By Vivienne Mackie
One of Britain's most famous ancient monuments is Stonehenge, near Amesbury in Wiltshire. Definitely, no journey into Britain's past should miss Stonehenge, one of the best-known prehistoric monuments in the world: a World Heritage Site that's an inspiration and fascination and, for many, a place of worship and celebration.
The ancient stone circle evolved between 3,000 and 1,600 B.C., about the same time as the pyramids in Egypt, probably for neolithic farmers to celebrate the rebirth of the seasons at midwinter and midsummer. So, it is aligned with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, but its exact purpose remains a mystery.
It's generally believed that it was built as a temple, a place for ceremony, burial and celebration. Stonehenge has inspired people to study and interpret it for centuries. Medieval writers believed it was built by magic means; some early 18th-century historians postulated — incorrectly — that the Druids had built it.
Our best chances of answering the questions about how and when it was built, and perhaps by whom, lie with archeological techniques. But even these will probably never answer the question of why it was built.
Some visitors say that to really appreciate the scale and location of Stonehenge, you should walk toward it along the avenue from the open, rolling Downs to see it appear on the horizon, or book a limited-number visit inside the circle outside normal opening hours. Most people, including us on a return visit in late 2012, follow the guided walk circling the monument, which gives a really good perspective of the whole site.
The main area of the site is fairly level, and there is wheelchair access around the stones on the path.
Access to the stones in the circle was stopped in 1978, due to vandalism and the rising number of visitors. I went in 1974 and have a rare photo of me next to some of the stones. What an honor to have been able to do that.
As you walk around, you can trace the evolution of Stonehenge from its beginnings as a circular ditch and bank to its final stone form. The color guidebook (buy it for about 5 pounds) and the free audio guide that goes with the ticket give wonderful information and explanations.
Stop, listen, look, ponder, wonder. Understanding what you are looking at is of course important, but just knowing the details can't really prepare most visitors for that special feeling of awe when actually confronted with something so old.
You arrive by walking over a slight rise and dip in the grass, which is the bank and ditch enclosure. The original banks would have been white as they were made from the underlying chalky soil, but nowadays, they are just soft shapes in the grass.
The first Stonehenge was simple: a circular outer ditch and bank forming an enclosure of about 360 feet in diameter. Bones also were found in the ditch floor. So, it is believed that in its early days, Stonehenge was a cemetery of some sort.
The most visible part of Stonehenge today is the stones: a 16-foot-high outer circle of monoliths capped with stone lintels forms a screen around a horseshoe of even taller trilithons. Some stones are small, some have fallen, many are massive, but all are spectacular.
There are two kinds of stones: very large sarsens, a type of hard sandstone; and smaller bluestones. The larger sarsens were apparently transported from more than 19 miles away. The bluestones came from Preseli in west Wales, more than 150 miles west of Stonehenge.
Experts suggest that the sarsens were dragged on a simple wooden sledge, a journey that would take at least 12 days using a team of 200 people. It's still a mystery how the bluestones got here, but it's possible that water transport was used part of the way.
As you carry on round the edge of the enclosure on the path, you notice various other free-standing stones, all with a story. One is a huge stone lying in the ceremonial entrance to the enclosure. It became known as the Slaughter Stone, a name conjured up by overactive Victorian imaginations because of a reddish color on its surface. A slight depression on the stone collects rainwater that reacts with iron in the stone and turns a rusty red. It's not blood from sacrifice.
Stonehenge is only one part of this ancient landscape, which contains a remarkable collection of prehistoric monuments. These are well worth exploring if you have time.
Outside the actual site is parking, a toilet block and snack stall. At the ticket office is a gift shop and snack bar.
For more information plus details about times and more, visit http://bit.ly/155Aaw5.
Vivienne Mackie is an Urbana resident who loves to travel and discover the history and culture of other countries. Read her blog at viviennemackie.wordpress.com.