Essay by Philip M. Williams

Time, Tools, and Measurements on the Occasion of Nova's Program on Stonehenge: A  Builder's  Amplification   

 One interpretation of Stonehenge is that it served as an observatory for a non-literate culture during the Neolithic period. An observatory is a measurement tool.  Data from observations make up almanacs, or tables of astronomical events. Such tables were well established before the beginnings of recorded history. Tables of astronomical events identify time and quantify it. In the latitudes roughly between 45' and 60' they guide man's natural yearly schedules of activities, including the planting and harvesting of crops in the case of the positioning of the sun, or in the tidal gathering of shell-fish in conjunction with the monthly wanderings of the moon.

 A non-literate society would find it convenient to employ vertical integration of the various constituents that make up an almanac. Stonehenge could be such a place of vertical integration.  There is agreement that Stonehenge contained skywatchers who speculated on the relationship between our earth and the greater firmament.  The evolutions that archeologists have found in the history of Stonehenge represent a sequential series of instruments that improved the skywatcher's ability to carry out, and to codify, their observations. The ever-changing and yet repetitive nature of our world's position in the universe enabled them to make predictions, or prophecies about the future. Their greater society gave them a platform for distributing the results of their observations.  That greater society is now evident because Stonehenge was only one of the many structures in their environs.

 In building, simple does not erase subtlety of thought and fineness of action.  Even sandcastles can be elaborate.  From sandcastles to Stonehenge is not such a great jump,  so the issue of building practices comes up thanks to a recent NOVA program on Stonehenge. Nova entices the slipper clad homebody who is an amateur archeologist and a long time builder, to explore what it is that exists on the ancient downs of Salisbury Plain. Their program epitomizes how difficult it is to separate function from technique from thinking.

 NOVA confronts the enigma of how a prehistoric social organization can produce  sophisticated  construction of such simplicity. In the world of construction the most difficult to get right is the simple. The ornate may hide faults. The simple is exposed. Only the most agreeable proportions, perfectly executed, result in a thing of beauty, or a building of import. Simple might evolve out of genius, or result from an  evolution of structure. NOVA remains baffled, and no wonder, for that grand circle  of massive stones rivals the Great Sphinx in the ambiguity of its meaning.  Stonehenge was built and grew in complexity during the Late Neolithic Era in Britain, an era before the written word. The absence of a written record of its function, or even an  artistic record, adds to its mythic status. It confounds the passer-by with its engineering expertise. Outdated convictions about the undeveloped brain of primitive man  led to dismissive theories of Stonehenge building; that it was put up by giants, or spacemen, or by a literate culture that disappeared suddenly, leaving no evidence of literacy. Times have changed. We have pushed intelligent man deep into the stone age.

 Skywatchers did not go to the great trouble to build Stonehenge to witness the sun's rising and setting on its daily round.  A child's markings on a windowsill will carry out that job. No, the skywatchers were interested in predictions based on correlations. Such correlation based predictions lie at the heart of Big Data. (Mayer-Schonberger, Cukier, 2013, p 55) The level top surface of the great stone plate gave them an artificial horizon with enough height to command a distant prospect. The permanency of their structure argues for their taking a very long view of the motions of the firmament above us. The upper surface of the top plate is precise.  The grounds beneath Stonehenge are imprecise. The precision of the top plate, as compared to the generality in measurements of the balance of the structure argues for the top plate being a baseline for observations, a baseline that does not change over time. They were interested in correlating changes in the firmament that either controlled or followed, long term, multi-year cycles on earth.  

 Neither the skywatchers nor their builders had any interest in standing on the ground beneath the stones of Stonehenge looking up at the great plate. They knew what it was doing up there. They might stroll around and admire their skill in supporting the great linked stone plate standing some sixteen feet above them in the same manner as a bridge builder strolls beneath his bridge to admire his foundation technique, but they did not raise that plate in order to admire their technical skill in placing it up there. Stonehenge should not be viewed from the ground any more than the ceiling of Canterbury Cathedral should be viewed from its spires. A lead sheathed roof is as uninspiring to the viewer as is the underside of the great stone plate.

 What is Stonehenge? Why is it a circle? Why is it sixteen feet in the air? Why is it level?

