Thursday, 2 December 2010

Ball Bearings at Stonehenge

Stonehenge from the A303
Many years ago as a young Geography student at Exeter University I pleaded with my tutors to be allowed to do a dissertation on visitor behaviour at Stonehenge.  Unfortunately it was not to be, there was no-one who had the necessary knowledge to be able to act as my tutor so I went down a map route studying the archaeological mapping by the Ordnance Survey in Wiltshire instead.  My only real regrets are financial, my years in the map world have been wonderful and to have a 'great' as a tutor instead was inspiring.  Brian Harley is much missed.

Since then I have had the enormous privilege to have worked on Stonehenge as a landscape architect and graphic designer and enjoyed it immensely.  It is a wonderful site still in need of enormous TLC and sensible planning.

Granite balls in the modern landscape
It was with fascination that I read the Science Daily article on a young Exeter student's ideas about the movement of the stones from Wales and evidence that he has spotted as to how this could have been achieved.  Now a PhD student he has been working on decorated granite balls at Scottish Neolithic sites, especially in Aberdeenshire, since he was a second-year undergraduate.  He noticed that there were similar balls found near to Stonehenge.  With his colleagues at Exeter experiments have been undertaken using spheres and gouged logs that do cast interesting light on a possible technique for the long-distance transport of the Preseli stones used for some of the construction of Stonehenge.  Anyone who has spilt a bag of frozen peas on the kitchen floor will have a very good idea as to how such small objects can be capable of carrying MUCH heavier objects!  What is intriguing is the idea of how, in the absence of frozen peas, Neolithic man could have come up with such an innovative solution.  There is evidence that the Ancient Egyptians used logs for much of their transportation of large blocks of stone, but in a culture not as obviously sophisticated the idea of ball-bearings is fascinating.  The first UK patent for ball-bearings was not given until 1794!

Granite ball engraved as a memorial to Raoul Wallenberg in Stockholm
contrasts with the bicycle wheel
The ingenious nature of this design is that directional control would have been easier for the large blocks as the balls would have been guided on the grooved, seasoned wood and this would have been easier than the less flexible log-rolling used by the Egyptians and also than anything simple wheels could have achieved under such weights.  The journey from Preseli to Wiltshire is far from flat or straight and any techniques used would need to be able to accommodate uneven paths and many sloping landforms.  I hope very much that the next few years of work on this do prove that it is correct.  The engineering is simple and sublime!

Spheres are a symbol of universal potent power


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