Stonehenge – its name is perhaps as famous as that of the pyramids at Giza or St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; but it is a simple, unadorned structure built of about 162 stones, and it stretches a mere 35 paces across. You feel less of the overwhelming sense of divine power and human insignificance that envelops you when you pause at the foot of the massive pyramids or Teotihuacan in Mexico, of under the soaring dome of St. Paul’s Cathedra in London.
There is nothing very special about the location of Stonehenge. The huddle of weathered stones sat dark against the stunted dry grass of Salisbury Plain’s rolling downlands, not in an amphitheater or spectacular hills, but near the top of a gentle slope. In the quiet of evening, the confusion of stones took on a deeper, more evocative meaning.
The name Stonehenge is of Saxon origin, a combination of the words “stone” and “henge” or “hang,” a place of hanging stones, so called for the famous stone uprights with lintels that give the site its unique character. There are more than 600 prehistoric stone circles in the British Isles. None of them are as elaborate or were as carefully built as Stonehenge.
The exterior structure – the portion most familiar to us – is called the sarsen circle, so named because the uprights and their lintels are of sarsen, a durable sandstone. Within it is a circle of bluestones, named for their color. Inside this is a horseshoe of sarsens, and then a smaller horseshoe of bluestones. The so-called Altar Stone lies toward the rear of the inner horseshoe.
The unique, primordial monument stands 330 feet above sea level in the heart of what archaeologists call prehistoric Wessex, a landscape of chalk grassland that was ideal for raising cattle and sheep and for growing cereal grains. It was here that powerful Bronze Age chieftains once reigned. The earthen burial mounds of these agricultural people stand out high on the windy ridges near Stonehenge.
Unlike Easter Island, Great Zimbabwe, and Palenque, which have been studied only since the 19th century. Stonehenge has been the subject of scholarly curiosity for more than 800 years. “Stanenges, where stones of wonderful size have been erected after the manner of doorways,” Archdeacon Henry of Huntingdon wrote about 1130 in a history of England commissioned by his bishop. “No one can conceive how such great stones have been so raised aloft, or why they were built there.”
Who built Stonehenge? Asked the archdeacon and many after him. What was it used for, and what rites, if any, took place there? Had Danes, Romans, or Saxons erected the stones, or were they the work of mythical giants? No one believed that the “savage and barbarous” ancient Britons were responsible. Their priests, the Druids, according to descriptions in the Roman classics, worshipped in groves of trees, not among massive stones. Yet it was the Druids who would later become intimately associated with Stonehenge.
Two charming and slightly eccentric antiquaries first linked the Druids with Stonehenge. The first was the garrulous and energetic John Aubrey, who drew a hasty plan of the monument in 1666 and described it as a temple of “Priests of the most eminent Order, viz, Druids.” Half a century later, Dr. William Stukeley spent the better part of four summers putting together “a most accurate description,” with “nice plans and perspectives” of the site. He measured, sketched, and climbed a ladder onto one of the trilithon lintels, finding it large enough “for a steady head and nimble heels to dance a minuet on.” He and his company even dined high atop the stones. Stukeley coined the word “trilithon” – from the Greek for “three stories” – that defines these freestanding structures of two uprights and a horizontal lintel.
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The ever enthusiastic Stukeley was one of the first to realize that Stonehenge was part of a much larger prehistoric landscape of burial mounds, sacred avenues, and other features. He even excavated a double burial mound north of Stonehenge, where he found evidence of careful construction and a “rudely wrought” urn full of burned bones “crouded all together in a little hap, not so much as a hat crown would contain.”
William Stukeley had been the first to point out that Stonehenge was oriented on the axis of the midsummer sun. “What can be more probable . . . than that unlettered man in his first worship and reverence, would direct his attention to that glorious luminary the Sun?” he wrote. All the later astronomical theories that surround Stonehenge have been based on Stukeley’s commonsense observation that the midsummer solstice was of cardinal importance to those who erected the great stone monument.
