However, despite the exalted nature of many of those who have been drawn to Stonehenge since the site first developed its mesmerising aura, I think there can have been few to match President Obama, who went out of his way to see Stonehenge for himself in September 2014, then happily posed for photographs with the Raffles family.
The 2007 Summer Solstice was marked or marred by particularly dreary weather, yet 24,000 people braved the elements to go to Stonehenge and spend the night there, making their various observances. Impressive though these figures are, they pale in comparison with the hordes that turned up at the Oakland Coliseum on the 23rd and 24th of July 1977, 30 years previously, to watch what were to be Led Zeppelin’s last concerts in America.
I’ve not been able to find out precisely who was responsible for the idea, but the arch above the drum set was themed as the upper lintel of a massive trilithon, while there was also a huge backdrop depicting Stonehenge’s other trilithons, uprights and lintels to either side of the stage.
In 1984, Ian Gillan, formerly the singer with Deep Purple, embarked on a tour with Black Sabbath to promote their Born Again album. The stage set for this tour featured immense reproductions of the trilithons at Stonehenge, but the models were so huge that it was never possible to place the entire set on stage. Nonetheless, the bleak imagery of the ruins on Salisbury Plain once again dominated a tour by a major rock band.
In 1967, a decade before Led Zeppelin’s Stonehenge-themed final appearances in America, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards travelled to Stonehenge to be photographed there in full regalia by Michael Cooper, the intention being to include the images on their forthcoming album Their Satanic Majesties Request. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were and still are the principal songwriters and the most instantly recognised members of the Rolling Stones, while the band had already achieved worldwide success by the time that Stonehenge was included in their promotional plans.
Other than Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, there are many other bands with links to Stonehenge. Ritchie Blackmore, the incomparable guitarist from Deep Purple, has long had an interest in the ruins as can be seen in a mention on this website, while the title of this piece, Hail to the Stonehenge Gods, echoes the title of a 2002 Black Sabbath tribute album.
Back in the 1960s, the late Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd and Keith Moon from the Who performed together at Stonehenge on a song entitled Sun Ra, while Roy Harper, a long time associate of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, witnessed the Battle of the Beanfield and subsequently wrote a song entitled Back To The Stones. The psychedelic rock band Hawkwind also performed at Stonehenge in 1984 and recorded a live album, while I once saw the late Whitney Houston there at some point in the 1990s, wandering around the ruins while animatedly relaying her experience to friends and relatives in America via a mobile phone.
Julian Cope, formerly singer of the Teardrop Explodes, has a well-known interest in Stonehenge and in other megalithic structures, while Stonehenge famously appeared in the film This Is Spinal Tap. The song “Ghost Riders in the Sky – A Cowboy Legend” is about damned or cursed phantom riders trying to catch cattle from the Devil’s herd – as such, it is an unmistakable echo of the legend of the Wild Hunt, led by Woden; as I’ve pointed out in many previous essays, Woden or Grim has a clear link with Stonehenge going back to the early Saxons.
There are doubtless other musical connections with Stonehenge, but even the great Elvis Presley has a faint link with the place, amazingly enough. The surname Presley is believed by some researchers to be of Welsh origin, deriving from the name of the Preseli Mountains, from where of course the bluestones of Stonehenge originated.
The imagery of the huge uprights, lintels and trilithons has appeared in John Boorman’s Excalibur and in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, while there’s also a suggestion of the structure in an early scene in the more recent film Troy, but whatever views we may hold about the merits of the artists or music involved, there is no denying that Stonehenge has literally formed a backdrop to some of the most famous acts in the world, and it is not difficult to work out why.
Despite the fact that some visitors to Stonehenge are disappointed by what they see as its comparatively small size, the ruins possess the power to evoke wonderment and awe, partly because of their megalithic structure and partly because of the incredibly simple, yet baffling and infuriating design. There is something primaeval about the site that rarely fails to stir emotions, so it is this capacity to call to mind Lovecraftian notions of extreme age, of titanic size and of lingering yet potent mystery that has imprinted the design into our collective consciousness.
Unless there had been a short, straight line of uprights capped by lintels, the design of the stone monument could hardly be simpler or more basic. As it is, the existing ruins suggest that there was once a complete circle of uprights capped by lintels, although the anomalous Stone 11 to the south speaks clearly of some kind of deliberate interruption in the circle, in accord with the causeway to the south and the former southern entrance to the timber structure that once stood on the site. Basic as it is, the stone circle comprising uprights and lintels was carved with fantastic precision, so that the lintels curved and were fitted together with tongue and groove joints at each end, while they were placed onto the uprights and held in place not only by means of mortice and tenon joints, but also by recesses in the lower surface of the lintels.
Stonehenge is the only known stone circle in Britain fashioned from dressed stone, while we’ve found nothing like it that came before and nothing like it afterwards. There was no dress rehearsal and no repeat performance in stone, unless we consider the near-certainty that a smaller version of Stonehenge was once fashioned from bluestone in Wales and then again on Salisbury Plain, but the event of constructing Stonehenge in all its forms seems to have taken place over the course of two thousand years. In his 1987 book, The Stonehenge People, Aubrey Burl suggests that there was a timber structure or mortuary house on the site some centuries before the first earthworks appeared in or around 3,000 BC, then the Y and Z holes were dug in or around 1,600 BC, although those who have pored over the archaeological records will be aware there is a clear suggestion that the Avenue was extended as late as 1,000 BC.
