“So the physical existence of humans, the way they made tools and their subsistence activities, is within the realms of explanation… It’s the mental life of humans, their belief systems and the way they see the world that provide the difficulty.” (Jeffares, 2002: p38)

“The Druid’s groves are gone – so much the better. Stonehenge is not, but what the devil is it?” (Lord Byron: Don Juan)

The Saxons called the group of stones ‘Stonehenge’ or the ‘Hanging Stones’, while medieval writers refer to it as the ‘Giant’s Dance’. Inigo Jones the renowned 17th-century architect and the first to make a serious study of it, considered Stonehenge to be a Roman temple. Then William Stukeley an 18th-century antiquary and freemason convinced many that Stonehenge was once a ‘Temple of the British Druids’. Only in the 20th century have archaeologists established the true age of the monument and arrived at a more realistic conclusion as to its purpose.

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Stonehenge was begun in the early Neolithic (c. 3100 BC) and continued to be developed in phases until the middle bronze age (c. 1100 BC) – (dates by recalibrated radiocarbon). Pre-dating the first phase of activity at the site are three pits containing traces of pine wood dated to the 8th or 9th millennium BC. From the 4th millennium human activity produced a dozen major monuments in place before Stonehenge was begun. Ten long barrows, the mortuary enclosure on Normanton Down and a causewayed camp at Robin Hood’s Ball. The Cursus and the Lesser Cursus probably belong to the same date as Stonehenge I.

“The first Stonehenge, then, was constructed among other, broadly contemporary monuments, in a landscape already partly grassland. It was part of a complex of ceremonial structures, already several hundred years old when its site was chosen, with a causewayed camp as its central territorial focus.” (Chippindale, 1994: p265)

Stonehenge I (c. 3100 BC) or Old Stonehenge consisted of the ditch dug with deer-antler picks and incorporating a bank about 6 feet high. Within this the 56 Aubrey holes were dug and then almost immediately filled in. Some of these have been excavated and shown to contain cremations. Two stones were set up opposite the north-east entrance-way; one survives as the Heel Stone today. It is also thought that two sarsons were in place in the entrance-way. There are also many small post-holes in the entrance which belong to this period, which point to a timber gate. The people who built this phase of the monument have been named the Windmill Hill people after the nearby Windmill Hill Causewayed enclosure. This group was thought to be semi-nomadic hunter gatherers with an agricultural economy.

Stonehenge II (c. 2150 BC) began with a shift of the entrance around towards the east. This orientation is on the rising sun at midsummer solstice. The Avenue was built, a pair of parallel banks and ditches.

Also bluestones from the Preseli Mountains in southwestern Wales were brought to set up the double concentric circle of Stones within the earlier ring. These large stones are thought to have been carried by raft around the coast of Wales to Bristol, then transported up local rivers and hauled overland until finally being dragged on rollers up the avenue to Stonehenge, there they were erected forming the two circles. The double circle was never completed and was dismantled during the following period in around 2000 BC. The Beaker people are thought to be responsible for this phase of the monument. This society was centred around a chieftain system. The dead were buried in tumuli with goods such as daggers and axes, perhaps pointing to them being warlike in nature. They were certainly capable of sophisticated mathematical concepts and had knowledge of astronomy.

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Stonehenge III (c.2100 BC) A circle of 30 sarsen-stone (weighing up to 50 tons each) uprights 30.5 m (100 ft) in diameter and capped by a continuous ring of sarsen lintels was erected in the center of the site. This circle surrounds a horseshoe-shaped setting of five sarsen trilithons (formations in which two uprights support a lintel). After transporting the sarsen stones from Marlborough Downs, 20 miles, the stones were shaped and jointed together with stone hammers. Other changes involved adding, moving, and rearranging bluestones that had been used during the second period. No other megalithic structure in northwestern Europe displays the precision and architectural refinement that Stonehenge does. Some of the bluestones were later re-erected in the center in an oval structure that contained at least two miniature trilithons, and holes were dug for the rest to be set in two concentric circles (the Y and Z holes) outside the sarsen circle. This plan was abandoned unfinished, however, and the bluestones were finally rearranged (c.1550 BC) in the circle and horseshoe whose remains survive today. At the same time, the stone now known as the Altar Stone, a large block of green sandstone from Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, was set up in front of one of the trilithons. This phase of the monument was overseen by the Wessex Peoples who were wealthy, and well-organised traders, using the ancient ridgeways to travel.

Stonehenge IV (c.1100 BC) The Avenue was extended to the River Avon, 1.25 miles from Stonehenge.

The elaborate planning and workmanship as well as the many thousands of man-hours that went into its construction, demonstrates how important Stonehenge was to the peoples of its time. The fact that the architects needed the blue and green stones from Wales and the trouble they went to too get them, suggests that the stones themselves had special significance. It is evident then that Stonehenge was not designed to be a simple meeting place for the local people. The cremation burials discovered in the Aubrey Holes, show that funerary rites were once performed at Stonehenge, so could it be that during the mid-summer solstice as the sun rose between the Heel Stone and another stone no longer present, that the earliest Stonehenge was used to expose ancestral remains to the life-giving sun at this significant time of year, and that the Aubrey holes symbolized places of entry into the Underworld?

The 35-ton heel stone’s placement was one of the most sophisticated accomplishments of that age and provides the best evidence that early people used astronomy. On Midsummer Day (June 24 then, now June 21) a person standing in the centre of the circle can see the sun rise directly above the heel stone. Of course the reverse is also true. If you stand behind the heel stone and look towards the monument the shadow of the heel stone falls where the altar stone once stood, suggestive of a possible association with fertility rites.

In more recent times American astronomer Gerald Hawkins used a computer to decode many of the stone alignments and from this concluded that Stonehenge was a sophisticated means of observing the heavens. But it is doubtful if these early observations were precise or that the ancients were engaged in the same quest of discovery as scientists are today. Their most likely concerns would have been to establish a basic calendar and to chart the movements of the heavenly bodies for religious purposes.

Reference List

Brass, M. Can we achieve an adequate archaeology of religion? If so, what can we learn from it? 2004

Chippindale, C. Stonehenge Complete. Thames and Hudson. 1994

Pitts, M. Hengeworld, Century London, 2000

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