All would have been well if Stukeley had contented himself with publishing his sober observations. He took holy orders in 1729, became obsessed with religious speculation, and transformed himself into an ancient Druid. He undertook to describe “the religion of the Druids and all their Temples,” tracing them back to Noah and the great Flood. The Druids of Stonehenge, wrote Stukeley, were descendants of Abraham and had religious insights such “as should make our moderns asham’d.” John Aubrey had been more severe on these ancient Britons. They were, he wrote, “2 or 3 degrees I suppose lesse salvage than the Americans [American Indians].”
“Stonehenge has never fully recovered from the reverend Stukeley’s vision,” says archaeologist Christopher Chippindale, an expert on the history of the site. At summer solstice, modern-day Druids, acting out their exotic rituals in the heart of Stonehenge, were joined for a decade by an often riotous festival that featured sideshows and rock concerts. In recent years, British police have closed the site on midsummer’s eve. In part because of Stukeley, Stonehenge is now under 24-hour guard, even in the depths of winter.
“How Grand, How Wonderful! How Incomprehensible!” 19th-century antiquary Richard Colt Hoare wrote of the standing stones in 1812. He sponsored digs supervised by another antiquary William Cunnington, in the prehistoric burial mounds near Stonehenge; together they puzzled over the silent stones. These pioneers in the study of prehistoric Wessex excavated ancient barrows and passionately collected “the rude relicks of 2000 years” – some of them now on display at local museums. Prevaialing scientific opinion still attributed Stonehenge to the Druids.
Until local landowner Cecil Chubb gave Stonehenge to the nation in 1918, the site was under siege daily from excursionists and casual visitors of every kind. Royalty inspected the standing stones; artists sketched and painted them; and British army regiments fought make-believe battles nearby. Some precariously balanced stones were propped up with stout timbers. In 1905 the Grand Lodge of the Ancient Order of Druids conducted a mass initiation of 258 novices in the heart of Stonehenge. The Most Noble Grand Arch Brother stood with his ceremonial battle-ax in front of an altar where a mysterious blue fire burned. Each blindfolded initiate swore an oath “as binding as sealing-wax, and twice as lasting.
Meanwhile, the megaliths went unprotected except for a flimsy boundary fence. Only once did an archaeologist excavate at Stonehenge. In 1901, William Gowland supervised the straightening of a leaning trilithon stone. Working with meticulous care, he uncovered broken flint axes and hammer stones that had once been used to trim the great stone. Gowland theorized that the sarsens had been moved on wooden sledges and rollers, then shaped with fire, water, and stone mauls at the site before being raised laboriously into position.
The first large-scale archaeological excavations began in November 1919. The British government commissioned the Society of Antiquaries of London to stabilize the monument. They put the work in the hands of Colonel William Hawley, who stripped away valuable archaeological evidence from the entire southeastern quadrant of the site over the next seven years. Although his excavations were generally a disaster. Howley made a notable discovery: a circle of 56 round pits, which he promptly named after John Aubrey, the 17th-century antiquary who had been the first person to notice these depression in the ground. The Aubrey Holes are straight-sided, flat-bottomed, and spaced at 16-foot intervals inside the bank and ditch that surround the sarsen circle. Some contain the cremation of humans.
In 1923 petrologist H.H. Thomas traced the source of bluestones at Stonehenge to the Preseli Mountains of southwestern Wales, across the Bristol Channel. The boulders, each weighing as much as four tons, had been transported some 200 miles to the site. The most probable route was over land and water, ending with the stones being rafted up the River Avon. It had now become clear that the builders had gone to extraordinary lengths to construct a unique shrine.
After World War II, archaeologists Stuart Piggot, Richard Atkinson, and John Stone went to Stonehenge in a serious attempt to dissect and date its long history. Collectively, they had vast experience in excavating prehistoric burial mounds and ceremonial sites elsewhere in Wessex. They also had a new archaeological technique at their disposal – radiocarbon dating. Combining meticulous digging with careful application of the radiocarbon method, these archaeologists concluded that Stonehenge had first come into being about 2800 BC, before the end of the Neolithic period (Recent tests show this date to be about 3000 BC.) The great monument changed and evolved over hundreds of years, just as medieval cathedrals have been altered and rebuilt again and again by generations of devout worshipers.
