A poem apparently describing Stonehenge, that was written about 1,700 years ago, would not only be the first known mention of the mysterious monument in a written document, it contains the name of the stone circle hundreds of years before the ancient site was christened with the name “Stonehenge.”
The poem is entitled “The Ruin,” and has been known for years, as part of a collection known as The Exeter Book, a 950-year-old anthology of verse written in the Anglo-Saxon language, an early form of English sometimes called “Old English.”
But “The Ruins” was apparently written in the 8th Century, more than 200 years before it was collected in The Exeter Book. Stonehenge itself was constructed millennia before that, possibly as long as 5,000 years ago.
The poem was translated recently by Graeme Davis, a scholar of medieval languages at England’s University of Buckingham, and he says he was surprised to find what he believes to be clear descriptions of Stonehenge in the poem, which was composed about 400 years before the 12th-century work by Henry of Huntington, which gave the site the name “Stonehenge.”
The Exeter poem was originally believed to describe the Bath region of England, but Davis now says that belief was mistaken.
“Reading it through, it’s describing a ruin and Stonehenge. There are so many references to curved beams, and a ditch around it, so it doesn’t appear to be Bath,” said the scholar.
The Huntington work, Historia Anglorum (i.e. History of England), was until now believed to be the oldest existing work of literature containing a mention of Stonehenge. Writing in the year 1,130, Huntington referred to the site by the name “Stanenges,” which he called the second of the four wonders of ancient Britain.
Just a few years later, the writer Geoffrey of Monmouth composed his History of the Kings Of Britain, in which he told a tale of how Stonehenge was built by Merlin the Magician.
But “The Ruin” predates both of those works and refers to the monument not as “Stonehenge,” or even “Stanenges,” but instead labels the monuments awe-inspiring stones as “the old ones” and “the elders,” as if the stones themselves were ancient, living beings.
As the title of “The Ruin” implies, the poem describes the decaying state of “the old ones.”
“Fate has shattered the wondrous, mighty stone. The city is broken, the work of giants has perished,” says the Stonehenge poem, in Davis’ new translation. “The top parts have fallen, the high rocks tumbled, the beams are bereaved, the mortar has failed… the old ones are eaten away.”