 The final iteration of the watchers' technical achievement was of such a massive size that the instrument in itself would impress their society with the resourcefulness of those who commanded  it to be built. So, the very instrument required for long term observations magnified for common man the prophetic skills of those thinkers about and observers of the firmament. What they needed was a stable benchmark for their prophecies. What they got was an enduring architectural marvel. That machine only could have come about through sequential accumulation. The more precise, and the older the observatory, the more likely it is to have optimized sequential accumulation. Stephen Jay Gould, observer of our evolutionary path, characterized sequential accumulation in this way:

 As a general structural principle, applicable across a full range of natural phenomena, from cosmology to human social organization,  complex systems can usually collapse catastrophically,   whereas the construction of such functional intricacy can only occur by sequential accumulation - a pattern I have called "the great asymmetry" (Gould, 2002, p1145).

 The lack of a written or artistic record leads one to presume the collapse of the Stonehenge society through obsolescence, not fire, not flood, not war, not famine.  To keep secret one's valuable information is not uncommon. The contradiction between wishing to publish and desiring to protect one's information is older than Joseph's coat. The skywatcher's refused to reveal the truths of their prophecies through writing out an almanac.  Writing was the most modern technological advance in their greater society, a society that radiated out from beyond the Mediterranean, a society they knew through both trade and immigration.  Staunch belief in proprietorial information was their fate. It was a fate they embraced, so Stonehenge became their highpoint and their endpoint. Trade secrets are just that. Trade and immigration told them that the Middle East was the hot bed of information resourcing. To have the evils of the information age reach their elysian shores was anathema. Writing down data for the great unwashed to read, of for some foreign potentate to command was not to their liking. They valued knowledge, privacy, and independence.

 It is odd that the theory and practice of exploring old fossils should lead us to understanding an ancient instrument that may be called an evolution, not an adaptation of a previous construction. A sequential accumulation of construction techniques, yes; an adaptation, no. Generally if something evolves, such as the human eye, it cannot go back. One may view aspects of computer and internet technology as evolutionary, but the adaptation of "IT" to the financial world is not evolutionary. Old financial rules might still hold true.  It is the astounding speed of transactions and the universal magnitude of a finance that o’rleaps all cultural boundaries, unleashed through Internet Technology, that now make those rules appear puny.

  However, astronomy or other possible purposes of Stonehenge are not the principle topic of this essay. Those who examined the ever changing evening sky and passed down their observations to their students and others, and those who spoke to the public are but marginally material to the topic. Irrelevant is their method of recording their observations, either through communal discussions, or by creating sayings and myths. The curious array of concentric circles, at least one of which still contains standing stones, will not be addressed. Those stones' potential to have been markers will not be explored. Only that instrument which stands at the center of the project, namely the great stone circular plate rising sixteen feet above the ground supported by massive stone posts is of moment.  And even then, only its structure, not its function in the hand and eye of the expert skywatcher, will be examined.  

 What is of interest here is that some Neolithic thinkers back in time wanted a superior instrument in order to refine their celestial observations.   What this writer can amplify is the technical issues that arise in the skywatcher's requirement of builders to build an instrument to their design. Impressing a society with the grandness of their prophetic skills through the increasing refinements in the sequential accumulations of Stonehenge was secondary to its use as a stable baseline. This essay looks at construction practices of the past from the perspective of construction practices of the present, as seen through the lens of a retired present day builder. It is the astronomers who study the heavens who must  essay this instrument's use.

 Form follows function. So said Louis Sullivan, an American architect of the 19th century. For a builder that thought is a sine-qua-non before he puts shovel into ground. In construction it is difficult to separate function, from technique, from thinking;  inevitably, cross purposes will sneak in. Is a structure shelter? Is it art? Is it a place of worship? Is it all three? That difficulty is multiplied by the distance in time between the late Neolithic and the present.  Do we contaminate ancient thinking with our present thinking? Do past functions differ from present functions? Are past techniques incompatible with present techniques? One must concentrate on the most basic functions and techniques because basic construction practices are universal and inherent. Selecting and building shelter is as central to the evolution of man as is his eye. Birds, those most primitive builders, with their bird's nests, balanced and circumscribed to order, started man's journey to structural elegance.

 Primitivism in essential construction technique results in a habit of mind that leads builders to be a conservative lot. Yet, in examining the structure of a prehistoric building, one must have a working hypothesis within which one can frame the assembly of facts and details that make up the examination. Maybe the hypothesis is incorrect, but at the least it gives a starting place for selecting order out of chaos.

 We present day builders, as in all human endeavors, tend to build what we know, using techniques and materials that work. Yearly we are assailed with the newest thing, be it of insulation that is of expanded foam, or thermo-plastic trim and so on.  Sometimes the "new thing" is an improvement, but most often it is not. Neither should we builders be faulted if we install slick-surfaced wood-chip manufactured kitchen base cabinets that surrender to rising damp.  Damps turns glue treated sawdust into sludge with stealthy speed. Usually it is the builder who is assailed for the failure of the product, not the tomfool character who gave birth to the false breakthrough. Then, during the late Neolithic, and right now, "tried and true" is the builder's preference. Builder's proposals of alternative ways of looking at structures tend to be old fashioned but not out of fashion, simple, but not simplistic,  and primitive but not tortuous.

