- Education and Science
The Mystery of Stonehenge
In the green, sloping fields of Salisbury Plain rests an unusual, circular form made up of massive, heavy stones whose tremendous history goes all the way back to about 3000 B.C.[i] This mysterious structure goes by the name of Stonehenge, and its true purpose has forever eluded historians, leaving only room for speculation. From its creation to its function, Stonehenge’s many stories are dark, magical, and scientific, covering a vast amount of different viewpoints from various kinds of people. So which historical explanation of Stonehenge’s intended use is correct? Looking at the facts and alleged myths, Stonehenge seems to have been built for purposes surrounding religion and beliefs.
The reason behind the creation of Stonehenge is long forgotten, as there are no written records; however, recent years have uncovered many revelations in regards to the structure’s history. Up until present times, there has been what some might call silly speculation as to how and why Stonehenge came to be. One British historian of the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth, tells that Stonehenge was a noble monument that was taken from the “island of the Giants” by the magic of Merlin for 460 British lords that were murdered by the Saxons[ii]. According to Geoffrey’s stories, Stonehenge would have been built around 485 A.D., something historians know to be completely false based on modern scientific technology[iii]. Another origination of Stonehenge was placed with the Druids, the priests of ancient Briton, who allegedly made human sacrifices at the site and gave Stonehenge an aura of darkness. It seems to be a logical conclusion, since Stonehenge was believed to be an ancient British temple[iv], yet today, it is believed the Druids didn’t arrive in Britain until the fifth century B.C.[v], quite a while after Stonehenge was built, making it unlikely that the Druids were the founders of the circle of stones. These myths have given Stonehenge abewildering and supernatural persona, allowing imaginations to soar. In spite of the magic said to be felt at its location, Stonehenge holds other amazing qualities that have recently been uncovered, astonishing scientific minds and giving other supposed purposes of Stonehenge real credence.
Since 2003, Dr. Michael Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield has been excavating Stonehenge and the surrounding areas and has revealed new evidence that suggests Stonehenge was a site built for the ancestors of an ancient and surprisingly advanced community. Approximately 250 cremated bodies have been unearthed, and new technology in radio-carbon dating has allowed archaeologists to give an estimated duration of about 500 years throughout which these bodies were buried[vi]. Dr. Parker Pearson and his associates are leaning toward the idea that this burial site was of a royal function, as a mace, a symbol of authority, was found in one of the graves[vii]. In addition, the relatively small number of people buried there over the centuries suggests that only a select few were honored with a burial at Stonehenge, leaving archaeologists to believe that all the people laid to rest were members of a “single elite family[viii].” What authority did these people have and over whom did they reign? The answer to this question ultimately leads to the solution to the most elusive issue: who built Stonehenge?
The great debate over who created Stonehenge may finally be over, thanks again to Dr. Parker Pearson and his diligent team. As mentioned, there are various theories from the magic of Merlin and the notoriously dark Druids to the Celts, Gauls, and even Egyptians[ix]. Despite all these assumptions and speculation, the most probable architects were ancient Britons. The evidence to support this theory lies with the newly discovered foundations at Durrington Walls, three kilometers north of Stonehenge, consisting of ‘hundreds or even thousands of small dwellings[x].’ Found within this ancient settlement was evidence of living and celebration such as pottery and food bones from domestic pigs, suggesting the inhabitants boasted great feasts. What were they celebrating? Dr. Parker Pearson believes ancient Britons inhabited this village during the winter and summer solstices, and like many cultures, had reason to celebrate during the longest and shortest days of the year. So where is Stonehenge in this theory? The structure may have a counterpart, and both monuments may have played a valuable role in the ancient Briton’s festivities.
Outside Durrington Walls, the largest henge monument in Britain, lies what is known as Woodhenge[xi]. This structure’s layout is extraordinarily similar to that of Stonehenge, making it impossible not to assume that the two monuments are related in some way. Dr. Parker Pearson believes that each formation represents the two basic elements of the life of a human: life itself and death. Wood, being from an organic life form, made up Woodhenge, whose structure and surrounding area made up the domain of the living. Stonehenge, being made of nonliving stone, was a place for the dead or ancestors[xii]. Representing two very opposite sides of the human experience, these two constructions were connected through ceremony performed and celebrated by the people who allegedly built them.
