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The Specific Selection of Stone in Prehistory:

(Article: By A. Whitaker. 2011)

“nearly all stones in a circle are local and seldom came from more than a mile or two away”(2)

The above quote by Aubrey Burl leaves the reader with the impression that the Neolithic builders constructed their circles and monuments in a primitive fashion, simply using whatever was most easily at hand. However, his proposition of the Neolithic mind couldn't be further from the truth as the following examples demonstrate.

While it is apparent that the megalithic builders showed a preference for certain stone types, the reason for this has yet to be explained satisfactorily. The extra distance and effort required to employ specific stones in ancient structures offers us with a clue as to the possible motivation of the builders.

At Vale de Rodruigo, in southern Portugal, geological analysis were carried out at the stones used in four megalithic graves. The results were surprising as the stones had been brought to the site from different locations of up to 10km distance. Geological research suggests that this choice was probably predominantly motivated by functional and practical reasons. As different rocks had different appearances and physical characteristics it is suggested that they were chosen according to a pre-conceived design. In addition, the locations of the sites of origin of the different material represents main celestial directions from the megaliths. This makes it likely that the monuments also represent certain symbolic values associated with the landscape and certain cosmologies. (10)

It is reasonable to assume that in certain cases specific stones were selected for their 'Aesthetic' value, such as colour, reflectivity or rarity. However, there are noticeably few examples of European megaliths where granite can be seen to have been used for its structural qualities.

In ancient Egypt, the pyramid and temple builders went to great lengths to include granite in their sacred buildings, transporting it hundreds of miles in preference to the more readily available limestone. At Giza, we can see that granite was used for the lower levels of exterior casing blocks on both Menkaure and Khafre's pyramids, whilst in the Great pyramid of Khufu, it is found only on internal features (plugs, girdle-stones, antechamber portal stones, kings chamber). The selection of features for which granite was chosen reveals something interesting: namely, that it was not just used structurally. So, at the same time as recognising that granite is a stronger stone, there are other reasons why granite was selected for use in sacred structures. This supposition is supported by evidence from other megalithic structures, for example:

 

Stone Selection at the Boyne Valley.

At the Boyne-Valley complex in Ireland, the stone material used in the major passage mounds of Newgrange and Knowth come from several sources, two of which are approximately 40km south and 35km North east of the monuments (Cooney. Antiquity. 2000: 135-8) in these cases, megaliths became "a transported landscape in which structural elements were extracted, carried and re-assembled to link together physically places that had been distant" (Cooney. Antiquity. 2000: 136)

 

The pebbles used in the Newgrange cairn were derived from a local source, the lower river terrace immediately north of the Boyne, about 750m south of the cairn. Orthostats from the passage, the chamber, the roof corbels and all the kerbstones (except 4 of sandstone) are all greywacke stone derived from an area 3- 5 km north and east of Newgrange where the rock naturally outcrops. Further quantities are thought to have been collected from the coastal cliffs at Clogher Head, 10 km north of the mouth of the river Boyne.

Gaps in the Newgrange passage roof were packed with burnt soil mixed with sea sand brought from the mouth of the Boyne, 20 km downstream. Five types of cobbles collected from non-local sources were used to embellish the facades and entrance areas of both Newgrange and Knowth, inclusive of rounded granodiorite cobbles from the Mourne Mountains, 50 km to the north; banded siltsone cobbles and gabbro cobbles originally from the Carlingford mountains which are thought to have been collected from the shoreline of Dundalk Bay, a similar distance from Newgrange. The mysterious granite basins found within the chamber recesses are thought to have also come from the Mourne Mountains

Although it is certain from old images of the site that the reconstruction was 'fanciful', they were unarguably originally part of the structure. The same white quartz stones were found in front of both Knowth and Dowth where they are being considered as having originally been a 'white aprons' on the floors of the entrances to the mounds. The 'function' or reason for placing so many white-quartz rocks at the front of Newgrange (regardless of their original position), can only be speculated upon today. Reynolds (13) suggested the following:

'Archaeologists have only recently recognised quartz as a significant part of prehistoric stone technologies in Ireland and Britain. As a raw material, quartz is superabundant in areas of Ireland and Britain and was utilised extensively in prehistory. However, research biases have obscured a fuller understanding of it'. (12)

In her paper, she considers the case of quartz rocks as animistic agents. Quartz is frequently associated with animists. For example, the Amazonian Tukano Indians consider quartz to be "living" or a "live rock," with special or healing properties. She drew upon recent discussions on the possible roles of quartz at Newgrange Site 1, Ireland, within the Neolithic around 3000 cal. B.C. Although Newgrange has traditionally been depicted as a place for the dead, she considers whether Neolithic people conceived of quartz as having a "life-force".

