Friday, January 24, 2014


Fig.1: I wish I could take time out of my busy 
hunting-gathering lifestyle to make one of these.
Ask folks around the world what is the greatest henge of stones in Europe, they should say the Avebury circle in Wiltshire, England since it is technically the largest by area. But most likely they will say the Stonehenge site located about twenty miles to the south, and quite frankly I don't blame these hypothetical people. I mean, look at the thing (fig.1). It is dang impressive! How did those Neolithic peoples lift up those huge stones like that? What was the original purpose of the monument? Why couldn't they just be content to pack up a mound of dirt like those drunken Irish were doing and call it a day? Amazingly, many of these questions still have not been answered by those lazy archaeologists! It is up to us, the fine patrons of the interweb, to figure out what these bloody British builders were thinking when constructing this monstrosity, even if it means taking some creative license with our theories (that's fancy talk for making stuff up).

But first, let's review what we're pretty sure that we're almost positive about having a smidge of a clue of what we know about Stonehenge. First of all, it's old. While many archaeologists place the arrangement of stones between 3000 and 2000 BC, nearby postholes demonstrate that initial activity in the area began around 8000 BC (those poor doughnut-less heathens)! Further holes within the stone circle suggest that some wooden structure was built in the middle of the monument, but may not have been as patient to be marveled by tourists and has long since rotted away. Secondly, there are a lot of dead things buried here. Initially it was just the bones of deer and oxen, but recently archaeologists found the cremated remains of 63 people inside one of those supposed postholes. This might suggest that Stonehenge was nothing more than a graveyard, but there are plenty of other Neolithic burial sites that don't bother to use 50-ton stones to mark the graves! Besides, c'mon, a cemetery? Borrrrrr-anggg!

Speaking of those stones, where did they come from? The closest quarry was about 25 miles north of the site! Are you telling me these people carried rocks, weighing between 8,000 and 100,000 pounds, nearly the length of a marathon without everyone getting massive hernias? Another theory argues that certain stones in the structure couldn't be found in England, and had to be transported eight times that distance from Wales (fig.2)! Man, and I feel good about myself after taking a half-mile jog with keys in my pocket as the extra weight! Yet another proposal states that our megalithic masons had a little help from a glacier. 15,000 years prior, a big hunk of ice in the Irish Sea may have transported big hunks of rocks, known as erratics, to Wiltshire, before heading off to find a Titanic to sink. This would have made the job a lot easier to gather the materials necessary to construct Stonehenge, and in retrospect makes the builders seem not as ambitious when they don't have to lug the stones from Wales. Lazy bums!

Fig.2: And you thought moving your friend's sofa into a U-Haul was bad...
The positioning of the stones seems random, but there is actually a method to the madness. The opening of the stone circle appears to match up with that of the setting sun of the winter solstice, letting farmers in the area know when the days were supposed to start getting longer. (As such, most men preferred to get married right after the solstice, allowing Stonehenge to give them a friendly reminder to go out and pick some flowers or something for their anniversary.) This theory has been increasingly questioned since the alignment is not perfect; many believed this was because axial precession has changed the tilt of the Earth over the past 5,000 years, but smarty-pantses have calculated that Stonehenge's position to the winter solstice is actually more accurate now than it was then (leading to many nights in the doghouse for those forgetful husbands)!

Fig.3: Most arduous game of "Connect the Dots" ever!
In regards to the structure's actual shape, it appears circular, but open in certain places (fig.3). Archaeologists have come up with two easy answers for this: the stones had been removed from their spots for some reason, or the structure was never completed. More and more evidence points to the latter, once again shifting our opinions of these ancient architects from uber-motivated to lethargic couch-potatoes. Part of this may have been because Stonehenge was the definition of a long-term project: construction took part in steps, with the timber section near 3000 BC, placement of the smaller stones around 2600 BC, the recognizable large stones arranged before 2400 BC, a period of screwing around and using the rocks to spell dirty words in 2200 BC, before the stones were put back into place by the end of the third BC millennium. By the end, interest in the monument faded, with the last generation saying, "What did we hope to achieve with this thing again?" and throwing down their tools in 1600 BC.