 For any structure, measurement always precedes building. One does not put up a tent without first measuring the tent pole. Four children dividing a round pie to share equally, must first cut it to four quarters. Fundamental to all measurement down to this day is trial and error.  If the tent pole is too short, cut a longer one. If too long, cut it shorter. The more equal the four quarters, the less squabbling. The more precise the measuring, the more successful the structure, and the faster it goes up.  Height and depth, length and width, round and square, level and plumb, in various combinations or modifications are meat and potatoes to the builder now and in the past. These measurements are all so closely related he cannot have the one without the other. The rules and measurements that sustain the longevity of some of man's structures are the same now as they were in the past millennia.

 A most marvelous quality of Stonehenge is that its existence in fact is emblematic of the nature of the tools used in Neolithic man's measuring tool-box. It allows us to compare the ancient versus the contemporary master builder's toolbox. Take a circle. Divided in half, with a line through the center point, the carpenter has made little advance in his tool-making. Divided in quarters the carpenter has four easily accessible right triangles. The right triangle, a tool made up of three sections of wood fastened to maintain its shape, is a fundamental tool in any present day carpenter's  measuring tool-box.  It is easily made at the building site. It is identified as "A carpenter's square". Since the Bronze Age, the material of choice is metal.  Unlike the more primitive square It has two legs, each about a foot and a half long, with the base leg longer and wider than the other. Markings are incised upon it.

 The master carpenter's tool-box is the essence of simplicity: a length of  twine, a weight, a length of wood with markings incised upon it, a carpenter’s square, and maybe a bowl of water. Twine fastened to a stake gives a circle, to two stakes gives a straight line or an ellipse, to three stakes a triangle, to four a square or rectangle. Attached to a weight and thrown into the sea, it gives a depth. Attached to a weight and let down from a height, it gives the plumb line. The plumb line establishes the vertical. From the vertical, with the use of a carpenter's square one finds the horizontal. If one wishes to confirm the horizontal, water in a bowl gives the answer.

 A circle is primitive. It is a product of a single length of twine or a single length of wood. Plant a stake in the ground and use wood or  twine  to create a radius. The measuring artifact that creates a radius is the most fundamental of all measuring tools. A multiplicity of points on the circumference gives more precision. A line that passes from one point through the center mark and on to another point on the circumference creates a diameter. There is little trial and error. However, a second diameter which is moved in a manner that the four quadrants so made each have an hypotenuse equal to the other three is a process of trial and error.  A square figure bounded by the circumference and four right triangles  result,  all from twine, and a single piece of wood, and trial and error.

 The circle is classic for distinguishing between measuring to create and measuring to record. When we build a sandcastle we use our intuitive measuring skills to create in sand what we see in our mind's eye. We are creating. When somebody attempts   to measure and record our creation, they must use a rule. They are recording. These two measuring techniques are not the same and should not be confused. The co-mingling of working measurement with recording measurement is mischievous. It obscures the thinking process that goes into the creation of the measured structure. Measuring to create is on-going, and is subject to trial and error. Creative measurement is hard even for the expert. He uses measuring tools to speed up and to standardize, for that building only, the building project. In the end, if the tools are handled by an expert, who knows the nature of the material used in his tools, and measures once and is right, it all comes down to the intuitive and physical skill of that user. Blunders peculiar to us ordinary mortals, such as the impatient mind, the dyslectic brain, the careless hand, the indecisive eye, unskilled coordination between mind, hand and eye, the twitchy finger all separate us from the expert. Those were  experts who constructed Stonehenge.

 To record a project after completion, either in its stages or in the whole, is to be dead on, and dead right.  The former, creative measuring, establishes where one is going.  The latter verifies where one has been. Almost anyone can measure to record. That is the cause of pie squabbling. It is easy to say, "Your piece is larger than mine!" once the pie quadrants are cut. Such measuring should not be compared to using a measuring tool in work in progress. A person might think that the distinction between creative and recording measurements is parsing the obvious, but it is helpful in understanding the mindset of those who look to record, compared to those who look to create. One may, and often does wear both hats, but not at the same time. Furthermore, the distinction between the two refines the measurement problem in examining ancient buildings, before standard units. 

