Sunday 21 August 2011

Stonehenge by Frank Stevens

The Lithology of Stonehenge

The geologist would probably describe the Sarsen stones of Wiltshire as "masses of saccharoid sandstone," which in plain English might be rendered as boulders closely resembling gigantic lumps of coarse sugar. These huge stones are to be found, though in decreasing numbers, scattered all over the plain, and particularly along the ridges of the Marlborough Downs. The country folk, always picturesquely minded, call them "Grey Wethers," and indeed in North Wilts, it is not hard to conjure up their poetic resemblance to a flock of titanic sheep, reclining at ease upon the pasturage of the Downs. The alternative name Sarsen, has an interesting derivation. It is a corruption of the word "Saracen." But what have Saracens to do with Wiltshire? Frankly nothing. The name has come to the stones from Stonehenge itself, and is a part of that ever interesting confusion of ideas, which has been bequeathed to us by our ancestors of the Middle Ages. To them all stone circles and megalithic monuments were the work of heathens, if not of the devil himself. Heathenism and all its works was roundly condemned, whether it be Celtic, Mahomedan, or Pagan; and the condemnation was as concise and universal as the phrase "Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Heretics" of the Christian Prayer Book to-day. In the early days of the _Moyen Age_, the Saracen stood for all that was antagonistic to Christianity. Consequently the stones of Stonehenge were Saracen or heathen stones, which the Wiltshire tongue has shortened in due time to Sarsen.

This confusion of ideas may seem amusing, but it is not more absurd than the existing popular idea that Stonehenge is of Druidical origin. The stone circle of Salisbury Plain was many hundred years old when those half mythical Celtic priests first set foot in England, and the Druids of yesterday have about as much connection with Stonehenge as the Salvation Army of to-day.

The Sarsen well repays a close examination. A glance at one of these stones as it lies on the Downland, shows that it has suffered greatly from the weather. It is the core, or kernel, of a much larger block of friable sandstone, worn away on all sides by wind and weather. Moreover, these isolated blocks appear on the Downs in a country devoid of any rock save chalk.

How came they in their present position? In one sense they never came at all; for they existed on the surface of the chalk from the time it rose from the bottom of the sea to its present position. They are, in fact, the remains of a great sheet of fine sand and gravel cemented together by silex, which formerly overlay the chalk downs, the other parts of which have been dissolved and worn by wind and rain until only the harder cores or kernels survive to tell the tale. And the proof of this is not far to seek. The chalk of the London Basin is still capped by layers of such sandstone, as may be seen at Purfleet in Essex. The titanic sheep, or Grey Wethers, therefore, are merely a small residue of that widespread sandy deposit which once covered the whole of the south of England with its inhospitable sheet, and of which larger patches remain to-day in Surrey, Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight. But though the hand of Time and the buffets of the weather have been heavy on the Sarsens, the hand of man has likewise borne its share. In a district like the Plain, devoid of building material other than flint, these stones have attracted the unwelcome attention of the farmers. Walls, gateposts, and paving-stones have accounted for many, while in the interest of the road-mender many a noble Grey Wether has been led to slaughter to provide macadam for the roads. Hence it is not surprising that the number of Sarsen stones to be found on the Plain where Nature placed them is becoming less and less. Indeed, the time may yet come when they will be as extinct as the Great Bustard who once strutted among them, and their memory will survive only in their accidental use in a prehistoric monument like Stonehenge.

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