In recent years Julian Richards and other scholars have scoured the landscape around Stonehenge, trying to place the shrine in the time line of prehistoric Wessex. The story began about 4000 BC, when farmers with herds of cattle and flocks of sheep first settled in the region. The rounded chalk hills and small river valleys of Wessex were once wooded, but the ancient farmers cleared them for pasture needed by their herds.
The earliest Stonehenge was a cemetery, made up a circle of small pits lying immediately inside the bank – the Aubrey Holes with their cremations. The first Stonehenge was used for several centuries, then abandoned before any of the bluestones or sarsens were erected in the center of the monument.
During this period of abandonment, while Stonehenge remained a relatively unimportant mortuary site, imposing ceremonial monuments were constructed nearby. These included long earthen avenues, stone and timber circles, huge earthen mounds such as Silbury Hill near Avebury, and a series of ceremonial enclosures known to archaeologist as “henge” monuments. The other henges differed sharply from Stonehenge. Invariably, a deep ditch lay inside an encircling bank, enclosing circular settings of stone or timber. At Stonehenge, the bank was on the inside, as if placed there to restrict access to the structures within and to protect them.
Many henges incorporated wood or stone uprights, but none except those at Stonehenge came from far away. No stones erected elsewhere displayed the quality of workmanship and such architectural refinements as shaped or jointed stones or horizontal lintels. And none of the other henges were used an remodeled over many hundreds of years.
By 2000 BC major social and political changes were afoot in Wessex. Before, local villages had been egalitarian communities whose residents were linked through strong kinship ties. Now individual power and wealth became all-important. Mighty chieftains gained sway in the rolling downlands. They were traders and warriors who, in death, were buried under round barrows in finery that included gold and bronze. Their ornaments came from far and wide – magical amber from the Baltic Sea and necklaces of faience beads from central Europe. Weathered carvings of bronze daggers fit for a chief can be seen on the uprights of Stonehenge itself. This was the period of Stonehenge’s glory, of the constant remodeling and reconstruction of a monument set in an increasingly more imposing symbolic landscape.
About 2150 BC the axis of Stonehenge was shifted slightly toward the east to align the entrance with the rising sun at midsummer solstice. This orientation appears to have had a deliberate religious purpose. Around the same time, a ceremonial avenue facing the newly aligned entrance was begun. It consisted of a parallel pair of banks and ditches that ran cross-country for about 500 yards. Some archaeologists believe that inside the enclosure an incomplete double circle of bluestones faced northwest but was removed within a century. Opinion is divided on this. About 82 bluestones would have been needed to build these circles and to flank the entrance.
The greatest period of building activity at Stonehenge followed. Between 2100 and 2000 BC ten great sarsen stones, dragged from the Marlborough Downs about 18 miles to the northeast, were trimmed and set up in a horseshoe formation as uprights for five great trilithons with massive lintels. In addition, 30 smaller, but still huge, uprights delineated an outer circle. Their lintels formed a continuous, level circle 16 feet above the ground. Two uprights were erected at the entrance.
The building of the sarsen circle took many years, for the people power available was never large and the task was enormous. We do not even know if the lintel ring was ever finished. One of the uprights, known to archaeologists as Stone 11, is thinner and narrower than the other sarsens. Perhaps this shows that the supply of massive stones was running out. Or could it be, as amateur astronomer Peter Newham has suggested, that the uprights of the outer circle represent the lunar month of 29-1/2 days, with Stone 11 being deliberately half size? As with so much else at Stonehenge, we are left with impenetrable mysteries.
For the next 900 years or so, successive generations tinkered with Stonehenge, adding an oval structure of bluestones inside the sarsen horseshoe and later setting the stones in new configurations. Between 2000 and 1000 BC, the avenue was extended in piecemeal fashion for another mile and a half, finally reaching the River Avon near the modern town of Amesbury.
The Stonehenge we see today is an amalgam of restless building that continued for some 60 to 70 generations. We do not know when this ancient shrine was finally abandoned. We do know that it was not a Druid temple. Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence whatsoever that Druids worshiped at Stonehenge, for their rituals were more concerned with woods and water than with stone circles.