 Measuring ancient structures nowadays poses the question, what units did the ancient use in his building? We know that he used neither inches and yards, nor meters and centimeters. Programming computers with algorithms speed up and reduce the uncertainty in the search for the unique measuring unit for each unique ancient building. That unit is convenient in order to judge the  deviation each builder was willing to tolerate in progress while aiming for perfection in the finished structure. Measure to record over-looks trial and error. It increases the difficulty of assessing the why of the structure. Does one see right triangles buried in the stone circle? Is the radius consistent throughout? Are there other radii? Why so? Why not?  Who was at fault if there is an inconsistent radius? Might there be other inconsistencies? What are their nature?

 In creative measurement the builder long has made up many aspects of his personal unit. To this day he measures by the eye. To some degree we all measure by the eye. We see a long or short nose, fat or thin lips, a receding hairline, the tall, the squat, and so on. The builder, or the artist, mentally measures more things more frequently.  Without an overriding social concern such as the dictates of an empire or the mandates of commerce, there is no need for a builder to use a standard unit. The general imprecise and conventional arm length, thumb length, foot length, and day's plowing suffice. For a circle to be uniform the radius must be of the same length at every point on the perimeter.  It is significant that there is no need of a "standard unit" in drawing or constructing a perfect circle, but there is a need for measuring tools. Time has not played havoc with these tools. Yes, we now use a steel tape. Our bowl of water is encased in wood, or plastic, or metal, and most likely the bubble is in a spirit other than water.

 A master carpenter, or engineer, would carry his equipment from one site to another. See Stuart Piggott's photo of an ancient Nuraghic-culture figure (ANCIENT EUROPE Tenth Printing, 1980, facing  p. 155).  This sculpture of a master Neolithic engineer, or carpenter, or builder,  carries a knife with a pommel pierced for fastening a line. The blade is small, similar to our present utility knife. The tip of a utility knife receives the greatest wear. His hilt is sized and shaped for carrying twine, with an upper hilt next to the pommel. The upper hilt ends are of a different thickness. The lower hilt, next to the blade has ends extended with ends pointing back up to the pommel. Too small to be a weapon, it is excellent as a precise weight for a plumb line. The grip is suitable for carrying twine. It is situated on his chest, not practical as a weapon but significant as a badge. His apron is of leather, a material universally favored by builders. Splinters fail to pierce it, and stone shards fail to tear it. He holds a measuring rod for a walking stick. The nature of the material used in the sculpture requires that his markings be exposed, rather than recessed.  That photo is a good example of a master carpenter. No present day builder would mistake him for anyone but a fellow builder. 

 With measuring tools there comes variations of precision that a person is willing to accept. Every builder has tolerances in his work, depending upon the degree of precision needed for the job at hand. This variation is a matter of selectivity: plus or minus. In a set of interior stairs that tolerance in riser height should be uniform to no more than an eighth of an inch, whereas in measuring the diagonals of a room the carpenter might accept a variation of one or two inches. The best builders refuse even that.  They fuss until they get the variance down to a quarter of an inch. In climbing or descending stairs, if one needs to use the handrail, the odds are that the stair deviation is greater than one eighth of an inch, the standard deviation everybody's mind self-programs after the second step. A standard deviation is a remarkable trait of one's mind as it prepares one for the following step. If one stumbles, the mind is not playing tricks; the stairs are. The carpenter is not worthy of the hire.

 Whether in a perfect circle, the Pyramids of Egypt, or the great circular plate of Stonehenge, selectivity of precision is always operational, never ignored. Both are accurate enough but the degree of precision differs.  Rough measure looks for an ideal specified size, say that the standing stones should be within half a foot of what is needed. Finish measure is specific to a finished object being mated to another finished object, at what is to be the finished height. That finished height is where all the plusses and all the minuses that were carried in the head of the builder, are balanced out. The top surface of the upper sill plate mated to the Stonehenge standing stones is the finished height.

 Stonehenge measurements that must have been made in its construction are fascinating to the present day builder in the reassuring familiarity of their selectivity between general and precise measurements, and in the complex  relationship between those two. Among the most difficult concepts for a person to master in order to build the most perfect building is the relationship between rough and finish measurements. While at the same time he strives for the perfect finish, plus or minus comes into play. If item # 1 is a bit plus, then item# 2 must be a bit minus to make up the difference in perfection. Variations exist in all great buildings, at all levels of its construction. Variations are why great builders attempt to get each stage of construction perfect, or "finished". Measures are dynamic and must be kept in balance in the same manner as a see-saw must have equivalent weight at either end in order to function gracefully.  It is this balance between rough and finish that gives a building its vitality and its humanness. It is what drives the observer to shake his head in wonder.  It distinguishes the great building from the sterile fabrication. It is why each step of a pyramid must be squared and leveled "dead on". Otherwise it begins to tip and keeps on leaning as it goes up. It is ironic that one builder says in compliment to another, "Your measurement is dead on!'  That conversation must have been rife when Stonehenge was in progress.

