Stonehenge is vastly over-rated. By far and away, the standing stone circle of Callanish on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis far outstrips Stonehenge for both majesty and mystery. It helps, too, that the buses and tea shops and gift shops have yet to invade the windswept furthest recesses of this outer Scottish island. Neolithic. Bronze age. A site of prehistoric religious activity for 1500 years,give or take. Walk among them and it is impossible to deny the eerie sense of Time, stood still, stood on end, and someone watching.
But it was in Devon last month that stone circles took on dramatic new meaning for me. On Dartmoor alone there are more than two dozen of them, about which virtually nothing is known except they are stone age, they were erected deliberately by men, granite boulders and plinths weighing tons upon tons. In addition, there are lone menhirs — gigantic single stones set on on their ends for what purpose no one can say — and clapper bridges (more on these shortly).
Our mission was to take a walk upon the moors and, oh, see what we could see. The first thing noted on our map was Kestor settlement. Vocabulary lesson #1: ‘tor’ means a pile of granite rubble blown clean of vegetation and sandstone by millennia of wind blast, atop a hillock. On the top of a smooth hummock, an outcropping, no, an uprising, of craggy granite. Below this tor, a circle of piled, not standing, stones, a permanent encampment where guys without tools assembled these boulders to form an enclosure for their rubble huts and livestock.
A mile or so further on, we came upon our first clapper bridge on the moors at Scorhill. Arguments abound over the etymology of this word but it’s either from the Anglo-Saxon (cleaca, meaning ‘bridge of stones’) or more likely from Medieval Latin (clapus, meaning a ‘pile of stone’). Neither origin does this structure credit. A clapper bridge is a gigantic lintel of granite, weighing, say, in one case, eight tons or more and measuring 6.5feet wide by 13feet long, put in place over a brook or river. From bank to bank or on piled ‘posts’ made of stacked stones. Their simplicity is gorgeous, their engineering incredible. The two we ran across bridged simple grazing streams, making possible cart travel from one side to the other. But men without tools, without machinery, but probably lots of free labor, managed to manhandle these goliath stones to fit their will and purpose.
No much further along we stumbled upon a standing stone circle. Far more primitive than either Stonehenge or Callanish but manmade, man-purposed and monolithic. Who built these circles and why are questions begging answers that will never come. These moors, once densely wooded, were clear-cut by those stone age laborers so thoroughly that now the soil is too acid to promote any growth other than sheep forage. So acidic, indeed, that all traces of ancient man have been literally dissolved — bones, hides, pottery eaten into oblivion.
Days later we actively sought out another Bronze Age site called Grimspound. Vocabulary lesson #3 — pound as in compound, as in impound, as in dog pound. An enclosure. Build on the slope of a hillside, this vast circle, maybe 100 yards in diameter and up to nine feet thick, was, like the Kestor settlement, an encampment. A community. Within the tumbledown circular wall that remains today, a collection of smaller rubble-foundation huts. Fodder for imagining the unimaginable: how did they manage to construct this, move these huge stones to their will, place them on top of each other or upright? Once a large and vital community of herders who surrounded themselves with this formidable wall of stones, they sought not to keep things out but to keep themselves and their animals in. Safe. Together. A granite embrace.
We are so smug in our 21st century selves. So sure of our cultural and technological and engineering superiority. But what of us will remain to ignite the imaginations and awe of onlookers three thousand years from today? What of our world will so survive?