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Stonehenge

Stonehenge is a Neolithic and Bronze Age monument located near Amesbury in Wiltshire, England, about 8 miles (13 km) northwest of Salisbury. It is composed of earthworks surrounding a circular setting of large standing stones, known as megaliths. There is some debate about the age of the stone circle, but most archaeologists think that it was mainly constructed between 2500 BC and 2000 BC. The older circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC.

Contents

Overview


The name Stonehenge is derived from the Old English words Stanhen gist meaning the 'hanging stones' and has given its name to a class of monuments known as henges. Archaeologists define henges as earthworks consisting of a circular banked enclosure with an internal ditch. As often happens in archaeological terminology this is a holdover from antiquarian usage and Stonehenge cannot in fact be truly classified as a henge site as its bank is inside its ditch. Despite being contemporary with true Neolithic henges, Stonehenge is in many ways atypical. It is also only distantly related to the other stone circles in the British Isles such as the Ring of Brodgar as for example its extant trilithons make it unique.

The site and its surroundings were added to the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1986. It is also a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The monument itself is owned and managed by English Heritage whilst the surrounding downland is owned by the National Trust.


The Stonehenge complex was built in several construction phases spanning 2,000 years although there is evidence for activity beforehand and long afterwards on the site. Archaeologists have found three large Mesolithic postholes nearby, beneath the modern car-park and dating to around 8000 BC, although there is no suggestion they are connected with the later monument. The burial of a decapitated Saxon man has been excavated at the site and dated to the 7th century AD. Dating and understanding the various phases of activity at Stonehenge is not a simple task; it is complicated by poorly-kept early excavation records, surprisingly few accurate scientific dates and the disturbance of the natural chalk by periglacial effects and animal burrowing. The modern phasing most generally agreed by archaeologists is detailed below. Features mentioned in the text are numbered and shown on the plan, right, which illustrates the site as of AD 2004. The plan omits the trilithon lintels for clarity. Holes that no longer or never contained stones are shown as open circles and stones visible today are shown coloured.

Prehistory

Stonehenge 1

The first monument consisted of a circular bank and ditch enclosure (7 and 8) measuring around 115 m (320 feet) in diameter and with a large entrance to the north east and a smaller one to the south (14). Bones of deer and oxen were placed in the bottom of the ditch. These bones were considerably older than the antler picks used to dig the ditch and had been well looked-after before their burial. This first stage is dated to around 3100 BC. Within the outer edge of the enclosed area was dug a circle of 56 pits (13), known as Aubrey holes after John Aubrey, the seventeenth century antiquarian who was thought to have first identified them. The pits may have contained standing timbers although there is no excavated evidence of them. A small outer bank beyond the ditch may also date to this period (9).

Stonehenge 2

Evidence of the second phase is no longer visible. It appears from the number of postholes dating to this period that some form of timber structure was built within the enclosure during the early 3rd millennium BC. Further timbers were placed at the northeast entrance and a parallel alignment of posts ran inwards from the southern entrance. The bank was purposefully reduced in height and the ditch permitted to silt up. At least twenty-five of the Aubrey Holes are known to have contained later, intrusive, cremation burials dating to the two centuries after the monument's inception. It seems that whatever the holes' initial function, it changed to become a funerary one. Thirty further cremations were placed in the enclosure's ditch and at other points within the monument, mostly in the eastern half. Stonehenge is therefore the earliest known cremation cemetery in the British Isles. Pieces of unburnt human bone have also been found in the ditch. Late Neolithic Grooved ware pottery has been found in connection with features from this phase providing dating evidence.

Stonehenge 3i

Archaeological excavation has indicated that around 2600 BC, two concentric crescents made from holes (called the Q and R Holes) were dug in the centre of the site. Again, there is little firm dating evidence for this phase. The holes held 80 standing bluestones (shown blue on the plan) brought from the Preseli Hills, 250 km away in modern day Pembrokeshire in Wales. The stones, which weighed about four tons, consisted mostly of spotted dolerite but included examples of rhyolite, tuff and volcanic and calcareous ash. What was to become known as the Altar Stone (1), a six ton specimen of green micaceous sandstone twice the height of the bluestones, was also brought from Wales and may have stood as a single large monolith.

The entrance was also widened at this time with the result that it precisely matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset of the period. The monument was abandoned unfinished, the bluestones were apparently removed and the Q and R holes were purposefully backfilled. The monument appears to have eclipsed the site at Avebury in importance towards the end of this phase and the Amesbury Archer, found in 2002 three miles (5 km) to the south, would have seen the site in this state.

