Books, Prehistory, Royal Archaeological Institute

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Books, Prehistory, Royal Archaeological Institute, Letter Relative to Stonehenge

Letter Relative to Stonehenge by the Reverend Edward Duke (age 71). 1851.

To The Secretary Of The Archaeolological Institute.

My dear Sir,

From the time that I heard of the archæological meeting in this neighbourhood, it had been my wish and hope to have offered to its members a paper on Stonehenge, to which I have given my attention for some years. As the time draws near, however, I find myself compelled, although reluctantly, to decline the more elaborate essay I had purposed. My health, broken by repeated and very severe attacks of illness, will not allow the application of mind to a subject for any length of time without injury.

If, however, you will permit me to do so, I shall venture to offer to your consideration, and submit to your judgment, some points which would have found a place in the contemplated essay, had I been able to complete it.

I think you may be aware that, about three years since, I put through the press a small volume bearing the title of the Druidical Temples of Wilts. In that work Stonehenge was considered as forming part of a planetarium, in connexion with Abury, in the more northern part of the county, and with a series of remains to be traced on the face of the intervening country, the gigantic proportions of which were such that its meridional line was extended no less than two-and-thirty miles. It was while my mind was engaged on this subject, subsequently however to the publication of the book, that the theory of the construction of Stonehenge was gradually presented to it, both with a more distinct outline and in fuller detail. I have not, indeed, found occasion to reject or displace any of the opinions I have formerly expressed: my later occupation has been to add to, and complete my view on this portion of my former subject.

I now, therefore, separate Stonehenge from Abury and the other sacred stations with which, for certain purposes, it was conjoined, and proceed to regard it (as, of course, it may be regarded) in the light of a temple standing alone, entire and perfect in itself, totus in se, teres, atque rotundus.

In approaching Stonehenge, it may be advisable for a stranger, who is making his inspection for the first time, to forbear entering the sacred precincts from that side by which he would naturally arrive on his road from Salisbury ; and to diverge from the path, till he come to the Gnomon, or index-stone, on the north-east side. He will walk from thence beneath the centre arch of the three imposts in front, and so proceed up the temple. In this way, with ordinary attention and intelligence, its plan will become evident at once, which otherwise must appear to the observer involved in a chaotic confusion.

We will suppose our Archaeologist arrived, for the first time in his life, at the outer circle of this venerable monument.

This consisted originally of thirty upright stones, joined together at the top by a continued corona of the same number of imposts: their substance being a silicious grit, permeated here and there with a thin vein of quartz ; and therefore bearing intrinsic evidence that they are Nature's handiwork, and not, as some have supposed — the great Camden among them — from the manufactories of man.

Their height is sixteen feet; their sides shaped into regular parallelograms by the chisel, and their inner surfaces bevelled, from the bottom upwards, for the greater firmness and security of the mass ; a hint which our Norman forefathers did not neglect to observe and follow in the churches which their piety reared in the neighbouring bournes.

These stones, when first set up, were evidently located with great art; externally they must have presented a gentle curve, and internally have shewn a polygon of thirty sides. We have here, then, thirty stones with their thirty intervals, each distinct by itself, and yet all linked together, and united into one, by the one superincumbent and encircling corona. In this, therefore, we behold, in their several and joint characters, the thirty days and thirty nights into which, anciently, each of the twelve months of the year was equally divided, — the perpetual, standing calendar of the Druids for that space of time; or, when multiplied by twelve, their almanac for the year.

A simple arrangement truly, and befitting a simple and unsophisticated people, but not to be denied a higher praise also; for it has been held truly that works of genius are to be known by the most perfect adaptation to their end, combined with the greatest possible simplicity. Of the arrangement of their ecclesiastical year we have, it is true, but little knowledge. Fasts, we may presume, were to them unknown. Of festival days, days of high rejoicing and holy observation, we may not doubt that they had their proper allowance. They were those probably pointed out by nature, or received from earliest primeval tradition — the equinoxes, the solstices, the new moons, and the sabbath-days. Thus, in each monthly revolution, the progress of the month upon any given day would be marked by the stone at which they might then have arrived ; and by this calendar, — for the integrity of which its publicity and the consciences of the priesthood were the vouchers, — the possibility of a national doubt, or of conflicting calculations in any two different parts of the nation, as to precise timet whether in regard to the celebration of sacred feasts or to the fulfilment of civil contracts was averted ; for a reference was always feasible to the great national calendar at Stonehenge, whose fiat would be at once decisive of the doubt or controversy. It was, in fact, the authority of that day, from whose voice there was no appeal.

