Prehistoric balls may have built Stonehenge

Stonehenge, stonehenge, archaeology, archeology
There have been a lot of theories over the years about how Stonehenge was built. Moving massive stones ranging from 4 to 45 tons over hundreds of miles isn’t easy in modern times, and certainly was a challenge 4,500 years ago. The two leading theories–log rollers and wooden sledges greased with animal fat–both have detractors. Many archaeologists believe rollers would have left deep scars in the landscape and one can be found, while reenactments with sledges have shown it would take hundreds of people to move the largest stones.

Now National Geographic reports a new theory. British graduate student Andrew Young thinks grooved wooden rails fitted with stone balls would have made an easy surface on which to move the stones. The balls acted like ball bearings and giant stones could have been pulled along on top. He tried it out with a team of seven people and found they could easily move a load of four tons. Only a relatively short length of track would be needed because the rails and balls could be pulled up once the stone passed and placed at the front.

He got the idea by studying mysterious stone balls found near stone circles in Scotland. They didn’t appear to have any purpose until he noticed they’re all exactly 70mm (3 inches) in diameter, suggesting they were part of some greater mechanism.

It’s an interesting idea, but this former archaeologist isn’t convinced yet. No stone balls have been found in England. Young says old-growth wood could have worked just as well and wouldn’t have survived, and that’s possible, but civil engineer Mark Whitby told National Geographic that the biggest stones in Stonehenge would have crushed the balls into the tracks. A larger-scale demonstration is being planned to study this issue.

Generally the KISS method (Keep It Simple, Stupid) points to the most probable solution. Wood was plentiful and making smooth rollers out of tree trunks would have been the easiest solution. Rollers and a bunch of strong prehistoric Britons, helped by teams of oxen, would have been the cheapest and least technologically demanding way to move the stones. While this would have left marks on the land, it’s an open question whether they’d still be visible after 4,500 years of weathering.

The KISS method also explains why aliens didn’t build Stonehenge.

The balls idea is still worth investigating, and considering that Young has come up with such an innovative and perhaps correct answer to a major archaeological mystery while still a PhD student in biosciences hints that I’ll be writing more about him in the future.

[Photo courtesy Mister Rad via Gadling’s flickr pool]

Great deals on attractions during Scottish Archaeology Month

September is Scottish Archaeology Month, and the land of kilts and haggis is gearing up for four weeks of free talks, tours, and events highlighting the region’s rich heritage. The special month is part of Visit Scotland’s new push for archaeological tourism.

In Glasgow, for example, there will be a behind-the-scenes tour of the city’s museum and free talks on the Second World War and a historic local church. “Archaeology” Month includes recent history too!

The Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland are rich in historic treasures, as this photo of a Neolithic village by user localsurfer from Gadling’s flickr pool shows. Another of his Orkney photos recently featured as our Photo of the Day. Intrepid travelers who make it to the windy and rainy islands will be treated to in-depth tours of ongoing excavations at some of the Orkney’s top archaeological sites. Just don’t expect to share localsurfer’s luck with the weather.

Having just finished hiking in Scotland, I can say that the towns and countryside are filled with fascinating remnants of the past, from local lore to haunted castles. Special events are being held all over, so if you’re headed north this coming month, be sure to check it out.

Five stunning stone circles (besides Stonehenge)

Every year thousands of tourists flock to Stonehenge, the iconic stone circle on Salisbury Plain, England. While so much attention is focused on this site, especially with the recent discovery of another monument near Stonehenge, people often forget there’s more than a thousand stone circles in the British Isles and Continental Europe. Built during the Neolithic starting about 5,000 years ago, these sites are beautiful and have gathered a lot of strange folklore over the centuries, like the mistaken belief that they were built by Druids or giants. Here are five of the best.

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Isles, Scotland
The windswept Orkney Isles north of Scotland are covered in prehistoric remains. The Ring of Brodgar, seen above in this photo courtesy of Beth Loft, is built of thin, tall stones on a narrow isthmus between two lochs. Its architects obviously had an eye for dramatic setting. It dates to between 2500 and 2000 BC, a boom time for monumental building in the Orkneys. It’s the northernmost stone circle in the British Isles and also the third largest at 104 meters (341 ft) in diameter. Like many major circles it’s part of a network of sites, with tombs and single standing stones scattered in the area around it. Legend has it that the Vikings were so impressed with the Ring of Brodgar when they arrived in the ninth century AD that they worshiped their gods here. Some Viking Runes carved into the stones may support this theory.

Avebury, England
Bigger than Stonehenge, the site of Avebury just 17 miles north of Stonehenge consists of a massive stone circle 331.6 meters (1,088 ft) in diameter with two avenues of stones leading to a pair of smaller stone circles. Construction began around 2900 BC, roughly the same time as its neighbor. Other monuments, such as the mysterious artificial mound of Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long barrow, an ancient tomb, are an easy walk away. During the Middle Ages the locals got religion and decided this pagan monument needed to go. They knocked over several stones until one fell over and crushed one of the vandals. Everyone thought this was just a legend until modern archaeologists dug up a fallen stone and found the skeleton of a man underneath with some 14th century coins in his pocket!

