Shrouded in mystery

Last Updated 23 June 2012, 11:50 IST

A group of huge stone slabs standing in a circle on a grassy meadow is a familiar sight. But, this often leaves many wondering about its  location and purpose, especially for those who haven’t visited the surroundings of London.

This is the Stonehenge monument in England. Located in the Wiltshire county, some 140 km southwest of London, the rock slabs of Stonehenge, which look like an unfinished structure, is a mysterious sight.

The curiosity it generates is so palpable that it attracts a large number of tourists and archaeologists. Despite the fact that its purpose and period has for long been steeped in ambiguity, the findings of archaeologists and antiquarians suggest that it is one of the oldest monuments that has come into existence.

Believed to be nearly 5,000 years old, when the first phase of its construction was initiated, the process went on unabated for about 1,500 years. But the monument was never completed, leaving it as a source of awe for the onlooker.

It was around 3,000 BC that the first step for building the Stonehenge was
taken. This involved clearing a circular area for erecting the stone slabs, creating a ditch all around, and an embankment of the outer circle with a mound of earth.

The next stage of construction was to dig up a series of 56 pits inside the circle to erect the stones. These pits, 56 in all, are called Aubrey Holes after the antiquarian John Aubrey, who is credited as the first ever person to have identified the Stonehenge in the 17th century.

The following phases saw that some timber structures were laid and later replaced by stone slabs. The inner circle of smaller stone slabs, known as the blue stones, were erected. In the subsequent years, the outer circle of larger stones called Sarsen stones were put up. These included a few trillithons, which are three-piece structures with a large horizontal slab placed over two standing slabs. There are some five trillithons in a horse-shoe shape.

While many of the stones were obtained locally, a few were hewn out of the rocks of Preseli mountains nearly 240 km away. Each of the stones is a heavy slab weighing about two to four tonnes, six feet by four with a thickness of two to three feet.

In prehistoric times, when science and technology was not as advanced as today, the ways and means employed by people in transporting and erecting these gigantic stones remain a mystery. The process was relentlessly followed, generation after generation, which strongly suggests that there was a definite purpose behind it. Ever since it was abandoned without completion, various interpretations have been put forth.

From excavations of the nearby sites where human bones and bodies were recovered, it has been established that the place was mainly meant to bury the dead. But, building a cemetery need not have been such a herculean task.

Some protagonists opined that the place was used for worshipping the ancestors. Going by the opening left in the north-east, from the circle of stones, a few even felt that the plan was to build a temple here to conduct rituals and ceremonies.

 Another theory suggested that the Stonehenge was built as a site of healing and each of the stones had healing powers, but this did not hold ground for lack of substantive evidence. Later studies have shown that the arrangement of stones has been done in such a way that the first rays of the sun on the summer solstice fall directly on the stone placed in the opening and also in the centre of the circle, both of which are in a straight line.

This clearly shows that the Stonehenge was probably meant to be an astronomical structure, built with the intention of determining various events like eclipses, equinoxes and the like. It is also possible that at times like equinoxes and solstices, people wanted to conduct rituals at this place.

Whatever the purpose for which it was erected, this unfinished monument for sure draws hordes of visitors who wonder at the enigmatic monument and leave with their own theory.

(Published 23 June 2012, 11:50 IST)

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