Proceeding inwards, from the circumference to the centre of the temple, we shall come next to the remains of a circle of smaller stones, of granite, porphyry, &c., concentric with the outer circle. On the number of the stones composing this interior circle much diversity of opinion exists among antiquaries. Upon this question I shall not now enter, but assume that the opinion in which Stukeley and Sir R. C. Hoare concur is the correct one, namely, that it consisted of neither more nor less than forty. I shall take leave, however, to disagree with Sir Richard, and also Mr. Cunnington, as to their decision upon another point. They have advanced an opinion that the larger stones at Stonehenge were erected, in point of time, previously to the smaller ones, which last they think to have been subsequently inserted among them.

I agree with them in thinking there is great probability that the work, as it now stands, is not to be referred to one and the same era j I dissent from them as to the part to which the highest antiquity belongs. I here coincide with Mr. Britton, in supposing that this inner circle of granite pertained to the inner ellipse of the same material; and that together they formed one temple many ages before its enlargement by the fosse and the more massive sandstones.

In defence of this position it may be observed, that the circle of forty stones is not astronomical^ but numerical; consisting, as it does, of four decades, into each of which, in turn, enter the four mystic numbers from whose aggregate it is formed (i.e. 1+2+3+4 = 10). Now, a numerical circle, as I have held elsewhere, wherever it is found, must be esteemed prophylactic in its character. And among all the numerous temples of the Sun, of which remains are extant in various parts of the earth, I doubt whether a single instance can be produced of a similar anomaly, — of a numerical circle surrounding an astronomical portion of the temple, and itself embraced by a second numerical circle. We may justly infer, therefore, that this construction cannot belong to the original plan ; and if we allow an addition or alteration at all, it is more reasonable to suppose it to have been in the way of expansion and increase of grandeur than the contrary.

Still proceeding onwards, we shall arrive next at that which is perhaps the most interesting part of the temple, and in many respects without its parallel on the face of the globe. This is the outer ellipse of large trilithons, — a happy term, for the invention, or at least the application, of which we are indebted, as I believe, to Stukeley. These trilithons are composed of silicious sandstone, and from the same quarry probably that furnished the stones for the external circle. Each compages consists of two enormous upright slabs, having tenons on their upper edges, and an impost lying upon them, and secured m its place by corresponding mortices. Every trilithon stands unconnected and by itself; the length and breadth of the superincumbent stone being such, that its outer edges form a line with the outer edges of its supports.

Questions have been raised in relation to the original number of these trilithons, and they have not always received the wisest answers. Thus Inigo Jones, in sub-servience to his preposterous theory that Stonehenge was a Roman fane, dedicated to the god Cœlus or Cœlum, would have the number of trilithons to be six; and by a dexterous twist of these ponderous masses, effected by the machinery of a strong imagination, he has contrived to form with them a hexagon, constructed on the base-lines of six equilateral triangles. This absurdity is demonstrated to be such by a single glance at the temple itself. Stukeley, Wood, and Sir R. C. Hoare, have pronounced the number, in their opinion, to be five. These are great names, but even great men may err ; and from repeated personal observation I am disposed, with Smith, King, and some others, to be very decided and positive that, while they yet stood in undiminished glory, they would have borne witness of themselves that they were seven. With five alone, only the portion of an ellipse would be given, whilst the number seven yields a full and complete one, and draws after it besides very weighty arguments in proof of its correctness, — thus equalising the number of the planets, to each of which we may rationally conclude one of the trilithons was dedicated. Smith, indeed, boldly takes on himself to appropriate to each planet its peculiar trilithon. I will not imitate his confidence, although I think it possible that in one or two of his conjectures he may be right. Stukeley has given an elaborate geometrical plan of the temple, deserving praise for its ingenuity, but failing, through its great and unnecessary complication, to establish a claim to be considered probable.

But to return for a while from speculation upon their uses to the stones themselves. The fact with regard to them which strikes us most immediately is, the variation in their respective altitudes. Of the five trilithons of which we have perpendicular remains, the elevation rises, from its lowest measurement in the pair toward the entrance on the north east side, which are severally nineteen feet to the top, and attains its loftiest or culminating point in the single trilithon which stands behind the stone of astronomic observation, usually, but erringly, called the altar-stone.