(More about the Boyne Valley Complex)

 

The specific use of white quartz is repeated at several other European megalithic sites such as:

Castleruddery, Quartz Portal-Stones, Ireland.

The two immense white-quartz 15-ton portal-stones at Castelruddery (Above), also in Ireland at which the prominent placement of such large, white stones at the  entrance of the Henge gives them the site the appearance of a giant 'Celtic Torque'. Quartz portals were also used at Castlerigg W.

Boscawen-Un, in England is a granite circle of 19 stones, and was suggested by W. Stuckley as having been one of the first circles in UK. (The 19 stones being suggestive of the 18.6yr lunar cycle). Although the whole circle is composed of granite stones, there is a single white quartz stone at the S/SW of side the circle (aligning the centre with the May-day sunrise).

At Balquhain stone circle (and Bannau-Sir-Gaer), in Scotland the builders chose white granite for the outlying stones.

At Glenquickan, also in Scotland, a white granite obelisk was placed in the centre of the circle. A central quartz menhir was also used at Maulatanvally

At the Hurlers triple circle, the centre of the circle was coated with a bed of quartz crystals, while at the three Thornborough henges in Yorkshire, the banks of the henges were coated in brilliant white gypsum.

The perfectly flat 53-ton recumbent at Old-Keig, Sotland, which was quarried several miles from the site, and was positioned so that it captured the moons major setting points on the horizon.

Studies of the composition of the chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn group has found that they were constructed from specifically selected materials. (3)

 

The Qualities of Crystal.

All of the above examples highlight the fact that granite (or perhaps crystal), was considered to have special qualities other than just strength. Records show numerous examples of crystals and quartz being placed alongside funerary remains (a feature that can be traced back to Palaeolithic times), a fact that raises the question of whether or not the megalithic builders were were aware of the other physical properties of crystal.

The Excavation of the Aztec 'Templo Mayor' site in Mexico, produced a funerary casket, from the inner-most layers of the pyramid, beneath a Chac-mool statue, 'thought to represent the god Quetzalcoatl'. Within the casket were found several crystal artefacts which included; Several crystal cylinders, thought to represent the 'feathered tail of Quetzalcoatl'. Crystal Lip-plugs, crystal ear-spools and a row of thirteen crystal beads 'thought to have been part of a necklace'. (11).

It is a curious fact that when a crystal is placed under pressure it produces electricity. Experiments by Marcel Vogel, a research chemist for IBM over 27 years, suggest that water can act as an electrolyte and pick up charge from a crystal with which it comes into contact. Measurements by spectrophotometer, an instrument for comparing light radiation, show changes in the 'atomic footprint' of water before and after exposure in this way. Paul Devereaux began the 'Dragon project' in order to research this particular aspect of the megaliths.

(More about Crystals in Prehistory)

 

Stone Selection at Stonehenge.

Stonehenge has at least four different types of stone in the overall  structure, each brought from different locations: Over 80 5-10 ton 'Bluestones'' from Wales, the huge 20-50 ton 'Sarsens' from 20km north near Avebury, the mica-sandstone 'Slaughter stone' from Milford Haven, and the limestone packing-stones from Chilmark..

Although the area just north of Stonehenge is littered with perfectly suitable sarsen stones, the builders chose to use over 80 Bluestones instead, requiring them to transport them over 200 miles from the Presily mountains in Wales. It is perhaps relevant then that a piece of bluestone was found in almost every one of the 59 Y and Z holes. (8)

The reverence for Blue-stones was noted by Mackenzie, who said of it:

'The colours of stones were supposed to reveal the characters of the spirits that inhabited them. In Egypt, for instance, the blue turquoise was connected with the mother-goddess Hathor, who was, among other things, a deity of the sky and therefore the controller of the waters above the firmament as well as the Nille. She was the mother of sun and moon. She was appealed to for water by the agriculturalists and for favourable winds by the seafarers. The symbol used on such occasions was a blue stone. It was a "luck stone" that exercised an influence on the elements controlled y the goddess. In the Hebrides a blue stone used to be reverenced by the descendants of ancient sea-rovers. Martin in his Western Isles tells of such a stone, said always to be wet, which was preserved in a chapel dedicated to St. Columba on the Island of Fladda. "It is an extraordinary custom," he has written, "when any of the fishermen are detained in the isle by contrary winds, to wash the blue-stone with water all round, expecting thereby to procure a favourable wind, which, the credulous tenant living in the isle says, never fails, especially if a stranger wash the stone." (1)

