The trouble with writing about somewhere like Stonehenge… somewhere that almost everyone recognises and feels they know something … is that most of us know nothing at all apart from the familiar form of the circle and trilithons.
We just accept that this is an ancient monument, built by people who were maybe not quite as savage as we generally think, for some strange ritual purpose… probably to do with the stars or planets. Or it was built by the Druids? And all the stones came from Wales… And that really is about all most of us know…and most of that is wrong or at least, woefully incomplete.
Stonehenge… the first part of the name is thought to come from the old word for ‘hanging stones’… or ‘stones suspended in air’. The ‘henge’ refers to an outer and circular earthen embankment with an internal ditch, such as the one around the great circle of Avebury, where we had been earlier that afternoon. At Stonehenge, however, the ditch is outside the embankment; just one of many of the anomalies of this site that make it quite unique. Time, feet and erosion have taken their toll on the henge, but the ditch and banks, overlooked by most, can still be seen on the outer edge of the monument field.
Then there are the misconceptions about its timeline… for the circle was built in phases on a site already held and made sacred by the many burials it contained. And then there is the sheer scale of the site… because you simply cannot ignore the number of other archaeological features that cluster around the circle, rippling out across the wider landscape to include many miles and the mindboggling possibility that the vast sites around both Stonehenge and Avebury were designed to work together. And, even when you stand within the circle, it looks something of a jumble to begin with until you begin teasing apart the layers of history. So where do you begin?
At Blick Mead, about a mile from the circle of Stonehenge, is a freshwater spring that neither fails nor freezes all year round. Not only would this water source have made the area useful for both people and animals… it was also a magical spot. And its magic remains to this day, suggesting a second reason why our ancestors chose to settle here. The water of the spring contains a rare algae, turning stones that have been in the water red within an hour or so of being exposed to air. Not surprising, then, that ten thousand years ago, towards the end of the Mesolithic period, when the hunter-gatherer culture of the Middle Stone Age was beginning to settle in one place instead of always following the herds, a settlement should have been built at Blick Mead.
We know from other sites across the country, such as Star Carr in North Yorkshire, that there was a sense of magic and ritual within the human community at that time. The ground conditions at Star Carr preserved unusual amounts of organic material, including a number of headdresses… antler frontlets, made from the horned skulls of red deer, artworks and ornaments. Some of these had been deliberately broken, which implies either gratitude or a sacrifice to some higher power. Which in turn suggests that reverence and spiritual beliefs were well-formed and ingrained.
We know too from sites such as Warren Field in Aberdeenshire, that these Mesolithic peoples were capable of constructing complex sites. Warren Field also dates back ten thousand years and its pits and a midwinter alignment within the landscape constitute an accurate lunar calendar.
The fact that these three sites alone, Stonehenge, Star Carr and Warren Field, are spread end to end across our country, tells us that there was more travel and interaction between areas and tribal groups than we might at first have thought… and thus a sharing of knowledge and techniques was possible that would rapidly disseminate ideas.
Studies run by the University of Buckingham conclude that the settlement at Blick Mead shaped Salisbury Plain to their needs over the course of several thousand years. Six thousand years ago, the trees were cleared across the Plain. A causewayed enclosure was built at Robin Hood’s Ball near Amesbury, just a few miles walk across the Plain. Long barrows began to appear too… and there are well over three hundred known barrows within just a two mile radius of the circle at Stonehenge… around eight hundred in all.
Not every body warranted a barrow burial, but many of those who were so buried were interred with rich and beautiful things. This gives an idea if the importance of the area in spiritual or ancestral terms. As each of the ancestors were lain in earth, perhaps their spirits added to the cumulative wisdom of the land and its people. Perhaps the presence of the dead rendered the living fit for the priesthood. Perhaps, after millennia of association, it was from the community at Blick Mead that the idea sprang to raise a forest of stone beneath the stars…