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Stories that `explain' Stonehenge have been told since the Middle Ages, writes David Hinton
People have tried to explain Stonehenge for centuries - certainly since the Middle Ages. The monument probably takes its name from Old English stan hengen - `the stone hanging (- places)', suggesting it could perhaps have been an Anglo-Saxon execution site. But no excavation there has located one of those pathetic, contorted burials that so graphically illustrate early medieval royal control (see BA, February). Although Domesday Book shows that Stonehenge was on a royal estate, it was not the meeting-place of the local hundred court. Nor is it close to a boundary, and although roads went close by, it was not at a crossroads. So it was probably not an Anglo-Saxon `killing-place'; but people who saw in the stone trilithons a similarity to the two-post and crossbeam gallows typical of the period may have given the monument its macabre name - England's first example of gallows humour?
Any joke was lost on Henry of Huntingdon, the author of the work in which Stonehenge is first recorded, for the early copies of his book spelt it stanenges, perhaps because he took the name from an h-dropping Wiltshire native. The section of his History of the English that mentions Stonehenge was issued c. 1130, and it is quite likely that Henry had seen Stonehenge, for he gives an eye-witness account: `stones of remarkable size are raised up like gates, in such a way that gates seem to be placed on top of gates' - a graphic description of how the lintels of the outer sarsen circle are overtopped by the central trilithons.
Henry regarded the monument as one of England's marvels: `no-one can work out how the stones were so skilfully lifted up to such a height, or why they were erected there'. He was soon to be given an explanation, however. Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain of c 1136 claimed that Merlin had the stones brought from Ireland and re-erected, using his `wondrous art' at the behest of his British patron. Twelfth century writers understood patronage, and their Histories reflected contemporary tensions by offering legitimisation variously to Normans, English, or Welsh.
Henry accepted Geoffrey's story, but many others since have not, doubting the existence of the `old book' that he claimed was his main source. He must have had some source other than Henry, however, as he put the `h' in his spelling of Stonehenge. But what he says about the monument does not suggest that he had ever seen it; he seems to have thought it a single ring, and makes no mention of the lintel-stones. If he had known the area better, he would not have described Amesbury, beside the Avon, as a mons (`mountain').
If Geoffrey did not know the area, how much trust can be placed in his stories about the stones being moved? The archaeologist Stuart Piggott argued that the story of the transfer of the stones was a folk-memory of the bluestones being brought from Wales. Folklore scholars say that these stories were common-place, and that Geoffrey could have heard them told about other stone rows and circles, and done a bit of transferring of his own.
Stories to `explain' landscape features were probably told often enough; `the tendency of fiction to gather round places and place-names', as the historian Patrick Sims-Williams wrote in a study of their use (or uselessness) in understanding the Anglo-Saxon settlement. One area for which much has been claimed is Uffington, where the long barrow Wayland's Smithy is recorded in a 10th century charter, and where other names around the White Horse, such as the Ring Pit, may seek to locate the exploits of Wayland, the mythical smith. Barrows, recognised as ancient burial places, were particularly likely to acquire heroic names. But in general the boundary marks in Anglo-Saxon charters are boringly prosaic. The circuit of an estate close to Stonehenge went `from the Avon to the old camp ditch . . . to the track . . . to the boundary that Wulfsige laid down', recognising previous use of the land with its reference to an Iron Age or Roman enclosure but not giving it a fabulous origin. Ownership rights are stressed by the reference to Wulfsige. Heroes, giants and gods are allowed an occasional place, but overall the landscape is viewed as parcels of property.
Local people may have told stories about Stonehenge, but the monument's name does not suggest anything but some grim tale about an execution - or it may just be a nickname. It can only be said that, from archaeological evidence, medieval people seem not in fact to have used the place at all. It was what Henry of Huntingdon said, a marvel, but it had no role to play in the medieval landscape of managed, demarcated downland, where the king's sheep grazed under the watchful eyes of their shepherds.
One of these shepherds may have spoken to Henry of Huntingdon. When Henry asked for an explanation of the monument, the shepherd did not reply with a story about Merlin and the rest, but gave the answer that summed up local knowledge and has not changed since - `I don't know.'
David Hinton is Reader in Archaeology at the University of Southampton
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