the other night we stumbled upon a NOVA episode exploring the logistics of constructing Stonehenge and how it connects to Durrington Walls up the River Avon. the heart of the portion we watched centered on one scholar’s theory about how the stones got to the famous site in the Salisbury Plain — placing the several-ton stones on platforms on tracks of milled timber with the equivalent of wood or stone ball bearings to allow the contraption to glide towards the destination. it was an interesting idea … for an age when modern milling and ball-bearings might be common, but I was inclined to agree with the criticism that it was perhaps a bit over-engineered for the Neolithic architects of Stonehenge. logs and lots of people with ropes seemed just as effective and perhaps more expeditious. but then, most of what we know about Stonehenge comes from educated guesses at best.

the earthwork enclosure that encompasses the site dates from about 3100 BCE while radiocarbon testing and other evidence suggest the stones were erected sometime between 3000 and 2000 BCE, with the bluestones (the smaller ones) perhaps going up towards the beginning of that period and the remaining sarsens (the larger ones) later on. Stonehenge was constructed in several phases over a some 1,500 years, replacing monuments that previously stood on the site.

one of the more impressive facts about the site is the distance the stones traveled. while the precise origin remains unknown, it seems the bluestones came from the Preseli Hills in southwest Wales more than 150 miles away from Stonehenge (another theory posits they were glacial erratics left much closer to the site by the Irish Sea Glacier). in 2011, researchers at the University of Wales announced they’d identified the exact source from which the earliest stones were taken — 140 miles away in Pembrokshire in Wales. the sarsen stones are made of a type of sandstone found throughout southwest England but most archaeologists believe these stones came from the Marlborough Downs about 30 miles distant. as I mentioned, the bluestones were erected first, likely in a double-circle, and show signs of human efforts to shape them to fit together in some fashion. the sarsens were worked at the site using handmade tools; the NOVA program included excavation of some of the tools and stone shards carved off the sarsens.

the first signs of inhabitants on the site, however — four or five pits (some which held pine posts) — were discovered in the site’s parking lot between the 1960s and 80s and date to sometime between 8500 and 7000 BCE (the Mesolithic era!). recently uncovered evidence suggests the site may have been used for burials from the beginning, with cremains found in and around pits along the bank and ditch; in the 64 identified burial sites archaeologists have found remains for as many as 150 individuals. the NOVA program also chronicled excavations along the banks of the River Avon by archaeologists, seeking to determine whether the avenue did, in fact, continue all the way to the river and thus, presumably, symbolically and physically connect Stonehenge with Durrington Walls up the river. based on the positioning of the two sites, the researchers proposed Durrington Walls as a “site of the living” (as it aligned with sunrise) while Stonehenge was a “site of the dead” (as it aligned with the sunset and was a site for burial).

beginning in the 1920s, the National Trust began purchasing land around Stonehenge to preserve the setting around the monument as early in the 20th century land nearby was increasingly turned to cultivation. since the 1980s, the National Trust has worked with local landowners to revert some of this previous farmland back to chalk grassland. the setting-preservation effort was undermined somewhat by the two roadways — the A344 and the A303. over the last several decades plans have repeatedly been advanced then shelved to close or reroute the two roads in order to return the atmosphere of the site to how it might have been millennia ago. in 2010, the Wiltshire Council approved plans for a new visitors center to replace the one built in the 1970s, but forward progress is currently held up by getting acquiescence to close the A344 and two other nearby roadways.

of course, the sheer volume of visitors will still affect how one experiences Stonehenge. at the turn of the 20th century, concern for visitor safety (coupled with the toppling of an outer sarsen and its lintel) prompted the then-owner to begin the process of re-erecting fallen stones and stabilising the bases of others. the site was donated to the nation in 1918 by Cecil Chubb (who’d purchased several years earlier in an auction) who became responsible for its upkeep and providing access. between 1938 and today, annual visitors to the site increased from 38,000 to over 900,000. in 1978, erosion of the earthworks due to the increased number of visitors and acts of vandalism to the stones resulted in access to the stones being restricted. today, visitors are only allowed to tour Stonehenge from roped-off paths that prevent too many people from accessing the stones at any given period.

even though access to the stones is restricted, it isn’t prohibited; it just requires some planning, forethought, and approval from the National Trust. my dad was one with such foresight and managed to coordinate an early-Sunday-morning visit for us when my parents came to visit me while I was studying in London. it’s a truly unique experience to get such remarkable access to a monument so impressive, so old, and so shrouded in mystery. the first time I visited England, we focused more time on Avebury and (if I recall correctly) just stopped along the road and looked through the fence at Stonehenge, rather than paying the entrance fee to walk around the roped-off path. it was worth the wait, though, to get to to stand so close the stones, to touch them and walk among them. if you’re ever in the vicinity, I highly recommend taking the time to visit and, if you’ve got some foresight, too, plan ahead for one of those outside-operating-hours access spots.