The Heel Stone (5) may also have been erected outside the north eastern entrance during this period although it cannot be securely dated and may have been installed at any time in phase 3. At first, a second stone, now no longer visible, joined it. Two, or possibly three, large portal stones were set up just inside the northeastern entrance of which only one, the fallen Slaughter Stone (4), 16 ;ft (4.9 ;m) long, now remains. Other features loosely dated to phase 3 include the four Station Stones (6), two of which stood atop mounds known as 'barrows' although they do not contain burials (2 and 3). The Avenue, (10), a parallel pair of ditches and banks leading 3 km to the River Avon was also added. Ditches were later dug around the Station Stones and the Heel Stone, which was by then reduced to a single monolith.

Stonehenge 3ii

The next major phase of activity at the tail end of the 3rd millennium BC saw 74 enormous Sarsen stones (shown grey on the plan) brought from a quarry around 20 miles (30 km) north to the site on the Marlborough Downs. The stones were dressed and fashioned with mortise and tenon joints before 30 were erected as a 30 ;m diameter circle of standing stones with a 'lintel' of 29 stones resting on top. Each weighed around 25 ;tons and had clearly been worked with the final effect in mind. The orthostats widen slightly towards the top in order that their perspective remains constant as they rise up from the ground whilst the lintel stones curve slightly to continue the circular appearance of the earlier monument.

Within this circle stood five trilithons of dressed sarsen stone arranged in a horseshoe shape. The huge stones, ten uprights and five lintels, weigh up to 50 ;tons each and were again linked using complex jointings. The images of a 'dagger' and 14 'axe-heads' have been seen carved on one of the sarsens, known as stone 53. Further axe-head carvings have been seen on the outer faces of stones known as numbers 3, 4, and 5. They are difficult to date but are morphologically similar to later Bronze Age weapons.

This ambitious phase is radiocarbon dated to between 2440 and 2100 BC.

Stonehenge 3iii

Later in the Bronze Age, the bluestones appear to have been re-erected for the first time although the precise details of this period are still unclear.

Stonehenge 3iv

This phase saw the further rearrangement of the bluestones as they were placed in a circle between the two settings of sarsens and in an oval in the very centre. Some archaeologists argue that some of the bluestones in this period were part of a second group brought from Wales. The Altar Stone may have been moved within the oval. Although this would seem the most impressive phase of work, Stonehenge 3iv was rather shabbily built compared to its immediate predecessors, the newly re-installed bluestones were not at all well founded and began to fall over. This period dates from 2280 to 1930 BC.

Stonehenge 3v

Soon afterwards, part of the northern section of the Phase 3iv Bluestone circle was removed, creating a horseshoe-shaped setting termed the Bluestone Horseshoe. This mirrored the shape of the central sarsen Trilithons and dates from 2270 to 1930 BC. This phase is contemporary with the famous Seahenge site in Norfolk.

Stonehenge 3vi

Two further rings of pits were dug just outside the stone circle, called the Y and Z Holes (11 and 12). These were each of thirty pits but were never filled with stones however and were permitted to silt up over the next few centuries; the upper fills contain Iron Age and Roman material. Monument building at Stonehenge appears to have been abandoned around 1600 BC.

Theories about Stonehenge

Early interpretations

Stonehenge was first described by Nennius in the 9th century, who wrote that it was built as a memorial to 400 nobles who were treacherously slain nearby by Hengist in 472. Many later historians were influenced by supernatural folktales in their explanations

In 1615, Inigo Jones argued that it was a Roman temple, dedicated to Cnelus , a pagan god, and built following the Tuscan order. Later commentators maintained that it was erected by the Danes. Indeed, up until the late nineteenth century, the site was commonly attributed to Saxon or other, relatively later societies.

The first serious effort to understand the monument was made around 1740 by William Stukeley. As was his wont, Stukeley incorrectly attributed the site to the Druids. He contributed measured drawings of the site, which permitted greater analysis of its form and significance. From this work he was able to demonstrate the astronomical or calendrical significance of the stones' placement.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, John Lubbock was able to attribute the site to the Bronze Age based on the bronze objects found in the nearby barrows.

Archaeoastronomy and Stonehenge

The monument is aligned north east - south west and it has been often suggested that particular significance was placed by its builders on the solstice and equinox points so that for example, on midsummer's morning, the sun rose close to the Heel Stone, and the sun's first rays went directly into the centre of the monument between the horseshoe arrangement. It is unlikely that such an alignment can have been merely accidental.

