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Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered 


by Norman Lockyer

   Mystic Realms        Stonehenge




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SOON after Mr. Penrose and myself had made our astronomical survey of Stonehenge in 1901, some archæological results of the highest importance were obtained by Professor Gowland. The operations which secured them were designed and carried out in order to re-erect the leaning stone which threatened to fall, a piece of work recommended to Sir Edmund Antrobus by the Society of Antiquaries of London and other learned bodies, and conducted at his desire and expense.

They were necessarily on a large scale, for the great monolith, "the leaning stone," is the largest in England, the Rudston monolith excepted. It stood behind the altar stone, over which it leant at an angle of 65 degrees, resting at one point against a small stone of sycnite. Halfway up it had a fracture one-third across it; the weight of stone above this fracture was a dangerous strain on it, so that both powerful machinery and great care and precautions had to be used. Professor Gowland was charged by the Society of Antiquaries with the conduct of the excavations necessary in the work. The engineering operations were planned by Mr. Carruthers, and Mr. Detmar Blow was responsible for the local superintendence.

FIG. 16.—The arrangements for raising the stone, looking north-east. FIG. 17.—The cradle and supports, looking west.

Mr. Blow thus describes the arrangements (Journal Institute of British Architects, 3rd series, ix., January, 1902):— "A strong cradle of 12-inch square baulks of timber was bolted round the stone, with packing and felt, to prevent any marking of the stone. To the cradle were fixed two 1-inch steel eyebolts to receive the blocks for two six-folds of 6-inch ropes. These were secured and wound on to two strong winches fifty feet away, with four men at each winch. When the ropes were thoroughly tight, the first excavation was made as the stone was raised on its west side."

The method employed by Professor Gowland in the excavation should be a model for all future work of the kind.

Above each space to be excavated was placed a frame of wood, bearing on its long sides the letters A to H, and on its short sides the letters R M L, each letter being on a line one foot distant from the next. By this means the area to be excavated was divided into squares each having the dimension of a square foot. A long rod divided into 6-inch spaces, numbered from 1 to 16, was also provided for indicating the depth from the datum line of anything found. In this way a letter on the long sides of the frame, together with one on the short sides, and a number on the vertical rod, indicated the position of any object found in any part of the excavation.

Excavations were necessary because to secure the stone for the future the whole of the adjacent soil had to be removed down to the rock level, so that it could be replaced by concrete.

All results were registered by Professor Lowland in relation to a datum line 337.4 feet above sea level. The material was removed in buckets, and carefully sifted through a series of sieves 1-inch, ½-inch, ¼-inch, and
1/8-inch mesh, in order that the smallest object might not be overlooked.

FIG. 18—The frame used to locate the finds

From the exhaustive account of his work given by Professor Gowland to the Society of Antiquaries (Archaeologia, lviii.), I gather three results of the highest importance from the point of view I am considering. These were, first, the finding of an enormous number of implements; secondly, the disposition and relative quantities of the chippings of the sarsen and blue stones; and thirdly, the discovery of the method by which the stones were originally erected.

I will take the implements first. This, in a condensed form, is what Professor Gowland says about them:—

More than a hundred flint implements were found, and the greater number occurred in the stratum of chalk rubble which either directly overlaid or was on a level with the bed rock. They may all be arranged generally in the following classes

Class I.—Axes roughly chipped and of rude forms, but having well-defined, more or less sharp cutting edges.

Class II.—Hammerstones, with more or less well-chipped, sharp curved edges. Most may be correctly termed hammer-axes. They are chipped to an edge at one end, but at the other are broad and thick, and in many examples terminated there by a more or less flat surface. In some the natural coating of the flint is left untouched at the thick end.

Class III.—Hammerstones, more or less rounded. Some specimens appear to have once had distinct working edges, but they are now much blunted and battered by use.

In addition to the above flint implements were found about thirty hammerstones, consisting of large pebbles or small boulders of the hard quartzite variety of sarsen. Some have been roughly broken into convenient forms for holding in the hand, whilst a few have been rudely trimmed into more regular shapes. They vary in weight from about a pound up to six and a half pounds. To these we have to add mauls, a more remarkable kind of hammerstone than those just enumerated. They are ponderous boulders of the quartzite variety of sarsen with their broadest sides more or less flat. Their weights range from about 40 lb. to 64 lb.

How came these flints and stones where they were found? Prof. Gowland gives an answer which everybody will accept. The implements must be regarded as the discarded tools of the builders of Stonehenge, dumped down into the holes as they became unfit for use, and, in fact, used to pack the monoliths as they were erected. We read:—"Dealing with the cavity occupied by No. 55 before its fall, the mauls were found wedged in below the front of its base to act together with the large blocks of sarsen as supports" (p. 54). Nearly all bear evidence of extremely rough usage, their edges being jagged and broken, just as we should expect to find after such rough employment. We evidently have to deal with builders doing their work in the Stone and not in the Bronze age. But was the age Palæolithic or Neolithic?

