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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The Stonehenge Experts

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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It is the day with the least sunlight with the winter solstice having been celebrated for thousands of years.

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A druid ceremony is held during the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

THE winter solstice: the shortest day and longest night of the year.

So what is so important about this date? What about it possesses people to dress in unicorn masks and visit Stonehenge?

Here, we take a look at just what the winter solstice is – and why a day with so little sunlight is worth celebrating.

What is the Winter Solstice?

The winter solstice is a phenomenon that marks the shortest day of the year.

Often referred to as the official beginning of winter, the solstice generally only occurs for a moment.

The true solstice occurs when the Earth is tilted the furthest away from the Sun on its axis.

Despite it only lasting a moment, the full day is recognised.

When is the Winter Solstice?

The winter solstice generally falls between December 20 and 23.

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Stonehenge Winter Solstice Tour

In 2016, it will fall on Wednesday, December 21.

This means, for the UK, the sun will rise at 8.04am and set at 3.54pm – meaning we will have just 7 hours and 49 minutes of daylight.

A winter solstice also occurs in the Southern Hemisphere, with the day occurring in late June.

How is it celebrated?

The day is one that is celebrated by pagans and druids, with rituals of rebirth performed throughout history on the day.

One of the biggest celebrations in the UK occurs at Stonehenge with crowds gathering to watch the sunrise on the morning of the winter solstice.

The crowds of devotees, often dressed for the occasion, regularly gather at the historic site.

It is just one of the many pagan festivals, which include midwinter, midsummer and inbolc – the day that traditionally marks the start of spring.

The importance placed on the day comes from how people were previously so ecoenomically dependent on the seasons with straveation common in the first months of winter.

Will the days start to get longer?

After the solstice, the days will start to get longer.

The process is gradual, with minutes added everyday.

The days will eventually lengthen until the summer solstice, which is expected on Wednesday June 21.
Article source: By BRITTANY VONOW The Sun Online

Join us on a guided tour from London or Bath and join the Pagan celebrations at sunrise on the Winter Solstice:
Stonehenge Winter Solstice Tour

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Staying in London, Bath or Salisbury and want to visit Stonehenge and experience the inner circle at sunrise or sunset?

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There is an overwhelming choice of Stonehenge tours online, some better than others. We operate our own small group guided tours private access tours and specialise in arranging customised private guided tours for families and groups. We also deal with all the best U.K tour operators and our customer service team would be delighted to email your best options, we have made it simple for you by getting tours from the leading suppliers all in one place. You can just see Stonehenge, or you can also visit some of the leading Britain’s top tourist attractions on the same day as touring Stonehenge. Compare prices and tours and make the most informed choice.

Carefully consider your options before signing up and please give the experts an opportunity to send your best possible Stonehenge tour options and all current availability along with any special offers and discounts.

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Simply contact us with your preferred date, the number of people travelling and if you prefer sunrise or sunset access inside the Stones.  We will email your best touring options.

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Stonehenge Private Access Visit or Regular Tourist Visit During Normal Hours?

For those of you who have not visited Stonehenge before, we should mention that the

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Regular Crowded Stonehenge visit

monument is roped off. Visitors observe the stones from a distance and are not permitted within the inner circle and for most tourists this is perfectly adequate. Since the new English Heritage visitor centre opened in 2013 the monument can often see over 1000 people per hour circling the Stone Circle at distances up to 100 meters away.

Walk Among The Stones At Stonehenge Without The Crowds

For the more discerning traveller and those who are really, really interested in Stonehenge it is possible to go beyond the rope fence and walk among the stones with just a handful of people. These visits are called Special Access visits and take place outside public opening hours and are very early in the morning or late in the evening, often at sunset or sunrise. This is the only time you will be able to walk amongst the stones at Stonehenge.  There are periods, noticeably the months of October and November where no Special Access slots are made available at all due to conservation reasons. The days around the summer solstice at the end of June are also blacked out.

Organised Guided Stonehenge Special Access Tours
We have arranged with English Heritage for you to experience a unique guided visit to this ancient sacred site – beyond the fences and after the crowds have gone home. Walk amongst the stones and experience the magical atmosphere within the inner circle. We are the early pioneers of this magical experience and hope you will join one of our exclusive scheduled small group Stonehenge special  access tours or organise a custom VIP private viewing tour, ideal for individuals, families or small groups.

