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Theory rocks Stonehenge foundation

Published Oct. 1, 2005

In addition to their art and cuisine, the French can be justifiably proud of their great man-made structures:

The Eiffel Tower. The Cathedral of Notre Dame. Stonehenge.


None other than a respected British archaeologist claims that major parts of Stonehenge, England's most famous and mysterious stone monument, may actually have been the work of the French.

In a newly published paper, Dr. Aubrey Burl says some of the best-known carvings and architectural features of Stonehenge show a strong influence from the Brittany area of northwest France, about 100 miles across the English Channel.

"We know (ancient) people were crossing the channel because we find objects from Britain in Brittany, and objects from Brittany in Britain," says Burl, a retired professor from Birmingham University. "Quite possibly on a decent summer day the crossing would take maybe five hours."

Archaeologists and lay people alike have long been fascinated and mystified by Stonehenge, a cluster of huge stones arranged in geometric shapes on the Salisbury Plain in southwestern England.

How did the stones _ some weighing 50 tons _ get to a plain that has no native stone? Who were the ancient peoples who transported them there? What kinds of ceremonies and gatherings did they hold within the circles and rectangles, precisely aligned to the summer solstice and other astrological events?

Burl, now 70, says he has been intrigued by Stonehenge ever since he first gazed upon it as a young Royal Navy man shortly after World War II.

"I was astonished. When you see it at a distance it looks so small but when you get inside, the stones are colossal and some of them are on top of others," he says. "How on earth did anybody get those up there?"

Burl eventually became an expert in stone circles, found by the hundreds throughout Britain and Ireland. But as the years passed, he remained puzzled by the sharp differences between Stonehenge and circles elsewhere in the British Isles.

In the late 1970s, Burl traveled to Brittany, where stone circles also are common. He was surprised that no one had ever chronicled them, and a few years ago he produced the first guidebook.

Burl was surprised by one other thing. While some features of Stonehenge are atypical of Britain and Ireland, they are very common to Brittany. Three similarities especially struck him.

The first involved the rectangle of four giant stones, the so-called "Four Stations" of Stonehenge, arranged around a circle. Though one of the pillars has collapsed and another is only a stump today, the imaginary diagonal between them points directly toward the May Day sunset.

"We don't get these rectangles in Britain or Ireland but they do occur in Brittany," Burl says. "People can say that's coincidence but then you go on to the horseshoe."

Among the enduring mysteries of Stonehenge has been the horseshoe, a U-shaped group of stones increasing in height with the tallest ones in back pointing toward the midwinter sunset.

"British counterparts are hundreds of miles from Stonehenge," Burl says, "whereas such settings are more numerous and nearer in Brittany."

But the most compelling evidence of Breton influence that he found was the kind of art carved on the stones at Stonehenge.

"We have megalithic art (in Britain) but it's very abstract _ spirals, circles, wavy lines. What we don't get is representational art, which again is very well known in Brittany, and, sure enough, in Stonehenge we have carvings of daggers, axes and figurines thought to be a representation of the female protectress of the dead."

Archaeologists are in general agreement that the first phase of Stonehenge, a simple earthwork, probably was constructed by native Britons. But about 2600 B.C., Burl says, Stonehenge began to be influenced by "a powerful and intrusive Breton aristocracy" from France that likely crossed the channel in boats made from timber and lined with animal skins.

Burl speculates that the Bretons oversaw the design and construction of certain later phases of Stonehenge, using local labor and stones transported 20 miles overland on an ingenious "moveable rail" made of logs.

"I was asked by some twit on radio how they got these big stones across the channel," Burl says.

It is still a mystery why the Bretons came, although Burl doubts that if they were invaders they were particularly violent ones. "With a blood-thirsty beating of the natives you might expect to find a few broken skulls" but none has been discovered, he adds.

What is likely, Burl says, is that Stonehenge was used for midwinter gatherings and ceremonies, perhaps funeral rites for a leader or the inauguration of a new one.

"It's the engineering of course that intrigues most people. It's only when you start to understand the engineering that you wonder what did the people do," Burl says. "It probably was a great assembly place for the elite because you can't get that many people inside the horseshoe _ it's about half the size of a single tennis court."

From the early 1970s, hippies and Druids, modern disciples of the ancient Celtic religion, held music festivals and ceremonies at Stonehenge coinciding with the summer solstice, when the sun reaches its greatest distance from the equator. They were banned in 1985 because of complaints of drug-taking and property damage.

Since then, no one has been allowed within 4 miles of Stonehenge around the time of the solstice. In 1988, and again in 1989, police arrested several hundred protesters shouting "Free the Stones!"

Throughout the rest of the year visitors can walk within a few feet of the roped-off stones and, by special arrangement, hold worship services, weddings or other ceremonies.

Last year, Stonehenge drew 714,000 visitors, making it the sixth-most-visited historic site in Britain after the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, Edinburgh Castle, Warwick Castle and the Roman baths in Bath.

Burl's theory of Stonehenge's origins, published last month in a local archaeological magazine, caused a brief flurry of interest in the British media. But given the long rivalry between France and Britain, it's been big news in France and French-speaking Canada. This week Burl is filming a segment at Stonehenge for French television.

And the reaction from other archaeologists in Britain?

"It's just started to trickle in but so far it's been quite favorable," Burl says. "They're asking themselves, "Why haven't I thought of this?' I was just putting things together."