Prof. Gowland writes:—

"Perhaps the most striking features of the flint implements is their extreme rudeness, and that there is not a single ground or polished specimen among them. This, at first sight and without due consideration, might be taken to indicate an extremely remote age. But in this connection it must be borne in mind that in the building of such a stupendous structure as Stonehenge, the tools required must have been numbered by thousands. The work, too, was of the roughest character, and for such only rude tools were required. The highly finished and polished implements which we are accustomed to consider, and rightly so, as characteristic of Neolithic man, would find no place in such work. They required too much labour and time for their manufacture, and, when made, could not have been more effective than the hammer-axes and hammer-stones found in the excavations, which could be so easily fashioned by merely rudely shaping the natural flints, with which the district abounds, by a few well directed blows of a sarsen pebble."

On this ground Prof. Gowland is of opinion that, notwithstanding their rudeness, they may be legitimately ascribed to the Neolithic age, and, it may be, near its termination, that is, before the Bronze age, the commencement of which has been placed at 1400 B.C. by Sir John Evans for Britain, though he is inclined to think that estimate too low, and 2000 B.C. by Montelius for Italy.

Prof. Gowland guardedly writes:—

"The occurrence of stone tools does not alone prove with absolute certainty that Stonehenge belongs to the Neolithic age, although it affords a strong presumption in favour of that view. But, and this is important, had bronze been in general or even moderately extensive

FIG. 19.—Some of the Flint Implements

use when the stones were set up, it is in the highest degree probable that some implement of that metal would have been lost within the area of the excavations, and if so lost, it would certainly have been found together with the stone tools. Further, the employment of deer's horn picks for the extensive excavations made in the chalk around the base of the monoliths also tends to support the view that bronze implements cannot have been in common use. If they had it would seem not unreasonable to assume that they would have been employed, as they would have been so much more effective for such work than the picks of deer's horn.

"Again, the chippings of the stones of Stonehenge in two of the Bronze age barrows ( footnote 78:1 )in its neighbourhood show that it is of earlier date than they."

And finally:—

"In my opinion, the date when copper or bronze was first known in Britain is a very remote one, as no country in the world presented greater facilities for their discovery. The beginning of their application to practical uses should, I think, be placed at least as far back as 1800 B.C., and that date I am inclined to give, until further evidence is forthcoming, as the approximate date of the erection of Stonehenge."

Now the date arrived at by Mr. Penrose and myself on astronomical grounds was about 1700 B.C. It is not a little remarkable that independent astronomical and archæological inquiries conducted in the same year should have come so nearly to the same conclusion. If a general agreement be arrived at regarding it, we have a firm basis for the study of other similar ancient monuments in this country.

I have previously in this book referred to the fact that the trilithons of the naos and the stones of the outer circle are all built up of so-called "sarsen" stones. To describe their geological character, I cannot do better than quote, from Mr. Cunnington's "Geology of Stonehenge," ( footnote 79:1 ) their origin according to Prestwich.

“Among the Lower Tertiaries (the Eocene of Sir Charles Lyell) are certain sands and mottled clays, named by Mr. Prestwich the Woolwich and Reading beds, from their being largely developed at these places, and from these he proves the sarsens to have been derived; although they are seldom found in situ, owing to the destruction of the stratum to which they belonged. They are large masses of sand concreted together by a siliceous cement, and when the looser portions of the stratum were washed away, the blocks of sandy rocks were left scattered over the surface of the ground.

“At Standen, near Hungerford, large masses of sarsen are found, consisting almost entirely of flints, formed into conglomerate with the sand. Flints are also common in some of the large stones forming the ancient temple of Avebury.

"The abundance of these remains, especially in some of the valleys of North Wilts, is very remarkable. Few persons who have not seen them can form an adequate idea of the extraordinary scene presented to the eye of the spectator, who standing on the brow of one of the hills near Clatford, sees stretching for miles before him, countless numbers of these enormous stones, occupying the middle of the valley, and winding like a mighty stream towards the south."

These stones, then, may be regarded as closely associated with the local geology.

The exact nature of the stones, called "blue stones," can best be gathered from a valuable "Note" by Prof. Judd which accompanies Prof. Gowland's paper. These blue stones are entirely unconnected with the local geology; they must, therefore, represent boulders of the Glacial drift, or they must have been brought by man, from distant localities. Prof. Judd inclines to the first opinion.

