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Stonehenge and Civilisation
Does history go in circles or is it more like a piece of string? CJStone sets out to discover the secrets of Stonehenge.
The Megalithic Yard
I took my son to Stonehenge to watch the midsummer sunrise. It was the first time that he had seen the monument close up. He was not all that impressed. “It’s not as big as I thought it would be,” he said.
I can’t blame him for that. Compared to a modern skyscraper Stonehenge does, indeed, appear small. It has to be put into context for the sheer scale of the achievement to be understood.
The people who built Stonehenge probably hadn’t invented the wheel yet. They knew nothing of modern engineering methods and had nothing but stone axes and bone shovels to create this extraordinary monument.
It probably took over a thousand years to build, from its first to its last, and was in constant use for several thousand years after that. Indeed, you could say that it has never really gone out of use, if my visit to see the sunrise with Joe can be counted too. Who are we but the latest in a long line of visitors come to admire and wonder at this mysterious structure?
The question then has to be: why? Why did these ancient people go to all this trouble, dragging these huge stones over all those distances to make a circle in the middle of nowhere? What, exactly, is its purpose?
This, of course, is the subject of much debate.
Was it a temple or an observatory? Is its purpose religious or scientific?
The problem with questions like these is that they seek to divide the world according to modern concepts. Why not both? Maybe the people who built it were neither one nor the other, but both. Astronomer-priests, perhaps. Engineering-magicians.
What is clear is that whoever was responsible for it may have understood some very remarkable things. For example, if the work of the Scottish engineer Alexander Thom is right, then it was built using a unit of measurement (the so-called “Megalithic Yard”) which turns out to be an exact proportion of the circumference of the earth. In other words, the people who built Stonehenge not only knew that the earth was round, they even knew it’s exact size.
How long is a piece of string?
The usual response when confronted with information like this is disbelief. People either deny it completely, or they ascribe the knowledge to some outside source, such as alien beings from another planet, or to supernatural intervention. What we cannot believe is that our ancestors may have had access to sources of information that we have since lost.
This is because we think that history is like a piece of string. We imagine a straight line from some technologically inferior past to a well-informed present. From dumb to clever, from stone axes to mobile phones. But any clear understanding of the process makes it obvious that it is more like a wheel. History goes in cycles, from dumb to clever and back again, on a regular basis.
So, for instance, in medieval times we thought the world was flat, that the sun went round the earth and that the king had a right to rule his subjects absolutely. We were dumb. The ancient Greeks, however, two thousand years before that, knew that the earth was round and went round the sun and that people fared better as a society when they were allowed to make their own decisions democratically. They were clever.
The people who built Stonehenge, over five thousand years ago, only had stone axes. But they knew the size of the earth. They lived in wooden huts and cooked food on an open fire. But they understood how to measure the stars.
Meanwhile we’ve invented TV, we have mobile phones and SatNav and we fly all over the world in jet aircraft. But all we watch on TV are variations of Big Brother, we’ve lost our sense of purpose in life and we’re busy messing up the world for future generations.
So – now - who is really dumb?