I bring good news of great joy. I think I have solved the mystery of Stonehenge. Oh, and the pyramids, Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the moon landings and Taylor Swift.
Welcome, my friends, to Will Once’s patented theory of everything. To be perfectly accurate, this is Will Once’s latest theory of everything. The last one since the previous one. And if you wait long enough there will be another one along in a little while.
Anyhoo, this is what we are here to talk about …
Oops, sorry, I meant this one …
The questions just keep coming. What was Stonehenge for? Who built it? Why? What did they do there? Why did they drag those huge stones hundreds of miles away from a quarry in Wales? How did they manage to do that, in the days when the most advanced tool they had was a hammer?
The first Eureka moment is when you realise that, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, the past is big. Mind bogglingly big. We like to think of the past as a single convenient time, a Game of Thrones sort of existence with swords, wenches and roast pigs with apples in their chops.
We ask “What was it like in the old days, Grandad?” as if there was only one lot of olden times.
As evidence, M’lud, I’d like to present … a hill.
Mmm, lovely isn’t it? There’s nothing quite like a good hill to make a fella go all outdoorsy. It makes you want to tie the laces on your fell boots, stock up on Kendal Mint Cake and go out and get muddy.
This isn’t any old hill. Oh, no. This is a very special hill. This is Pendle Hill in Somerset. This particular lump of geography has one unique feature which manages to trump New York. They didn’t just name it twice. In fact, they named it three times. The word “Pen” means “hill” in an old Cumbria language. The word fragment “dle” means hill in Old English. And “hill” means … um … hill.
Ladies and Gentleman, boys and girls, Celts and Anglo-Saxons. I am proud to present Hill Hill Hill.
If that tickles your fancy, there is a whole atlas full of tautological names here:
The reason for this is that the past kept on inventing itself. In this Green and pleasant land of England, we have had a steady procession of invaders and immigrants from Neolithic stone-bashers to Celtic tattooed warriors, to the Romans in their skirts, not to mention the Vikings, Anglo Saxons, Norman French and the list goes on and on.
And each bunch of invaders looked at what the previous lot had left behind and appropriated it. So the locals had this hill which they called Pen. The next bunch simple called it Pen Hill, or in their language, Pendle. Then the next lot happened to hear about this hill called Pendle so they called it Pendle Hill.
And that is precisely what happened with Stonehenge. Archaeologists reckon that Stonehenge was built between 3000 and 1600 BC. That’s not a wide range in dates because they aren’t sure. Nor is it a single project that took 1400 years to complete, in a similar way that it takes me months if not years to do anything remotely DIY.
Nope. What we have at Stonehenge is a series of different erections, starting with the first one in 3000 BC and then several more until 1600 when for some reason we stopped tinkering. We got bored.
This gives us our first clue. Stonehenge isn’t one thing. It is several. Each tribe stumbled across it and used it for its own purposes under a different set of gods, religions, languages. Pagan orgies, human sacrifices, healing, place of Government, celestial calendar, UFO landing pad.
Okay, maybe not the last one. But apart from that, Stonehenge has probably been all these things and more. It was an all-purpose holy place, a Swiss Army knife of spiritual monuments. Choose what you want it to be, because the chances are it has been that at some point in its existence. Apart from the UFO landing pad.
And frankly that is what Stonehenge still is. People flock to it because … well because it feels special. We have no idea what it is for, but surely it has to be something important.
Ah, but what about the heavy stones, I hear you say? What are those doing there? How did they move such enormous lumps of rock? Why? Aren’t they exceedingly awkward things to move?
In fact, can you imagine anything harder for a primitive group of people to do than to shift such massive boulders around?
And that, my friends, is our next clue. The reason that these heavy lumps are at Stonehenge is precisely because they are heavy. This is JLK saying that we choose to go to the moon and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard.
Picture the scene. You are living in the stone-age and you desperately want something. Maybe you want your crops to grow, or your rival to suffer a bout of diarrhoea or your next child to be a boy, or something. I don’t know.
So you pray to whatever God you believe in. We are talking pre-Christian, so it will be some pagan, Celtic hunky demi-God with ripply torso and curly brown hair. Or a glammed up laydee Goddess with a floaty white dress who isn’t wearing a bra. Mix and match according to your tastes.
And then you do that pleading thing that we always do with our gods. We write him/ her/ it a begging letter. “Dear god, demi-god or other mythical being with paranormal powers. Look on your humble servant in his/her time of need. Grant me my wish, oh bra-less one. If you do what I ask, I will …”
And that’s the point. If you do what I want, I will do something for you. That’s why just about every religion has the concept of its followers doing deals in return for divine intervention. We say prayers, go on pilgrimages, make offerings, build impressive churches, give up chocolate for Lent.
Just what could you do to impress a God when you’ve tried anything else? You move a bloody big stone. And when you’ve moved one stone, you move a bigger one. And then a bigger one.
The stones in Stonehenge, and the pyramids and Angkor Wat are big and difficult to move because … they are big and difficult to move. They wouldn’t be special otherwise. Monuments like Stonehenge show Homo Sapiens doing what we do best – constantly improving and building on our skills. That, more than anything else, is the one unifying secret behind Stonehenge.
And, of course, Ms Swift. The remarkable thing about this young lady is how she keeps polishing and improving herself. Her music constantly gets slicker. Her voice has lost that country twang. She has toned her body to the nth degree. She keeps on learning, improving, evolving.
We only see the finished product. Whether it is the massive stones of Stonehenge or the cultured voice and clever videos of Taylor Swift. What we don’t always see is the constant process of polishing and improving that leads to the finished product. Always trying to be that little bit better. Trying to move a bigger rock. It’s a little secret that can move mountains.