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Megalithics: A Stone Circle Workshop

by Rob Roy

To call an event "life-changing" is fraught with risk, and yet I will use that term to describe the first-ever Megalithics Workshop held at Earthwood from August 11-14, 2000. It was definitely life-changing for me, and several of our students used similar kinds of descriptions in their after-workshop comment sheets. But I will speak only for myself.

What made the experience life-changing for me was that it helped put me back on a spiritual path, something I'd been meaning to do for, oh, the last thirty years or so. How does a Megalithic Workshop do something like that? Well, I credit two circumstances, and there may well be a direct link between the two.

First, my co-instructor, Ivan McBeth, brought not only a knowledge of stone-building with him from England, but also his skill in mentoring people in and out of what he calls the "transrational" realm. I'd met Ivan several times before, but sharing two weeks with him here in the States (his first visit, by the way) afforded us an opportunity to get to know each other on a much deeper level. At the workshop, besides being invaluable with his stone-moving experience, Ivan brought a very real kind of "magic" with him, which impacted the students, as well as Jaki and myself. And magic has a way of spreading itself about. I'll give an example "drekley," as they say in Cornwall.

Ivan MacBeth, Druid Workshop Group Portrait

Second, the group of people who came together were absolutely the best group of people I've ever seen gathered at any kind of workshop, anywhere. As with life-changing, best is one of those words which requires further explanation. This group exhibited a rare spirit of co-operation and passionate interest, to be sure, but their defining characteristic was their ability to share, for four days at least, a wonderful unconditional love for each other. Some of the students knew each other from previous cordwood workshops, but most came and met the others for the first time. From opening introductions on, there was not only never a harsh word (quite a thing when huge stones are being moved), but there was genuine respect and, yes, it bears repeating, love. Counting instructors, students and my family (wife Jaki and sons Rohan and Darin), we were twenty in number (11 men, 9 ladies), an extended family, sharing meals, laughs (lots of these), insights, and a profound sense of wonder.

I had set myself up for a fall with this workshop, by planning it months in advance, trying to get everything just right, having high expectations. Perhaps I over-planned. And I did not know how well Ivan and I would be able to weave our respective intuitive and analytical approaches to life. In the end, however, the workshop actually exceeded my expectations, which, as I say, were very high indeed. And, yes, Ivan and I danced, weaved, and bounced together pretty darned well. The upshot -- for me, at least -- was that I came away with a renewed interest in what I call the "other reality," which some call the transrational, the intuitive, the non-material, or the spiritual. (I would not, incidentally, include religious in this list of descriptions, even though I appreciate that many religious people are also spiritual. The problem is that many are not. So I tend to separate religion and spirituality.)

Although Ivan and stone circle builder Dominic Ropner from Cranleigh, Surrey, had arrived ahead of time, the workshop gathered as a group for the first time on Friday morning, August 11. Under Ivan's guidance, we learned and practiced the "Dance of Life," which, he told us, derives from Cherokee tradition. It was a wonderful way to start each day, and brought all of us together in a spiritual way. And it was a way to share our energy with the whole world. Next, we had a "talking stick" introduction at the stone circle, where many of the group began to learn about each other for the first time. But for the first time in my 25+ years of conducting workshops, I already knew each of the participants ahead before their arrival. But I was the only one with that advantage, although Jaki had met or worked with all except Dominic.

Each day was balanced between classroom and hands-on sessions. The "classroom" was the stone circle itself, as often as possible, but there were also several slideshows inside the house. Lectures included talks by Ivan on stone circles and what they mean to him (including design, astronomy, and inauguration) and an excellent presentation on dowsing and earth energies by Dr. Patrick MacManaway of Whole Earth Geomancy in Shelburne, Vermont. (Visit Patrick's website at www.geomancy.org This excellent website, Mid-Atlantic Geomancy, is maintained in partnership with dowser, author and geomancer Sig Lonegren, a Vermonter living in Glastonbury, England. Patrick, curiously, is a Scot living in Vermont.)

Replacing Susan's Stone. Work sessions, usually after lunch, consisted of three major projects. The first consisted of replacing Susan's Stone (a deteriorating standing stone in our circle) with a brilliant new white stone which the town highway department had uncovered during maintenance on our Murtagh Hill Road. The new stone was about a ton, and composed of a very dense sandstone, with a lot of quartzite, probably a glacial erratic is it matches neither the overlying strata of Murtagh Hill (red Potsdam sandstone, like the fractured Susan's Stone), or the 2 billion-year old underlying strata, anorthosite (or "moon rock"), which accounts for 7 of the 12 standing stones in the Earthwood Circle.