What, then, was Stonehenge? What prevailed upon Bronze Age farmers with only the most rudimentary of technologies to haul exotic boulders over long distances, to erect in stone a version of the elaborate circles their predecessors had built of wood? Was Stonehenge the center of some long forgotten religious cult? Or was it an astronomical observatory, its great stones aligned with the movements of the sun and other stars, as Astronomer-Royal Sir Norman Lockyer announced in 1906?
Most experts dismissed the observatory notion as ridiculous until the 1960s, when Peter Newham discovered new alignments for the equinoxes and for the moon at Stonehenge. Soon afterward Boston University astronomer Gerald Hawkins used a mainframe computer to plot the stone alignments. He found no fewer than 12 solar and lunar directions that, he calculated, would arise by chance with a probability of less than one in a million. Stonehenge was a “Neolithic computer,” he declared.
Hawkins found alignments in the earliest, simple Stonehenge with its Aubrey Holes, which, he said, were used to predict eclipses of the moon. He also alleged there were less precise alignments in the later sarsen structures. Some controversy arose, since Hawkins, an astronomer, failed to use much of the archaeological evidence.
Newham and Hawkins had certainly shown the different ways in which Stonehenge could have been used to study movements of the sun and moon. But Hawkins assumed that any alignments he identified would be the same as those identified by the original builders. “This approach has pitfalls,” says Christopher Chippindale. “You can, for example, use Stonehenge to calculate the dates of Passover and Easter.”
Retired engineering professor Alexander Thom approached the astronomy of Stonehenge from a very different perspective. He set great store by accurate measurement and spent many years surveying stone circles throughout the British Isles. His figures convinced him that the circle builders had used a standardized unit of measurement, which he called “a megalithic yard” – approximately 2.72 feet. Not only that, but they also built circles in a series of standard shapes and often aligned them with stars or the directions of the lunar and solar cycles. Thom deliberately ignored the greatest stone circle of all, Stonehenge, until he had an unrivaled experience with alignments, circles, and other structures and their settings.
Thom came to Stonehenge in 1973. He began by surveying the entire monument from scratch with absolute precision. He and his team also studied the visible distant horizon, where the builders of Stonehenge might have located natural or artificial sighting points. Thom came up with two startling conclusions. First, when the main sarsen structures were built, Stonehenge was oriented on the half-risen solstice sun. Second, Stonehenge was an astronomical observatory. The stone circles were a central “backsight,” used with no fewer than eight “foresights,” mostly earthworks identified on the horizon around the monument.
If Alexander Thom was right, then Stonehenge surely was a highly sophisticated observatory, peopled by the “wise men, magicians, astronomers, priests, poets, jurists, and engineers with all their families” who, archaeologist Euan MacKie suggested, might have occupied such ceremonial centers. But, warns Richard Atkinson, it is folly to “abolish history, and to people the prehistoric past with ourselves in fancy dress.”
Unfortunately, nearly all of Thom’s “foresight earthworks” have since been shown to be of later date than the stone circle backsight. Despite his detailed measurements and lengthy calculations. Alexander Thom failed to reconcile archaeology and astronomy – to the point that few people now accept the idea that the Stonehenge people were expert astronomers.
Was Stonehenge an observatory? It is certainly a mistake to speak of Stonehenge astronomy in the same breath as that of the Babylonians or of the ancient Maya. No one doubts that Stonehenge was aligned on the axis of the midsummer sun. But the ancient stone circle was not a machine for measuring the sky. Nor were its builders in any way equivalent to professional astronomers. It was a temple that may have reflected the eternal, cyclical movements of the sun, moon, and stars across the heavens, but little else.
Why were such movements important? In many non-Western societies, the locations of the sun, moon, and stars still serve as vital indicators of the passing seasons. The Quechua Indians of highland Peru still observe the positions of the heavenly bodies by aligning them with jagged mountain ridges that stand out against the sky. Perhaps the priests of Stonehenge used their trilithons and simple stone alignments for the same purpose.
One of the enduring fascinations of Stonehenge is that no one knows exactly why it was built. And therein lies one of the great unresolved mysteries of archaeology.
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