The sorcery of the stones
Or: Elvis meets Merlin in Y2K
BY KEVIN WHITELAW
BLACKPOOL MILL, WALESThe crowd has stood for hours in the chilly rain to watch a rockor, to be more precise, a Welsh bluestone slab nicknamed Elvis. A tall, gaunt man dressed in blue robes and a red, pointy hat calls himself Merlin; he paces nervously. It has taken most of the day to move the massive bluestone some 20 feet through deep mud partway into the river on this, the latest leg of its journey to Stonehenge. The light is fading when the boat that is to ferry Elvis to England finally arrives. Cheers erupt. "This just shows," says volunteer Ian Hepple, "what impoverished lives we lead."
Every weekend, a motley band of Welsh and English volunteers gather to push, pull, and row the 3-ton bluestone to Stonehenge. Their questand they have been at it for six monthsis to show how prehistoric builders might have moved giant, blue-flecked bluestones from their home in the Preseli mountains in southwestern Wales 240 miles over land and sea to Stonehenge, on England's Salisbury Plain. "We are utilizing methods that may have been available and applying them under 21st-century safety legislation," says Philip Bowen, who organized the project for a Welsh community-development group with a $150,000 grant from Britain's national lottery. The experiment, while hardly scientific, does prove that the enigma of Stonehenge remains powerfully alluring, perhaps because modern science is unlikely to ever reveal the true purpose of the monument.
Druids didn't do it. For centuries, scholars, students, and the simply curious have pondered the origins of the stone circle that now lies in partial ruin. Was it a temple? An observatory? Did the Druids build Stonehenge for Celtic rites, or did ancient astronauts do the job? One enduring legend has Merlin the magician using his powers to move the stones. "We will never know what drove them to build it or how it was used," says David Batchelor, an archaeologist with English Heritage, the government agency that runs the site today. "We can only measure it and rule things in or out." So no Druids (Stonehenge was around before them), aliens, or Merlin. But no answers, either.
It's hard to believe that a 5,000-year-old pile of rocks could have such a powerful hold on the millennial imagination. This year alone, Stonehenge has been the subject of several television documentaries, a nonfiction book, and a novel that will be turned into an epic movie. The continued fascination with the place has meant a steady supply of volunteers for the bluestone project. Hepple, an amateur archaeologist, regularly makes the four-hour drive from northern England. A British cop schedules his shifts to free up time. And board-game maker George Vernon, aka Mystic Merlin, helped pull the stone the first 17 miles to the banks of the Cleddau River. "Mystically, I have got to take the stone to Stonehenge," he says. "But this isn't the way Merlin would have done it."
Most archaeologists now accept that the stones were probably dragged and rowed over land and sea. Recent carbon dating at Stonehenge suggests the monument was built over a long period between 3000 and 1500 B.C., likely before the wheel was introduced to Europe. So Bowen and an engineer designed a wooden sled that takes at least 25 volunteers to pull when loaded with the stone. "Our theory was to keep everything simple and if it gets more tricky, add manpower," says Nick Price, the London engineer.
Separately, a group of boat builders designed and built two Celtic boats called curachs, which were probably in use during the construction of Stonehenge. The two boats were lashed together, with the stone towed underneath. The plan was for volunteers to row the boat out to the Celtic Sea, stopping at a different port each night on the way to England. When the stone reached the narrow Avon River, it would be transferred onto a smaller barge, modeled on a Bronze Age boat. Volunteers would then pull the barge along a towpath before the final 26-mile trek overland.
Today's Welsh team enjoys a few advantages over its predecessors. For one thing, it's possible to cheat. One May morning, Bowen arrived to find that pranksters had spirited the sled out from under the 3-ton stone and dragged the sled a mile away. So Bowen retrieved it, hired a crane to put the stone back in place, and pushed on.
On June 18, the entire project was nearly sunk, quite literally. As rowers neared the open sea from the placid Cleddau, the water became choppy. The boat turned around, but a rope holding the rock snapped. Elvis plunged 50 feet to the bottom of the riverbed. "We reckon our Stone Age ancestors had the same problem," offered project spokesman Len Mullins, citing reports of other bluestones in the riverbed. Instead of scuttling the project, Bowen hired divers and winched the stone back up, using mechanical means.
If nothing else, the project has given everyone involved an appreciation for the complex logistics it would have taken to move some 80 bluestones in the Neolithic era. Simply assembling enough workers, feeding them, and securing permission from local political bosses are major challengesthen and now. "I am sure the stone was transported with the help of the local communities," says Philip Bennett, a historian with the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in Wales.
Ley people. In the end, the bluestone project might be more in the tradition of Monty Python than of Oxford University. But archaeology and other sciences are unlikely to provide many more answers about Stonehenge's construction, or its original purpose. Because so little can be proved (or debunked) about its true use, the monument tends to be viewed through the prism of the age. "When we started to get into computers in the '60s, Stonehenge had to be a computer," says Julian Richards, an archaeologist who works for the bbc. "When we were into mysticism, it had to be about ley lines [the supposedly significant alignment of ancient monuments] and symbols."
The one undisputed fact is that Stonehenge is built with a solar orientation. When a visitor stands in the center of the circle on the evenings of the summer and winter solstice, the sun sets directly over the heel stone, which sits on the outskirts of the monument site. The rest of the year, the sun rotates back and forth through several different archways. But scientists don't know whether the builders intended to use Stonehenge as a calendar to mark the changing seasons, or merely to symbolize their sun worship.
Last rites? Every year, at least one new Stonehenge theory seems to surface. In Hengeworld, a book published in Britain last month, archaeologist Mike Pitts suggests that the monument was built to host ceremonies symbolically taking people who died to the world of the ancestors. In some ancient cultures, stone represented the dead, wood the living. Similarly, the living came from the east (the sunrise), and the newly deceased went off to the west (toward the sunset) to join the other ancestors. Several miles to the east of Stonehenge are ruins of an old wooden monument called Woodhenge. Pitts says it might have been used for ceremonies for the living. Stonehenge, the western monument, would have hosted the final ceremony. "The bluestones are symbolic ancestors brought from the direction of the sunset"in this case, Wales. "I may be talking bollocks," Pitts admits, "but it's a theory for why the bluestones were brought all that way."
But Stonehenge is not merely an artifact for historians to puzzle over. It is still a shrine, of sorts. The mythical rock group Spinal Tap was inspired to sing, "Stonehenge, where the virgins lie and the prayer of devils fill the midnight sky." And the site remains a place for pilgrimages, especially on the mystically significant evening of the summer solstice. In the 1980s, riot police clashed with New Age travelers after British authorities closed Stonehenge for the solstice. This year, for the first time in 16 years, the public was invited to mingle with the stones on the summer solstice. Some 6,000 spectators and worshipers chanted to pipes and drums, smoked marijuana, and peacefully paid their respects to the ancient stones.