Extracting Susan's Stone

We extracted Susan's Stone with a large quadrapod (legs 14' long) and what I call the "megalithic hitch," a means of tightening a chain, strap, or cable around a stone in such a way that the stone can be lifted straight up in and out of sockets, instead of at an awkward angle. (See pages 272 to 274 of Stone Circles: A Modern Builder's Guide.) We used a "come-along," a hand-powered winch, rated at 2-tons capacity, to increase mechanical advantage. We lowered Susan's Stone down onto rollers and transported it away. Much of the stone is still in good condition, and will provide excellent large slabs of clear red paving stones. Thirteen years of freeze-thaw cycling had caused separation of the natural bedding planes in the stone.

Beth Goes In

The one-ton replacement stone was rolled up to the reshaped socket, and tilted into the hole with what shop teacher Jim Juzcak described as a "plop." A couple of vertical 2x8 planks protected the back side of the socket hole. By the archaeological evidence, protection timbers of this kind were certainly used at Stonehenge, but, of course, they would have been many times more massive. With levers and wooden blocks, we raised the new stone to about a 35-degree angle. Ivan and I then set up a "Spanish Windlass," a tool for pulling the stone to an upright position. The tool consists of a platform of wood to elevate a rope to about three feet off the ground. The rope is tied in a double loop around the stone to be raised, and then draped over the platform and down to the base of another large standing stone well-socketed on the opposite side of the circle. Two 4-foot long 2x3-inch timbers were inserted into the loop of rope, at right angles to each other, to create a windlass (or capstone) shaped like a Swiss cross which can be used to wind up the rope, much as we use the propeller to wind up the rubber bands on a toy airplane. As the rope is wound -- four people are used for safety more than strength -- the stone is pulled up to a vertical position. The mechanical advantage is impressive, and the stone came up easily. This was not surprising to Ivan, who had stood menhirs ten times heavier by this method at the Dragon Stones in Surrey.

The Gate Stone. The second project, the Gate Stone, was another level of difficulty, but the crew was ready to really jump in now, and in earnest. Again, the rock was dense white sandstone, with beautiful green lichen on the side which had been exposed for years in a farmer's stone wall. Although only 1-1/2 tons in weight, the stone was very awkward of shape, and we wanted to install it "upside down" (heavy side up) to take advantage of a classic Stenness-like shape. And it needed to be transported 100 yards, some of it uphill.

We used large rollers for the job, 6'3" in length and 10" to 12" in diameter. And we used a "stone boat" or sledge, which had served us well in transporting and raising the Ancestor monolith a couple of years earlier. The stone boat serves to mitigate the irregularities in the stone's awkward shape. Most importantly, we used a method of levering the rollers, a method developed by Frenchman Bertrand Poissonnier. In June of 1997, Poissonnier rolled a 32-ton stone along the Bougon landscape by this method, using just 20 people. Eighteen years earlier, it had taken archaeologist Jean-Pierre Mohen 200 pullers to move the same stone.

Prior to the workshop, I had drilled a number of one-inch holes through the rollers, about three inches in from their ends. With five-foot iron bars inserted in these holes, we could "lever the rollers," gaining a mechanical advantage of about ten. We found that two people could actually roll the 1-1/2 ton stone slightly uphill by this method.

Again, we "plopped" the stone into its socket and levered it to about a 30 or 35 degree angle. This is fairly easy to do with good levers and stout wooden blocks for cribbing.

Next, we tried a stone-raising method suggested and tested by Orren Whiddon of Church of Four Quarters in Artemis, Pennsylvania. (See Issue Two of Club Meg News.) We installed what I call a turning beam, actually one of our 6'3" stout rollers, at right angles to the lean of the stone, and with the beam's base about 24" up from the foot of the stone. The stone was 89" in length. We tied a stout rope to the top of the Gate Stone and laid it in a notch cut at the top of the turning beam. A dozen pullers, in combination with 3 or 4 leverers on the back side of the stone, were able to pull the stone up quite easily by this method. Without the turning beam to transfer the vector of the effort, I think 25 people would have been hard-pressed to pull the stone upright. Remember that we were raising the heavy end and that the stone was at a shallow angle.

A modification of this method was used for final straightening of the Gate Stone, and the socket was expertly "jammed" with packing stones, by stone builder Dominic Ropner and others. Dominic also stayed behind to landscape the site, and the next morning we all went out to the roadside to admire the new Gate Stone, now firm in its socket and surrounded by raked topsoil.

Saturday evening was devoted to sauna and a "megalithic banquet," with tiki lamps lending the stone circle a magical atmosphere. Jaki had organized a wonderful feast of food and I'd made a keg of Stone Circle Ale. Around the bonfire, Drs. Stephen and Robin Larsen put on a great one-act mythological play. The doctors Larsen are experts in myth and co-directors of the Center for Symbolic Studies in New Paltz, New York. Jaki and I had built a stone circle with them at the Center three years earlier, the story of which is featured in Chapter Three of Stone Circles.

