Sunday, 29 August 2010

Stonehenge and Bath

Hi, everyone!

Both photos from web. I forgot
the camera.

On Thursday Benedict and I visited the fabulous British Museum while Erika visited the equally impressive Museum of London after teaching her class. We ended up at different museums because we got our signals crossed. Such things will happen. We'll visit each of those museums again (they're free!), so I'll leave further descriptions of them to the future. I'll only say that Benedict and I spent 2 hours in the British Museum and only visited the galleries with the ancient sculptors, reliefs, etc. of Assyria, Egypt, and Greece. Our favorite objects were the Rosetta Stone, which enabled scholars to finally decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics after it's discovery by Napoleon's soldiers in 1799, and an elegant Egyptian sculptor of a cat from 600 B.C.

On Friday we joined the SU students and the Kilfoyles (Jim is an SU English professor here with his wife Susie and their two children, Sara and John) on a guided tour of Stonehenge and Bath. It was raining when we got on the tour bus at 8am, and it rained most of the way to Stonehenge. We worried that we wouldn't be able to properly see or enjoy the stones, but the skies cleared up though the morning remained chilly and windy. Our guide was excellent, telling us about the what little is know about the establishment of the site starting during the late stages of the stone age around 3000 B.C. when an unknown group dug a circular ditch. About 1000 years later, during the Bronze Age, another group started erecting small stones (only 5 tons!) from not too far away, and about 100 years later the same or perhaps different group somehow transported 40 ton stones from Wales to the site, probably using rafts to get them by sea to the River Avon, up the river where they somehow dragged them to the present site. Evidence indicates that there were experts working in stone from the areas of what is now southern Germany and Switzerland to shape the stones to uniform sizes.

Benedict listening to the audio guide.
As you can see, the stones are huge. The top stones, the ones lying horizontally and connecting two vertical stones, have holes in them carved to fit over points jutting out of the vertical points. You can see an example of the jutting point in the tallest stone (24 feet tall) on the right side of the photo. The ancient stone masons had to make sure that those points fit into the holes on the horizontal stones exactly. Then somehow those stones had to be heaved up to the tops of the vertical stones. What an amazing feat of engineering to accomplish this. One guidebook suggested that the precision of the circles and other geometrical shapes indicate that these people, barely out of the stone age, may have already known the Pythagorean theorem and the properties of pi a  millennium and a half before their discovery by the Greeks.

We spent about an hour at the site, listening the audio guide and marveling at the ingenuity of those ancient people. I learned that much of what I had thought I knew about Stonehenge was completely mistaken. For example, that the Druids could not have had anything to do with the structure because they were active in England much later than when Stonehenge was put together. Also, though scholars have long figured out that the the way the stones are placed indicates that they were used as a kind of calendar, initially they believed that the stones were erected in such a way to observe the summer solstice, a belief that has led to a rather large festival occurring on the Salisbury Plain at the summer solstice (called midsummer by the English). 

But more recent evidence dug up at Stonehenge and on the surrounding Salisbury Plain lead them to conjecture that it was built to celebrate midwinter, the winter solstice. A procession of people walked about a mile and a half (their path is still, though barely, evident even after 3500 years) from the River Avon to Stonehenge as the sun rose and cast its light over the Heel Stone some distance away from the main circle of stones, and straight into the largest stones in the center of the circle. The Heel Stone extends another 4 feet below that ground and weighs an estimated 35 tons. The belief is that they were remembering their dead and anticipating the lengthening of the days and the new life and light in the coming spring.

We visited the gift shop briefly and actually found some interesting stuff. We have to be careful about not buying too many souvenirs as we (or perhaps more accurately I) brought perhaps a bit too much with us from Texas. Still, we managed to find a couple of small things to take back as keepsakes.

On the ride to Bath the tour guide told us about some of history and characters involved with the city and how the hot mineral waters have been used since even before the Romans constructed their bath and temple. Legend had it that the father of Shakespeare's model for King Lear was cured of leprosy by the hot mud his herd of swine wallowed in. The tour guide, a moddish young man who wore a purple coat and could pass as a nephew of Mick Jagger, mentioned Chaucer's Wife of Bath from the Canterbury Tales and immediately  recited the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales from memory, in Chaucer's middle English no less! Just as impressive Susie Kilfoyl, who is a medieval scholar and teaches at Texas State, continued reciting in middle English where Justin the tour guide left off. I barely understood a word, but what fun to listen to.

Tasty stuff!
When we arrived in Bath we had an hour and half to ourselves to eat lunch and explore. As were most of the touristy type place we've been to in London, there were crowds of tourists like us. The first place we went to, on the suggestion of our guide, was to taste the richest and silkiest hot dark chocolate you will ever find. The hot chocolate lived up to the guide's praises. As you can see, I'm trying to claim two cups for myself. Unsuccessfully, alas. The shop was across from the entrance to the Roman Baths and within yards of the Bath Abbey.

Look, Mum! No hands!
All over the area near the baths and abbey were what seemed like dozens of street entertainers. There were jugglers, magicians, musicians, and more. Young women sang opera arias in the square bordered by the baths and the Abbey. Other entertainers performed in nooks and crannies in front of shops. Many of them were quite good, such as this juggler/escape artist. He was very funny. For his grand finale he asked a member of the audience to bind him up in a strait jacket and with some help from others in the audience managed to get on a six foot high unicycle, and then proceeded to escape.

Even more frequently distributed around the city were numerous full size lions painted or decorated in all kinds of interesting ways. There are a total of a hundred of them around the shopping areas, in the parks, on street corners, atop of buildings, everywhere. We had fun spotting them. Each one was decorated differently. Their purpose is to be auctioned off in October for the benefit of various charities in Bath. They were lots of fun.
Lion on the lawn in front of a row
of homes called Royal Crescent,
famous for its Georgian
Bath Lion in front of the Bath Abbey.

We tasted the water from the hot spring feeding the baths in the Pump Room, which was built on top of the baths before anyone knew they were there. The Pump Room is an elegant dining room today that was originally the social meeting place for the more prominent citizens of Bath in the 18th and 19th century. The men gambled, the women talked, and then they danced.

After our free time our guide led us on a walking tour of Bath, pointing out the finer points of Georgian architecture and telling us about some of the more important citizens of the city, including the novelist Jane Austen who lived there for several years. Then he took us into the Roman Baths, dating from about 50 A.D. Click the link to get a bit of history of the baths. What we found remarkable was that the baths filled in with silt over time and by the medieval period, long after the Romans no longer had an empire to rule, other structures, such as the Pump Room, were built on top of it. It wasn't until the late 18th century that the Roman baths were rediscovered, and not until about 30 years ago that extensive archaeological work and renovation began. They were completely forgotten for centuries.

After an hour audio tour of the baths, we all found the bus and enjoyed the countryside for the two hour trip back to London and into the Underground to get back home. It was a great day.

No comments:

Post a Comment