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Rock Jock

Moving megaliths in West Chazy, N.Y.


Published September 29, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Two large pieces of Barre Gray Granite are standing in Rob Roy's front yard in West Chazy, New York. You can't resist running your hand over the surface -- smooth on two sides, ridged with drill marks down the others. The stones are warm in the sun, reassuringly solid to the touch. They have an aura of permanence about them, immutable and unmoving. Small wonder. Each stone is a little over 11 feet long and weighs roughly 5 tons. They're not going anywhere.

Well, actually, they are. And one much like them already has. This past August, Roy gathered a dozen friends and students and, using only tools and techniques that were available 4000 years ago, maneuvered the stone into an upright position.

"It was one of the most exciting days of megalithic work that I'd ever seen," Roy explains, infectious cheer filling his voice. "Nine people worked as one -- and each contributed in a powerful and meaningful way." Raising the first stone began the process of erecting a trilothon, one of the doorway-shaped structures that form Stonehenge.

Not everyone wants a full-sized replica of Stonehenge in their front yard, but a surprising number of people do. All around the world, apparently, homeowners are bringing in boulders, tipping them on end and using the results as ceremonial spaces, meditative gardens or landscape accents.

Roy chalks this trend up to a "megalithic revival," a kind of global consciousness that's inspiring people to re-experience the building challenges of their ancient ancestors. And he should know. Roy has authored a book on the subject, Stone Circles: A Modern Builder's Guide to the Megalithic Revival, and publishes a bi-annual magazine, The Club Meg News, for stone-circle enthusiasts. With his wife Jaki, Roy runs the Earthwood Building School, which focuses on cordwood homes. But every other year he teaches workshops on stone-raising techniques so that students can gain some hands-on experience before they begin pushing boulders around at home.

"Building stone circles can be a compulsion, if not an obsession," Roy writes in Stone Circles. "Some like it for the aesthetics. I like the engineering challenge, solving the problems as they arise." Roy's approach is heavy on the sweat and elbow grease, light on the bulldozers. By sticking to megalithic methods, he's forced to rely on back and brain power.

Looking at Roy you wouldn't think, "Here's a guy who moves large rocks for recreation." In his early fifties, he's slightly built, with the wiry musculature of a man who knows his way around a construction site. Short, gray hair sets off the light in his eyes -- a gleam that brightens considerably as he discusses a fine point of engineering.

From the upstairs window of his Earthwood home -- the two-story, cordwood masonry building is the showpiece of his alternative-architecture empire -- you can see his first megalithic creation, built in 2000. Small, 18-inch stones surround a fire ring while short, squat boulders are arranged slightly further out. Beyond these are 4- to 6-foot standing stones, one of which looks disconcertingly like a petrified rabbit. They seem like big pretty rocks, until you glimpse the behemoth towering at the other end of his yard.

Two years ago, Roy and his megalith movers erected "Juliesteyna," a 20-foot, 20-ton, irregularly shaped piece of granite from the Rock of Ages Quarry in Barre, Vermont. Juliesteyna translates as "Yule Stone" -- fitting, considering the stone's purpose. Roy placed the stone to mark where the sun sets on the shortest day of the year, much the same way that ancient Celts used Stonehenge as an astronomical clock.

Juliesteyna was raised using the stacked-timbers method. After cradling it in a stone "boat" to even out its irregular surface, the crew applied simple physics to lever the giant rock high enough to slide a timber underneath. Once that support was in place, they levered the stone higher in the opposite direction and slid another timber under that. Using these pivot points, the crew managed to raise the stone 4-and-a-half feet. That took most of a day, Rob says.

The next step was a little touchy. It was vitally important to find the balance point of Juliesteyna. Otherwise the whole structure could tumble to the ground -- and potentially crush some of the work crew in the process. Eventually, Roy was satisfied that the stone was properly positioned. A half-inch variance in the "socket hole" caused some concern, but the die was cast. Roy himself hit away the bracing stone with a sledgehammer, and ropes yanked the support out of the way.

"In about two seconds," Roy explains, still unable to contain his excitement at the retelling, "this 20-ton stone changed from horizontal to vertical." The final installation went without a hitch -- although keen-eyed observers reported seeing a puff of smoke where Juliesteyna had crushed a smaller stone at the edge of the socket hole.