 Compare measurements of the base of Stonehenge to the base of a typical pyramid in Egypt built at about the same era. The pyramids were immediate constructions, a dedicated tomb for a particular Pharaoh. Stonehenge was a working machine built, re-built, and built again over centuries. To lay out the site of a pyramid, and trench it, and to fill the trench with water in order to establish the grade was simple enough. At Stonehenge a benchmark had to have been established and retained, against which an individual hole had to be sited. Time elapsed before the next hole was measured up. No common trench could be dug. Everything was custom measured, custom dug, and custom cut.

 In addition to giving insight to a builder's toolbox, Stonehenge offers a terrific opportunity to study permanent Neolithic foundation techniques in Great Britain. The site of Stonehenge is topographically variable, but there are at least two ways to achieve a level top plate that stands about ten feet above ground,  The first step is to study the ground itself. The site is not as smooth and level as a billiard table.   Despite that unevenness, Stonehenge has a near perfectly level top of its circular top plate. Emplacing a level foundation requires only primitive tools: twine, water, a utility knife, and a measuring rod. Handling those tools is universal. Why didn't Stonehenge builders create a level ground for their foundation? A glance at that stretch of land next to Stonehenge called "The Cursus" indicates that Neolithic builders had the wherewithal and the skills needed to move earth at will.

 Complex structures evolve out of earlier, less complex structures, so the difficult becomes manageable, mentally and technically.  Archeologists now know that earlier forms of wood existed at the site of Stonehenge. Skywatchers who ordered up the new stone Stonehenge might have preferred not to see their ground stripped level, with consequent destruction of their past accumulation of information. All their observations were based on that precise location and the exact rolling terrain.  The builders likely were instructed to replace on the existing site, wood post with standing stone, with minimum disturbance of the topography, one post at a time.  With present day archeologists' outstanding technical skill at excavation, grain by grain, be it of coarse sand or, of the fineness of clay, or of organic humus, odds are they can identify depth and width of each previous wood post. They have already, without testing the limits of their skills, affirmed, sequential accumulation at Stonehenge.

 If the original topography of Stonehenge differed here and there in the amount of plus or minus, two feet, some combination of the size of the stones or the depths of the holes must be accepted to account for that topographical variability. If the stones are of equal length, one must dig all holes to different depths to insure that their bases are level, each to each. Equal stones entered into equal bases will result in a level horizon at their summit. But why dig down, beyond the need for stability, when one is interested only in an upper consistent altitude? Stonehenge builders were familiar with the subsurface of their building site because they were replacing wood with stone. Nevertheless the weight of the stone, many times that of wood, meant that any previous hole had to be reviewed to calculate soil compaction. Once standing, the builders did not want a stone post to shift out of plumb, due to improper sub-surface compaction.

 The measuring technique is the same, whether one measures all stones and cuts them to the exact same size, and measure all holes and dig them to the exact same level depth, or if one matches stone size to hole depth. In each case one is searching for an idealized top of stone height. To do this, one sets up a rig of twine and wood, and employs a primitive transit. A transit is not a level. A level is a bowl of water elaborately contained, that a builder places atop a concrete object be it a stone, a wall, or a fixed board, to judge whether it is or is not "level". Builders use a transit primarily to establish a level horizon, or transit line. Single builders may use a level. Two men, the viewer and the rod man are required for a transit. Conceptually it is completely different.

 Unlike the concrete object upon which one places the level, the line of a transit is imaginary. The rod man must derive a point out of the air. A transit is almost as ubiquitous to a builder as is a right triangle. It is an essential tool in instructing an excavator how deep to dig a foundation. It is easy to build. Much of a builder's work with the transit tool is similar to using reed and water upon a pedestal. A reed split, end stopped, and filled with water, and sighted by an expert, makes for a primitive transit. It sets up a level plane, or transit line, from which to take measurements.

 The Stonehenge builders, who had accumulated sub-surface knowledge from their former work with wood post holes, would use a circular transit line as a datum from which to measure the depth of each hole. To that depth using the same datum line, they could add the height of the desired top of top plate. This unique sum for each hole would give them the various lengths of standing stones required to meet, roughly, the projected height. Measuring down from the line, the numbers would differ.  Measuring up, the datum line would give a single idealized number. In fact an individual stone could be no less than a certain height. The finished height would be substantially greater. The top of sill plate finished height was given to the builders before work on the project had commenced. They came to their own calculations in their own time to make each stone meet that height.

