Past Remains

A view of yesterday from today

Stonehenge & Woodhenge, Wiltshire

The iconic and world-renowned site of Stonehenge is instantly recognisable to most people and barely needs an introduction. Much information has been researched, discovered and written about it, but what is it exactly...and where to begin?

Part of a huge and complex Neolithic and Bronze Age site, containing earthworks, stone circles, outlying avenues, Neolithic long barrows, Bronze Age round barrows and other monuments, it is generally thought to have begun in approximately 3,000 BC when a circular ditch and bank was built. The original bluestones, which came from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, were constructed around 2500 BC. These were later dismantled and replaced with another arrangement containing sarsen stones from the nearby Marlborough Downs. 30 sarsen uprights with lintels enclosed five sarsen trilithons arranged in a horsehoe shape, the open end facing towards the midsummer sunrise. Bluestones were re-erected between the outer ring and the central trilithons, then some removed later on; the final arrangement being the one that we see today.

Visited in 2008, my first thought was that the stone circle seemed a lot smaller than I'd expected...and I've since heard other people say the same too. I imagine that pictures don't show the scale in the same way that we see, therefore we expect it to be much larger. However, the perspective is just a surprising oddity, and doesn't detract from how incredibly impressive the site is.

It isn't possible to wander amongst the stones, as there's a circular roped-off path for visitors to walk around. What really stood out for me was the way that it constantly changed as I walked around, looking entirely different every few steps along. Another thing I found amazing was that although the whole visitor set-up cuts the circle off from it's natural part within the complex...which to my mind makes it sterile and unnatural...it still retains it's awe-inspiring presence and atmosphere. I'll never forget that feeling, and can still feel it now whenever I look back to my visit.

As well as human visitors, the stones are also home to a huge flock of starlings.

The photo above was taken a couple of days before my actual visit, on the way home from Avebury. Not only a gorgeous sunset but also taken on the Autumn Equinox. Next stop, Woodhenge...

A Neolithic monument consisting of six concentric rings, Woodhenge was constructed around 2,300 BC. Unlike Stonehenge, the rings were built using wooden posts instead of stones; concrete markers now signifying their position. Similar to Stonehenge, the circle was slightly oval with its long axis approximately in line with the midsummer sunrise.

Recent research has connected both Stonehenge and Woodhenge with the nearby Durrington Walls henge, which was a massive circular earthwork built in the Neolithic period between 3,100 BC and 2,400 BC. The entrance to the timber circles on Durrington Walls was found to have been aligned so that the midwinter sun rose between the entrance posts. A number of pits outside the east entrance contained large amounts of animal bones along with pottery, worked flints and arrowheads. The animals were mostly pigs plus some cattle, and analysis of the pig teeth revealed that they had been slaughtered at around nine months old, notably at midwinter.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson claims a definite functional link between Durrington Walls Henge and Stonehenge, which also had an earthwork avenue (the Avenue) leading down to the River Avon. He suggests that the two sites were interlinked and in use at the same time. Durrington Walls, being made of wood, was a temporary structure and subject to decay and thus represented the land of the living, while Stonehenge, being made of stone, was permanent and represented the land of our ancestors - the afterlife.

It's thought that during the midwinter festival (when the slaughtered animals provided the feast) the remains of their dead ancestors were collected at Durrington Walls and were taken from there through Woodhenge and on to Stonehenge. The approach of the Avenue at Stonehenge from the north-east also corresponds to the rising of the midwinter sun and could be seen as it passed between the highest stones of the inner sarsen horseshoe.

And, as with many prehistoric sites, a sacrifice was involved. Although there was no altar stone at Woodhenge, very sadly the remains of a three-year old child with a split skull was found at the centre of the rings. In the photo below, the central mound had been adorned with a wreath of ivy and some apples...a beautiful gesture using pagan symbols that signify rebirth and the spirit or life force.

More photos can be seen in the Photo Gallery album along with these.

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