Our tour guides are Stonehenge experts and will bring to life its many myths, legends and mysteries and share all the latest theories and archaeological discoveries,  a truly magical experience.  We have a close relationship with Stonehenge ticketing and all approved tour operators and can often arrange these access visits, even at sunset or sunrise when others can’t. A truly magical experience!

Let us Arrange a Special Access Visit for You
Simply contact us with your preferred date, the number of people travelling and if you prefer sunrise or sunset access inside the Stones.  We will then promptly email your best touring options.  We’ll make sure that you get the very best out of this historic and mysterious Stone Circle!
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AN archaeological study claims to shed light on the few remaining mysteries which still surround Stonehenge.

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Unhenged… early excavations at Stonehenge were deemed unimportant at the time, but a new study has shed light on the site C -Getty

For years, the rock monoliths at the popular tourist site in Wiltshire have been a source of great speculation, with nobody certain as to why or how the prehistoric monument was built.

The most prominent theory is that the site, which was constructed between 3000 BC and 2000 BC, served as an ancient burial ground.

This theory gained traction after the remains of an estimated 59 individuals were found in the area in the 1920s, but the bones uncovered then were deemed unimportant at the time and were never properly analysed.

But now archaeologists have been able to successfully carbon date the remains of at least 27 adults at the site, reinforcing the theory that Stonehenge was built to be a final resting place for our ancient ancestors.

Fresh analysis of these bones has revealed that they were buried over a 500 year period between 3,100BC and 2,600BC.

Full story in The Sun 

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Travel blogger Teri Didjurgis joined us on our small group  Autumn Equinox tour and here is her story:

How to legally go inside Stonehenge Circle

Though some say Stonehenge is overrated, I found a way to visit the iconic site in a unique way to get a glimpse of the past.

Sunrise at Stonehenge

On one of my trips to London, I was looking for something new to see on the weekend and realized that I had missed the iconic Stonehenge.  Several friends told me to skip it, since you can only view it from a distance behind a rope barrier and called the site “overrated”.  However, it’s one many of the Wonders of the World list, so I went ahead and began some research and quickly realized that we would be there on the Autumnal Equinox. BINGO!

So.. what was special about this is that English Heritage which manages this site, allows “Managed Open Access” on 4 days per year (solstices & equinoxes) for the Druid ceremonies. When Stonehenge was first opened to the public, it was possible to walk among the stones – even climb on them.  By 1977, there was serious erosion and the stones were roped off and viewing was only available for a distance. Apparently about a dozen years ago, there would be violent clashes as the Druids felt it their Pagan right to celebrate the equinoxes in the roped off circle. But this has all been ironed out and the ceremonies now occur 4 times per year inside the circle and are rather peaceful.

Our small group decided to take an organized tour. We had a busy week in London and did not have time or the desire to rent a car (and drive on the other side of the road) to get out to Stonehenge by 6am ish for the Sunrise and trains would be tricky with the early start time.  Our tour bus picked us up at an exhausting 4am outside our hotel, so we all slept on the way there.

Druids on the frosty grass at Stonehenge

As we arrived at Stonehenge in the dark and fog, we were escorted inside the gates and walked directly to the stones. There were about 1,000 people there, many of them Druids in their Pagan dress gathering for the Sunrise.

The early morning fog on the fields in England.

Fog on the frosty fields at Stonehenge

A quick history

Stonehenge monument was built in 3,000 to 2,000 BC. It is made up of the remains of a prehistoric ring of standing stones in the middle of a dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze age monuments, including burial mounds.

There are still numerous documentaries and it seems like new discoveries every year detailing who built it, how and why.  What can be said is that our ancestors thousands of years ago needed a way to measure time to control many of their human activities such as the mating of animals, the sowing of crops and the metering of winter reserves between harvests.  So to start, Stonehenge is a big watch marking the movement of the sun and the 4 seasons. Stonehenge is carefully aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset (opposed to New Grange, which points to the winter solstice sunrise, and the Goseck circle, which is aligned to both the sunset and sunrise).