This trilithon raises itself to a commanding height of no less than twenty-five feet from the ground. The pair which intervene between this and those first mentioned, standing opposite in the plan of the temple, correspond with each other in the height of twenty feet and three inches. Time has not been wholly foiled in his attack on these stalwart giants ; but has left the marks of his ravages on them as on other parts of the temple. Of the shortest pair of trilithons enumerated above, the one on the left is yet standing in a perfect state ; and one of the uprights remains of that on the right; but the other upright, together with the impost, is prostrate, and either stone is broken into three pieces. Of the next pair, again, the one to the left survives, and in beautiful preservation, exacting admiration for the evenness of its surface and the sharpness of its angles. The opposite trilithon, its partner, after having sustained the shock of ages, bowed its head and fell prostrate backward against the outer circle, on January 3d, 1797. Neither of its uprights, nor the impost, have suffered injury ; except, indeed, that to which they have since been subjected at the angles by the hands of barbarous man. The fifth and last of these trilithons has one of its uprights in a horizontal position. It would appear that this stone, in its fall, must have slid backward, and then, on reaching the underlying stone of astronomic observation, have been severed in two by its own weight and the severe concussion. The other upright is in a leaning condition, and apparently, rather than really, supported by a slender stone, one of the inner ellipse, which stands underneath it,

"Jam jamque lapsorai cadentique

Imminet assimilis."

You will naturally ask after the remaining trilithons, necessary to complete the given number, seven, since as yet only five have received any notice. I can but repeat my conviction that, if we had lived some ages earlier in the world's history, our eyes would have beheld seven j since at present we nave but a marred and imperfect ellipse, and then should have had a perfect and complete one.

Nor is this a priori reason the only one to be found; we have also direct evidence to the same point. Within the inner circle, not far from the entrance on the north-east, there lies on the turf an impost, having on its more evenly-worked side two mortices.

This impost is of the same quality as all the other smaller stones — that is, of granite ; and it is too short to have made an impost of the outer circle, since it would not have spanned the interval between any two of the' stones. Sir R. C. Hoare, in noticing it, speaks of it as if it were connected with the inner circle. In describing the inner circle, he says — "No. 2 appears to have belonged to this circle, and to have been the impost of a small trilithon j might there not have been another in the vacant space on the opposite side to correspond with it ?" No doubt there was another opposite to it ; both of them belonging to this ellipse of trilithons, which would be incomplete without them, and gently touching, without intersecting, the inside curve of the inner or second circle ; and of use, not only to express the cycle of the planets, but also the cycle of the days of the week, as the large outer circle expressed that of the days and nights of the month.

The height of these small trilithons could not nearly have equalled that of their next neighbours, nor could the imposts on their summits have surmounted and been seen over the corona of the outer circle. I confess I am much gratified by this circumstance, since by it a relation between the inclined line of these trilithons and the level corona of the outer circle is capable of actual and irrefragable proof. In order to obtain this proof, I requested on one occasion, the Reverend L. Tomlinson, the author of a popular work entitled Astronomic Recreations, to test this angle with his instruments, which, assisted by Mr. Browne of Amesbury, he immediately and obligingly did in my presence.

The result of the application of the quadrant was this, that it was shewn that an inclined line drawn from the top of the lofty trilithon behind the stone of astronomic observation to the summits of these small trilithons would present with the horizontal corona an angle of twenty-three and a half degrees. Thus, to Mr. Tomlinson's surprise, perhaps more than my own, it became evident that these Druidical philosophers had represented by this contrivance the inclination of the ecliptic as compared with the plane of the equator.

I have now only one further portion of the temple with which to detain your attention.

This is the inner portion of all. It consists of nineteen granite pillars, advancing in height in like manner as the tnlithons. This, known usually as the Metonic cycle, seems to have heen a constituent part in every temple of the Sun ; a mode of calculation which, originating m an earlier philosophy, was incorporated hy the Komans into their system, and has heen suhsequently accepted hy ourselves, and used in the construction of our own calendar.

These were some of the chief points which I had purposed to introduce to the meeting in a more formal paper.

As it is, for reasons connected with my state of health, as I have already said, and because I would not submit to such a body any thing which I had not been able to arrange and revise with the greatest care, I prefer offering them in the form of a letter to yourself leaving it to you, according to your judgment, and the etiquette of our Institution, to notice them to the assembled Members, or otherwise, in such way as you may think right.

I confess they have obtained a perfect conviction in my own mind. Whether they will be equally successful in the minds of others I cannot foresee.

I beg you will believe me.

My dear Sir,

Your faithful servant,

Edward Duke.