As mentioned, it is assumed that the villages occupying the landscape surrounding Stonehenge were only used during the winter and summer solstices. Why is this significant? According to Dr. Parker Pearson’s studies, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, was used to celebrate life. On that day, people met at Stonehenge before sunrise and waited to see the orange-red light shine through what is known today as the Heel Stone, a structure within Stonehenge that is perfectly aligned with the rising midsummer sun[xiii]. After the anticipated light finally emerges, Dr. Parker Pearson paints a picture of the people walking along the river Avon to Woodhenge, where they will see the sun set. Once the people reach Woodhenge, it is believed they reveled in the miracle of life, feasting excessively, dancing, and exercising fertility rites. It was a celebration for the living, thanking the gods for their health and fertile crops and blessing the sun and its nourishment[xiv].
On the other hand, the winter solstice was a day to mourn and commemorate the dead. It began with the rising sun at Woodhenge, and as is the case with the summer solstice, the people walked the river from the area of life to the land of the dead, only this time, Dr. Parker Pearson assumes that the ashes of non-royal members of the community are scattered in the water to be carried to the land of their predecessors. Once they reach Stonehenge, the sun sets over the domain of the ancestors who receive prayers and acknowledgement[xv].
Of all the suppositions surrounding Stonehenge, Dr. Parker Pearson’s theory seems to provide the most physical evidence with which he combines with the history of human nature to give us a real sense of the events that occurred on this mysterious and ancient site. Many cultures have revolved their existence around life, death, and the seasons, such as the Egyptians who spent their lives building great tombs for their dead, and the tribes of the Pacific Northwest of North America who have great celebrations during the solstices to pay tribute to the living and their ancestors. It is not a far leap to assume that the ancient Britons, who are now proven to have occupied the area of Stonehenge, followed this nature in their culture.
Stonehenge itself was a significant mystery to be solved, and the open land expanding around the structure is beginning to give away most of Stonehenge’s secrets. There are those who would dispute Dr. Parker Pearson’s theories, however, the undeniable evidence makes the story he has constructed indisputably plausible. Stonehenge was a challenge to build because of its heavy stones and technological trials in erecting these stones, making it difficult to believe the ancients went through so much trouble to make a calendar or an astrological tool. These people probably thought more spiritually, making every decision and task according to their beliefs in the existence of gods and the presence of their ancestors. The fact that such a massive architectural feat such as Stonehenge was accomplished during a time that was limited in regards to technology makes it impossible not to believe that the people who created it did so not for science, but through their beliefs.
[i] Anthony Johnson, Solving Stonehenge: The New Key to an Ancient Enigma, (London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2008), 16.
[ii] Johnson, 37-38.
[iii] Christopher Chippindale, Stonehenge Complete, (New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2004), 24.
[iv] Chippindale, 84.
[v] Gerald S. Hawkins, Stonehenge Decoded, (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993), 17.
[vi] John Noble Wilford, “Stonehenge Used as Cemetery from the Beginning,” The New York Times, May 30, 2008, Science section.
[vii] “Did Stonehenge Start Out as a Royal Cemetery?,” MSNBC, June 2, 2008, Technology and Science Section, msnbc.com.
[viii] Wilford 2008.
[ix] Marc Kaufman, “An Ancient Settlement is Unearthed Near Stonehenge,” The Washington Post, January 31, 2007, www.washingtonpost.com.
[x] Johnson, 25.
[xi] Johnson, 27.
[xii] Chippendale, 225.
[xiii] Hawkins, 93.
[xiv] Stonehenge Decoded, DVD, Directed by Christopher Spencer, (National Geographic Channel, 2008).
[xv] Stonehenge Decoded, 2008.
Image 1: Stonehenge, 2500 B.C., Salisbury Plain, United Kingdom.
Image 2: Photo of excavations, Salisbury Plain, courtesy of National Geographic.
Image 3: Aerial view of Woodhenge, courtesy of Google Earth.
Image 4: Map of theories of Dr. Parker Pearson, courtesy of National Geographic.
Chippindale, Christopher. Stonehenge Complete.New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2004.
“Did Stonehenge Start Out as a Royal Cemetery?” MSNBC. June 2, 2008. Technology and Science Section. <msnbc.com>.
Hawkins, Gerald S. Stonehenge Decoded. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993.
Johnson, Anthony. Solving Stonehenge: The New Key to an Ancient Enigma. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2008.
Kaufman, Marc. “An Ancient Settlement is Unearthed Near Stonehenge.” The Washington Post. January 31, 2007. <www.washingtonpost.com>.
Stonehenge Decoded. DVD. Directed by Christopher Spencer. National Geographic Channel, 2008.
Wilford, John Noble. “Stonehenge Used as Cemetery from the Beginning.” The New York Times. May 30, 2008. Science section.