Day Three began as usual with the Dance of Life, and was followed by a talking stick circle and an Ivan McBeth lecture on creating, inaugurating and maintaining sacred space. As a result of discussions during Ivan's lecture, the crew decided to raise the new stone in the circle by a few inches. Why? Well, it was agreed that we had set it too deep. Robin Larsen, the artist amongst us, described "an almost physical discomfort" by the depth, and I felt the same way.

We used the megalithic hitch in a slightly different way to raise the stone. By levering up under the chain itself, we could achieve the same principal of the Chinese finger puzzle, upon which the megalithic hitch depends. We levered from both sides of the stone at the same time, working first the west end of the stone, then the east end. Some of the crew installed jamming and wedging rocks as the stone was alternately lifted on one side, then the other. In about an hour's time, the stone had been raised four to five inches, and the aesthetic discomfort was gone.

As Ivan had just spoken to us so eloquently about inauguration, we decided to conduct a welcoming ceremony for the circle's new stone, which was now at her correct height. Obviously a female stone, we decided to call her Meg Beth, or just plain Beth for short. Some of the ladies, white witches from the south, organized a welcoming ceremony. We held hands around Beth and her two male companions (the two-ton South Stone and the Shark's Tooth) and she was welcomed into the circle by the workshop participants, and, hopefully, by the other stones. The Larsens then organized us into a dancing spiral. Again, we all held hands and spiraled around in a pattern, each of us welcoming Beth in turn.

About 16 of us finally ended up in a ring, just outside of the standing stones, looking in towards the center. Then something magical happened, or seemed to happen, which amounts to the same thing. I commented that the stone circle had never before seemed as large as it did at this moment, at least a couple of megalithic yards in diameter greater than its usual 10 MY. Others saw the same phenomenon, and we were able to speak about it for a minute or so before the circle slowly receeded to its "normal" size. It had been many years since I'd had such a direct glimpse into the world of transrational perception.

The Welcome Stone. After lunch, we were ready to move onto a genuine megalith, the 4-1/2 ton Welcome Stone, which would also mark the equinox sunset. The lovely sandstone (and several others, including Gate) had been delivered to site a few days earlier by a farmer who lived 17 miles away.

Again, we transported the stone by using the levered rollers method. On the flat, Stephen Larsen and I were able to roll the stone along by ourselves, to give you an idea of the mechanical advantage of this method. With frequent stops for many discussions, the stone crew elevated the stone about two feet off the ground, with its leading edge poised over the socket, similar to the picture of Whale at the Dragon Stones (Club Meg News, Issue One, p. 5 or page 300 of Stone Circles.) The Welcome Stone's center of gravity was just slightly ahead of the rear roller, which would serve as the balance point when the lead support timber was sledged away by Ivan and first-time stone builder Larry Zaleski. Three of us were at the ready to pull away the lead support equipment with ropes, and several students were prepared to lever the top end of Welcome up in the air the instant the lead support was out of the way. Ivan, Flo Burt of Massachusetts, and Rohan Roy had taken time to firmly tie Welcome to the pivot roller, to prevent it from lunging forward into the front edge of the socket and getting jammed in an awkward position.

In co-ordination, Ivan and Larry began to sledge the support timber away. There was silence on site, except for the regular thump thump thump of the hammers. Everyone had had their instructions and was ready to do their job. When the timber fell loose, we pulled it swiftly out of the way while the lever people aided gravity in the acceleration of the massive stone. Still, silence prevailed. It took Welcome about 2 or 3 seconds -- I'll need to consult the video tape -- to dive into the socket hole. It went up to a vertical position, before easing back to about a 75-degree angle.

A great cheer went up from the assemblage and hugs were generously passed all around. The stone had gone in nearly perfectly. During post mortem discussions, we realised that if we had had a couple of people at the ready with packing stones or large wooden levers, we could probably have held the stone perfectly vertically. But, as it was, it only took an hour or so to perform the final straightening and jamming. The erection of the stone was a tremendous success and punctuated the four-day workshop in an almost orgasmic way.

I credit Welcome's successful plunge to the careful preparation and discussion amongst the entire team. Later, some of the students commented that, for them, these discussions were among the highlights of the entire week-end. My highest hopes had been realized: At this workshop, we were, indeed all teachers and we were all students. Magic.

Our new Megalithics: A Stone Circle Workshop Video captures the magic of those four days better than words.

Update: September 20, 2003. We also did a Megalithics Workshop in August of 2002, which you can read about by clicking on Home at the top of this page and then clicking on The Raising of Juliesteyna, at the top of our Home Page. From August 4th through 9th, 2004, Ivan McBeth will join us for our third Megalithics Workshop together. Click on Workshops or Register for Workshops at the top of any Bigstones page for more information.

2003 Earthwood Building School