Sunday, 31 January 2010
On the moving of giant stones.
I came across a really interesting blog the other day... and it wasn't about photography. It was about the debate regarding the huge stones of Stonhenge. Only I didn't know it was even a debate.
Like most of us I'd believed what I've always heard. Neolithic men - maybe some girls, but they were probably engaged in more life-sustaining activities! - trapsed off to west Wales, picked up some likely looking 'blue stones' and dragged them back to Wiltshire.
Ever the romantic I've always believed in the endeavour and capabilities of ancient man. Partly because I object fundamentally to the derision they face when I hear how 'sophisticated' our flash-in-the-pan culture is. The disgust of modern man at the thought of sitting round a fire, hunting bison with sticks, and even contemplating life without an I-Pod is pretty insulting. On a side note I was talking to a Brazilian girl the other night over a few beers and she is convinced that the Conquistadors 'saved' the peoples of South America from a tribal, revenge-based, cannibalistic way-of-life. I didn't agree. Sure that's a small part of what they had, but they had been - presumably - happy for more than 10,000 years. What have they been left with? Displacement, disease, persecution, and death. Goodo.
Anyway, back to the Henge and those big stones.
There are two principle stone-types in that big field next to the A303: Sarsen and Blue. It's commonly held that the 50t Sarsen stones were dragged 25 miles and the 4t Blues were dragged - somehow, probably with sledge and boat - from around Pembrokeshire. This is all very well until you begin to think about the mechanics and feasibility of this. The M4 didn't exist and the A303 certainly wasn't there so who now fancies dragging a 4t rock more than 100 miles over what would have been dense woodland and mire? Even, and it's a slightly ironic 'even', dragging a massive Sarsen stone 25 miles over modern day Salisbury Plain would be a massive undertaking.
But there are precendents for giant, mysterious, ancient engineering projects and you don't need me to remind you where they are: Giza, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, to name some of the more famous ones. So why couldn't ancient Britons do something similar?
Well perhaps, because they didn't need to. Not if the stones were already there...
Our changing climate has been in the news a lot lately, but quite frankly it's always been the news. In fact it's always been the most fundamental thing affecting the distribution of humans on the planet. We are creeping out of an ice-age that last cloaked much of the UK around 10,000 years ago, but that wasn't the worse version. 250,000 years ago, or so, the ice stretched even further - perhaps even down to Cornwall, which is commonly reported to have escaped the creeping wall of water.
So, what if the glaciers had nudged up to, or even stretched beyond, Salisbury Plain? And what if they'd dumped some of their heavy load on the bare ground? Wouldn't that be the place to go foraging for nice rocks to make spectacular things for the Wiltshirians of old?
Whatever my spiritual ideals, ultimately pragmatism would have - must have - led these decisions. Sure, they could have traded something for the stones with the Welshmen. Cheese maybe? But that's an even more fanciful notion! It's quite clear to my untrained eyes that people of Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor used the resources close to hand, despite blatantly - in my romantic opinion - possessing advanced and inter-related spirutuality, of which we'll probably only ever be able to guess at. And we're probably richer for this ignorance.
So perhaps it's time we take - and by we, I mean glaciologists and their kin - a fresh approach to Britain's most iconic monument and explore the possibility of Pickford's Ice 'delivering' the stones to the doorstep of the builders of Stonehenge, perhaps even a couple of hundred years before they even thought about building it.
However they got them there it does nothing to change its timeless beauty and magnificence.
Read this blog for a nice introduction to the debate. It's by a nice chap called Brian.
(This photo is from Bodmin Moor. An ancient landscape, much inhabited, much changed, but the same.)