A huge debate was triggered by the 1963 publication of Stonehenge Decoded, by British born astronomer Gerald Hawkins, who claimed to see a large number of alignments, both lunar and solar and argued that Stonehenge could have been used to predict eclipses. Hawkins' book received wide publicity, partly because he used a computer in his calculations, then a rarity. Archeologists were suspicious in the face of further contributions to the debate coming from British astronomer C. A. Newham and Sir Fred Hoyle, the famous Cambridge Cosmologist, as well as by Alexander Thom, a retired professor of engineering who had been studying stone circles for more than 20 years. Their theories have faced criticism in recent decades from Richard Atkinson and others who have suggested impracticalities in the 'Stone Age calculator' interpretative approach.

Today, the consensus is that some of the astronomical case, although not all, was overstated. Even so, since the sun rises in different directions in different geographical latitudes, for the alignment to be correct, it must have been calculated precisely for Stonehenge's latitude of 51 11'. This alignment, therefore, must have been fundamental to the design and placement of at least some of Stonehenge's phases. The recent discovery of a neighbour to the Heel Stone has challenged the interpretation of it as a midsummer sunrise marker and it may have instead been one side of a 'solar corridor' used to frame the sunrise. Sun worship is certainly not an uncommon phenomenon amongst Neolithic peoples given their reliance on it for crop fertility.

As a result, archaeoastronomers have claimed that Stonehenge represents an "ancient observatory," although the extent of its use for that purpose is in dispute. Some have theorized that it represents the female sexual organs (Article from The Observer http://www.observer.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,992215,00.html ), a computer or even an alien landing site.

The bluestones

Roger Mercer has observed that the bluestones are incongruously finely worked and has suggested that they were transferred to Salisbury Plain from an as yet unlocated earlier monument in Pembrokeshire. Most other archaeologists agree that the Bluestones are only roughly worked however compared with the sarsens. If Mercer's theory is correct then the bluestones may have been transplanted to cement an alliance or display superiority over a conquered enemy although this can only be speculation. Oval shaped settings of bluestones similar to those at Stonehenge 3iv are also known at the sites of Bedd Arthur in the Preseli Hills and at Skomer Island off the southwest coast of Pembrokeshire. Some archaeologists have suggested that the igneous bluestones and sedimentary sarsens had some symbolism, of a union between two cultures from different landscapes and therefore from different backgrounds.

Recent analysis of contemporary burials found nearby known as the Boscombe Bowmen, has indicated that at least some of the individuals associated with Stonehenge 3 did indeed come from modern day Wales. Petrological analysis of the stones themselves has verified that they could only have come from the Preseli Hills and it is tempting to connect the two.

Aubrey Burl contends that the bluestones were not transported by human agency at all and were instead brought by glaciers at least part of the way from Wales during the Pleistocene. No geological evidence has been found for any glacial activity between Preseli and Salisbury Plain however and no further specimens of the unusual dolerite stone have been found in the vicinity.

Stonehenge as part of a ritual landscape

Many archaeologists believe Stonehenge was an attempt to render in permanent stone, the more common timber structures that dotted Salisbury Plain at the time such as those that stood at Durrington Walls. Modern anthropological evidence has been used by Mike Parker Pearson and the Madagascan archaeologist Ramilisonina to suggest that timber was associated with the living and stone with the ancestral dead. They have argued that Stonehenge was the terminus of a long, ritualized funerary procession, which began in the east at sunrise at Woodhenge and Durrington Walls, moved down the Avon and then along the Avenue reaching Stonehenge in the west at sunset. The journey from wood to stone via water was a symbolic journey from life to death. There is no satisfactory evidence to suggest that Stonehenge's astronomical alignments were anything more than symbolic and current interpretations favour a ritual role for the monument that takes into account its numerous burials and its presence within a wider landscape of sacred sites.

Construction techniques and design

Much speculation has also surrounded the engineering feats required to build Stonehenge. Assuming that the bluestones were brought from Wales by hand and not transported by glaciers as Aubrey Burl has claimed, various methods of moving them relying only on timber and rope have been suggested. During 2001, in an exercise in experimental archaeology, an attempt was made to transport a large stone along a land and sea route from Wales to Stonehenge. Volunteers pulled it on a wooden sledge over land but once transferred to a replica prehistoric boat, the stone sank in rough seas in the Bristol Channel.