%Gallery-98480%Rollright Stones, England
This stone circle makes a fun day hike from Oxford. Most stone circles are pretty small. This one is only 33 meters (108 feet) in diameter but has some interesting details. One stone has a hole through which you can see a tall monolith called the King Stone in a nearby field. A nearby dolmen (a small roofed tomb of stone) is called the Whispering Knights. Legend says the circle and these two outlying monuments are a king and his knights who were turned to stone by a witch. Actually the circle and monolith were built by prehistoric people between 2500 to 2000 BC. The Whispering Knights date to about 3500 BC. In prehistoric times, the presence of one monument encouraged people to build more.

Drombeg Stone Circle, Ireland
Drombeg Stone Circle in County Cork is a tight little collection of stones 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter. It’s of a type known as a recumbent stone circle because the largest stone lies on its side flanked by two smaller ones. This was deliberate; the stone didn’t fall down. What this means is anyone’s guess, although the local claim that it’s a “Druid’s Altar” is fanciful because the circle dates to the Bronze Age, about 2000 BC, and the druids were priests of the Celts, who didn’t appear on the scene until around 300 BC. Radiocarbon dating on a burial found in the center of the circle yielded a date between 150 BC and 130 AD. Just like at the Ring of Brodgar, later people were attracted to the site. While Drombeg didn’t start out as a Druid’s altar, maybe it ended up as one!

The Stone Circles of Senegambia, Senegal and The Gambia
Stone circles in Africa? Yep, these monuments aren’t as grandiose as the ones in Europe but they’re equally mysterious. There are about a thousand of them in a region of central Senegal and Gambia, meaning there’s about as many stone circles here as in all of Europe. The stones are as tall as 2.5 meters (8 ft.), although some are only a foot or so high. They mark burials dating from the 3rd century BC to the 16th century AD. There’s a large concentration of them at Wassu, Gambia. Locals put small stones on top of them as a sign of respect. Not much is known about these stone circles but they are beginning to attract attention from the archaeological community. A certain Gadling blogger may be visiting them next year, so stay tuned.

Archaeologists explore stone circle ten times larger than Stonehenge

Move over Stonehenge, there’s a bigger stone circle in town.

Archaeologists are busy excavating Marden Henge, a giant stone circle and earthwork ten times larger than its more famous cousin. It’s not nearly as well-known, however, because all of its stones have been lost or buried. Traces of a giant earthwork and ditch that encircled the monument do survive, and archaeologists hope they’ll reveal secrets of England’s prehistoric past.

While everyone knows about Stonehenge, many people don’t realize there are nearly a thousand stone circles in the British Isles, from massive ones like Avebury (shown here) to smaller ones like the Rollright Stones. Marden Henge is in Wiltshire, close to Stonehenge and Avebury, and could provide clues to how and why they were constructed. The giant circle encloses about 15 hectares (37 acres) and has a mound at its center. Archaeologists plan to investigate both the central mound and the earthwork and ditch. The Neolithic farmers who built these monuments often put sacrifices in the surrounding ditches.

While there are no current plans for a visitor’s center at Marden Henge, there are plenty of other stone circles open to the public. Some of the more famous cater to visitors with interpretive signs and parking lots, while others simply stand in open fields, an enduring part of Europe’s ancient landscape. An excellent website to help you plan a visit is The Megalithic Portal, which includes information on stone circles and other megaliths such as barrows (tombs) and menhirs (individual standing stones) in the UK and all around the world.

Scotland promoting archaeological tourism

Forget kilts, haggis, and caber tossing, Scotland’s tourism board wants you to delve into the country’s past.

Tony Robinson, star of Blackadder and Time Team, is the poster boy for Visit Scotland‘s new push for archaeological tourism. The tourism board has developed several five-day itineraries visitors can follow to explore Scotland’s 10,000 year heritage.

Scotland is an archaeological wonderland with stone circles, mysterious prehistoric forts, and medieval monasteries. Visit Scotland’s trails focus on the country’s northern and western islands. Despite their rough climates, island chains like the Orkneys, Shetlands, and Hebrides preserve evidence of advanced cultures. One of the most important sites is Skara Brae, pictured above, on Mainland (actually an island) in the Orkneys off the north coast of Scotland. This remarkably complete Neolithic village was founded about 5,000 years ago and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built from local stone, the little homes are sunk into the earth to protect them from the elements. The interiors have shelves, hearths, and even stone furniture built into them. One even has a toilet with a drain.

The itineraries go beyond simply describing a series of sites. They also give information on how to get there and back, suggestions on where to eat, and historic hotels and B&Bs to stay in.

And don’t worry, you can still eat sheep’s hearts, wear man-skirts, and throw telephone poles.

Photo courtesy Dr. John F. Burka via Wikimedia Commons.