some final thoughts:
if you’re in Ireland, you should definitely make the effort to visit Brú na Bóinne (it’s on the itinerary for the next trip to Ireland this summer!) another remarkable Neolithic site.
check out the NOVA program, Secrets of Stonehenge, for more on all the projects I referenced above.
lastly, one of my favorite travel blogs, Twenty-Something Travel, posts “Friday Postcards” and the one from this week was, coincidentally, Stonehenge at sunrise!


pedestrian path along the henge

both my trips to Glastonbury included visit to Avebury, a neolithic henge formed of three concentric circles that enclose a village that dates from the early medieval period. the stone circle, constructed around 2600 BCE, is the largest stone circle in Europe and was part of a human-constructed prehistoric landscape that included other monuments such as the West Kennet Long Barrow (a neolithic barrow situated on on a chalk ridge) and Silbury Hill (a 40m high, human-made chalk hill) less than two miles from Avebury. as with the more famous neighbor Stonehenge, the purpose of the Avebury ring is unknown though largely speculated to be used for ceremonies or rituals with a religious basis; evidence suggests the site was in use for over a millennium.

there’s some evidence to suggest periodic habitation at the site by Mesolithic hunter-gatherer people, who may have even constructed their own ceremonial structure, predating the stones that stand today (Mesolithic = the Age which preceded the Neolithic). anthropological studies have found significant activity from the Neolithic period; the introduction of domesticated plants and animals allowed hunter-gatherers to settle down for farming and, by extension, engage in the construction of massive sacred sites, like those around Avebury, that stemmed in part from a shift in religious beliefs.

the stability of agrarian culture allowed for ongoing projects and Avebury was built in stages. the henge — a large circular bank with internal ditch — is 420 meters across and would have required a remarkable commitment of time and labor; other henges most comparable in size are only a quarter of the size of the one at Avebury. the outer stone circle, originally consisting of 98 sarcen standing stones weighing up to 40 tons and standing over 4 meters, was likely built concurrent to the henge (or within a couple hundred years). within the outer stone circle (diameter of about 331 meters) are two additional, separate stone circles (diameters of 98 and 108 meters). an avenue of parallel stones run from one entrance of the henge and evidence exists of another avenue emanating from another entrance.

two of the standing stones

by the Iron Age, earlier users or inhabitants of the area abandoned the site and it remained largely abandoned. there’s some evidence that people visited or used the site during the period of Roman rule and later native Briton warriors may have fortified the site to use for defensive purposes. there was intermittent habitation thereafter throughout the medieval period, with farmers constructing huts outside the stone circle and, in the 10th century, a church to serve the newly-converted Christians.

the coming of Christianity didn’t bode well for the perceived-pagan roots of the Avebury stone circle; during the 14th century villagers began pulling down the stones and burying them in prepared pits, believing the Devil had erected them for evil purposes. one of the stones, weighing some 13 tons, fell on a man during the toppling process, fracturing his pelvis and breaking his neck; he remained buried in the specially-dug hole under the stone until archaeologists excavated the hole in 1938. he had coins dating from 1320-35 in a leather pouch at his waist. the death of this man prompted the villagers to cease their toppling project, perhaps fearful that a vengeful spirit or the Devil sought revenge for destroying the site. shortly thereafter, the Black Plague struck and decimated the town’s population, further preventing any further destruction (desecration?).

the first modern mention of Avebury came from Henry VIII’s chaplain in 1451 but it wasn’t until a man called John Aubrey took interest and described it to the king that investigation took off. although Charles II told Aubrey to dig under the stones in search of burial sites, Aubrey focused his attentions on a systematic study of the site, producing a diagram that proved invaluable when villagers, heedless of the lessons of their 14th century forebears and whipped into a puritanical frenzy, smashed up many of the remaining stones for use in building materials. in the middle of the 19th century, in an effort to stem the destruction of Avebury and prevent the erection of more houses within the henge, Sir John Lubbock (later known as Lord Avebury) purchased much of the available land and encouraged others to build outside the henge.

sheep grazing within the henge

throughout the 20th century, efforts were made to excavate, preserve, and restore the site with some previously-buried stones unearthed and re-erected. archaeologist Alexander Keiller proved instrumental in preserving artifacts, establishing a museum at the site in the 1930s, and bringing attention to the site. hundreds of thousands of people visit the site today, which is now under the stewardship of the National Trust, including contemporary pagan groups. the site is so popular for rituals among pagan groups, in fact, that they’ve had to establish a system to share access.