It has been conjectured that timber A frame s were erected to raise the stones and that teams of people hauled them upright using ropes. The topmost stones may have been raised up incrementally on timber platforms and slid into place or pushed up ramps. The carpentry-type joints used on the stones imply a people well-skilled in woodworking and they could easily have had the knowledge to erect the monument using such methods.

Alexander Thom was of the opinion that the site was laid out with the necessary precision using his megalithic yard.

The engraved weapons on the sarsens are unique in megalithic art in the British Isles where more abstract designs were favoured. Similarly the horseshoe arrangements of stones are unusual in a culture that otherwise arranged stones in circles. The axe motif is, however, common to the peoples of Brittany at the time and it has been suggested that at least two stages of Stonehenge were built under continental influence. This would go some way towards explaining the monument's atypical design, but overall, Stonehenge is still inexplicably unusual in the context of any prehistoric European culture.

Estimates of the manpower needed to build the various phases of Stonehenge put the total effort involved at millions of hours work. Stonehenge 1 probably needed around 11,000 hours work, Stonehenge 2 around 360,000 and the various parts of Stonehenge 3 may have involved up to 1.75 million hours work. The working of the stones is estimated to have required around 20 million hours work using the primitive tools available at the time. Certainly, the will to produce such a site must have been strong and it is considered that advanced social organization would have been necessary to build and maintain it.

Excavations at Stonehenge

The first recorded excavations at Stonehenge were carried out by William Cunnington and Richard Colt Hoare. In 1798, Cunnington investigated the pit beneath a recently-fallen trilithon and in 1810, both men dug beneath the fallen Slaughter Stone and concluded that it had once stood up. They may have also excavated one of the Aubrey Holes beneath it. In 1839, one Captain Beamish dug around the Altar Stone and a little later Charles Darwin was granted permission by the Antrobus family who owned Stonehenge to hold a small excavation to test his theories about earthworm activity burying ancient structures. On New Year's Eve 1900, another trilithon fell over and Sir Edmund Antrobus undertook to right it and set it in concrete. Following public pressure and a letter to The Times by William Flinders Petrie, he agreed to re-erect the stones under archaeological supervision so that records could be made of the below ground archaeology. Antrobus appointed a mining engineer William Gowland to manage the job who despite having no previous archaeological experience produced some of the finest, most detailed excavation records ever made at the monument. Gowland established that antler picks had been used to dig the stone holes and that the stones themselves had been worked to shape on site.

The largest excavation at Stonehenge was undertaken by Colonel William Hawley and his assistant Robert Newall after the site had come into state hands. Their work began in 1919, funded by the Office of Works, and continued until 1926. The two men excavated portions of most of the features at Stonehenge and were the first to establish that it was a multi-phase site.

In 1950 the Society of Antiquaries commissioned Richard Atkinson, Stuart Piggott and Marcus Stone to carry out further excavations. They recovered many cremations and developed the phasing that still dominates much of what is written about Stonehenge.

In 1979 and 1980 Mike Pitts led two smaller investigations as part of service trenching, close by the heelstone, finding the evidence for its neighbour. More recent excavations have been held to mitigate the effects of electrical cables, sewage pipes, and a footpath through the site

Recent history

By the beginning of the 20th century many of the bluestones were leaning precariously, probably due to the increase in curious visitors clambering on them during the nineteenth century. Additionally two of the trilithons had fallen over during the modern era. Three phases of conservation work were undertaken which righted unstable or fallen stones and carefully replaced them in their original positions using information from antiquarian drawings. If nothing else, this means that Stonehenge is not quite as timeless as its tourist publicity would suggest and that as with most historic monuments, conservation work has been undertaken.

Stonehenge remains a place of pilgrimage for neo-druids and those following pagan or neo-pagan beliefs. It was the site of the Stonehenge free festival held between 1972 and 1984, and loosely organized by the Politantric Circle. However, in 1985 the festival was banned by the British government. A consequence of this was the violent confrontation between the police and new age travellers that became known as the Battle of the Beanfield. There was then no access for almost fifteen years until Roundtable Access was negotiated.

In more recent years, the setting of the monument has been affected by the proximity of the A303 road between Amesbury and Winterbourne Stoke, and the A344 . Projects for moving the road or placing it in a tunnel under the site have been proposed in the past, but these have often been opposed as they are either too expensive or too destructive. In early 2003 the Department for Transport announced that the A303 would be upgraded, including the construction of the Stonehenge road tunnel. The plans are still controversial and the government has not yet finalized the plans.

