Stonehenge is the most celebrated prehistoric monument in the world. The books and articles published about it would fill a small library. The monument has been examined in minute detail. Yet enigmas remain.
Why was this spot venerated for some 1500 years? Why were heavy blocks of stone transported from south-west Wales to Stonehenge when more suitable stone was available less than twenty miles away? The map provides explanations.
Garth Weston has spent four decades investigating the influence of landscape features and the major directions on the location and design of stone circles, henges and standing stones. Regional surveys of these intriguing structures were published in Monuments and Mountains (2007). A catalogue provides the topographical and inter-site relationships of over 1,600 monuments.
Dr Weston was formerly head of the history department of the North Riding College of Education.
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In common with other ancient peoples, the builders of Britain’s stone rings attached particular importance to the cardinal directions (north, east, south and west), which may have been regarded as the four corners of the earth or the directions of the homes of the gods that regulated the earth and the heavens. The sides of the Great Pyramid deviate from cardinal directions by less than a tenth of a degree. The orientation of sanctuaries to the east has a long history. The entrances of nearly all Celtic shrines faced east and most Christian churches are oriented roughly east-west.
The commanding hills were essential reference points for travellers. In flimsy craft the traders in flint, volcanic rock and metals faced around Britain’s coasts some of the world’s most treacherous waters. On foot travellers had to avoid impenetrable forests, swamps and unfordable rivers.
The highest hilltops may have been regarded as the homes of powerful spirits. Burmese tribesmen worshipped hill-spirits and would not cultivate land near the hills for fear of causing offence. In Europe Mount Parnassus in Greece and Mount Ida on Crete were thought of as the homes of gods.
The builders of the rings of boulders and banks used the location and design of these gathering places to establish a reciprocal relationship with the forces that controlled their lives. A commanding hilltop lies in at least one cardinal or half-cardinal direction from the overwhelming majority of enclosures. Often the axis, an entrance, a conspicuous circle-stone or an outlying pillar marks a cardinal direction. These features can also indicate the direction of an important summit, the midsummer sunrise or the midwinter sunset. The heaviest boulder in the Long Meg ring in Cumbria, the largest ring in mainland Britain outside Wessex, stands at almost the exact east. The entrance and a tall pillar are situated south-west of the circle-centre. South-west is the direction of the midwinter sunset as well as Helvellyn (225°.6) and Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain (229°.3).
The only distinctive feature on the horizon from the temple is Beacon Hill four miles to the east (86°.4). It is one of the finest viewpoints in central southern England offering a panorama that extends north to Inkpen Beacon, west to the Mendips and south to the Isle of Wight.
The temple’s topographical relationships are as remarkable as its architecture. Three of the highest points in southern Britain lie in practically cardinal or half-cardinal directions. Sixty-three miles away at almost east (89.°.6) is Leith Hill, the highest point in the south-eastern zone of Britain, that is, the area east of a line from the Wash to the Solent. Beacon Hill and Leith Hill near Dorking can be sighted from Brockham Hill roughly midway on a line joining them. Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor, the highest point, apart from the north Dartmoor tors, in south-west England lies very nearly due west (269°.85). Dunkery is seventy-six miles from Stonehenge, but it is possible to sight its summit at west and Beacon Hill near Stonehenge at east from the southern Mendips. The southern summit of the Black Mountains, the nearest mountain range to Stonehenge, is situated almost north-west (314°.27) at a distance of seventy-seven miles.
Various simple methods would have facilitated long-range surveying. Smoke signals by day and beacon fires at night were used in ancient China, Egypt and Greece. A column of smoke can rise to at least 1,500m enabling the direction of a distant hilltop to be ascertained even if the view is blocked by intervening high ground.
The planners of large circles probably used their feet and fingers. This is well illustrated by their greatest achievement: the erection at Stonehenge of thirty massive sarsens, capped by thirty lintels, in a perfect circle forty paces (29.8m) across. The Heel Stone stands a hundred paces (77.6m) from the circle-centre. At forty enclosures there is a simple relationship between the number of pillars or postholes on the perimeter and the number of paces used /to set.out the radius or diameter. At Stonehenge fifty-six pits, called Aubrey Holes, lie on the circumference of a circle with a radius of fifty-six paces (43.5m).
The sarsen in the outer circle standing due east of the circle-centre is lavishly decorated with axe- carvings.
The axis was directed towards a dual target: the sun and an important landmark nineteen miles away. At midsummer the sun would have appeared above the horizon at 49°.9. 49°.9 is also the bearing of Inkpen Hill, the western summit of the Inkpen ridge, which is the highest land in central southern England.
The transportation of some eighty blocks weighing up to four tons from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales to Stonehenge is one of the strangest events in prehistory. What was the motivation for a project involving a hazardous land and water journey of at least 200 miles?
