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Feb 24 2013

The mystery of Stonehenge

StonehengeThe Stonehenge site in England is a popular tourist attraction, especially at the time of the summer solstice when mystical rites are conducted by druids. The collection of massive stones was arranged in a circle some time between 3,000 BCE – 2,000 BCE but the origins and purpose are unknown and have spawned many theories as to what was the point of it all. After all, it must been incredibly hard to make it and so required a strong motive.

Some have suggested that it was a burial site, others that it served some sort of astronomical purpose. The more imaginative theories suggest that it had something to do with extra-terrestrial visitors. Now a new theory suggests that it was built as a monument to tribal unification.

But more interesting to me than the purpose is the physics: how the massive stones, some of which were quarried over 100 miles away, were brought to the site. The popular theory was that they were rolled on logs. But now there is a theory that the Easter Island statues, which are also massive and had been believed to also have been transported by rolling on logs, may have been ‘walked‘ there. This video shows how it could have been done.

It struck me that if the Easter Islanders could have done that, the same idea may have occurred to the Stonehengers. It is true that the Easter Island statues were built much later (from 1000 to 1680 CE) but the technology involved was not that sophisticated and would have been available to the Stonehengers. There are some obvious differences that would cause immense difficulties in the latter case. The Easter Island statues are about 10 feet tall and weigh about 5 tons. Some of the Stonehenge pillars are much bigger (about 20 feet and weigh as much as 25 tons) and the distance they had to travel much longer. It is also not clear how well this walking technique would work over rough terrain. But whatever the method chosen, you can be sure that it involved a lot of hard work.

Comedian Eddie Izzard’s take on Stonehenge is my favorite..

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Andrew G.

    For another take on Stonehenge, Michael Flanders’ monologue “Built Up Area”:

    http://www.nyanko.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/fas/tried_built.html

  2. 2
  3. 3
    Marcus Ranum

    I always wondered if someone just thought it was a good way to keep captives from a war busy and away from town.

  4. 4
    left0ver1under

    So NOVA is revisiting “Secrets of Lost Empires”? That series of shows was an old favourite. It started first with “This Old Pyramid” then expanded into many others. Some were less impressive (e.g. Roman bath) but it was fascinating and fun to see theories of how Rome put a roof on the colosseum and how the Egyptians raised obelisks, and especially siege engines throwing 120kg stones 100-200 metres.

    I’m still partial to the Incan method of building cobblestone roads to pull rocks – not to say that’s now the Rapa Nuians or ancient England did it, but in the long haul (pun intended) it makes work easier and is very feasible.

  5. 5
    rq

    This man has been moving large objects for fun for several years. But he’s not an archaeologist, he’s a retired construction engineer with a lot of time and ingenuity on his hands. I think the method he uses is the ‘walking’ one you mention here. :)

  6. 6
    Donovan

    I’d think the stones themselves would show some sign of how they got there. Is there more sign of stress at one end showing a walking method, or is one side dimpled and smoothed by log rolling? Sure, the thousands of years of weather and century of industrialized rain have hidden much evidence, but all?

    Obviously I’m wrong, since nobody’s found anything. But I’d like to know what erased all such evidence.

    What also surprises me is that not one of the Stonehenge workers uploaded a video to the ancient MySpace. I’m guessing they only had dial up-back then, making this impractical.

  7. 7
    Didaktylos

    My favourite cartoon featuring Stonehenge has the caption (IIRC) “Typical – as soon as we get the scaffolding up. the Client runs out of money.”

  8. 8
    Kengi

    The tribal unification theory was proposed and studied decades ago by (at least) Dr. Leon Stover. I took some of his courses as an undergrad. He was an interesting anthropologist who even co-wrote a science fiction book based loosely on his ideas about Stonehenge with Harry Harrison.

  9. 9
    sheila

    To clarify, there were two stages of construction at Stonehenge. The outer circle was made at about 3,000 BC of smaller stones from 200 miles away, and the inner circle and horse shoe was made in about 2,000 BC of the really big stones from “only” about 25 miles away.

    Still pretty impressive though.

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