I am far more interested in why Stonehenge was built than in how it was built, but one particularly baffling aspect of the creation of the monument comes to mind more and more often. To illustrate my point, I can do no better than to quote from Aubrey Burl’s superb book The Stonehenge People, page 179.
“When one realises that there were to be thirty pillars, thirty lintels, two or three more portal stones and fifteen massive sarsens for the trilithons, the mere slog and drive required for the smoothing of the stones amazes the modern reader. And this was the beginning.
Woodworking techniques demanded more than planed surfaces. The stones had to be connected together as though dowelled by a megalithic carpenter. The tops of the uprights had to be bashed and scoured into two tenons or bulbous pegs to hold the lintels securely. The circle-lintels had to be delicately curved to follow the long line of the circle. They had to be chamferred, with bevelled edges, to sit firmly on their uprights and they had to have two deep mortise-holes pounded and pestled out of their undersides, the spacing neatly measured so that they would receive the tenons of the two pillars across which they would lie. The ends of these incredible lintels were also beaten into toggle-points, with the V-shaped ‘beak’ of one end to be inserted into the V-shaped groove of the adjoining lintel like pieces of a geometrical jigsaw, socketed together, stone by stone, in a huge, immovable ring high above the ground. In a timber building, the result would have been an achievement for any prehistoric architect. In sarsen it was almost a miracle.”
Of course, there is far more to it than just that, as Aubrey Burl makes clear in the rest of the chapter. Without listing all the other astonishing physical properties of the site and the architecture, our ancestors put in unimaginable hours of monotonous, tiring work on a stone almost as hard as steel, and they somehow made the top of the lintel circle level, despite the slope on which the monument was built. As well as that, the tops of the lintels were also flat.
I am neither an architect nor a stonemason, admittedly, but I’ve wondered about this raised circle of level, flat lintels for years, on and off. Instead of matters becoming clearer, they become more confused as far as I’m concerned, because all I see are problems. If the builders had simply fashioned an interlocking ring of lintels with a flat upper surface that did nothing more than sit upon the ground, I would be amazed at the achievement, but as we know, they did far more than this.
Without going into every detail, the sheer complexity of the enterprise to make an interlocking lintel ring that sits level on top of the joints of a ring of thirty uprights – on a slope - makes me wonder how on Earth it could have been executed so successfully. It may be clear to others, but I cannot see how you could fashion a few interlocking lintels and at the same time be certain that they would sit on the joints of the relevant uprights and curve at the correct angle without raising them and lowering them several times because minor corrections needed to be made. It would be difficult and frustrating enough in wood, but I understand that these lintels weighed something like eight tons each.
I could continue for hours, of course, but I’m sure that anyone with a serious interest in Stonehenge will immediately appreciate the difficulties involved, not to mention what may have been generations of labour to dress the stones properly.
So, was the lintel ring made to ‘crown’ the uprights, implying that the uprights were marginally more important? Or were the uprights there to elevate the ring to the sky, making the lintels marginally more important? I can see of course that there were numerous other complexities to the layout of the structure, such as the dressing of the faces of the stones, the size of the gaps between the uprights relative to the size of the uprights, and so forth, but my mind keeps returning to one question: What was so important about this circle of lintels that the upper surfaces, which aren’t visible from ground level, had to be flat and level? This implies functionality of some kind, perhaps a walkway, but if so, what was so important about it that our ancestors devoted such a colossal amount of time and effort into making it?
And what was it about this elevated, flat, interlinking and level circle of stone that meant it leapt into being from out of nowhere and was never repeated?
I have some vague ideas, which I’m trying to put together in a remotely coherent and persuasive form, but until then, I am interested as always in hearing the views on others on this.