  • On the first day of spring (the vernal equinox – March 21), and the first day of fall (the autumnal equinox – September 21) the sun will rise directly east and set directly west.
  • On the first day of summer (the summer solstice – June 21), the sun will rise directly over the Heel Stone.
  • On the first day of winter (the winter solstice – December 21), the sun will set directly opposite the Heel Stone.
  • The dates are sometimes 1 day off due to our human calendar

It is thought that the Winter Solstice was actually more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the Summer Solstice. The Winter Solstice was a time when most cattle were slaughtered (so they would not have to be fed during the winter) and the majority of wine and beer was finally fermented.   The Winter solstice is also considered the turning of the year from decreasing daylight to increasing daylight.

Stonehenge before sunrise

Each year, thousands of visitors come to Stonehenge on the equinoxes. Britain has over 100,000 practicing pagans. The Winter and Summer solstice celebrations are larger with up to 20,000 people. The Autumn one that we attended had a few hundred people.

Sunrise at Stonehenge

As we entered Stonehenge, a circle of people had formed within the circle including tourists & Druids. Senior Druid King Arthur Pendragon lead the ceremony. We did not stay for the entire ceremony, but they basically blessed everything, were thankful for everything and prayed for any conflict to be resolved.  Good enough for me – I can support that!

Sunrise at Stonehenge

Sunrise ceremony for the Autumnal Equinox with the Druids at Stonehenge

We wandered from the periphery of the ceremony & walked outside the circle of stone to get a view from all angles.

Sunrise at Stonehenge

I saw a photographer with tripod out in the distance. As I approached I said, “You look like you know the good angles for the Stonhenge sunrise”.  He replied in a heavy British accent “If I bloody well knew what I was doing I wouldn’t have drug myself out of bed when everyone’s dancing on the stones”. We had a good chuckle!

As the sun emerged above the horizon, rays of sun burst through the different “windows” of Stonehenge. The entire field was silent in appreciation for the beautiful sight.

Sunrise at Stonehenge

Sunrise at Stonehenge

After the sun rises, King Arthur then goes down to the heel stone and performs “handfasting” ceremonies –  the pagan equivalent of weddings. Husband and wife vow that they will stay together “for a year and a day, eternity and beyond or for however long love will last”.

Handfasting Ceremony at Stonehenge

Handfasting Ceremony at Stonehenge

Beyond that tourists meandered. The Druids stood guard on their stones. And some hangers on took it as a chance to run around barefoot in Tigger costumes and wildly dance in the dew fields. Interesting characters & people watching if nothing else.  The site has several guards keeping people off the stones and managing any non-welcome extracurricular activities, so it was all rather safe.  One of my favorite pictures of the day… the interesting characters hugging the rock – ROCK HUGGERS.

The stones were loved in a big HUG.

Guardians staking their spot for sunrise at Stonehenge

Druids welcoming the sun at Stonehenge

Lots of characters at Stonehenge including Tigger.

Last thoughts

Stonehenge - Check the Bucket List

I always try to experience sites in some context of its actual history be it a ceremony or reenactment as it puts context to the site and helps you better understand its place in history.

I think sunrises and sunsets are magical every day, but seeing them at this site which celebrates the suns passing was special.  I thought back to people who depended on these events to ensure their survival and we today are so lucky to just be able to celebrate the beauty.

Different people had different purposes for being there be it Druid, Traveler, Tourist, Photographer etc, but in the moment the sun rose and the crowd became silent, the brightening sky coming across the stones was the moment.

Sunrise at Stonehenge

Stonehenge

Tips & Information

  • English Heritage: Click here
  • English Heritage Teacher Resources:  Click Here
  • Stonehenge was a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 and is legally protected as a scheduled ancient monument.
  • Dress for warmth & damp weather for the English countryside…. it was cold. September 21 in London is rather pleasant wearing a light jacket thanks to the warmth of the concrete buildings greenhouse effect. Out in the countryside, it is a lot more chilly. I thankfully always carry gloves and a beanie in my Mary Poppins bag and dug them out quickly. The grass had a light dewy frost also that went right through our shoes, so I would recommend something waterproof.  And when all else fails, where your bear rug (See Below)
  • The snack bar opened by the time we were getting ready to leave. They have some very good & hot chocolate to warm up!

Some visitors kept warm with pirate hats and bear coats

You can read the full story on the BluSkyTraveler  Blog:
How to legally go inside Stonehenge Circle

Experience for yourself our Stonehenge Equinox or Solstice Tours and remember to book in advance as these small group tours are very popular.

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