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Stonehenge an ongoing mystery (Language level B2-C1)

Dicembre 2014
Il solstizio d’inverno? Almeno una volta nella vita bisogna passarlo a Stonehenge, in compagnia degli hippy e dei moderni druidi che si radunano per celebrare la notte più lunga dell’anno. Nonostante i progressi archeologici, Stonehenge rimane uno dei monumenti più misteriosi della preistoria.

di Julian Earwaker

File audio:

Susan Greaney
Susan Greaney

When the last rays of sunlight disappear on the evening of December 21st, the northern hemisphere enters its longest night and shortest day. In southwest Britain, thousands of people gather to celebrate the winter solstice as the sun rises and sets over Britain’s most famous Neolithic monument: Stonehenge.


An icon of Britain’s prehistoric past, Stonehenge continues to delight and confuse visitors in equal measure. “It represents mystery, intrigue and a kind of unfathomable, distant past,” explains Susan Greaney, an archaeologist with English Heritage who has worked at Stonehenge since 2009. Ancient, massive, silent, Stonehenge is an arrangement of standing stones dating back more than four-and-a-half thousand years.


What is Stonehenge and why was it built? Was it used as a temple and place of worship? A meeting place? A symbol of power and authority? The truth is that nobody knows, says Greaney. Nor is it certain why this particular area was chosen.
Arriving at the brand new visitor centre today and boarding a shuttle bus to reach the site, it would be easy to think of Stonehenge as standing in isolation. However, studies show that actually it is just one of many monuments and burial places located in the area, some later than Stonehenge, some much earlier.


Whatever came before, and whatever its use, the ambitious design of Stonehenge transformed the area. In the early days, it was the site of the largest cremation cemetery known at the time. What followed shows surprising levels of organization and sophistication in the society of the time. Even today, building such a monument would require considerable planning, engineering and construction skills.
The stones for Stonehenge are not local – the giant sarsen stones come from a site more than 30 kilometres away. The smaller bluestones come from the Preseli Hills in Wales, 240 kilometres west of Stonehenge. Whoever designed the monument carefully selected and transported the stones. On site, they were shaped and jointed with care and precision.


Archaeologists continue to uncover new facts and findings about Stonehenge. The past decade has been particularly exciting, with the Hidden Landscape project using hi-tech surveys to reveal the locations of many other monuments and structures in the area.


Despite the development of new technology, however, Stonehenge remains full of secrets. It is unlikely that we will ever know exactly what took place here four-and-a-half thousand years ago. As the earth orbits the sun, winter slowly changes to spring and summer, and the stones of Stonehenge continue to witness the solstice – just as they have for thousands of years. 




Speaker: Justin Ratcliffe (Standard British accent)

As you know, December 25th is Christmas Day but December 21st marks a far older festival: the winter solstice. Pagans, Druids, New Agers and hippies will gather at the ancient and mysterious site of Stonehenge. Susan Greaney, senior properties historian at British Heritage, explains why:

Susan Greaney (Standard British accent)

In prehistory, we think that the stones of Stonehenge were set up specifically to frame the winter solstice as well as the summer solstice. So on Midwinter’s Day at about 4 o’clock, when sunset is, the sun would have descended and set between the two stones of the tallest trilithon. Now, the trilithon is one of these sets of three stones that stands at the head of the horseshoe inside the monument, and the sun would have set… you'd have seen the sun setting down on the horizon between those two stones and descending down, which is where the altar stone is, and it would have been a very dramatic and very obvious sort of framing of the sunset, if it was clear! So we believe that prehistoric people came to the monument at that time to witness that, and it’s the longest night, so it would be a very important time of year in terms of hoping that the sun would come back, and in terms of knowing that the year was turning over and becoming a new year, and in terms of the cycles and the seasons, it would have been quite important for prehistoric people.
These days quite a number of people come for winter solstice. And we give open access to Stonehenge in the morning because the sunrise is when most modern Druids and Pagans want to come to the site, and we provide open access in a similar way to the summer solstice but just on a much smaller scale. We usually get… a few thousand people come for that day.


Stonehenge was built four-and-a-half thousand years ago by people who were clearly not primitive:

Susan Greaney

One of the aims of our exhibition and the external gallery was to get that point across, that these are sophisticated people. They were perfectly capable of making very nice clothes, they’re very much like modern people. They were very creative, they were very well adapted to their landscape, they knew how to hunt, how to look after animals, how to farm. They knew where to go to get materials. They were managing woodland, all kinds of things that we wouldn’t necessarily know how to do ourselves today. And they were so good at that that they had the spare time and the energy to build Stonehenge, which is the most sophisticated monument that we know of, and, to be honest, if we tried to build Stonehenge today using modern tools, it would be a feat of engineering, and they were using the most simple antler picks and stone hammers to create that monument. So, yeah, they were sophisticated, more than we would ever guess! 


And even if you’re not a Pagan, Druid or hippy, Stonehenge is still an amazing place:

Susan Greaney

It’s quite incredible to think that they’ve been standing there since 2,500 BC, four-and-a-half thousand years of time. All the things that have gone on in that time, our day-to-day concerns are just so tiny and so insignificant, they’re a blip, really, compared to that deep time. And it makes you appreciate much more what they were managing to achieve back then. The Visitor Centre project has been in the planning for 20, 30 years, just to build a building, you know, which is quite a straightforward thing to do. Imagine the planning and the sophistication and the logistics and, you know, required to build Stonehenge. It’s just incredible, really!  


Stonehenge developed over 800 years from 3,000BC to 2,200BC and included several different designs
Only 17 stones remain of the original 30 standing in the sarsen circle – no one knows where the missing stones went
Stonehenge is located just off the A303 near Amesbury in Wiltshire. Stonehenge Tour Buses leave from Salisbury rail and coach stations. Stonehenge is open all year round except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Admission costs £13.90 and tickets must be pre-booked: www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/stonehenge/


The name “solstice” describes the time of year when the sun reaches it highest or lowest point in the sky. The variations in sunlight occur because the axis of the earth is angled at 23.4 degrees, which means that during its orbit of the sun it tips towards it (summer solstice in the northern hemisphere) or away from it (winter solstice). When Stonehenge is celebrating the winter solstice, Australia and the southern hemisphere are enjoying midsummer.
The exact time of the solstice changes each year by about six hours – and is corrected every four years by the addition of a day in the leap year. This year the exact time of the winter solstice at Stonehenge is 23:03 on December 21st.

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The sun would have descended; you'd have seen.
Il sole sarebbe tramontato; avresti visto. Qui Susan Greaney offre qualche esempio del past conditional, che è abbastanza semplice da formare in inglese. Il present conditional si forma con would + the infinitive (you would see, vedresti; she would like, le piacerebbe ecc.) Il past conditional si forma con would + have + past participle (you would have seen, avresti visto; she would have liked, le sarebbe piaciuto).

If it was clear. Se il cielo fosse stato limpido. Qui Susan Greaney fa un riferimento ironico al tempo britannico e al fatto che il cielo è quasi sempre coperto.