Stonehenge: Mystery on the Salisbury Plain

Stonehenge, in many peoples' minds, is the most mysterious place in the world. This set of stones laid out in concentric rings and horseshoe shapes on the empty Salisbury Plain, is, at the age of 4,000 years, one of the oldest, and certainly best preserved, megalithic (ancient stone) structures on Earth. It is a fantastic creation with the larger 25-ton Sarsen (a hard type of sandstone) stones transported from a quarry 18 miles away. Some of these boulders also carry massive lintels connecting them. In ancient times, when all the stones were standing, there was a ring of rock in the sky as well as on the ground.

Who Built It?

Seven Quick Facts
When Built: Earthworks and timber about 3100 B.C., first stones 2600 B.C.
Heaviest Stones: 50 tons
Made of: Sarsen sandstone and Bluestone rock.
Design: Upright stones and earthworks in a series of concentric circles and horseshoe shapes.
Function: Unknown, but researchers suspect it was used for ceremonial and religious purposes.
Built by: An unknown people without a written language.
Other: Designed to be used for astronomical observations including summer solstice.

We know almost nothing about who built Stonehenge and why. A popular theory advanced in the 19th century was that the Druids, a people that existed in Britain before the Roman conquest, had built it as a temple. Modern archaeological techniqueshave dated Stonehenge and we now know that it was completed at least 1,000 years before the Druids came to power. If Druids used Stonehenge for their ceremonies, they got the site secondhand. Despite this, modern Druids have laid claim to Stonehenge. An annual ceremony takes place at the ring of rocks during summer solstice, one of the henge's astronomical alignments.

There is evidence that activity on the Stonehenge site goes as far back as 11,000 years ago. It wasn't until about 3100 BC, though, that a circular bank following the current Stonehenge layout appeared. At the same time pine posts were put into place. Around 2100 BC stones started being erected, at first the smaller bluestones, then the larger sarsens stones. During this period some stones were erected, then later dismantled.

Why did the builders create, dismantle and rebuild this isolated site? It's hard to say. They apparently didn't have a written language and left no records. We can say one thing about Stonehenge based on archaeological digs at the location. There is almost no "trash." A number of pieces of flint, antler picks or axes have been found, but very few items that one would expect to see discarded at a human habitation This leads some archaeologists to conclude that Stonehenge was "sacred ground," like a church. As one scientist put it Stonehenge was a "clearly special place where you didn't drop litter."

Stonehenge around 1500 BC. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 1997)

At about 1500 BC Stonehenge consisted of a circular ditch with a raised bank on the inside. Within the bank was a circle of 30 sarsen stones with lintels creating a raised circle. Today only 17 of those stones still stand and few of the lintels are still in position. Within the ring were five "trilithons" (two massive upright stones supporting a lintel) arranged in a horseshoe. On the open side of the horseshoe, outside the ditch, was the heel stone, some 120 feet from the ring. Once a year on summer solstice (the longest day of the year), the sun will rise in alignment with the heel stone as seen from the center of the ring.

In addition to the sarsen stones there was a less elaborate set of blue stones that scientists believe were transported to the site from Wales, 150 miles away. Some sit in a ring outside the trilithons and the others in a horseshoe within the trilithon horseshoe. There are also four "station stones" set in a rectangle outside the ring. The station stones may have been used to predict the movement of the moon.

Rings of Rock

Perhaps what is strangest about Stonehenge is that it is far from being unique. Though Stonehenge is the most intact and elaborate ring of stones, there are known to be over a thousand remains of stone circles throughout the British Isles and Northern France. Some of them were small, like Keel Cross in County Cork which is just 9 feet in diameter. The largest, Avebury covers over 28 acres and encircles what is now a whole village. Some of the stones at Avebury weighed 60 tons.

A modern summer soltice celebration at Stonehenge. (Photo by Andrew Dunn licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

How did the makers move these massive rocks many miles? In 1136 in his History of the Kings of Britain Geoffrey of Mammoth suggested that the movement of these huge stones was done through the magic of Merlin the wizard. More likely, however, the builders moved them by dragging them on wooden sledges. Before the first one could be moved a road had to be cleared from what was then a thick forest. Not an easy job in itself, especially for a people who probably spent most of their time and energy just fighting for survival. The construction of both Avebury and Stonehenge must have been the work of many generations.

The Corral Theory

Just as fascinating as how the builders constructed the site is the question of why they created it. Archaeologist Clive Waddington has suggested that the earliest henges, simple ditches with surrounding mounds, may have been stock enclosures for cattle. Remains of fence and gates found at the Coupland Henge, which is more than 800 years older than Stonehenge, supports his idea. Waddington thinks that when cattle were moved into the enclosure during certain seasons, rituals were performed. As time went on the circles functional aspect faded away and they became purely religious structures.

Most of the rings were smaller than Avebury and simpler than Stonehenge. While some of them had astronomical alignments built into their design, many did not. This suggests that their use as observatories may have been a secondary function.

A "Place of Healing?"

Professor Geoffrey Wainwright thinks that Stonehenge may have served as a "place of healing." (Photo by Dorieo21 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Another recent suggestion by Professor Tim Darvill of Bournemouth University and Professor Geoffrey Wainwright of the Society of Antiquaries of London is that Stonehenge may have served as a "place of healing." Excavations of graves in the area show that the remains of people buried there display signs of serious disease or injury. Testing also indicates that about half of those people were from outside the Stonehenge area. "People were in a state of distress, if I can put it as politely as that, when they came to the Stonehenge monument," said Darvill. Also puzzling is a large number of chips found that were flaked off the bluestone of the monument. "It could be that people were flaking off pieces of bluestone in order to create little bits to take away… as lucky amulets," said Professor Wainwright. The professors think that the place may have been similar to Lourdes, the French shrine known for its supposed ability to heal the sick. This evidence, however, does not rule out other uses for Stonehenge. "It could have been a temple, even as it was a healing center," Darvill said. "Just as Lourdes, for example, is still a religious center."

Domain of the Dead or British Unification?

The area around Stonehenge has a large number of burials and this has lead Professor Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University to suggest that it is a domain of the dead, while a Neolithic settlement nearby was the corresponding place of the living. More recently, Professor Parker has championed the idea that Stonehenge was built to unify the different peoples of the British island. "There was a growing island-wide culture -- the same styles of houses, pottery and other material forms were used from Orkney to the south coast," says Pearson. "This was very different to the regionalism of previous centuries."

Pearson also points out that a site as big as Stonehenge would have required cooperation among many groups. "Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labor of thousands to move stones from as far away as West Wales, shaping them and erecting them. Just the work itself, requiring everything literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification," he explains.

So was Stonehenge a corral, a religious center, a place of healing, or symbol of British unity? Or was it all of the above? Scientists may never be able to say for sure. As Professor Richard Atkinson of University College, Cardiff, a researcher at Stonehenge, once said, "You have to settle for the fact that there are large areas of the past we cannot find out about..."

Stonehenge at sunset. (Photo by Jeffrey Pfau licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Copyright Lee Krystek 1997, 2012 . All Rights Reserved.