Friday, July 05, 2024

Thoughts on Bluestone Trilithons

Within the collection of bluestones at Stonehenge are several interesting examples that show distinct signs of having been part of independent, tooled, structures.

Stone 36 and Stone 150 are clearly lintels having mortise holes worked into one of each of their faces, in much the same way that the lintels of the outer sarsen circle and inner horseshoe of sarsen trilithons do.

Stone 150 is quite rounded, and lies prone in the turf in the NE quadrant of the bluestone circle but Stone 36 is far more elegant and is almost entirely buried in the southern quadrant - in fact 36 is arguably the finest dressed stone on the site.

Stone 150

Stone 36

Stone 36, having been lifted for inspection during the excavations of 1954

Stonehenge plan showing the positions of Stones 36 and 150
© Anthony Johnson, annotations by Simon Banton

As Julian Richards writes, in "Stonehenge - The Story So Far (2nd ed.)", referring to Atkinson's lifting of Stone 36 in 1954:

Apart from its sheer aesthetic qualities, Stone 36 posed some interesting questions. Along with stone 150 it was the second bluestone lintel to be identified and there were the uprights to go with them, pillars in the bluestone horseshoe that showed signs of having originally had tenons. So Atkinson could suggest a phase of ‘tooled bluestones’ which must, as there were now two lintels, have included at least two miniature trilithons. These, on the evidence of the mortice holes in the lintels would have looked very different from the much larger sarsen examples. The lintels would have extended beyond the edges of the slender pillars on which they perched, the space between the pillars and the height of the lintel sufficient to allow people to pass through.  The remarkable Stone 36 also provided evidence that this was not a short-lived structure. One of its mortice holes was surrounded by a shallow depression, presumably a carefully worked seating for the upright on which it sat, and within this hollow the surface of the stone appeared worn, even polished. This did not appear to be deliberate but more the result of friction, perhaps caused by the expansion and contraction of the touching stones. But such a polish would only develop very slowly, suggesting that these stones must have stood as trilithons for many years.

Could these two bluestone miniature trilithons have been the archetypes that eventually gave rise to much larger echoes of similar design in the enormous sarsen trilithons?

If so, then what could have been the intent behind the original creation of the bluestone versions? And where were they erected? Clearly not close to the current positions of 36 and 150 since they are remote from their supposed companion uprights which are components of the inner bluestone horseshoe arrangement and which carry the battered down remnants of tenons on their upper surfaces.

These are all repurposed stones - the bluestones have been rearranged a number of times in prehistory - and 150 in particular has been used, finally, as a pillar of the bluestone circle which was oriented so that its mortise holes would not be visible from the interior of the monument.

Bluestones have a remarkable capacity for being used as lithophones - "rock gongs" if you like. When found at their outcrops in the Preseli Hills in South West Wales, experimentally striking them with a rubber mallet or a deer antler will soon discover that certain ones that will "ring" like a bell.

They have to be positioned just right - balanced without being buried in the ground so that they can resonate when struck. The following video shows my attempts at getting a note out of a number of examples in 2023.

If there were two bluestone trilithons at some point in Stonehenge (transported there having been dismantled from an earlier monument in Preseli, perhaps), could the design have been in an effort to support two appropriate stones above the ground so that they could be easily "rung"?

What are the implications of such a suggestion? Is there an acoustic aspect to the use of Stonehenge that has been hinted at by a number of other researchers? One which employed the bluestones?

Are the bluestone trilithons in fact engineered sound sources? Maybe the "voices" of the stones were thought to have been in some way special in their own right, and bringing them to sing at the site of the future Stonehenge was important for an unknowable (to us) reason.

Given that the final arrangement of the bluestones at Stonehenge has them all either fallen, half-buried, or deeply embedded in the chalk (in the case of the upright ones) it seems that if they did have an original acoustic purpose then this was subsequently either forgotten or discounted by the people who incorporated them into the much later monument - even if they did echo their form in the horseshoe of enormous sarsen trilithons.