What is Stonehenge?

stonehenge sun

A number of theories have been proposed to explain the purpose of Stonehenge. Some scholars have focused on the sunrise alignment of the monument, which can be viewed by an observer on midsummer morning standing in the centre of the site and looking northeast toward the heel stone, as evidence for the early astronomical significance of Stonehenge. Others have suggested that the 56 Aubrey Holes found on the site coincide with the 56-year cycle for tracking the motions of the moon and thus served as an early computer for tracking eclipses of the moon and sun.

In the 1960s, it was discovered that about 240 Stonehenge alignments translated into celestial declinations. These declinations, which correspond to latitude circles on Earth, seemed to fit the extreme positions of the sun and the moon. So in phases I and III of the monument, the midwinter moonset and sunrise and midsummer sunset and moonrise could be viewed when standing within the monument and looking out in the direction of the corresponding declinations. Various theories have been proposed to explain the Stonehenge sun-moon alignments, including the possibility that the alignments form a calendar, particularly useful to tell the time for planting crops, and that they were used as part of religious ceremonies. However, some scholars have questioned the alignments and have suggested that they may be coincidental or not purposeful.

Other archaeologists prefer an evolutionary approach to explain the origin of Stonehenge. According to this explanation, Stonehenge began as a wooden structure, with posts set in a ring, and was eventually transformed into a stone ring. This wooden circle, and the stone circle to follow, may have been manifestations of some powerful religious belief. The religious importance of Stonehenge is suggested by the Aubrey holes, which contained deposits of cremated human bones, and thirty other cremations placed in the enclosure’s ditch and at other points within the monument, as if the site was later transformed into a cremation cemetery.

Two recent theories about the function of Stonehenge have been proposed. One of these suggests that the monument was part of a ritual landscape and was joined to another site, Durrington Walls, by their corresponding avenues and the River Avon. According to this theory, the Durrington Walls timber henge was oriented towards the rising sun on the midwinter solstice and represented a place of the living, while Stonehenge was aligned with the setting sun on the summer solstice and represented a place of the dead. A journey between the two sites was then part of a ritual passage from life to death to celebrate ancestors and the recently deceased. Another theory proposes that Stonehenge was a place of healing, as evinced by the high number of burials in the area and the discovery of trauma deformity in some of the graves.

The Stonehenge monument on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, has been a source of controversy since serious scientific study of its purpose and construction began in the mid-20th century.

Three phases of Stonehenge construction were originally proposed in the 1940s and 1950s. They were referred to as Stonehenge I, II, and III, and were dated from approximately 1900 to 1600 BC. However, since the 1950s, there have been significant advances in the dating of the monument. The most recent scientifically-verified dates for the monument are approximately 3100 to 3000 BC for Stonehenge I, 3000 to 2600 BC for Stonehenge II, and 2600 to 1930 BC for Stonehenge III.

One effect of the corrected dates for the various phases of Stonehenge was to force a re-evaluation of the theories associated with the construction of the monument. The new dates show that the construction of Stonehenge preceded the Mycenaean civilization of the central Mediterranean. Thus, the traditional explanation that ideas and people diffused from the Mediterranean region to Western Europe and influenced local cultures is no longer tenable. In other words, it is now generally accepted that Stonehenge was an indigenous development.

Stonehenge I and II, the first stages of construction of the monument, and part of Stonehenge III were built during the late Neolithic period of Britain, which dates from approximately 3200 to 2000 BC. The lifestyle of the Neolithic or New Stone Age period as a whole, in Britain and elsewhere, was characterized by farming, pottery and the building of elaborate ceremonial monuments, such as earth and stone circles.

Henges, which refer to circular formations of earth, timber, or stone, were an important ceremonial structure during the Neolithic period. Stonehenge I is not a typical henge, but rather resembles a causewayed enclosure, a feature found earlier in the Neolithic period and characterized by a roughly circular bank inside a discontinuous chain of quarry ditches. In general, henges may have served a multifunctional purpose as both social meeting places (for livestock fairs, trade, political meetings, religious ceremonies and so forth) and sites for the celebration of major astronomical events.

Stonehenge III construction took place in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age and is primarily associated with the Wessex culture. This culture may have been a chiefdom society and may have been characterized by well-developed religious and ceremonial activities. The archaeological evidence that might support these suggestions include the marked increase in the number of burial mounds (barrows) during the period of Stonehenge III, the fact that there were now mounds for single rather than communal burial, and that these graves were often richly decorated.

Stonehenge, Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain

Excavations at Stonehenge continue today, English Heritage says of the latest discovery of ‘man-made’ ditches along the ancient processional route to Stonehenge – this is a “missing piece in the jigsaw” in our understanding of England’s greatest prehistoric site.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, a leading expert on Stonehenge, believes the excavations have confirmed a theory that Stonehenge was built along an ice age landform that happened to be on the solstice axis.

The Avenue was an earthwork route that extended 1.5 miles from the north-eastern entrance to Wiltshire’s standing stones to the River Avon at West Amesbury. Following the closure of the A344 road, which cut across the route, archaeologists have been able to excavate there for the first time.

Dr Heather Sebire, English Heritage’s Stonehenge curator, said of the discovery of the manmade ditches: “The part of the Avenue that was cut through by the road has obviously been destroyed forever, but we were hopeful that archaeology below the road would survive. And here we have it: the missing piece in the jigsaw. It is very exciting to find a piece of physical evidence that officially makes the connection which we were hoping for.”

Just below the tarmac, Parker Pearson has found naturally occurring fissures that once lay between ridges against which prehistoric builders dug ditches to create the Avenue. The ridges were created by Ice Age meltwater that happen to point directly at the mid-winter sunset in one direction and the mid-summer sunrise in the other.