We know that the bluestones were brought from what is now south Wales, while they might once have formed a monument at the western end of the Cursus before being put in place at Stonehenge, then rearranged a number of times until the builders were satisfied that the design suited their precise requirements. In addition, there are the numerous earthworks on the site, but the feature that captures everyone’s imagination is the later stone monument. We know from the results of the Stonehenge Riverside Project’s excavations in 2006 that the phase of sarsen building at Stonehenge may have taken place as early as 2,600 BC, so as the man we now know as the Amesbury Archer or King of Stonehenge is known to have travelled to Britain from as far south as the Alps in 2,300 BC, then it’s fair to conclude that something drew him to Salisbury Plain, rather than him wandering blindly across the continent and stumbling across the place by accident.
There is no question that the place possessed a singular allure, not only for the Archer and his companion, but also for the people who dragged the bluestones from the top of a mountain in what is now south Wales to the middle of Salisbury Plain. This astonishing, one-off construction clearly held an almost magical fascination for the people of the time, while it’s unthinkable to me that it was not equally enthralling to the later Druids, Romans, Saxons and other inhabitants of Britain, who were each drawn to Stonehenge’s gloomy precincts for reasons of their own.
The stone structure at Stonehenge consists of bluestones that may well have once formed a standing structure on a mountaintop in Wales before being taken to Salisbury Plain, a journey that may have been as much as 200 miles and perhaps much longer. There were once as many as 90 bluestones, weighing approximately 300 tons in total.
Altogether, the sarsens at Stonehenge weighed something in the region of 1,600 tons, while most were dragged from 20 miles away to the north, then they were meticulously dressed, raised into position and fitted together. This stone structure is unique and has survived vandalism and the elements for something like 4,600 years.
Cattle skulls that had been kept above ground for as long as 500 years before being buried were found in the ditch surrounding Stonehenge. The remains, cremated and otherwise, of something like 300 human beings were buried at Stonehenge, while the monument itself lies at the heart of a vast prehistoric cemetery. It is one of the few place of religious observance that I know of that has required legions of riot police to keep people out.
It has been the subject of countless documentaries, programmes, news reports and books. The design adorns innumerable web pages, books, postcards, paintings, magazines and guide books, as well as all manner of trinkets and clothing, and it is some of the most instantly recognisable imagery on Earth. It has attracted the attention of kings, poets, engineers, archaeologists, prehistorians, Egyptologists and painters, from King James the First and Inigo Jones to Sir Arthur C. Clarke, as well as visitors from all over the world.
The imagery of Stonehenge has been used by our own towering rock stars as a backdrop, but the monument was not a backdrop to the people who built it and performed their ceremonies and observances there – it was a functional ‘machine’ that was at the heart of their hopes, fears and endeavours. The general consensus of opinion is that this unique monument was built by malnourished Neolithic farmers indulging in ancestor worship of some kind; there may be some degree of truth in this, but as people were dying on a monotonous basis all over the British Isles at the time, it stands to reason that there was something very out of the ordinary about what brought them to build this singular monument and something very out of the ordinary about what took place there.
There is furthermore the notion that the Sun and Moon were worshipped as gods at Stonehenge, after a fashion, but again, these heavenly bodies were visible from all over Britain at the same time, so while some aspect of Sun or Moon worship may well have been a part of what took place at Stonehenge in prehistory, it seems to me that something of a different order of magnitude was responsible for Stonehenge coming into being.
Professor Richard Atkinson excavated at Stonehenge for something like 15 years in the 1950s and 1960s, choosing to publish very little of what he found there and taking what else he knew to the grave. The murky and highly suspicious nature of Atkinson’s involvement with Stonehenge suggests to me that he had a perfectly good idea of what the place was designed for, whether he was correct or not, while in answer to the question of what Stonehenge was, his most famous pronouncement on the monument was “There is one short, simple and perfectly correct answer: we do not know, and we shall probably never know.”
Of course, a reverence for the dead is an undeniably powerful factor in people’s lives, while it is impossible to overestimate the potency of the Sun and Moon as objects of wonderment and veneration. Nonetheless, these forms of worship and observation clearly weren’t confined to the people who built Stonehenge, so I don’t believe that that in and of themselves, they are sufficient to explain the scale, intricacy, design and singular nature of Stonehenge, nor are they sufficient to completely explain the continuing hold that the ruins exert upon us all today.
Perhaps the best way I can explain how I see this scenario is by the admittedly roundabout means of comparing it with the Siege of Troy, as recorded by Homer. In essence, this siege was simply one group of armed men fighting against another who were holding out inside a walled fortification, as has happened on countless occasions throughout human history.
The tale of Troy, however, was different, because of Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships”, the sheer scale of the fighting, the length of time the siege lasted for, the individuals involved, the gods involved, the supposedly “topless towers of Ilium”, the semi-divine nature of some of the combatants and because of the stratagem employed by the Greeks to finally enter and destroy the city.
All these elements marked out the Siege of Troy as being different from any other such conflicts, so the story has survived the passing of civilisations and millennia, partly due to the genius of Homer, partly due to those who recorded his words, but mainly because the Siege of Troy was an event like no other before it. At the beginning of the aforementioned film Troy, the following words are put into the mouth of Odysseus, creator of the famous Wooden Horse:
“Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity. And so we ask ourselves: will our actions echo across the centuries? Will strangers hear our names long after we are gone, and wonder who we were, how bravely we fought, how fiercely we loved?”
The actions of the builders of Stonehenge have echoed across the centuries, and as a result, countless generations have wondered who these people were and what their names were, as well as marvelling at what drove them to construct such a unique and mesmerising monument. All of which leads me to believe that our ancestors saw something else there besides mere moonlight and shadows.
To be continued – at some future point – in The Daemons of Stonehenge.
This revised post is for my friend Aynslie Hanna, to whom I owe a truly enormous debt of gratitude for all her research, suggestions, assistance, patience and advice over the years. Had it not been for her, then I’d have published far less on the subject of Stonehenge and others, while what I did publish would have been strewn with far more errors than currently exist, either in my archives or elsewhere.