Stonehenge – a name that evokes a great many emotions in a great many people. For some it is a place of pilgrimage, a place to connect with the ancestors and for others it is seen as a tourist trap or something to tick off the bucket list. For centuries it has captured our imagination; never has a heritage site been so controversial – something which continues to this day. In this post it is not my intention to give a full on thesis about Stonehenge, there are plenty of books/websites who do this already. Instead it is simply an overview of what is currently understood about the site, its surrounding landscape and my own personal thoughts.

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Stonehenge is situated on the Salisbury Plains, to the south is the busy A303, a main road between the south-west and London, and for many years the equally busy A344 ran alongside the site. This latter road was removed sometime ago to improve the visitors experience. Today there are ongoing discussions regarding the upgrading of the A303 and a proposed tunnel. It is a highly emotive subject, on one hand I understand the need to improve the road situation (ask anyone who is stuck in a traffic jam on the A303) but as an archaeologist I am also aware of the sensitive nature of the surrounding heritage landscape (and yes I am on the fence). Mike Pitts in his recent post discusses the pros and cons for those of you who are interested.

For the visitor today the focus is on the large stone circle with its trilithons, they marvel at how it could have been built by ‘primitive man’ often leading to suggestions of alien intervention and lost technologies.  But such thoughts only serve to belittle our ancestors and our past.  Others may ask why did our ancestors build Stonehenge?  Often the answers are unimaginative and simple – sun-worship; display of power; ancient computer; druid temple – once more when we look only for one answer to a what is obviously a complicated site of great longevity we belittle their achievements.  Instead if Stonehenge was understood in terms of the wider landscape and as a site whose history spanned several millenia we might come to some small understanding of how and why.

In today’s world of instant gratification where everything has a beginning and an end,  it is hard to imagine beginning a project knowing you might not see it finished but this was a reality for the builders of Stonehenge.  It has lead some to suggest that it was not the end product which was important but the doing, the act of building which was in fact the purpose.  Suggesting a cyclical thought pattern which can be seen in other aspects of prehistoric life – round houses, stone circles, round barrows.  in addition, time itself was most likely viewed in cycles, the phases of the moon and the movement of the seasons are all cyclical events which would have been of great importance to prehistoric people trying to make sense of their world.

“So was Stonehenge ever ‘finished’?  The answer to that has to be no, because completion was never the intention of the people who created it.” (Pryor F. 2016 ‘Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape).

It is well known that Stonehenge itself had many incarnations, perhaps meaning new and different things with each alteration or rebuild.  To understand Stonehenge it is important to consider it in the wider context of the surrounding landscape (there are literally hundreds of prehistoric monuments around it) in all the different phases.

The Mesolithic Story

The story of the Stonehenge landscape begins back in the Mesolithic, ongoing recent excavations at Blickmead are providing archaeologists with tantalising clues as to why this area was important to our ancestors.  The site is situated near a spring by the River Avon, excavations began in 2005 and almost immediately were fruitful.  Basically, the deposits consisted of an array of Mesolithic settlement debris, mostly flint fragments (tens of thousands) but also a great number of animal bones.  Interestingly, the site also yielded the largest collection of auroch bones ever found on a Mesolithic site in Britain so far.  Other animals which were hunted and consumed included red deer, wild boar and salmon – this has led archaeologists to suggest that feasting was a common occurence around the spring.  The spring itself is quite unusual as it has the tendency to stain flints and other materials a bright magenta pink – the importance of springs in later prehistory is well attested to.

In 1966 row of four large pit like features were found during upgrades to the old carpark close by Stonehenge.  When excavated one was found to be a the root-hole of a tree and the other three were holes dugs to hold large poles.   Examination of the material from these features gave a date range from between 8500 and 7000BC.  The posts would have been approximately 75cm in diameter and were from pine trees.  Later in 1988 another post-hole was discovered south and east of the original pits but it was contemporary.

So here we have a landscape already well populated by hunter-gatherer communities who revered certain natural features long before Stonehenge makes an appearance.  A landscape which had meaning to the people who inhabit it; who had traditions and memories of place.

At around 3500BC (Neolithic) with the arrival of farming these communities and their traditions had evolved and more permenant features began to make an appearance on the landscape.   Long barrows such as those at East and West Kennet or Winterbourne Stoke were the first to appear and by 3400BC the Stonehenge Cursus and Lesser Cursus was under construction.

3000BC – The first official phase of construction

In many parts of Britian at this time a new type of monument was being constructed, these were earthwork enclosures which are referred to as henges.  They consist of irregular cut ditches encircling a defined area with corresponding banks.  Stonehenge’s earliest phase was one such earthwork.  Here there were two entrances one faced north-east and the other faced south.  The north-easterly entrance remained in use for much of the sites lifetime and appears to be important to its function.  The entrance is aligned along a line of natural gullies which face towards the midsummer sunrise in one direction and the midwinter sunset in the other.

