Stonehenge is one of prehistory’s engineering marvels. Many of us picture it as a ruined circle of stone, associated with druids, all kinds of astronomical observations, and maybe even magic. Unfortunately, most of that image is probably inaccurate. Fortunately, though, there is plenty of evidence that Stonehenge was both important and impressive.
One of the major things I found in my research (which I enjoyed so much that I decided to split it into two posts!) is that there’s relatively little that’s known for sure about Stonehenge. This makes sense once we remember that its building and all relevant activity at the site was prehistoric, with no written records to bear witness to details. Not only that, the earliest excavations were pretty unscientific by our standards and added to the archaeological confusion around the site, making it very hard to date the various features using carbon dating.
Basically, almost everything seems to have a “we think” or “our best guess is that” tacked onto it, which is how science usually works. It’s a change from the way most short articles will talk about it, though, since even the least sensationalized journalism wrestles with the temptation to present clear facts.
With all that in mind, let’s look at some of the most basic questions about Stonehenge and appreciate how much we may never know!
Where? This one seems like it should be easy, but there are multiple answers. The circle itself is on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. However, the stone came from a few different places.
The tall bluestones that form the internal ring of standing stones are generally agreed to have come from Wales—specifically the Preseli Mountains, which are about 140 miles from Stonehenge. The larger sarsens and their lintel stones come from either a nearby deposit or a quarry about 25 miles away. Neither of these is a trivial distance to transport several-ton blocks of stone, which is one of the things that make Stonehenge so impressive and mysterious even today.
When? Actually, there was a circular site of some significance at Stonehenge for centuries before the stone ever made it there. Initially it was Dirthenge (just my name for it; the literature calls it Stonehenge 1), with circular earthworks marking the spot around 3100 BC.
Then it had a stint as Timberhenge (or Stonehenge 2; not to be confused with Woodhenge, which is another site a few miles away) around 2900-2600 BC.
Finally, around 2400 BC, they got some stones set up. That process continued for the next several centuries, in stages labeled Stonehenge 3 I-V. This probably involved both bringing in new stones and moving around the ones that were already there, since there’s evidence that the bluestones weren’t always in their final spots.
Who? This is another tough one, but we can say with pretty high confidence that it wasn’t druids or aliens. Druids were only around starting in the last few centuries BC, and while we can’t prove it wasn’t aliens, there’s no sign of any nonhuman remains or artifacts at Stonehenge or any of the nearby linked sites.
The druid myth was bolstered by historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, who linked the building of Stonehenge to the famous (and certainly at least semi-mythical) Merlin. This might hold water if Stonehenge had been built in the first millennium AD, as some scholars used to think, but as it is, Merlin would have to be a smidge more immortal than we currently think is likely.
How? This is the question that keeps archaeologists and engineers awake at night. Given that it seems the builders didn’t have access to newfangled wheel technology, how did they get 82 bluestones from Wales all the way to Salisbury Plain? It may be tempting to conclude that there must have been some aliens kicking around who decided to grace us with their help, but let’s not write off human ability too soon.
There are plenty of theories about how Stonehenge got its stones, starting with the least work-intensive one, which suggests that glacial movements may have moved the stones at least part of the way. Beyond that, there are multiple ideas of how a wheel-less society could have moved a bunch of five-ton stones more than a hundred miles, some of which have been tested by modern experiments.
I’ll leave more detail on this for my next post, since despite the mysteries, the construction is the best-understood aspect of Stonehenge. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot of interesting stuff, as you’d expect for a multi-stage, centuries-spanning monument.
Why? This is really impossible to answer for sure, since we don’t have time travel yet. There are a lot of burial remains showing that Stonehenge served as a burial ground, first with simple graves in the earth and later as the first known crematorium in the British Isles. Some scholars argue that Stonehenge was also a place of healing, based partly on an ancient Greek description of a northern island that boasted a spherical temple dedicated to Apollo, the god of medicine. This isn’t exactly a mainstream theory, but it hasn’t been ruled out.
Stonehenge has been hailed by some as an astronomical guide or even calculator since 1720, when William Stukeley noted the northeast entrance’s alignment with the summer solstice sunrise and winter solstice sunset. Gerald Hawkins in particular claimed in 1963 that with the help of computer analysis, he had found dozens of cases where Stonehenge’s features aligned with lunar and solar astronomical events, which gave rise to the theory that it was a sort of astronomical calendar.
This complex astronomical interpretation has gotten a lot of criticism, since it involved some serious leeway in angle measurements. There’s just not enough evidence to show that those alignments are meaningful or deliberate. Really, most scholars think that the main focus was probably the winter solstice at sunset.
How do they come to that conclusion? This was my favorite thing about researching Stonehenge—seeing not only how much we don’t know, but also the clever ways scientists and historians have gathered the information we do have. For instance, one strong piece of evidence in favor of Stonehenge’s winter solstice role is that the other similar sites found in Britain are linked to the winter solstice, suggesting it was associated with such monuments in the culture.
Another sign of winter use is the remains of animal sacrifices, which have been analyzed to determine their ages at time of death. Based on normal patterns for calving and other animal births during the year, the ages of the animals point to deaths at the winter solstice.
This evidence may lend credibility to one current theory, that Stonehenge was associated with death. There are centuries and possibly millennia of burial remains at the site, and evidence from other early megalithic structures around the world suggests that stone as a symbol of death was a popular theme. This has led to the argument that Stonehenge was the last stop in a winter solstice processional rite, which may have begun at sunrise at Woodhenge (wood representing life) and continued down the river to end at Stonehenge at sunset, symbolizing the journey from life to death.
We may never have sure answers to a lot of our questions about Stonehenge, but what we do know so far is enough to confirm that it’s worth studying. It’s really a shame that there are so many exaggerations and debunked ideas still out there, because the truth is just as cool in its own way. Stonehenge isn’t just one ancient monument, but a whole stack of them, an incredibly rich site that gives us a look at early culture in the British Isles.
Come back on Monday to learn about the engineering and construction of Stonehenge!