Parker Pearson said: “It’s hugely significant because it tells us a lot about why Stonehenge was located where it is and why they [prehistoric people] were so interested in the solstices. It’s not to do with worshipping the sun, some kind of calendar or astronomical observatory; it’s about how this place was special to prehistoric people.

“This natural landform happens to be on the solstice axis, which brings heaven and earth into one. So the reason that Stonehenge is all about the solstices, we think, is because they actually saw this in the land.”

Parker Pearson said the findings backed theories that emerged in 2008 following exploration of a narrow trench across the Avenue. “This is the confirmation. It’s being able to see the big picture.”

The excavation was conducted by Wessex Archaeology for English Heritage.

The A344 will be grassed over next year as part of English Heritage’s £27m transformation of the World Heritage Site, which receives more than 1m visitors annually. There will be a new visitor centre, 1.5 miles away out of sight, to allow Stonehenge to reconnect with the surrounding landscape.

Sebire, who likens the Avenue to The Mall leading to Buckingham Palace, said that the latest findings should prompt vigorous academic debate. English Heritage has not expressed an opinion on the theory about the naturally formed ridges, its interpretation being confined to the ditches.

Archaeologists have also identified three holes where missing stones would have stood on the outer sarsen circle – evidence, it is believed, that the circle was indeed once complete. Surprisingly, even the most sophisticated surveys failed to spot them. Two members of staff noticed dry areas of grass, or parchmarks.

Susan Greaney, an English Heritage historian, said: “The discovery … has certainly strengthened the case for it being a full circle.”

Asked why no one noticed them until now, Parker Pearson said: “The problem is we’ve not had a decent dry summer in many years. Stonehenge is always regularly watered, and the only reason these have shown up is because – for some reason this year – their hose was too short … So we’re very lucky.”

The British team led by Professor Parker Pearson (UCL Institute of Archaeology), analysed the ancient remains of 63 bodies buried around Stonehenge, finding that the first monument was originally a graveyard for a community of elite families, whose remains were brought to Stonehenge and buried over a period of more than 200 years.

“The first Stonehenge began its life as a huge graveyard,” said Parker Pearson. “The original monument was a large circular enclosure built 500 years before the Stonehenge we know today, with the remains of many of the cremated bodies originally marked by the bluestones of Stonehenge. We have also discovered that the second Stonehenge was built 200 years earlier than thought, around 2500 BC.”

By testing cattle teeth from 80,000 animal bones excavated from the Stonehenge complex, the team also found that around 2500 BC it was once the site of vast communal feasts attended by perhaps up to a tenth of the British population, with people coming from as far afield as highland Scotland to celebrate the solstice.

What we’ve uncovered is compelling evidence that Stonehenge once united the people of Britain, attracting people from far and wide for Solstice gatherings, but also that the bodies and grave goods found on and around the site also offer an answer to the mystery of Stonehenge’s decline.

Investigations reveal that the animals were slaughtered in the Winter, nine months after their spring birth, pointing to the Mid-Winter Solstice gatherings at Stonehenge being a time for feasting on an unprecedented scale.

“Stonehenge was a monument that brought ancient Britain together,” said Professor Parker Pearson. “What we’ve found is that people came with their animals to feast at Stonehenge from all corners of Britain – as far afield as Scotland. Stonehenge was built soon after the appearance of the first pan-British culture, the only time in prehistory that the people of Britain were unified.”

For years the reasons for Stonehenge’s location have also remained a mystery, but the team now think that the site was chosen because of a pair of naturally-occurring parallel ridges in the landscape – the result of Ice Age meltwater – which coincidentally point directly at the Mid-Winter sunset in one direction and the Mid-Summer sunrise in the other. To our ancestors, this must have seemed an uncanny and auspicious sign – and we now know that they chose to build their cemetery at the end of them.

Over the years have been a number of theories regarding the monument:

That it was an astronomical observation device used to predict, in advance of their occurrence, those particular periods in the annual cycle when the earth energies were most highly influenced and charged by the sun, moon, and stars.

stonehenge hippies

That it was a temple, built by and for the people, in which festivals of renewal were held at those charged energetic periods determined by astronomical observations.

That it was a structure built with particular materials (the diorite bluestones brought from 240 miles away and showing evidence of prior use in another sacred structure; the micaceous, green-tinged “altar” stone of unknown origin; and the great Sarsen stones), positioned in such a way as to create a specific form of sacred enclosure which functions as a sort of battery for gathering, storing, and expressing the earth energies of the site on the festival days.

Besides the periodic yearly times (both day and night) of those festivals, which the mathematics, structural engineering, and ground plans of structures like Stonehenge clearly reveal, prehistory has left us, via the myths and legends of the sacred sites, elegant information concerning the nature of the actual practices the pilgrims performed at the festivals. We are given indications of the powers of the sites by old surviving records of even more ancient folk memories. For example, the legendary Merlin tells King Aurelius:’

Laugh not so lightly, King, for not lightly are these words spoken. For in these stones is a mystery, and a healing virtue against many ailments. Giants of old did carry them from the furthest ends of Africa and did set them up in Ireland what time they did inhabit therein. And unto this end they did it, that they might make them baths therein whensoever they ailed of any malady, for they did wash the stones and pour forth the water into the baths, whereby they that were sick were made whole. Moreover they did mix confections of herbs with the water, whereby they that were wounded had healing, for not a stone is there that lacketh in virtue of leechcraft.

adapted from Merlin @ Stonehenge


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