One of the mysteries about Stonehenge and other stone circles is how primitive people managed to bring multi-ton rocks hundreds of miles to their desired location. Roy has his stones trucked in from Barre. But that's it for modern assistance. And when the small but enthusiastic crowd gathered to test their prehistoric engineering skills last month, time seemed to melt away.

At this year's workshop, the group's task was to raise one of the waiting 11-foot stones. "I know of no other stones that have been raised this way -- completely by hand -- since Stonehenge," Roy told his crew. Given the stone's fairly regular shape, "Things should have been relatively easy, but they weren't. On the fifth day of the workshop, the group was bringing the stone upright when the 5.7-ton boulder got caught up on two 250-pound stones in the socket hole. But Roy's crew was not to be denied. "They moved lots of wheelbarrows full of materials out of there. One stone had to be broken up and moved out that way. For the other, we had to dig another hole, further down, and shift that stone out of range."

The group's tenacity paid off. By 5 o'clock there was a new standing stone about a dozen yards from Juliesteyna. Three feet of the stone was set into the ground, leaving about eight feet visible. "It's beautiful," Roy says. "It's about 18 inches east of where we intended, but that's OK. The next one will have to be exactly spot-on, though, because we intend to top the pair with the lintel stone."

It will be a couple of years before the other upright is raised, and two more after that before the topping occurs. There's still some debate about trilothon topping in the megalithic world, but Roy has a plan. The lintel stone will be laid between the two uprights, raised using the same stacked-timber method. "There won't be a lot of room to work in there," he predicts. "Things may get particularly tricky when it's time to turn the 5-ton block the necessary 90 degrees to rest on the uprights. It's an awful lot of work."

So why does he bother? "For me, my interest began when I was bicycling from Salisbury to Stonehenge. This was back in the days when you could pay the man a shilling and wander among the stones. Walking there, realizing how powerful they are, got me interested in how it is all done." Roy began building stone circles himself about 25 years ago, using everything from the tiniest beach stones to full-fledged boulders. He's traveled the world in pursuit of so-called sacred spaces, journeying as far as Easter Island and New Zealand to research building methods.

How did primitive people move multi-ton rock countless miles and wrest them into position? Theories abound. Some contend that the work involved roller logs, earthen ramps, timber platforms or that perpetual favorite: pits, ropes and an endless supply of slave labor. Others advocate for a more magical approach, claiming that ancient people chanted, meditated or merely willed the stones into place. One or two authors flit around the fringe, arguing that Stonehenge was dropped in place by aliens.

"I'm not a real metaphysical person," Roy insists, "but some magic happens here. There are times when we have a bonfire, people get inside the circle, and they just feel good. There's something to that."

Roy leaves most of the "trans-rational," spiritual stuff to his occasional co-teacher, Ivan McBeth, a self-proclaimed Druid, shaman and geomancer from Cornwall, England. McBeth is Britain's foremost stone-circle builder, according to his website, http://www.ivanmcbeth. com. He has erected several throughout Europe, including one at a major music festival and another as a memorial for music legend Joe Strummer.

McBeth, a shaggy-haired, bearded man who looks like a character from Lord of the Rings, is a man on a mission. He's determined to present stone circles as sacred spaces, temples in touch with the spirit of the Earth. He compares his job to that of a conductor assembling "all the elements of a choral piece together in a harmonious way, so that the meaning and words of the song ring clear and true."

"I was very impressed with Ivan," Roy says. "He led us on a number of spiritual journeys during the workshop. An exercise where each participant 'became' a stone helped us recognize the stones as healing beings."

That kind of recognition requires an open mind. Roy describes the people who attend his "Club Meg" workshops as free thinkers. "When people come to our cordwood workshops, they're the types who can think outside the box. They're willing to consider a round house built out of short pieces of wood. But our stone-circle people, they're, 'Box? What box? There's supposed to be a box?'" Roy says with a chuckle. "Sometimes we get someone who starts out as a cordwood person, and they just fall over the edge into stone circles."

Putting all of these free thinkers together creates a community Roy really enjoys. "Many of our students have become friends," he says. That's no surprise, considering Roy's affection for people who can look way, way back in time as well as forward... to moving 20-ton rocks for fun.