 At Stonehenge, finish measurements must be atop the standing stones, because one must realize that the sill plates must each be of a different thickness.  For the Stonehenge builder, the sole measure of his grand achievement is the stable, level, circular top surface of this upper sill plate.  All other measurements, the mortises, the tenons, the linkages, the sill plate thickness, standing stone length, post hole depth are subordinate to this single, seemingly simple, circular level of top plate. If there is one thing that the life-long scientist deplores, now and in the past, it is a tool that gives an imperfect result. A henge of wood, as opposed to a henge of stone is just that imperfect tool.

 In the process of examining a building, one encounters the nexus between function, technique, and thinking.  Wood can make a fine, delicate, and beautiful instrument. Exposed to the weather, even for a short period of time, wood changes in character. It dries and shrinks as water exits. When water returns, wood expands. This characteristic is controllable in some cases and works to an advantage, as in the staves of a barrel, or in the planking of a vessel. In an outdoor observatory, shrinking and swelling is inhibiting. Posts have a function, but unless they are protected from the weather they deteriorate from the top down, beginning immediately. In building construction large posts frame walls. They are kept in line with an upper plate, not lintel. That plate is topped with a lintel, which carries the roof.

 In the case of wooden posts Nova did well to assert that the size of the hole correlates with the height of the post it held. In spite of that discovery they do not follow up. The most important corollary is that posts are connected with straight lines, be they of twine, of lattice, or of wood. To make curved walls between posts is uncommonly difficult. To bend lattice for a lattice and mortar wall is a nuisance. And where is the advantage?  Posts are thereby associated with linear construction. Non linear (circular) construction is associated with materials other than wood: mud brick, brick, small and large stone. Strictly speaking, none of those materials are curved to the exact round defined by the posts. It is possible to make a curved form to cure curved mud into bricks, but that is hardly practical, particularly when one wants to furnish the interior. Posts may be arranged in a circle, but the lines between them are straight, in the same manner as an umbrella may be  circular in shape, but its frame is made up of straight lines. This corollary is handy for field work, for one can carry a twine line when investigating postholes, and quite easily asses which holes belong to which buildings. The straight line connection corollary is critical to understanding that Stonehenge is a unique example of posts connected with a curved upper plate.  

 Examining Stonehenge one can see at once the problem of wood posts in a circle connected with an upper plate of wood. Not only does the plate keep its supporting posts in line, but also it must give the skywatchers a perfectly circular datum line upon which they may conduct their observations. The upper plate must needs be made of a truly massive timber in order to be carved to a curve. The massiveness of such a timber would be remarkable on the one hand, but the problems over time, of its "checking" and weathering would be unsolvable. In weathering conditions "Checking" is a crack in a timber that occurs because of the difference between the moisture content on the exterior of a timber and the moisture content of the interior.  A timber dries from the outside-in.  In the drying process it shrinks.  As it shrinks it no longer can cover the inside, which still has its high moisture content, so it "checks". Those spaces, equivalent to stretch marks, enable the timber to retain much of its outside dimensions in spite of being smaller. The uneven drying also causes a timber to warp.  The warping is continuous in the case of an upper plate similar to Stonehenge because the upper side is exposed to both the soaking of rain and the baking of sun.  Sunlight and darkness is topside fate, while the bottom of the plate is in constant shadow, and is not exposed to water.

 The entirely natural phenomenon of top plate distortion; shrinking in the sun, swelling in the rain, twisting with age, and deteriorating over time, explains why it was necessary for stone age builders to use stone plates atop stone posts in the case of Stonehenge. The top of the plate gives precision to the Neolithic observers of the entire firmament, not merely the rising and setting of the sun. To this day its size and curvature remains a benchmark that is unchanging. Ironically, the building of Stonehenge itself gives the motive for its construction, and this motive is implicit in the distinction between a plate and a lintel.  These are old fashioned terms.  They have been around for a long time.  Their form arises from their function.

