Many of us dream of moving to Wiltshire, that idyllic county with so much to offer, from quaint, honey-coloured villages to energetic towns like Salisbury. But, as with almost any move, sometimes the very thought of all that labour is daunting, if not completely off-putting. So it’s worth remembering just how much harder the original Wiltshire removals job – the one that’s gone down in the annals of British history as the very hardest of all time – must have been. We can thank our lucky stars we don’t have to move standing stones weighting 25 tons, and all of a sudden, the requirements of our house-move seem remarkably petite and the whole undertaking eminently do-able. So just how did they manage it, on that fateful occasion somewhere between 3000 and 2000 BC? Of course, there are competing theories, some more plausible than others, some fiercely opposed by historians, others given their seal of approval. It seems hard to imagine that such an astonishing removals job could ever have been achieved prior to the invention of automatic machines and the harnessing of electricity, but achieved it was. Here’s the Master Removers guide to Stonehenge.
Stonehenge has always been a source of wondrous bafflement to scientists and laypeople alike. How on earth could such vast and heavy objects have been dragged across an undulating landscape, all the way from Pembrokeshire to Wiltshire, by neolithic man? Just ask anyone – that journey was hard enough by car prior to the 1980s.
One theory has it that something akin to a wooden sleigh was used, and that each one-ton stone would have required around ten people, moving at about one mile an hour. The scientists behind this theory have proposed the possibility that each of the Stonehenge stones would have then needed around twenty people for its assembly (something worth bearing in mind the next time you’re tearing your hair out over some flat-pack furniture).
What cannot be disputed is that Stonehenge was an absolute masterclass of engineering skill. And before the main moving job could even take place, a lot of preparatory work had to be done. First of all, ditches were dug using antler tools and then inner and outer banks made of piled-up chalk were created. But it’s the transporting of the stones that has always been the main source of awe and amazement to visitors. Three types of stone were used – the larger ‘sarsen’ stones, the more slender ‘bluestones’, and red sandstone. The first is a kind of sandstone and archaeologists tend to agree that it came from the Marlborough Downs, twenty miles away. The largest of these, known as the Heel Stone, weighed around 30 tons.
And although the bluestones were smaller, they had further to go, starting their journey in Wales. Because of the astonishing amount of industry involved in humans moving unfeasibly heavy objects over 250 kilometres of land, it has sometimes been theorised that the bluestones were moved, not by human hand, but by the natural movement of glaciers. Most archaeologists, however, argue for two other possibilities – that the stones were moved by some form of haulage (as with the wooden sleigh theory) or via water networks.
The Altar Stone was made from red sandstone, deriving from the Sunni Beds – a geological formation in Southern Wales.
Of course, no moving job is over just because the items have reached their destination. There’s usually a long unpacking process when our lorry pulls up at our new home. This was very much the case at Stonehenge, because the stones required a shaping process prior to their erection. Hammerstones made of flint and sarsen were used to chip away at the rough stones and then smooth the surfaces. And just as some removals personnel are more conscientious than others, a recent laser analysis of the stones has revealed that some of the stones were smoothed and finished to a much higher standard than others, especially those at the north-east end.
To get the stones ready for the elevating process, lintels, mortice holes and tenons were made. To raise the stones, large holes were dug, with wooden stakes implanted within. The hauling process used ropes made of plant fibre and A-frames.
It’s widely believed that the stone circles were an ancient way of determining the shifting of the seasons or a form of clock, catching the sun and casting shadows that indicated the time of day and year. How lucky for the ancients that they didn’t have the concept of British Summer Time – just imagine their fatigue and irritation if they’d had to move the stones back and forth two times a year.