A Full-Size Copy of Stonehenge, in a Search for Long-Lost Answers

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I'm Faith Lapidus.  And I'm Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.  Today we tell some of the latest discoveries about the ancient mysterious structure in Britain called Stonehenge.

Scientists say the circle of stones called Stonehenge has stood in England for at least four thousand years.  In modern times, millions of people from all over the world have visited the ancient monument.

Experts believe the builders of Stonehenge knew about design, engineering and sound.  These ancient people did not have highly developed tools.  But they built a huge monument of heavy stones. One of the largest stones weighed about forty thousand kilograms.

Stonehenge is the best known of a number of such ancient places in Britain. It stands on the flat, windy Salisbury Plain, near the city of Salisbury, England.Most of the stones of Stonehenge stand in incomplete formations of circles.  They differ in height, weight and surface texture.  For centuries, people have questioned the meaning of the stones.

Early Britons built Stonehenge from bluestone and a very hard sandstone called sarcen.  Some of the monument's standing stones have lintel stones on top.  The lintels lie flat on the standing stones.  Some monument stones are more than seven meters high.  Other, broken stones lie on the ground.

Work on Stonehenge may have started as early as five thousand years ago. Scientists believe it was completed over three periods lasting more than one thousand years.  Archeologists have studied Stonehenge for many years. Their research helped make possible the building of an exact, full-size copy or replica of the mysterious circle.

A television company, the National Geographic Channel, paid for the replica. One goal was to learn more about Stonehenge.  And National Geographic Channel filmmakers wanted to record the process.  The result was a television film called "Rebuilding Stonehenge" or more simply, "Stonehenge."

Most scientists have thought that Stonehenge was built to line up with the summer sunrise on the longest day of the year.  Was the stone circle meant to observe the activities of the sun, moon and stars?  Was it a theater? A religious center that honored the dead?  Or was it all those things?

Archeologist and Stonehenge expert Mike Pitts designed the replica to help answer those questions. The result was a huge laboratory for experiments.

Crawley Creatures, a British company that makes special effects for movies, was chosen to create the replica. The company built its version of the ancient monument in a huge military building in Bicester (BUY-stir) in Oxfordshire, England.

The National Geographic Channel film follows the special effects team as it made and placed copies of more than one hundred seventy stones.  Crawley Creatures said it would finish the project by June twenty-first, two thousand five.  That was the summer solstice, the  longest day of every year.  The winter solstice, on December twenty-first, is the shortest day of the year.

The special effects team shaped and cut the copied stones. They used a lightweight material called Styrofoam.  The workers had to follow Mr. Pitts' design exactly.

Even the smallest mistake could have harmed the project.  For example, if the lintels were cut wrong, they could not lie correctly on the upright stones.  But after three months of hard work, the team was ready to put the replica in place.

The British Department of Defense lent the company a special train to carry the Styrofoam Stonehenge.  Like the real Stonehenge, the replica was to stand on Salisbury Plain.  The team succeeded in setting it up by June twentieth.  But all that night the designers worried.  Would the winds blow over some of the copied stones?  In the morning, however, the replica looked fine.

The movie cameras photographed Mike Pitts as he inspected the replica.  It was an important day for him.  Mr. Pitts saw what he believes is Stonehenge as it looked when first completed.  Stones that had disappeared over the years were reproduced.

For example, three tall stones called trilithons stood inside the replica's outer circle.  Only one is left at the real Stonehenge.  And Stonehenge has only thirty-four stones remaining within what is called the Sarcen Circle.

The replica has eighty-nine of these stones.

Broken stones cover a large area in the center of Stonehenge.  There are none in the replica.  This gave Mr. Pitts a new feeling of open space in the inner Stonehenge area.

The appearance of the replica's center provides information about the monument's purpose.  It seems to strengthen a current scientific theory.  This idea proposes that the early Britons used Stonehenge as a ceremonial theater or religious center.  The inner space of the replica looks like it could have worked well for that purpose.

The replica permitted several other scientists to also test that theory. For example, Aaron Watson performed experiments with sound.

National Geographic Channel cameras show Mr. Watson as he moved his equipment around the replica.  He made valuable discoveries from the inner circle.  Sounds there were the most dramatic and theatrical.  They carried from that area to other parts of the monument.  The effect is similar to that of modern theaters.

The placement of the stones focuses sound from the center to the places that lined up to the summer sunrise and the winter sunset.  Aaron Watson's work shows that the Stonehenge builders may have known something about sound engineering.

Many scientists agree that the ancient Stonehenge builders meant to line up their monument with the sunrise at summer solstice. But Clive Ruggles proposes that the sunset at winter solstice might have been a more important reason for building Stonehenge where it is. Mr. Ruggles is an archeologist and astronomer.  His research seems to strengthen the evidence for the monument as a theater or religious center.

Mr. Ruggles used an intense light to represent the sun on December twenty-first, the winter solstice.  In the National Geographic film, the light makes the outer stones look like an entrance.  A path of light leads to the circle.

The sun sets between the two largest upright replica stones.  This unusual light show could have been in front of visitors as they arrived. The sight suggests that the builders might have purposely planned the effect to welcome  visitors to Stonehenge.

Modern visitors often ask why prehistoric Britons would have come to Stonehenge.  Some experts say the people needed to mark the changing seasons.

Farmers needed to know that the long dark nights of winter would get shorter. They needed to know that longer days of sunlight were coming.

Stonehenge could have provided this information.  Ceremonies there could have celebrated the "rebirth" of the sun and moon.

Some scientists say people came to Stonehenge to honor their ancestors. Archeologist Mike Parker Pearson is an expert in death and burial customs.  Mr. Pearson believes that some of the stones represent individual people.  This could explain why its builders chose special stones from places far away.

Gordon Pipes is a wood worker, not a scientist.  But in the film, Mr. Pipes proposed yet another theory about Stonehenge. Many experts believe the heaviest stones came from thirty-two kilometers away on Salisbury Plain.  Mr. Pipes demonstrated how he believes people got such stones to Stonehenge without modern equipment.

In his experiment, specially cut parts of trees supported a block of material weighing almost eleven thousand kilograms.  In the experiment, people moved the stone forward with other tree trunks. To do this, they looked like they were rowing a boat.

The experiment showed that thirty-two people would have needed an estimated three months to move a similar group of stones to Stonehenge.  In modern life, that may seem a long period of extremely hard labor.

But the movie suggests that early Britons had lots of time.  And they had a valuable goal.  They built Stonehenge, a monument for the ages.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson.  It was produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

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