 Stone and lintel construction was ubiquitous in Neolithic Britain. Stone and plate construction was entirely unique. In the case of the tri-liths standing in the center of the great circle, mortise and tenon joints connect two standing stones to a third stone: the upper plate. The trio are not part of the great circle, yet there too, the upper plates are not lintels. Posts and the heft of a lintel gives a doorway to a structure. It gives a gap, just as man's upper jaw lintel gives a spot for a gap tooth.  The purpose of a lintel is to carry weight.  A plate does not carry weight.  If weight is to be carried, a lintel is added either above or below a plate.  The purpose of a plate is to keep posts below them aligned in position.  Stonehenge carries no weight above the plate. That great, interlocked, and mortised plate, receiving tenons, is exceptional: the plate itself is the purpose of its sustaining posts.

 Coarsening the description of what exists, works an injustice upon Stonehenge.  Because it is of stone, the upper plate could be, but is not load bearing. The plate would be intact to this day if generations of man had not attacked it out of fear and outrage. Fear of the unknown powers that built Stonehenge, and later, outrage that it demonstrated a majestic force that was an affront to the new Christian Godhead. With the tri-liths, mortise and tenon uniquely connects two standing stones with a top plate. Its use confirms one building skill of Stonehenge. An investigator will suspect that the tri-liths were the first series of stones erected. That could explain their height differing from the outer ring. Technically they are not as stable as a linked circular upper plate, and their function as a tool differs.

` John Aubrey, a founding member of the Royal Society, was an early scientist who counted before speculation. The bias of the literati against the illiterate did not prevent him from demanding from himself exactitude in measurements. He identified the existence of what came to be named "Aubrey Holes", a series of fifty-six holes surrounding the outer perimeter of Stonehenge. Fifty-two weeks make up a Gregorian calendar year, more or less. The purpose of the fifty-six holes remains a mystery. Nova's program reveals that the significance of Stonehenge is no more clear to us now than it was in Aubrey's time.  To Aubrey's credit, he lacked computer imaging in portraying structural integrity. He also lacked the wonders of overhead photography, which from its distant perspective reveals ancient structures.  400 years after John Aubrey a good deal of excavation and research has gone into the examination of Stonehenge, yet with apologies to archeologists, there is more to be done. We should use our most modern tools to advance our learning.

 If we are willing to accept illustration #104 of Julian Richards' English Heritage STONEHENGE as more than fanciful, we can move forward on construction technique.  Compare the depths of the mortises and the length of the tenons, the outside dimensions  of every stone, whether standing or fallen, the radii of the inside and outside curves of the circular upper plate, the radii of their interlocking parts, the center points for these radii, and see what you see. Odds are that these measurements have been taken, but without a hypothesis of their purpose they have been allowed to gather moss in the archeological lacuna of Stonehenge.  Measurements of the monuments taken in the present will serve to authenticate the remarkable precision of measurements used in the past. Additionally the rough measurements that lead to the finished height may reveal the builder's acceptable variations. The cost is modest. The results are invaluable. NOVA's interest in explication opens wide the door for an up-to-date analysis. In a modern study the measurements of the construction of Stonehenge requires intense planning, and meticulous execution.

 With modern computer technique we can build a virtual model of Stonehenge, with accurate measurements of existing stones and with reasonable estimates of those that are missing.  Some may think the programming and re-programming of a virtual model to register all nooks, twists, and irregularities of each individual stone to be an exercise in futility that will lead to nothing. The surprise and delight will be in seeing  orderly relationships that guarantee a sturdy structure. Stonehenge did not arise out of convenient happenstance. It was planned, and a virtual model will reveal the planning. Intel and English Heritage have started work on a virtual model, although it is not easily accessible to the public.

Form follows function and although no function has yet been established to satisfy everyone or that trumps all other functions, one thing is certain.  To view Stonehenge from the ground is not to see it.  Neither is it helpful to stand atop the great plate. One must view Stonehenge at eye level, from a virtual platform situated somewhere around four feet below the plate. Ironically, one never sees Stonehenge at all. One sees what skywatchers see when using Stonehenge. To stand atop the great plate is absurd. Stonehenge is a venue for looking out at Neolithic man's environment. If one wishes to look in, sit on the great bank of Avebury.

 At the present time Stonehenge is a ruin, as the Coliseum is a ruin, but Stonehenge differs. There is no need to rebuild the Coliseum as one can see its functionality just as it is.  If one does not build a complete circle at its original height, reasonably adjacent to the original structure, one gets no feel for the function of Stonehenge. Standing on the ground, watching the sun stream through the ruin is like standing beneath an aqueduct to take a shower springing from its bottom. Thanks to the Ordinance Survey mapping we can recreate the topography of the environs.  Further, thanks to astronomical calculations demonstrated in planetaria, we can re-create the heavenly firmament of five thousand years past in order to figure out why the builders set up a baseline upper sill plate precisely at the height they chose. So Stonehenge is not art. It is not metaphor. It is not shelter.  It is a tool used to generate the tables for an almanac.

