Stonehenge is one of the most recognizable sites in the world. Its image has been reproduced in countless places, its design has been analyzed, and its purpose has been the source of endless speculation. Unfortunately, this speculation will probably go on forever. Since there are no written records from the remote period when Stonehenge was built, the place is really just a big blank that can be filled in with whatever the observer imagines. Presented with this blank, different people have filled it in with different things, and Stonehenge has become the home of some of our fondest fantasies. Just where the fantasy ends and the fact begins will always be in the opinion of the individual.
Efforts to explain this striking monument have been going on for centuries. In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Merlin, King Arthur’s sorcerer, used his magic to bring the stones to Britain because of their healing powers. Geoffrey also relates that in later years, Ambrosius Aurelianus, Uther Pendragon, and Constantine III were buried within the circle.
As pretty as this legend is, we now know it to be utterly false. The Merlin of Arthurian legend was supposed to have lived in the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire, by which time Stonehenge was already thousands of years old. And while there are burials associated with Stonehenge, they are all from a much earlier period than King Arthur.
Other explanations, most of them based on scanty or nonexistent evidence, have been proposed through the years. In the early 18th century, William Stukely conducted excavations at Stonehenge and several other ancient sites in the area, and concluded that they were all the work of the Druids, an idea which persisted for some time. However, this is obviously untrue, as the Druids lived at a much later period, and generally conducted their rituals in forest groves rather than monumental stoneworks. Again, we have an explanation that appeals to the explainer, but bears no relation to demonstrable fact.
Through the years, the presence of the stones has been attributed to both the invading Danes and the Roman legions. We now know that the stones were already in place long before either of those groups arrived.
So, what do we really know about Stonehenge? The site has been extensively investigated by archaeologists, and we now know quite a bit about its physical characteristics.
The construction of Stonehenge took place in several stages covering roughly a thousand years. The earliest archaeological evidence shows that the site was cleared in the forest about 8000 BC, and that an avenue to the river at Amesbury was cleared at about the same time. While there are no stoneworks from this early time, two postholes have been found, aligned in an east-west direction, that may have held astronomical markers or totems of some sort. There was a great flood in 7460 BC, but about a thousand years later, the two posts were replaced by two more, close to the site of the first posts, and also aligned east-west. This would seem to indicate that even at this extremely remote time, the spot already had a well-established cultural significance that survived for centuries and prompted people to built on the site again.
The next stage in the construction at Stonehenge was the building of an embankment and ditch in about 3020 BC. After this, the site seems to have been used regularly until about 2600 BC, when it was abandoned for about 500 years.
In about 2100 BC we see the next phase, when the Preseli Bluestones were brought from Wales and set up in a circle aligned with the summer solstice, and the avenue approaching the site was widened. About 100 years later, this first bluestone circle was dismantled and rearranged into the familiar circle-and-horseshoe shape that we know today.
The final phase of construction at Stonehenge was when the Sarsen stones were brought and arranged in an outer circle with a continuous ring of lentils. Outside this, there was a horseshoe configuration of five trilithons (three-stone arches). Part of this outer ring is still visible today.
The method of moving the Preseli Bluestones has been the source of lively speculation through the years, beginning with the Merlin story and continuing through to the present day, when ancient aliens have sometimes been given the credit. One more down-to-earth theory has held that the stones were brought to the area not by human effort, but by the natural action of glaciers. It is true that glaciers have been known to move stones of the size of the Stonehenge stones or even bigger, but since the landscape bears no other signs of glacial movement, this seems most unlikely.
The theory which is currently accepted by most authorities is that the Neolithic people who built Stonehenge used rollers and sledges to drag the stones from the Preseli Hills of Wales to the sea at present-day Milford Haven. Here, the stones were placed on barges and sailed down the coast of Wales to Bristol, where they entered the Avon and traveled to a point near Frome in Somerset. From there, the stones must have been pulled overland to somewhere near Warminster in Wiltshire. From there, they were placed on the River Wylye and floated to Salisbury, where they were once again placed on the Avon River and taken to West Amesbury. From there, it was only a relatively short overland journey to Stonehenge.
In modern times, it has been discovered that the stones of Stonehenge are arranged to mark astronomical events, and were undoubtedly used as a calendrical device. We can assume that occasions such as equinoxes were marked with rituals at Stonehenge and at other ancient sites in Britain, but of course, the nature of those rituals and the belief system that included them are a complete mystery to us.
As mentioned earlier, several burials have been found in the area, and these may give us a small clue as to the purpose of this site for the people who built it. Excavations at Stonehenge in April 2008, co-directed by Darvill, turned up a number of Bronze Age skeletons showing evidence of congenital bone deformities. From this, it is speculated that Stonehenge may have been a sort of prehistoric Lourdes where the sick came to be healed, or at least to die and be buried in a holy place.
In considering Stonehenge, it must be noted that this is not simply a lone monument standing in the middle of nowhere. In truth, Stonehenge is just one part of an extensive landscape of late Stone Age and Bronze Age monuments. This leads to one of the central questions about Stonehenge: what is its relationship to other ancient works in the area? One school of thought, which has been gaining prominence in recent years, holds that the entire area has a plan and a significance as a whole, and that therefore Stonehenge cannot be understood without considering the other structures in the area.
Excavations made by Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University have shown that the Stonehenge complex was linked by two avenues and the River Avon to a matching wooden circle at nearby Durrington Walls. It is Parker Pearson’s contention that these two circles should be considered together, and that they represent the worlds of the living and the dead in the minds of the ancient people who used them. In this scenario, we can imagine that seasonal rituals probably involved activities at both locations, with processions passing between the two.
While this is not as outlandish as some of the explanations for the function of Stonehenge, it must be admitted that the evidence is rather scanty, and it takes a big leap to get from that to Parker Pearson’s elaborate conclusions.
Archaeologists are to be commended for their efforts at Stonehenge, but one can’t help but feel a certain sense of futility about it. Will we ever know what this place really meant to the people who built it? Probably not — but we can’t resist trying, can we?
Britannia History: Stonehenge at britannia.com: britannia.com/history/h7.html
Shearing, Dr. Colin R.: “Secrets of the Preseli Bluestones” at Britannia.com: britannia.com/history/preseli_blue.html
National Geographic: Mysteries of the Ancient World: “Scientists Try to Crack Stonehenge’s Prehistoric Puzzles” nationalgeographic.com/history/ancient/stonehenge.html
Places of Peace and Power: Stonehenge Facts: sacredsites.com/europe/england/stonehenge-facts.html
Sacred Destinations: Stonehenge: sacred-destinations.com/england/stonehenge
Stonehenge entry at Wikipedia: wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonehenge
This article was supplied by G.B. Partain from Constant Content.