(Gors Fawr, the location of the Sarsens at Presily, Wales)

It seems that the specific selection of stones at Stonehenge extended to the slaughter stone which is unique at the site, being made of a sandstone laden with Mica which came from the Cosheston Beds, composed of Devonian sandstone, near Milford haven on the coast of Wales, some 30 miles to the southwest of the Presily quarries. While it is reasonably clear that the stone which once stood at the centre of the site was chosen for its unique properties, the exact relevance can only be guessed at. Kalb suggests that 'Stones transported over long distances to build megaliths were pieces of places'. (10)

'There were also a small number of limestone blocks and slabs used in the construction of Stonehenge brought to the site for the specific purpose of packing material to support the much larger sarsen uprights. The limestone quarries have been identified as Chilmark, 12 miles west, and 3 miles southeast at Hurdcot'. (19)

Significantly then, at Stonehenge we find the inner horseshoe comprised of the finely worked spotted-dolerites from the main ridge of Carn Meini in the Preseli Hills, with the outer bluestone circle comprising of unworked rhyolites, tuffs and unspotted dolerites from the outlying landscapes north and south of the main ridge. The Preseli Hills purposefully created in microcosm in the Stonehenge landscape. (4)

Excavations by the Stonehenge 'Riverside project' in 2005 uncovered a 'cremation mound' which was found to contain the partially burnt remains of two people, one of whose vertebrae survived the fire, along with an assortment of artifacts, amongst which were: "Stone knives and arrowheads, a piece of limestone carved into the shape of a megalith, two pottery bowls, and a rare rock crystal were also unearthed near the burial site."

The rock crystal is described as having come to Britain from as far away as the Alps.

(More about Stonehenge)

 

Scotland's Recumbent Stone Circles:

The high concentration of R.S.C's in Aberdeenshire show several examples of specific stone-selection. The largest recorded recumbent stone at Old Keig (53 tons), is composed of a granite which has been identified as having its source around 10km distant, and considerably downhill from final resting place. Summers (14), says of it:

'Colour may also have played a part in the design of these monuments. This is exemplified in, and best appreciated at the showcase recumbent stone circle at East Auquorthies, Near Inverurie. The circle is comprised of pink porphyry and red jasper stones, with flankers of grey granite abutting a red granite recumbent slab'.

In addition, we are informed that the 'Aikey Brae' RSC has a recumbent stone and flankers made of 'Whinstone', which must have been transported from '...some distance away...', While the remaining stones are made of local granite. (15)

(Recumbent Stone Circles)

(Prehistoric Construction Techniques)

(Sacred Spaces)

(Extreme Masonry)

 

Article: Pieces of Landscapes. By Dr. J. Lewis. (Quick-link)

 

References:

1). Donald A. Mackenzie. China and Japan. 1994. Senate Publ.
2). Aubrey Burl, A Guide to Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland, and Brittany, Yale University Press, 1995, p. 18
3). Vicki Cummings, Neolithic Irish Sea Zone, Oxbow, 2009, p.89
4). Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, The Stones of Stonehenge - Current Archaeology magazine, Issue 252, March 2011, pp. 28 – 35.
8). Petrie as quoted by Smyth,
Our inheritance in the Great Pyramid, 1890 Ed, pp20.
10). Kalb, Philine, Megalith-building, stone transport and territorial markers; evidence from Vale de Rodrigo, Evora, south Portugal. Antiquity. Sept 1, 1996.
11). C. Morton and C. L. Thomas. The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls. 1997. Thornson's.
12). http://www.ucd.ie/archaeology/research/phd/killian_driscoll/
13). Reynolds, Ffion. Time and mind. Volume 2, Number 2, July 2009 , pp. 153-166(14).
14). http://www.visitpeterhead.com/index.php?view=article&catid=54%3Ageneral&id=135%3A
15). http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/deer/aikeybrae/index.html
19). http://thehobgoblin.blogspot.com/2009/11/new-stonehenge-bluestone-mystery.html
 
 

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