Stonehenge: Hinging on History

“Dust in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind.” –Kansas

As a lover of the past, I sometimes allow myself to wonder what future generations will think when they look back on us. I wonder if they’ll define us by our pop music, our fashions or (eek) our politics.

But usually when I indulge in our future past, I imagine it 100 or maybe 200 years out. Never have I tried to conjure an image of what our society will look like to people 4,000 years from now, mostly because I can’t imagine anything we’ve created lasting that long.

Our buildings will be gone. Those fabulously old preserved Tudor buildings I’ve seen here in England are only 500-years-old. They’ll be gone.

Stonehenge, September 2013

Stonehenge, September 2013

All of our written history will have vanished. Our databases, constitutions (along with amendments), internet memes – yes, even vintage bodhi – will all be forgotten.

So I was taken aback recently when I visited Stonehenge on a quintessentially British cloudy afternoon. To know that the massive stones I was looking at were erected by our Neolithic forebears around 2,500 BC was difficult to wrap my brain around.

Those stones have stood since before the two World Wars, before the Romans decided to occupy what we now know as Britain, and before men and women in the area figured out that bronze would work well in tools.

And that’s one of the things that is so fascinating about Stonehenge: how did our ancestors build this massive structure without any of the tools we would use today? And furthermore, how did they build it to last?

What’s in a henge?

For those of you wondering (I know I did), a henge is defined as a circular banked enclosure with an internal ditch.

Modern experts make no bones about how little we know of Stonehenge today. We still do not really know if the site was a temple for worship, a center for healing, a burial site or a massive calendar (or all of the above).

Periglacial stripes run parallel to the Stonehenge Avenue; Credit: English Heritage

Periglacial stripes run parallel to the Stonehenge Avenue; Credit: English Heritage

We also haven’t cracked the mystery of how they carried the stones from so far. Archeologists say the central stone settings were probably brought from over 150 miles away, and the outer stones likely come from the Marlborough Downs, which are 19 miles to the north.

The stones were painstakingly put together using mortice and tenon joints, and although the ground around the site slopes, the lintels of the outer circle have been leveled to form a perfectly fitted horizontal circle.

Additionally, the whole site is carefully aligned on the axis of the solstice, which tells us that these people understood astronomy and the seasons in a complex way.

With at least 150 individual cremation sites around Stonehenge, it is one of the largest cremation cemeteries in Britain from this period.

But the land around the area must have been significant to the people of the time in order for them to put so much effort into constructing such a massive structure. Geologists say that at the time, what is now southern England was mostly covered by woodland, but the chalk downland in the surrounding areas of Stonehenge may have been open landscape.

Rather interestingly, geological features called periglacial stripes run across the site of Stonehenge, and they curiously align in places on the solstice axis. Experts say it is possible that these stripes were visible in early prehistory, and they could have led people of the day to believe this was a special place.

Dust, recycled

Though there is a road in the distance that gives off the slight sound of traffic when standing on the site, there was something soothing and even calming about Stonehenge. Whether that’s a result of being at such an iconic place, or whether the area truly has some ancient magic, I did feel at ease walking on the grass around the stones.

Carhenge, in Nebraska, is built from vintage American cars and trucks.

Carhenge, in Nebraska, is built from vintage American cars and trucks.

I remarked to my friends when we got back in the car, that Nebraska has its own version of Stonehenge – Carhenge in the western part of the state.

I’ve traveled fairly extensively, but even though it’s in my home state, I’ve never visited Carhenge. Constructed from vintage American cars and trucks, it was built by artist Jim Reinders in 1987.

The metal of the cars will rust and decay long before the stones of Stonehenge give out. But I have to ask myself: does it matter? They are here today, as are you, as am I. And that’s something.

We may be dust in the wind, but really, in the end, everything is. Right now will give way to history, will give way to nothingness, will give way to something again one day.

I suppose all we can hope for is to make our recyclable materials – our land, our culture, ourselves – something of substance.

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