These natural gullies would have been visible to the people of the Mesolithic and may have been why the large pine posts were erected where they were – the midsummer and midwinter solstices were just as important then as they were to the later prehistoric communities.

Inside the earthwork enclosure around the inner edge of the bank were fifty-six regularly spaced pits – these are now known as the Aubrey Holes.  There is some discussion as to what they were or what they contained – small stone uprights or wooden posts?  However, what is known is that eventually they did contain cremated human remains.  Similar deposits have been found in the partly filled ditch and cut into the bank suggesting that at this stage in its history Stonehenge was used as a cemetary, among other things.
Read the full story (article source) here: Toni-maree Rowe – Write

Further Reading

Pryor F (2016) Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape

Parker-Pearson M  et al (2015) Stonehenge: Making Sense of Prehistoric Mystery

Parker Pearson M (2013) Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery

Bowden M et al (2015) The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.

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Stonehenge News and Information

Most people are unaware of the underground chamber that lies beneath Stonehenge.

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The six entrances to it are clearly visible in the recent geophysical survey, arranged as a squashed hexagon with linking corridors between them, leading to the antechamber located below the North Barrow and the main room directly below the stone circle.

Col. William Hawley’s excavations of 1926 revealed the existence of the entrances and corridors, but he didn’t investigate further as he was already in his mid-70s and had been abandoned by the workers assigned to assist him.

The records of this discovery existed only in Hawley’s personal notebooks, which lay unexamined until the mid 1950s.

In 1958, under the pretext of re-erecting a collapsed Trilithon, Richard Atkinson’s team made extensive excavations in the centre of the circle in an attempt to break through to the main room after the route via the antechamber was discovered to…

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Why does Stonehenge exist? We explore the pick of the theories, which are all totally sane and reasonable.

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From archaeologists to modern-day pagans to Spinal Tap fans, Stonehenge is truly a place of wonder where the demons dwell, where the banshees live and they do live well. The prehistoric monument has been the source of a great deal of speculation over its meaning, purpose and construction. Here are some of the theories surrounding those ancient stones.

Merlin did it

Not as popular a theory among historians as it once was, the Merlin Hypothesis suggests that King Arthur’s pet wizard had Stonehenge constucted with the help of a local giant, the Devil or his own mysterious magic. Notable fabulist Geoffrey of Monmouth was a big supporter of this theory, which was pretty popular into the 14th century.

From archaeologists to modern-day pagans to Spinal Tap fans, Stonehenge is truly a place of wonder where the demons dwell, where the banshees live and they do live well. The prehistoric monument has been the source of a great deal of speculation over its meaning, purpose and construction. Here are some of the theories surrounding those ancient stones.

Merlin did it

Not as popular a theory among historians as it once was, the Merlin Hypothesis suggests that King Arthur’s pet wizard had Stonehenge constucted with the help of a local giant, the Devil or his own mysterious magic. Notable fabulist Geoffrey of Monmouth was a big supporter of this theory, which was pretty popular into the 14th century.

It was a very fancy cemetery

Over the years, the remains of 63 different people have been exhumed from the site – in the form of more than 50,000 cremated bone fragments. Apparently the burials occured way back around 3000BC, roughly 100 years after the first stones were placed on the site. Given those rubbery figures, its possible the initial structure was designed as an over-the-top headstone arrangement.

It was designed for healing and pilgrimage

There’s another theory about why those remains were found there, and it’s based on the fact that a lot of them appear to have suffered from illness or injury. This suggests that people saw Stonehenge as a place to travel when you weren’t well, in the hope of getting magical first aid. Further investigation revealed fragments of the first stones had been chipped away, which could have been so people could craft them into healing talismans. (Or they were just touristy vandals.)

Aliens did it

There was once a strong school of thought that held that ancient people were idiots who couldn’t build anything as amazing as the wonders still standing among us today, so they must have had help. Obviously Merlin and his fairy minions are ridiculous, but aliens – well, it makes sense that they would pop down and help our forebears construct monolithic calculators. All you have to do is squint, fudge a few measurements, take liberties in the interpretation of ancient artworks and/or Bible passages, and it makes perfect sense.

Druids used it as a measuring instrument

If you want to know exactly when the Winter Solstice is coming, Stonehenge can help you calculate that. The avenue connecting Stonehenge to the River Avon aligns with the sun that day. Apparently there are key points around the complex that could have been used to predict eclipses, too, which is pretty cool if true. By the way, the “Druids did it” theory began in 1640 but has been pretty well debunked. Sorry.

