Rare Photo Reveals Ingenious Stonehenge Engineering Secrets
England’s famous stone circle, Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, was built in four major phases with the first being completed around 5,000 years ago and what we see today, the final stage, was completed about 3,500 years ago by Neolithic builders using primitive dear antler tools, and has been subject to much mystery. And now a rare photograph has shed new light on the enigma revealing some Stonehenge engineering secrets.
Secret to Longevity
While the immense towering stones are a thing of marvel, so too is the structure’s longevity, which archaeologists now know was enhanced because the ancient slabs were cleverly interlocked using holes and protruding studs.
This innovative construction method was much more sophisticated than the stone building formats applied in contemporary stone circles and English Heritage says the use of this technique “allowed the monument to stand the test of time.”
The charity says an aerial photograph taken from a cherry picker, which they recently posted online, shows how the ancient creators of Stonehenge built their monument “just like Lego,” a comment to which according to the Daily Mail, the Danish toy-making giant replied with an affectionate message saying: “ah, where it all began.”
The ingenious Stonehenge engineering pictured during sunset. (Terry / Adobe stock)
Let’s Go Beyond “Lego”
The photograph reveals how the immense stones interlocked with protruding studs corresponding with holes of a slightly wider diameter carved in others. It is unfortunate that English Heritage, and all subsequent media reports, keep repeating the mundane party line that this ancient interlocking mechanism is equatable with the toy Lego, rather than explaining the engineering behind what is an incredibly simple “mortise and tenon” system of stabilizing stones.
A system which in its simplicity played a crucial role in the monument enduring for over five millennia, with 17 of Stonehenge's original upright stones still standing with five lintels still in their original positions.
English Heritage, which looks after the ancient Wiltshire monument, wrote in a tweet accompanying the remarkable photograph, that it displays a rarely seen view of the top of the giant sarsen stones in which protruding tenons are clearly visible with corresponding horizontal lintel stones featuring mortise holes for the tenons to slide into.
But their reference to the system being “a bit like early Lego!” might, or should be, at the very least annoying to the average Ancient Origins reader, who doesn’t have a childlike brain, which the Lego analogy aims to stimulate.
Despite what some people say, the Stonehenge engineering was not just like Lego. Pictured: Aerial shot of Stonehenge during the summer. (Alexey Fedorenko / Adobe stock)
Stonehenge Engineering is More Like “Meccano”
For us, the ancient building system applied at Stonehenge is more like “Meccano”, Lego for the higher brow reader, which better accounts for the “mechanics” applied by the builders of the ancient monument.
“Lego” suggests sticking one stone upon another and sliding them into position with a click, but this says little for the A-frames, gravity defeating pulleys and scaffolding structures described by British Academy archaeologists as invisible, but essential skills underlying the locking system demonstrated in the newly publicized photograph.
Regarding this relative complexity when compared with other stone circles built at the same time, Susan Greaney, an archaeologist with a specialism in British prehistory who works for English Heritage, told The Guardian, “one of the big questions is why Stonehenge was constructed with such precision engineering? Answering her own question, the archaeologist says it “may well be simply that they wanted to make sure it lasted a very long time.”
If the builders had set unworked sarsens on top of the vertical upright stones, as crowing lintels, the relative instability would have left them vulnerable to earthquakes, the wind, frost and to the A3 bypass and impending substructural road tunnel.
The archaeologists presumption is that there were similar timber monuments being built around the time utilizing mortise and tenon joints that were mimicked by the Stonehenge engineers. And then again, summarizing all these engineering feats, the English Heritage spokesperson said, “we sometimes say to our schoolchildren who visit that Stonehenge it’s just like Lego.”
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We Want Details!
That’s fine for the children. According to Richard Morin, Washington Post Polling Director, in a 1999 article raising concerns about “dumbing down”, especially in journalism, marketers and reporters gleefully drive “the controversy rather than merely report the facts.”
The news media, according to Morin, were getting “increasingly careless with the news” condescending its audiences by boiling down anything that sounds challenging to its lowest common denominator: God forbidding that readers might have to learn something. And now, twenty years later, when English archaeologists gain a richer understanding of the underlying mechanics of one of the world’s most iconic ancient buildings, these days we get the “Lego” version.
Lego can be made into some wonderful creations, and it’s longevity as an immensely popular children’s toy is laudable, but it is almost disrespectful to those ancient people who with bone tools carved, transported, shaped, raised and locked into time a magnificence unrivaled anywhere in the world. Meccano, is just far more appropriate.
Top image: The rare photo showing the ingenious Stonehenge engineering. Source: English Heritage
By Ashley Cowie