“Before you feel even slightly patronised, I do use this for everybody. In fact, a whole load of Post-Graduate Archaeology people from Oxford University were subjected to this a few weeks ago.” Stonehenge guide Pat Shelley started his talk with these words.
‘This’ referred to The Amazing POP-UP Stonehenge, a children’s book that explains how Stonehenge was built, who built it and why. There is a wonderful 3D image of the Stone Circle, as it probably looked 4000 years ago. Pat went on to explain exactly how the stones we could see all around us were originally configured. You can see his excellent description in this short video of Stonehenge at Dawn.
He also told us that there were two different types of stone used. The tall ‘sarcen’s stones were brought a relatively short distance from Marlborough Downs but the ‘blue stones’, which make up the smaller inner circle, came from the Preseli Mountains in Wales, about 7 days’ walk from Salisbury Plain.
With the aid of the pop-up model Pat enabled us to visualise just how impressive this monument must have been. (I bought a copy of the book from the English Heritage shop by the museum, as I loved the simple way it explains everything. If Pat rates it then it must be good!) ‘The biggest stones at Stonehenge weigh more than a bus full of people. So how did they move something that heavy when they hadn’t invented the wheel? They probably used a wooden sledge running on rollers made of logs.’ However, it seems that no-one is certain how Stone Age man managed to get the top stones in place. ‘We think they probably built a wooden platform and levered the stones up one at a time, putting more and more wood under them as they rose higher.’
I was with a group of travel bloggers and media specialists on a Dawn Tour of Stonehenge, having travelled from Salisbury where we had been attending the Social Travel Britain conference. The previous day we’d been given a private showing of the Magna Carta in Salisbury Cathedral, and now we were having a personal tour of this very special World Heritage Site in Wiltshire, in the south west of England. It was a real privilege to have time to see these two truly impressive sights at leisure and with such informed guides.
After the pop-up book discourse, Pat took us all round the Inner and Outer Circles. You can only go inside Stonehenge on a ‘special access tour’ (apart from the winter and summer solstices). Numbers are limited as the site was being worn away with all the visitors. Guards watched us all the time to ensure we didn’t touch or damage anything. Pat showed us the different stones, the graffitti, repairs done in the past and more recently; we took photos and tried to assimilate this enormous site.
Pat finally answered the age-old question, “Why was Stonehenge built?” In spite of a strong supposition that it was a temple to the sun, he says we really don’t know. Standing in the middle of the henge on Midsummer, June 21st, the day of the year with the most sunlight, the sun rises directly behind the ‘Heel Stone’. On Midwinter, the shortest day, December 21st, the sun sets between the two uprights of the tallest ‘doorway’. It is thought that this solstice was important to ancient people to pray to the gods to bring back the vital sunshine and end the cold winter nights.
As the sun rose higher we were treated to a beautiful sky of pink, blue, purples and threads of turquoise. The stones changed colour and the shadows shifted. It was easy to imagine just how significant this place must have appeared in 2000BC. Jackdaws cawed to each other and squabbled over bits of twig for their nests. Pat told us they steal from each other’s nests all the time so it must take them ages, to finally get a home for their eggs.
Finally it was time to leave. Pat addressed a point often raised by visitors. “The Druids had NOTHING to do with Stonehenge. These priests lived over 1000 years AFTER it had stopped being used, the earliest reference to them being about 200BC.” Seeing it today, there is no need for such romantic imagery; Stonehenge is magnificent just as it is.
Many thanks to Visit Wiltshire for arranging this tour and to Pat Shelley for his highly entertaining and informative talk. He brought Stonehenge to life with his quirky pop-up book and fund of historical insights.