and I didn’t know any of that either of the times I visited. I had a vague notion of the scope of history and similarities to Stonehenge, but none of the specifics. I didn’t even have a very good grasp on the more impressive spiritual associations — just knew that I was impressed and it was worth the trip. we cracked jokes about the black sheep following others around, made up stories about animal-like shapes in the standing stones (one of them was a bear … the other, maybe a ram?). but reading up on it and learning about all the twists the last 4000 years have brought the site makes me even more excited to visit it again sometime in the future, perhaps as part of a tour of all the sites now under the heading of “Stonehenge, Avebury, and Associated Sites.”

Glastonbury Tor

in addition to London Olympics-induced nostalgia, I just started a Bernard Cornwall book about the Arthurian legend, The Winter King, which immediately took me back to visiting Glastonbury and the tor, as well as all of southwest England. the tor was even featured in the Opening Ceremony, as the 204 participating nations placed their flags on the side of a miniature tor. coupled with the Olympics highlighting all sorts of places in England, like the Newcastle United stadium hosting the USA v. NZL women’s soccer match, makes me very much want to re-visit England (*coughbeccacoughtaracough*).

I’ve been to Glastonbury Tor twice and, frankly, would go again if someone handed me a ticket to the UK. the first time I was sixteen and had just spent three weeks in France with some high school peers. whatever thoughts I have on the France experience (perhaps something on that one day; perhaps not), getting to see England and playing passenger to my mother as first-time-UK-driver were no inconsequential element of that trip. (“left!left!left!left!left!” “HEDGE!” and, really, do British hedgerows really need to be that close on all rural roadways? yeah, probably.) while I’m sure I have some images of Glastonbury Abbey somewhere (another future blog post?) I’ll focus on the tor here.

“Tor” is a local Celtic word signifying rock outcropping or hill, as exceptionally illustrated by the one in Glastonbury. archaeological excavations unearthed evidence of inhabitants dating from prehistory; there is evidence of a 5th century fort on the site and the current ruins of St Michael’s Church (the tower) date from the 13th century, which was restored in modern times. an earthquake felt as far away as London and Wales destroyed most of the church in 1275 and a replacement church (from the 1360s) survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries (in 1539). the last abbot of the church (along with two of his monks) were hanged, drawn, and quartered on the Tor because he refused to swear allegiance to Henry VIII.

some speculate the Glastonbury Tor is part of a zodiac calendar with formations dug around ancient hedgerows and tracks (though much of the area proposed as said calendar was under water at the time of said calendar’s design). the tor straddles one of the most important ley lines in Britain, the St. Michael line that runs from St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall up to Avebury; the St. Mary’s line also runs through the Tor, creating a “vortex of energy” where they cross. 

others believe it provides access to the Underworld or realm of the faeiries; some that represents the final location of the Holy Grail. allegedly, Joseph of Aramathia brought it here and buried it in a cave beneath the Tor, from which two springs formed (presumably including the Chalice Well that you can still visit at the foot of the Tor.) job done, he planted his staff and a thorn grew up (Bernard Cornwall took a rather speculative eye to this myth in Winter King). 

one of the more perplexing mysteries of the tor are it’s seven, roughly symmetrical, terraces. several theories seek to explain their utility — farming, grazing, defensive ramparts, or (my favorite) a labyrinth. labyrinths were around during the Neolithic period while the tor was occupied and one can transpose the design of one such labyrinth onto the remaining ramparts but, even if that theory proves true, it seems likely its been used in other ways (e.g. farming, cattle grazing, defense) in the intervening centuries.

as Bernard Cornwall’s story reinforced for me, Glastonbury is closely linked with the Arthurian legend. the Tor was alternately known aYnys Wydryn (Isle of Glass because at the time the plain surrounding the tor flooded and made it an island) and also Ynys yr Afalon (Isle of Avalon). in 1184 a fire destroyed much of a nearby church and during the rebuilding of the church, a “double oak” coffin with an inscription identifying Arthur was found and preserved. under the supervision of Edward I the remains were re-interred and preserved (at least until the Dissolution of the Monasteries).

whatever it was in past, it remains a truly remarkable awe-inspiring site to rival Stonehenge — and without the restrictions on access you’ll find at the site 45 miles to the east. the views (on a clear day) from the top are incredible — if your eyes are particularly good, I think yo we didn’t go to the Abbey on my second visit, but if my next trip to England involves any sort of Arthurian myth-type exploring, I wager both the tor and the Abbey will go on the list.