The summit of the Preseli ridge, Foel Cwmcerwyn, commands a vast panorama that includes the mountains of Wales and eastern Ireland as well as the high moorlands of south-west England. The builders of Stonehenge would have been fascinated by the directions of three summits; two of them are situated in major directions from Stonehenge. The southern summit of the Black Mountains, which can be seen at nearly east (89°.0), is north-west of Stonehenge. Dunkery Beacon, which can be sighted at south-east (136°.1), lies practically west of Stonehenge. Lugnaquillia, the loftiest peak in Ireland outside Kerry, is visible at virtually north-west (315°.3).
Significantly, horizon features mark the direction of true north from Foel Cwmcerwyn. The summit of Bardsey Island and Mynydd Mawr, the headland of the Lleyn Peninsula, appear on the horizon as adjacent humps of the same height. The bearing of the mid-point between them is only a tenth of a degree from true north. It is also noteworthy that Snowdon and High Willhays on Dartmoor, the highest points of Wales and southern England, are visible from Foel Cwmcerwyn at similar angles from north (20°.51) and south (21°.08).
The axis of Stonehenge is directed towards the midsummer sunrise in addition to a landmark. In the period when the bluestones were transported an observer on Foel Cwmcerwyn would have seen the sun rising at midsummer near to the summit of Pumlumon, the highest of the south Cambrian Mountains.
The bluestones were incorporated in various reconstructions of Stonehenge. The view from the top of Foel Cwmcerwyn was the quintessence of the ring-builders’ belief system: it was the only location in their world from which it was possible to observe horizon features indicating four of the eight major directions as well as the sun appearing at midsummer behind a prominent mountain. The bluestones transmitted the potency and magic of a unique place to a unique temple.
Stonehenge must be considered in the context of other significant monuments. This section includes some of the topographical relationships and design features of seven major structures.
The paired Grey Wethers circles (SX 638 831), the largest on Dartmoor, were carefully laid out. The circle-centres are fifty paces (38.9m) apart and virtually north and south of each other. High Willhays, the loftiest Dartmoor tor, is exactly north-west and the summit of the Quantocks lies about north-east (43°.9).
With a diameter of 150 paces (113m), the Great Circle at Stanton Drew near Bristol (ST 600 632) is the largest true circle of megaliths in Europe. Inkpen Hill lies nearly east (90°.5) and Pen y Fan, the summit of the Brecon Beacons and the highest point in southern Britain, is situated almost north-west (314°.3).
The shape and location of Silbury Hill (SU 100 685), Europe’s largest prehistoric mound, suggest that it was intended to be a model hill. The summits of Silbury, Inkpen Beacon (104°.18) and Leith Hill (103°.83) are almost aligned.
The top of Whitehorse Hill is due south of the attractive Rollright circle on the Cotswold ridgeway (SP 296 309). Leith Hill, which can be sighted from Whitehorse Hill, lies about south-east (136°.4) and the summit of the Black Mountains is nearly, due west (269°.9). An imposing slab a hundred paces (76m) from the circle is oriented east-west.
The Twelve Apostles ring (NX 947 794) just outside Dumfries is the largest stone ring in mainland Scotland. The local landmarks of Beacon Hill and Burnswark are due east. The long axis of the oval is oriented almost north-south. The summit of Ben Macdui, Britain’s second highest mountain, lies practically due north (359°.75).
The Ring of Brodgar on Orkney (HY 294 133) is only slightly, smaller than the Great Circle at Stanton Drew. Originally sixty flagstones formed a near-perfect circle 140 paces (103.6m) across. The tallest pillars are at the cardinal points of south and west. Ben More Assynt, the loftiest peak in the northern Highlands, is virtually south-west (225°.2). The highest points of the Orkney and Shetland islands, the summits of Ward Hill on Hoy and Ronas Hill, lie exactly opposite to each other from this spectacular site.
The Ballynoe circle near Downpatrick (J 481 404) is the finest megalithic circle in Ireland. The true circle has a diameter of forty paces (29.9m), and the largest stones are at the north and south. At midwinter the sun would have set behind the pyramid-shaped summit of Slieve Donard, the highest point in northern Ireland, which lies nearly south-west (226°.0).
The ring-builders attached special significance to the major directions and the highest hilltops; they used these cartographic concepts to position their structures. The degree of accuracy achieved by the surveyors, who were working without technical equipment, is extraordinary. For a period as long as that from the fall of the Roman Empire to the present day communities gathered within the sacred barriers of megaliths and banks to communicate with the forces that held sway over their precarious lives.
Nowadays little attention is paid to landscape features or major directions, but they are essential keys to an understanding of the beliefs and practices of the inhabitants of Britain in the age of Stonehenge.