 The great ring also reveals a most remarkable skill that emphasizes the technical ability of prehistoric builders in Great Britain to connect giant standing stones. In addition to the two tenons on each standing stone and the corresponding mortises on each upper plate, there is something further: that continuously joined circular stone plate. To understand the conception and development of this plate, one must imagine a circular ring of a picture puzzle resting upon a table. It has an inner and outer radius.  Although it has many segments it is only one segment wide.  Like any puzzle, these individual pieces interlock, so that when the circle is complete, one may move the puzzle around the table without its shape changing. The puzzle is stable.  So is Stonehenge.  This uniquely manufactured upper plate is an example of a sequential accumulation of skill sets first learned in wood. It was used in Stonehenge to overcome stability problems in their original wooden structure. That smooth and linked sill plate is not a promenade as at Brighton Beach, nor is it a venue for cartwheels, nor did it foretell the colonnade of St Peter's Square in Rome.  It is entirely unique and the high point in Neolithic Britain, Ireland and Brittany.  It is a by-product of the demands of the job.

 This structure is like a compass. It is not unidirectional. It is as multidirectional as is a horizon. Interesting, like a transit, it may be used to sight angles in three dimensions, not two. The further down the surveyor is below the plate, the higher is his line of sight. Understanding the procedure in building such a monument, leads one to ask the eternal question that tantalizes the iconoclast and confounds the conventional: why?

The alignment of Stonehenge. Why do people make so much of the east west alignment of Stonehenge?  Suppose for a moment that archeologists were to study the nave of a gothic cathedral. In the case of the nave, the rose window at the east end  is directly opposite to the entrance at its west end.  Beyond the obvious of what means birth and what means death, what further is there to pursue in that alignment? Is that all there is to Canterbury, or York Minster?  Stonehenge is aligned in the same manner. Yes, one may observe that the Neolithic are accurate in their measurements.  They knew that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and they knew something about birth and death.

 The actual ages of those people buried at Stonehenge is material evidence.  Speculations based on their presence and on their ages should be narrowly prescribed.  If one works a lifetime at a place, one would like to be buried close by. If one dies where one works, through accident or otherwise, one would like to be memorialized at the location. The few burials unearthed compared to the longevity of the site reduces the possibility of Stonehenge being a grave site.
 In building, whether a hovel or a palace, everything is sequential in its nature. Nowhere is sequential accumulation better depicted than Nova's portrayal of a building with all post holes filled with posts.  If all post were retained, this public space has little room left for the public.  Those few could hardly look in any direction without encountering another post.  However, following Gould's dictum, one can see the great advantage of enlarging a building in the round over a length of time. There is no confusion in the ordering of materials since major construction is the lengthening of the radius. There is sparing of inconvenience during the enlarging process as the lengthened radius is outside of, or beyond, the existing building. The building process is sequential in nature, removing the need for a large crew. There is a sequential accumulation of post holes, but not posts, as few large posts replace many smaller.  Showing all post holes filled with posts is compressing a long term sequence of ever larger buildings into one photograph.  In real time, only a few posts will have been present.

 Ultimately Stonehenge will survive the indignity of being touted as a mausoleum. It shall overcome the simplistic notion of its being a glorified compass heading.  It will assume its rightful place in the world as a stable machine to observe astronomical changes over many hundreds of years.  Its final iteration is a result of a sequential accumulation of technique. Sadly, with the dawn of literacy, and with the skywatcher's refusal to write down their knowledge, they became marginalized. They already ranked as mystical through their predictions about the future. Those predictions inevitably became true, but their society disappeared into the myths of Merlin.

 Their structure was a primitive memory aide to record changes and to record yearly cycles. The thinker's intellectual curiosity drove them to go to the great time and expense to transform their machine from timber to stone.  Using their stable machine their curiosity was rewarded. Their culture was spared the fear of a dangerous and alien environment that left unpredictable the nature of an ever changing and ever cyclical world.  That is the magic of Stonehenge.  That is its power. It typifies man's ceaseless quest to know why we function as an individual focus upon the universe and yet we exist temporarily, as only one part of that puzzle. Why is Stonehenge at its precise height?  Why so precise a top plate?  Why is it circular? Why is it built of stone? Its magic grows with the years. Its function remains constant.

  List of Essays:

Time, Tools, and Measurements on the Occasion of Nova's Program on Stonehenge A Builder's Amplification

Stonehenge, Avebury, Silbury Hill: A Meditation on Function


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