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Monday, August 16, 2010

Tour Part 2: Stonehenge

A lot of the stories that our tour guide told us while we traveled through the countryside actually related to the sites we were going to see, even though at first they did not seem to. Since a lot of stories tied in or partially related to Stonehenge, I'm going to tell a lot in here (or at least what I can remember of them, there is only so much one brain can absorb in a day) and sprinkle pictures of Stonehenge throughout to break it up a bit! One of these stories was about 'sky burials'. If you are easily grossed out, I suggest skipping ahead to the picture of me with the lovely Stonehenge and then continuing onward with the paragraph following it.

Long ago in England forts were built at the tops of hills for defense purposes. These forts usually consisted of a large earthen circular mound that sometimes also had a wooden fence. However, during times of peace, these forts were also great places for giving people a 'sky burial'. This literally meant you took your deceased loved one up to the top of the hill, into this lovely fort, and let the birds take care of the rest. Yes, people would take their dead loved ones up to be eaten by birds... apparently it was an honor.


Even during peace times, every fort in England had a man of the fort who was in charge of keeping track of what went on and such. Another interesting thing about English people is a lot of times people's names described what their occupation was. So the men that were in charge of forts near a sea, often carried the surname 'Merddin' which meant 'sea fortress'.

The name Merddin is awful close to a French word (merde) that is, a bit of an unpleasant term. Therfore it is rumored that Geoffrey of Monmouth, who first recorded tales of a prophetic man named 'Merlin', may have just changed the middle letters to avoid unfortunate ties to not so nice French words.

But I digress, you were expecting to hear about Stonehenge not about random old forts. But wait, I told you they might be related! So there is still TONS of debate about what Stonehenge was technically used for in its day, but archeology has shown that before all of the big stones seen today were put in place, the area first had a large circular ditch surrounded by a mound of earth and containing bones.

Interesting isn't it... and then at another point a little further on in history, the circular dirt mound and burial site was replaced with wooden posts. There is no easily visible evidence of these posts anymore, but the remains of cremations and then remnants from the wood were found in post holes in a circular arrangement in the Stonehenge area.

Moving onward from these wooden posts, a set of 'blue stones' were added.  However that circle seems never to have been completely finished. Then a bit later in time (maybe 200 years or so?), the extremely large current stones arrived in addition to the blue stones.

Legend has it that the stones were 'magicked from Ireland to England in a day'. However, most legends tend to be a bit exaggerated. The stones instead match those of a place in Pembrokeshire which is in Wales, but relatively near Ireland, and the stones were probably transported by canal.

 It is interesting how the stones are arranged though, as the entrance was changed when the stones were added, and a rough stone known as the 'heel stone' lines up exactly with the midsummer sunrise which is the day of the year with the most sunlight.

The stones also seem to have been rearranged  a few times since when they were originally constructed, and a tale by Geoffrey of Monmouth actually attributes the building of the stones to Merlin.

The exact use for the constructed stones is still not entirely known. The most commonly accepted idea is that it was a place of worship. The arrangement seems to give way to having processions in and out. The entrance also seems to be in such a way that it would make a path between Stonehenge and a similar but much larger stone circle in Avebury. 

The inside face of the rocks are smooth so would have allowed sound to resonate very well during chants and prayers. This was actually tested by a guy who tested sound related things in prehistoric caves.

Also, throughout a few historic works there have been mentions of people who worshiped in circles. Our tour guide made a connection between a passage of the Odyssey and another historic writing which 'could have suggested worship in stone circles like Stonehenge'. 

Regardless of what it actually was used for, the stones are definitely really neat to go see. No, you can't walk all the way up to them and touch them, but I kinda think it's better that way. You're able to see the whole site a little better, and you aren't kept that far away from it. (It also means you can get pictures of it without having people blocking it as much, which is definitely a plus!)

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