The Story Of The Sarsens

The geologist would probably describe the Sarsen stones of Wiltshire

as masses of saccharoid sandstone, which in plain English might be

rendered as boulders closely resembling gigantic lumps of coarse

sugar. These huge stones are to be found, though in decreasing

numbers, scattered all over the plain, and particularly along the

ridges of the Marlborough Downs. The country folk, always

picturesquely minded, call them Gr
y Wethers, and indeed in North

Wilts, it is not hard to conjure up their poetic resemblance to a

flock of titanic sheep, reclining at ease upon the pasturage of the

Downs. The alternative name Sarsen, has an interesting derivation. It

is a corruption of the word Saracen. But what have Saracens to do

with Wiltshire? Frankly nothing. The name has come to the stones from

Stonehenge itself, and is a part of that ever interesting confusion of

ideas, which has been bequeathed to us by our ancestors of the Middle

Ages. To them all stone circles and megalithic monuments were the work

of heathens, if not of the devil himself. Heathenism and all its works

was roundly condemned, whether it be Celtic, Mahomedan, or Pagan; and

the condemnation was as concise and universal as the phrase Jews,

Turks, Infidels, and Heretics of the Christian Prayer Book to-day. In

the early days of the Moyen Age, the Saracen stood for all that was

antagonistic to Christianity. Consequently the stones of Stonehenge

were Saracen or heathen stones, which the Wiltshire tongue has

shortened in due time to Sarsen.

This confusion of ideas may seem amusing, but it is not more absurd

than the existing popular idea that Stonehenge is of Druidical origin.

The stone circle of Salisbury Plain was many hundred years old when

those half mythical Celtic priests first set foot in England, and the

Druids of yesterday have about as much connection with Stonehenge as

the Salvation Army of to-day.

The Sarsen well repays a close examination. A glance at one of these

stones as it lies on the Downland, shows that it has suffered greatly

from the weather. It is the core, or kernel, of a much larger block of

friable sandstone, worn away on all sides by wind and weather.

Moreover, these isolated blocks appear on the Downs in a country

devoid of any rock save chalk.

How came they in their present position? In one sense they never came

at all; for they existed on the surface of the chalk from the time it

rose from the bottom of the sea to its present position. They are, in

fact, the remains of a great sheet of fine sand and gravel cemented

together by silex, which formerly overlay the chalk downs, the other

parts of which have been dissolved and worn by wind and rain until

only the harder cores or kernels survive to tell the tale. And the

proof of this is not far to seek. The chalk of the London Basin is

still capped by layers of such sandstone, as may be seen at Purfleet

in Essex. The titanic sheep, or Grey Wethers, therefore, are merely a

small residue of that widespread sandy deposit which once covered the

whole of the south of England with its inhospitable sheet, and of

which larger patches remain to-day in Surrey, Hampshire, and the Isle

of Wight. But though the hand of Time and the buffets of the weather

have been heavy on the Sarsens, the hand of man has likewise borne its

share. In a district like the Plain, devoid of building material other

than flint, these stones have attracted the unwelcome attention of the

farmers. Walls, gateposts, and paving-stones have accounted for many,

while in the interest of the road-mender many a noble Grey Wether has

been led to slaughter to provide macadam for the roads. Hence it is

not surprising that the number of Sarsen stones to be found on the

Plain where Nature placed them is becoming less and less. Indeed, the

time may yet come when they will be as extinct as the Great Bustard

who once strutted among them, and their memory will survive only in

their accidental use in a prehistoric monument like Stonehenge.