The distinction between these two kinds of stone are well shown by Prof. Gowland:—

“The large monoliths of the outer circle, and the trilithons of the horse-shoe are all sarsens. [See general plan, Fig. 15.] These sarsens in their composition are sandstones, consisting of quartz-sand, either fine or coarse, occasionally mixed with pebbles and angular bits of flint, all more or less firmly cemented together with silica. They are the relics of the concretionary masses which had become consolidated in the sandstone beds that once overlaid the chalk of the district, and had resisted the destructive agencies by which the softer parts of the beds were removed in geological times. They range in structure from a granular rock resembling loaf sugar in internal appearance to one of great compactness similar to and sometimes passing into quartzite.

“The monoliths and trilithons all consist of the granular rock. The examples of the compact quartzite variety, of which many were found in the excavations, were almost without exception either hammerstones that glad been used in shaping: and dressing the monoliths, or fragments which had been broken from off them in these operations.

“The small monoliths, the so-called 'blue stones,' which form the inner circle and the inner horse-shoe, are, with the undermentioned exceptions, all of diabase more or less porphyritic. Two are porphyrite (formerly known as felstone or hornstone). Two are argillaceous sandstone.

“Mr. William Cunnington, in his valuable paper, 'Stonehenge Notes,' records the discovery of two stumps of 'blue stones' now covered by the turf. One of these lies in the inner horseshoe between Nos. 61 and 62, and 9 feet distant from the latter. It is diabase. The other is in the inner circle between Nos. 32 and 33, 10 feet from the former, and consists of a soft calcareous altered tuff, afterwards designated for the sake of brevity fissile rock.

"The altar stone is of micaceous sandstone."

I now come to the second point, to which I shall return in the next chapter.

In studying the material obtained from the excavations, it was found in almost every case that the number of chippings and fragments of blue stone largely exceeded that of the sarsens; more than this, diabase (blue stone) and sarsen were found together in the layer overlying the solid chalk (p. 15). Chippings of diabase were the most abundant, but there were few large pieces of it. Sarsen, on the other hand, occurred most abundantly in lumps (p. 20); very few small chips of
sarsen were found (p. 42). Hence Prof. Gowland is of opinion that the sarsen blocks were roughly hewn, where they were found (p. 40); the local tooling, executed with the small quartzite hammers and mauls, would produce not chips but dust.

FIG. 20.—Showing the careful tooling of the Sarsens.

Finally, I reach the third point of importance from the present standpoint; the excavations produced clear evidence touching the mode of erection. Prof. Gowland's memoir deals only with the leaning stone, but I take
it for granted that the same method was employed throughout: the method was this.

FIG. 21.—Face of rock against which a stone was made to rest.

(1) The ground in the site a stone was to occupy was removed, the chalk rock being cut into in such a manner as to leave a ledge, on which the base of the stone was to rest, and a perpendicular face rising from it, against which as a buttress one side would bear when set up. From the bottom of this hole an inclined plane was cut to the surface down which the monolith which had already been dressed was slid until its base rested on the ledge.

(2) It was then gradually raised into a vertical position by means first of levers and afterwards of ropes. The levers would be long trunks of trees, to one end of which a number of ropes was attached (this method is still employed in Japan); so that the weights and pulling force of many men might be exerted on them. The stronger ropes were probably of hide or hair, but others of straw, or of withes of hazel or willow, may have been in use for minor purposes.

(3) As the stone was raised, it was packed up with logs of timber and probably also with blocks of stone placed beneath it.

(4) After its upper end had reached a certain elevation, ropes were attached to it, and it was then hauled by numerous men into a vertical position, so that its back rested against the perpendicular face of the chalk which had been prepared for it. During this part of the operation, struts of timber would probably be placed against its sides to guard against slip, a precaution taken when the leaning stone was raised and until the foundation was properly set.

As regards the raising of the lintels, and imposts, and the placing of them on the tops of the uprights, there would be even less difficulty than in the erection of the uprights themselves.

It could be easily effected by the simple method practised in Japan for placing heavy blocks of stone in position. The stone, when lying on the ground, would be raised a little at one end by means of long wooden levers. A packing of logs would then be placed under
the end so raised, the other extremity of the stone would be similarly raised and packed, and the raising and packing at alternate ends would be continued until the block had gradually reached the height of the uprights. It would then be simply pushed forward by levers until it rested upon them.

FIG. 22.—The leaning stone upright before the struts were removed. FIG. 23.—Stonehenge, 1905.

It is not often that an engineering operation has been made so subservient to the interests of science as the one we have dealt with in this chapter. It is satisfactory to know not only that much new knowledge has been acquired by Professor Gowland and his coadjutors, but that the famous leaning stone has now been set upright in such fashion that it will remain upright for hundreds of years. May the other leaning stones soon receive the same treatment.


78:1 Sir Richard Colt Hoare, Ancient history of South Wiltshire, p. 127. (London, 1812); W. Stukeley, Stonehenge, p. 46. (London, 1740).

79:1 Wilts. Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, xxi. pp. 141-149.


Next Chapter: Chapter IX. Was There an Earlier Circle?

Authentic Medieval Swords & Armor


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