Circle of stones

Published 1:33 pm Saturday, October 3, 2015

A view of Stonehenge from the northeast. -- SUBMITTED | ARCHIE HOWELL

A view of Stonehenge from the northeast. — SUBMITTED | ARCHIE HOWELL

by James D. Howell

It rises from the horizon as we move west on the A303 from London. Just a blip at first, not definable; could be a tree or a building or a power line. It broadens and flattens as we get closer, and we see the shapes familiar from pictures in history and guide books. It’s a silhouette against a gray sky, a wall fractured to let light through the crevices. It’s very noticeable on this generally flat Salisbury Plain, just a couple of miles west of Amesbury. We follow the signs and take a secondary road to the north; the parking lot is just a short way on the right.

The lot is smaller than I would have imagined, given the fame of this monument. We park and find our way to the tunnel that connects the lot with Stonehenge grounds on the opposite side of the road. It’s almost a private visit; few people have decided to stop today.

It’s hard to believe that we’re here; it seems like a fairy tale. There, right over there, about 5,000 years ago, people raised the earliest of these massive stones, transported from a site about 140 miles to the north, in Wales. This site has been changed over the millennia with earthworks, and additional holes in the ground that are more recently discovered. Early relationships with the river Avon is rumored. It passes just to the east and many feel it, and other waterways, was used to help transport the stones from northern locations to this hilltop site.

Just outside the tunnel is a scale model of the monument with identification of the main components. The Salisbury Plain was in use as a spiritual place for over 5,000 years before the first stones were erected. The area has extensive burial mounds and stone circles other than Stonehenge. We check out the model and continue on to the stones themselves, or at least as far as we are permitted. A small rope on standards has been erected around the outer perimeter and individuals are not permitted among the uprights. Today, an academic team is doing yet another study of the stones.

No one knows the exact purpose of this ancient arrangement. The people that built it died out or assimilated into other tribes and the culture was abandoned along with the stones. The latest views are that it was initially a burial site that grew over the millennia into a place of spiritual significance as an observatory. Well known is the arrangement of the head and foot stones and their correlation with summer and winter solstice.

The earth has wobbled a bit on its axis since the last stones were arranged, but astronomers assure us that it was a fairly accurate predictor of seasonal change. That, along with the other alignments for the moon, no doubt had much to do with ceremonial celebrations. Some people are quick to give credit to Druids, but Druids came long after these stone were placed here. Burial mounds also occupy this section of Salisbury Plain. Several have been explored, and, in all likelihood, many will be explored in the future. There are always pros and cons about investigations that disrupt gravesites; science sometimes has to take a back seat to decorum.

Hard to believe that this internationally known, virtual symbol of England was private property and was sold, early in the 20th century to an individual who donated it to the Public Trust. I suppose that only in relatively modern times, people have developed the wherewithal and desire to explore, learn about, and record ancient history. Modern technology, mostly developed for military purposes, provide tools impossible just a few years ago. This monument has been restored to the earliest state that records are available for.

We stand in awe, walk mostly in silence and leave a little more aware of just how accomplished some ancient peoples were. It’s humbling.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at