It is not every day that you get a graphic demonstration of one of the mysteries of the ancient world, especially not in your own garden. Or, in this case, your son’s. But that was exactly what we got when the gardener installed the new granite benches next to the pond. To ensure their stability, it had been decided that the three pieces of stone for each bench would not only be glued but also drilled and held in place with steel rods through the flagstones. A simple enough job, you would think, if you have the right tools.
The industrial drill, equipped with a massive bit and the weight of a man on top of that, began its work. It ate through the sandstone flags in seconds, then began boring a hole in the first piece of granite. The heat generated by the friction meant we had to cool both metal and stone frequently with water, but even so, after half an hour’s solid drilling, the hole was barely an inch deep. It would obviously take hours to drill the four holes to the required depth, even with the heavy duty equipment.
My mind went back to a day at the British Museum and the colossal granite and basalt figures there that are a mere fraction of the size of those that remain in Egypt. I thought too of the great stone boxes of the Serapeum at Saqqara. Weighing around a hundred tons apiece, there are around twenty of them, cut from granite a thousand miles away, with each lid and box being cut each from the same piece of stone. There is mystery enough in why stone should be transported so far, without wondering just how they moved them, how they got them inside underground tunnels a mere two feet wider than the boxes or around corners too tight for them to pass. Let alone the awe at the precision engineering that cut their sides and corners to within a few thousandths of an inch. And all this, thousands of years ago, with wedges of wet wood and tools made of soft copper.
As another half hour passed and the industrial drill had still made little impression on the granite benches, I could understand why there are so many theories, from the scientific to the outlandish, about how the ancients managed such feats. From aliens to Atlanteans, from magic to lost machinery, just about every possible idea had been advanced and, without any incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, such theories will probably continue to abound.
As I watched modern machinery struggle to cope with a tiny block of granite, I was more in awe than ever of the skill of our ancestors. I have ideas, but no theories to advance except to state that stone was their technology and perhaps they understood how to work with it in ways we have lost or forgotten. The sophistication of the Egyptian monuments appeals to the modern eye and we can easily relate to them, appreciating their beauty, majesty and craftsmanship.
In Britain, our monuments are just as old and often much older than the pyramids and temples of Egypt. They are often perceived as simpler and are even called ‘crude’ because they are less ‘finished’ than their Egyptian counterparts. Yet, they are beautiful in their own right and their raw presence holds a power that polished stone lacks. Built as part of vast sacred landscapes, each with their own astronomical alignments, the sacred sites of Albion encompass earth, stone and the heavens.
Egypt has a special place in my heart, for all I have yet to see it for myself. Its mythology has come down to us almost whole and the stories have a depth of symbolism that seems to mirror modern thought on the origins of the universe, quantum theory and psychology. Yet, I have to wonder whether we are right to see the ancient art of Egypt as the epitome of spiritual engineering in the ancient world, even though its undoubted beauty and precision has earned that accolade for its stonemasons and goldsmiths. I think we need to look at the artefacts of other cultures without comparison and as the products of a different paradigm and perspective.
To stand within one of the great stone circles as the sun sets behind the hills is to feel at one with land, sky, stone and flesh. It is a moment of kinship between earth, humanity and spirit. Raw, visceral… the stones do not bow to the outer form but embrace it.