Which brings us to the major question: what is the point? For this, there seem to be more theories about Stonehenge than there are stones and henges, so let's run through the major ones in bullet-point formation:

  • Merlin's War Memorial: Let's start with the most plausible. 12th century sources claim that giants built the structure in Ireland, using magical stones from Africa that could not only heal people with a simple touch, but also provide exact sound used for the drum fill in Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." When a 5th century Briton king wanted to build a memorial to honor the dead in just one of their approximately 4,538 battles against the Saxons, Merlin suggested magically moving Stonehenge from Ireland to England. And that's what he did, much to the chagrin of the Irish (luckily the Irish don't harbor any ill-will against the English for anything ever).
  • Ancient Hospital: Keeping with the healing motif (but less so the magical crap), many believe that people came to Stonehenge to overcome sickness and injury. Whether it was actual medical treatments or old new-age religious hoopla that took place there isn't too clear. However, the presence of those cremated bodies, as well as other interred corpses with traumatic injuries such as a blow to the head, an arrow to the chest, or a really annoying hangnail, may demonstrate that these people were transported to Stonehenge to get better. Poor schlums.
  • Fancy Calendar: As stated above, the positioning of the stones seems to alert folks of the winter solstice (if the non-stop Christmas music for the previous two months didn't tip them off earlier). But the possible existence of a wooden structure within the stone circle appears to follow a pattern that corresponds to the changing of constellations visible in the night sky throughout the year. That is key for knowing the timing of the seasons, especially important during the transition from a hunting-gathering to an agricultural society. Luckily, pin-up calendars with girls in swimsuits were invented after 2000 BC, which everyone agreed were more exciting to look at than a pile of rocks.
  • Religious One-Upmanship: The concept of Stonehenge really isn't that unique in the British Isles, or even Southwest England! There is evidence that similar structures existed contemporary with our favorite henge, signaling a unity in religious practices on the island. This notably includes the Thornborough Henges in Yorkshire and Woodhenge just two miles away, which were much larger in size and scale than Stonehenge. The difference is that Stonehenge was built with, well, large stones, whereas other sites used decomposing material such as dirt or wood. Thus, Stonehenge has stood up well against the test of time, an idea that the architects of the structure may have considered in order to build a henge that was bigger, better, faster, stronger. (Environmentalists are just glad they never got around to constructing a Tirehenge.)
  • Everybody Get Together, Try to Love One Another: A recent theory suggests that the importance of Stonehenge lies not in its function but merely its construction. The massive amount of labor involved in putting this thing together would have needed a lot of inter-cooperation from several British clans who might have otherwise killed each other like good decent Neolithic societies. This would especially be true if the larger stones did originate from Wales, meaning this project would have brought people together over hundreds of miles! It's almost like one of those cooperate retreats where you need to work with Barry from Accounting to complete an obstacle course while tied at the ankle and without touching the ground, somehow fostering a sense of community and comradery among the employees (mostly out of hatred of the employers).

Fig.4: Inside Stonehenge, circa 2300 BC.
Personally, I think all of this is bull-honky! Simple observation can tell you exactly what purpose Stonehenge served five thousand years ago. What else is tall and circular that people from miles around come to see? A big top, of course! Clearly, Stonehenge was the focal point of a traveling circus that came to Wiltshire every year. The large stones supported the canvas while all the action occurred inside. The wooden structure that once stood within the circle was built to support the trapeze and wires for the balancing acts. Unfortunately, safety regulations weren't mandated back then, and many performers perished following a small mistake; thus explaining the number of injured bodies buried around the site (poor Luxor the Amazing Arrow Catcher's timing was just slightly off that day). Stonehenge served as the circus's more permanent site, but they did set up makeshift tents in all the other ancient henges throughout Britain. They even had their elephants carry those large stones from Wales, since they provided the ideal support to keep the big top in place. Unfortunately, the rise of lesser forms of entertainment, like farming and warfare, as well as the increased pressure from those annoying animal rights groups, forced the end of the show around 1600 BC. Until then, this was certainly the greatest show on Earth, way more exciting than whatever those Egyptians were doing with those stupid triangles.

Of course, none of these theories have been proven (despite the obviousness of my circus hypothesis), and Stonehenge remains a huge mystery as to its purpose in the 21st century BC here in the 21st century AD! Do you have any ideas as to why this structure exists? If so, please tell us in the comments below! You don't even need to have silly things like facts or evidence to back up your claims! Any help on this matter would be greatly appreciated. Until then, Stonehenge looms as one of the biggest question marks in ancient history, mocking the stupidity of our civilization. I'd give it a good kick if I wasn't so sure that Merlin would place a wart-festering curse on me.

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