Interlude ~ Sound principles?

We waited for a few minutes while our small group took pictures of the stones of Stonehenge. It is rare to be able to photograph the monument without hordes of people, but with the gates closed to the general public, calm descends. We were all waiting to be allowed within the circle of stones, but I wondered how many had realised that we had actually been within Stonehenge itself for quite some time.

The remains of the outer embanked ditch, situated outside the normal visitor path and often overlooked.

Over five thousand years ago, our ancestors created a circular ditch and embankment, some three hundred and sixty feet in diameter. It was dug out using antler picks, and yet, curiously, they buried animal bones, flint tools and antlers of a far greater age in the bottom of the ditch itself. These were not simply old things that they had cast away, they were placed there with care after being looked after for many years. Why such reverence? What did these animals represent for the diggers of the ditch? Were they perhaps invoking the guardianship of the clan’s Spirit Animals… or that of the Ancestors themselves? As the bones belonged to deer and oxen, perhaps they were attempting to ensure that the herds were kept safe and plentiful, and that their bounty would serve the clan’s needs.

It was not until the seventeenth century, that antiquarian John Aubrey discovered fifty-six pits, arranged around the inner edge of the ditch. These became known as the Aubrey Holes. In 1920, the early days of modern archaeology, William Hawley excavated over fifty thousand bone fragments, dumping them unceremoniously together into one of the Aubrey Holes, as being of no importance.

Scale model showing the embankment and ditch, within which the Aubrey Holes hold the bluestones. Image: Stuart France

The bones belonged to sixty three men, women and children, each of whom had been cremated and their remains interred with meticulous care. In 2013, Mike Parker Pearson and his team brought more rigorous modern methods to bear on the bones and the pits, finding that each pit may have held a bluestone, which they suggested may have been as a grave marker. I have to wonder at that…

The bluestones are not the huge trilithons, but substantial pillars of stone that now form the inner circle. They were famously quarried and carried to the spot from Wales, over a hundred and fifty miles away. This discovery meant that the first ‘stone circle’ at Stonehenge was possibly five hundred years earlier than had been thought. Not only that, but analysis of the bone fragments showed that most of those buried had lived most of their lives in Wales… not on the Plain around Stonehenge.

So, just who were these men, women and children whose calcined bones merited burial beneath a sacred stone, carried all the way across the country? Why would such stones be placed as simple ‘grave markers? Were the stones perhaps more intimately connected with the men and women who were buried beneath them?

We can only speculate and attempt to put ourselves in the minds and hearts of those who walked the land thousands of years ago. What if the dead had served the stones or the clan? Or both, considering how far they had travelled together. Was the burial a way of assigning a guardian to each stone and its properties… enshrining an Ancestor to act as intercedent and wisdom keeper, perhaps?

And why were the bluestones so special? What did they bring to the spirit of the place?

As we were finally allowed into the circle, I thought about the research that has been done on sound. The bluestones of Preseli have been tested, and ring like bells when struck. A scale model of the completed monument has been tested in an acoustic chamber, proving conclusively that sound made within the open-to-the-winds structure would have been amplified and acquired the resonance of an indoor amphitheatre. I have seen visual representations of soundwaves that look like the petroglyphs carved in ancient tombs… and I thought back to the experiments we have been drawn to do with sound and chant within the sacred places. Of ‘lighting up’ the stones of Bryn Celli Ddu after we had chanted and verbally renewed our dedication. Of potentially hitting the right note or vibration to ‘unlock’ the stones…

Long ago, the only enclosed spaces would have been the caves, which our earliest ancestors made their homes and sanctuaries. They would have learned to understand acoustics, simply by living there, listening to the echoes and distortions, perhaps even using such sounds to navigate the passageways.

Barrows across the wider Stonehenge landscape look like star systems… Image: Stuart France

The caverns would not merely have been a place of safety and refuge from the weather, they would also be the belly of the earth… a place in which you were held safe within the Mother. It was not until we began to build our homes and settlements that other such ‘inner spaces’ would be created. But you can imagine how magical the sound of inner space would be when you are out beneath the stars…

If sound were key to the bluestones, that would make sense… especially as they are not really blue; the dolerite stones look like the darkness of interstellar space scattered with swirling galaxies…

And yet, a short while later, as I stood between those bluestones once more… none of the ’mind stuff’, research or even logic mattered while Stuart chanted for me, quietly and unobtrusively, for healing. All I could feel were the waves of sound, wrapping around me and lighting my spine as we had once lit Bryn Celli Ddu…

Interlude ~ Before the Stones

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?

Showing just the major monuments immediately around Stonehenge. Image: © Martin J. F. Fowler

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.

Unsophisticated caveman?

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.

Timeline of major landscape features around Stonehenge.

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…

Interlude: Looking Back…

The mere idea of “saving the ‘best’ till last” was feeling all too prophetic. Especially as ‘best’ is debatable anyway.’ Most iconic, perhaps, best known worldwide, most unusual… but just ‘best’ is  too subjective. From the magic of mountain-girt Castlerigg, to the intimacy of Barbrook, where ancestral voices still whisper, each circle has its own feel and character. Perhaps Stonehenge is the Westminster Abbey of stone circles… but it is in the quiet chapels of the tiny parish churches where the prayers of centuries are most often felt.

Where we ought to have been recently, on the Orkney Islands, we might have touched something similar, something older, for there are theories that the Megalithic culture spread from those isles… or perhaps they too were just another stepping stone back towards an even more ancient vision.

But we were here and now. It had been a long day. I had already driven for hours and would have hours more to drive before we were home. I was ill, struggling and, had we had any sense whatsoever, we would not have even considered such a trip under the circumstances.

But then, sense does not come into it when you are called… and there had been far too many synchronicities for us to think otherwise. Even the group who would finally be allowed within the circle was less than half its usual permitted number; it was a mere handful of strangers, therefore, spread across two buses, who would be free to wander within the stones of Stonehenge.

“I saw you at the stones wrapped in wings,” had said my healer-friend, so I had worn my favourite scarf, surprised it was warm enough to be without a decent shawl at this time of year and evening. I would have liked to walk to the great stones, each step carrying me one step closer to both past and future across the long-sacred earth. A pilgrimage, of sorts and a homage to memories of my own long-ago. But the ravens walked with me as I lagged behind, failing to keep up, even on the short path from the bus.

I was not at all in the frame of mind that I should have been. I think, most of all, I was afraid that the circle would have closed down… that it would no longer feel ‘right’ after so much attention by so many people…many of whom are simply gawping at something they will tick off their tour list as having ‘done’. Were my memories of the place, of the feel of it, anywhere near accurate… or any reflection of what was left, now the site was under corporate protection?

I desperately wanted Stuart to be able to feel some trace of what I had known when the stones stood free to the wind and to the worship. Not how they had felt from outside when last I had brought someone here, milling around the edges with thousands of others…

Our guide and guardian, a storyteller, took us to the edge of the grass, allowing us a few minutes to take people-less photographs of the circle before we went inside. And as soon as my feet touched the forbidden green beyond the barriers, seeing all the faces emerge from the stones, I knew my fears were groundless.

The circle opened its heart to welcome me back… and ‘welcoming’ was exactly the feeling Stuart reported later, with a good deal of surprise. It was not what he had expected from the place at all. It is hard to find words that describe it… as if each of the different types of stone… the sarsens, bluestones, gneiss and many others… all sing a different note, but no matter how beautifully they harmonise, their song needs to pass through the human heart in order to be heard, felt and lived. So it was with tears of gratitude streaming… and probably a very silly grin… that we finally entered the circle of stones.