Also announced is a new heritage centre, which should be open in 2006. Current provision for visitors is universally disliked and has been called 'a national disgrace'.

By 2008, the new road schemes should be completed and the old roads closed.

Stonehenge at sunset
Enlarge
Stonehenge at sunset

Myths and legends

The Heel Stone was once known as the Friar's Heel. A folk tale, which cannot be dated earlier than the seventeenth century, relates the origin of the name of this stone: The Devil bought the stones from a woman in Ireland, wrapped them up, and brought them to Salisbury plain. One of the stones fell into the Avon, the rest were carried to the plain. The Devil then cried out, "No-one will ever find out how these stones came here." A friar replied, "That's what you think!," whereupon the devil threw one of the stones at him and struck him on the heel. The stone stuck in the ground, and is still there.

the heel stone
the heel stone

Some claim "Friar's Heel" is a corruption of "Freya's He-ol" or "Freya Sul", from the Germanic goddess Freya and (allegedly) the Welsh words for "way" and "sun day" respectively.

Stonehenge is associated with Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth said that Merlin directed its removal from Ireland, where it had been constructed on Mount Killaraus by Giants who brought the stones from Africa. After it had been rebuilt near Amesbury, Geoffrey further narrates how first Ambrosius Aurelianus, then Uther Pendragon, and finally Constantine III, were buried inside the ring of stones. In many places in his Historia Regum Britanniae Geoffrey mixes British legend and his own imagination; it is intriguing that he connects Ambrosius Aurelianus with this prehistoric monument, seeing how there is place-name evidence to connect Ambrosius with nearby Amesbury.

Quotations about Stonehenge

  • Much of what has been written about Stonehenge is derivative, second-rate or plain wrong. Christopher Chippindale
  • Every generation gets the Stonehenge it deserves - and desires. Jacquetta Hawkes
  • Stonehenge, neither for disposition nor ornament, has anything admirable. - Edmund Burke

Replicas and derivative names

There is a full-size replica of Stonehenge as it would have been before decay at Maryhill in Washington State, built by Sam Hill as a war memorial. It is even aligned to the midsummer sunrise, but to the true position of the sun at the virtual horizon, rather than the apparent position of the sun at the actual landscape horizon.

Another memorable replica of Stonehenge features in the movie This is Spinal Tap.

A car-henge has been constructed exclusively of cars near Alliance, Nebraska by the artist Jim Reynolds in 2000. A full-size Strawhenge has been constructed in Kemnath, Bavaria, Germany in 2003 from 350 bales of straw. There is another replica, called Stonehenge II, on FM 1340 west of Hunt, Texas , USA. The grid reference is 3004.428'N,9921.530'W.

America's Stonehenge is an unusual and controversial site in the United States of America whilst Strohhenge http://www.strohhenge.de is a German music festival.

In November 2004, a 7 m diameter circle of postholes was found in Russia and publicized as the Russian Stonehenge.

A nearby henge containing concentric rings of postholes, discovered in 1922, was named Woodhenge because of similarities with Stonehenge.

Reference

  • John North, Stonehenge: Ritual Origins and Astronomy (HarperCollins, 1997)
  • Chr. Chippindale et al., Who owns Stonehenge? (London, Batsford 1990)
  • Aubrey Burl, Prehistoric Stone Circles (Shire 2001)
  • Cleal, Walker, & Montague, Stonehenge in its Landscape (London, English Heritage 1995)
  • Mike Pitts, Hengeworld (London, Arrow 2001)

External Links

  • English Heritage guide to Stonehenge http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/stonehenge
  • About Stonehenge http://www.aboutstonehenge.info/
  • The Stonehenge Project http://www.thestonehengeproject.org
  • Stones of England http://www.stonepages.com/england/england.html
  • The Stonehenge Organization http://www.stonehenge.org.uk
  • Information and images of Stonehenge at the Modern Antiquarian website http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/458
  • Supposed astronomical alignments at the monument http://www.tivas.org.uk/stonehenge/stone_ast.html
  • Stonehenge Laser Scans http://www.stonehengelaserscan.org/
  • Witcombe.sbc.edu's Earth Mysteries http://witcombe.sbc.edu/earthmysteries
  • Map http://streetmap.co.uk/newmap.srf?x=411500&y=142500&z=3&sv=411500,142500&st=4&ar
    =N&mapp=newmap.srf&searchp=newsearch.srf&dn=521




Last updated: 02-07-2005 06:45:21
Last updated: 02-28-2005 02:13:09