It was a feel-good collaboration to celebrate unity

And by “unity”, we mean “you’ve all been conquered, now help us build a stone circle so you’ll never forget it”. Everyone except the alien and fairy enthusiasts agree the work of bringing these stones to the site and erecting them in a circle would have required the efforts of many people working together. Under this theory, the Neolithic locals spontaneously banded together to create the ancient equivalent of the Statue of Liberty.

It’s monolithic porn

Look, it seems unlikely, but in 2003 one researcher claimed Stonehenge looked like female genitalia and was meant to celebrate the Earth Mother. This theory requires even more squinting than the alien one.
By Shane Cubis SBS

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The mythology of Stonehenge is deeply tied to the Druids.

Stonehenge sacrifice The Slaughtering Stone

This is because some historians in the 17th century felt that the monument represented a temple and that it had been built by a pre-Roman society. As the only pre-Roman society that they knew of was the Ancient Britons and because the Romans had spoken of a priesthood called the Druids, it was obvious to them that Stonehenge was a Druid Temple.

This turned out to be the wrong conclusion, but the idea stuck.

druids_inciting_the_britons_to_oppose_the_landing_of_the_romansOne thing that everyone thinks they know about Druids is that they performed human sacrifice – that information comes to us from Julius Caesar in his accounts of the Gallic Wars of 58BC to 50BC, but he may have been exaggerating the ferocity of the Gaulish tribes to increase the prestige of his victories.

The famous imagery of a Wicker Man stuffed…

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History.com listed these interesting facts about Stonehenge:

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“Among the remaining riddles about Stonehenge is how its builders, who had only primitive tools, managed to haul all the massive stones to the site. The sarsen stones, which each weigh an average of 25 tons, are thought to have been brought to the site from Marlborough Downs, about 20 miles to the north. The bluestones, which weigh between 2 tons to 5 tons, were transported to Stonehenge from the Preseli Hills area in West Wales, a distance of more than 150 miles. Most archaeologists believe that humans moved the bluestones over water and land to Stonehenge, although it’s also been suggested these stones could’ve been pushed to the site by glaciers.”

Stonehenge once was put up for auction.“…the passage of the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act in 1913 protected Stonehenge from being intentionally demolished. In 1915, Stonehenge went up on the auction block, where local resident Cecil Chubb successfully bid on the site, on a whim, for £6,600. Three years later, Chubb donated Stonehenge to the national government. In recognition of this deed, he was knighted by Prime Minister Lloyd George.”

Theories abound about Stonehenge’s purpose.“Stonehenge’s builders left no known written records, so scholars (and non-scholars) have long speculated about why it was constructed. Those theories include ‘(Stonehenge) was erected as a memorial to hundreds of Britons who were slayed by the Saxons’ or that ‘Stonehenge was built as a Druid temple.’”

Summer solstice gatherings were banned at Stonehenge.“First held in 1974 during the summer solstice, the Stonehenge Free Festival started as a counter-culture gathering that grew significantly in size over time. After tens of thousands of people showed up for the 1984 festival, authorities banned the event for the following year over concerns about the bad behavior of some of the visitors.” Summer Solstice Tour

Darwin studied worms there.“Darwin’s research was included in what would be his final book, ‘The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms,’ published in 1881.”

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The Spring Equinox in 2017 falls on March 20th and occurs at 10:28am GMT. The time is for the instant when the Sun crosses the celestial equator moving northwards and has a celestial longitude of 0°. Everywhere on Earth has a day and night of almost equal length and it marks the beginning of the northern spring season.

Druids and Pagans enjoying the Equinox sunrise celebrations at Stonehenge. Druids and Pagans enjoying the Equinox sunrise celebrations at Stonehenge. Copyright

There is considerable debate in the archaeoastronomy community as to whether the Equinox had any special meaning for the builders of Stonehenge. They had no accurate clocks by which they could determine when the day and night were almost exactly equal and discovering the mid-point between the Winter and Summer solstice can be done in a couple of obvious ways.

You can count the days and divide by two. Or you can mark the summer and winter sunrise positions…

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Stonehenge News and Information

The memory technique that unlocks the secrets of Stonehenge, Easter Island and ancient monuments the world over. Lynne Kelly has discovered that a powerful technique used by the ancients can unlock the secrets of the Neolithic stone circles of Britain and Europe

Without writing, indigenous elders memorised a vast amount of factual information onmemorycode which survival depended both physically and culturally: knowledge of thousands of animals and plants, astronomical charts, vast navigation networks, genealogies, geography and geology … the list goes on and on. How did they remember so much? And why does this explain the purpose of ancient monuments including Stonehenge, Easter Island and the Nasca Lines? Can we use these memory methods in contemporary life?

This lecture will focus on the transmission of scientific and practical knowledge among small-scale oral cultures across the world, drawing on Australian Aboriginal, Native American, African and Pacific cultures. Dr Kelly will…

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