For English people, as monuments go, Stonehenge is one of the most famous. Some people don’t necessarily get the big deal about it – I mean, it is just a bunch of rocks after all – but for others this ancient monument evokes great passion. Not only is it still a place of worship, but recent plans by Highways England to build a tunnel underneath the site has raised huge controversy.
So what exactly is Stonehenge, and why does it make my list of Ancient Wonders?
Stonehenge as seen from above.
Stonehenge is located in Wiltshire, South West England, and is believed to have been started around 5000 years ago. The first structure built on the site was a circular ditch with banks about 100m wide which had two entrances – an early henge monument – built around 3000 BC. It is believed that inside the circle were some timber structures, as well as 56 pits known as Aubrey Holes. The holes may have held timber posts, or potentially more stones, but it is unknown for certain.
From the start, Stonehenge’s purpose seems to have been as a burial ground. Both within the Aubrey Holes and the surrounding ditch, cremations of people were buried. 64 confirmed cremations have been found, and there may have been up to 150 people buried there, which would make it the largest late Neolithic cemetery in the British Isles.
After around 500 years, c. 2500 BC, the stones that we see today were erected in the centre of the circle. A type of stone called sarsens were arranged into an outer circle and inner horseshoe shape, with smaller bluestones placed between them. The bluestones changed position over time, firstly being moved to form a circle with an inner oval, and later to form a horseshoe. During this period the north-eastern entrance was widened, meaning it precisely matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. Around 2300 – 2200 BC an earthwork avenue was built to connect Stonehenge to the nearby river Avon. The avenue also lines up with the sun on the solstices. Between 1800 – 1500 BC one of the last prehistoric additions were made at the site, when two rings were dug around the monument.
Image from English Heritage.
The site has created wonder for hundreds of years. The site became into possession of the state in 1918 when its owner, Cecil Chubb, gave it to the nation. In modern times, attempts to establish the meaning of the site have brought up incredibly important information about Ancient Britons.
Even before Stonehenge was built, postholes have been found dating to around 8000 BC near to the site, beneath the modern tourist car park. Three or four of the posts were placed in an east-west alignment, which may have had ritual significance. There are no such similar known structures in Britain, but similar sites occur in Scandinavia, possibly demonstrating a migration of ideas or people.
In 2013, a group of archaeologists led by Mike Parker Pearson re-excavated more than 50,000 cremated bones belonging to 63 individuals. The bones had been discovered in 1920 excavations, but were considered unimportant and so re-buried. An analysis of the remains showed that there was an almost even spread between men and women, and there were even children too. It has been suggested by Pearson’s team that the bluestones were probably initially used as grave markers, in the same way we use tombstones today.
Archaeologists removing remains from one of the Aubrey Holes.
Many animal bones have been found near to the site, and evidence from the nearby Durrington Walls – thought to be where the builders lived – suggests that up to 4000 people may have gathered at the site during mid-winter and mid-summer celebrations. This lends extra significance to the widening of the entrance to align with the sun during these times of the year. The animals were generally found to have been 9 or 15 months old at the time of their slaughter (having been born in Spring) which leads to this conclusion. Importantly, analysis of some of the animal teeth show that some of the animals had come from as far away as the Scottish Highlands – a distance of over 500 miles.
This helps to confirm that Stonehenge even thousands of years ago held a significance well beyond the local people. People from across Britain were travelling to the site to take part in its creation, rituals and celebrations. The bluestone used at Stonehenge is widely believed to have come from the Preseli Hills in Wales, 150 miles away, a theory that was further supported in 2011 by the discovery of a megalithic bluestone quarry in the same Welsh county of Pembrokeshire. It is not quite known how such large, heavy stones were transported that far, but it is possible they were carried on rows of poles as is known to have occurred in China, Japan, and India.
A depiction of Stonehenge from the mid 1600s in the Atlas van Loon.
At Durrington Walls, a timber circle was constructed between 2600 – 2400 BC, with its own avenue leading to the river Avon. The two avenues joining to the river, as well as evidence of huge fires on the banks of the Avon between the avenues, has led to the belief that there may have been a procession on the longest and shortest days of the year. It is already known there were huge celebrations during those times of the year, and the solstices could have been the peak of the festivities. Pearson, who excavated the remains in 2013, has suggested that the wooden circle at Durrington Walls could represent the centre of the ‘land of the living’, being built on a site where people had lived and worked for centuries, whilst Stonehenge being a burial ground represented the ‘land of the dead’. He suggests that the procession was a ritualistic journey from the land of the living, down the avenues and the river Avon, to the land of the dead. In this way, the procession could have had a similar intention to the modern Day of the Dead, a way to celebrate and remember the dead.
It is not known exactly when people stopped using Stonehenge, but the last useage was probably during the Iron Age. There are Roman coins and medieval artefacts in or around the monument, and some recent excavations have led to the suggestion that the site continued to hold ritual importance for Romano-British people. However, use of the site was probably minimal from the medieval period onwards – although from the fourteenth century onwards there are numerous references to and drawings of the monument.
Due to the nature of the society that created and used Stonehenge for millennia, we can only speculate at the significance of the site for a neolithic audience. The alignment of the sun cannot be coincidence, though the significance of the position of the sun to the monument for the people we will probably never know. The alignment, and the monument’s position in open ground has also led to the suggestion of the site’s use as an astronomical observatory, though obviously it was of religious significance as demonstrated by the burials there.
A map showing the location of Stonehenge, Durrington Walls, the two avenues and the River Avon, demonstrating the possible ritual procession route.
It is known that people travelled far and wide to build and use Stonehenge, from the stones brought from Wales to the animals from Scotland being slaughtered. But even those buried were not purely local. Remains from 2300 BC suggest the individual grew up near the alpine foothills of Germany, whilst another set from 1550 BC was raised near the Mediterranean Sea.
It has also been suggested that Stonehenge represents peace and unity – at the time of its construction, British Neolithic people were becoming more culturally unified, and so the coming together of people from across the landmass to build one monument may have symbolised an attempt to unite across other aspects of life.
There has also been theories that Stonehenge was a place of healing, on an equivalent of Lourdes today. Some of the stones, when hit, release a “loud clanging noise”, and it is known that in certain ancient cultures stones that cause ringing were believed to contain healing powers. This could be the reason that the bluestones were brought from so far away for the monument, as they were believed to be of mystical or religious significance. The idea of Stonehenge being a place of healing is not, in fact, a new one. In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth included the story of the creation of Stonehenge in his Historia Regum Britanniae. In this, the rocks had been brought from Africa to Ireland by Giants because of their healing properties. A fifth-century king, Aurelius Ambrosius, wanted to build a memorial to 3,000 of his slain nobles after a battle with the Saxons. Upon the advice of the wizard Merlin, Stonehenge was decided, and Uther Pendragon – who was King Arthur’s father – along with 15,000 knights brought the stones over from Ireland for the task.
A giant helps Merlin build Stonehenge. From a manuscript of the Roman de Brut by Wace in the British Library (Egerton 3028). Dating back to the second quarter of the 14th century, this is the oldest known depiction of Stonehenge.
Whilst we will never truly know the reason for the construction of such an impressive monument by people with little technology who were separated by hundreds of miles, it is likely that there is a little bit of truth in all of the theories. No one believes that Stonehenge had one singular purpose; indeed, as its own construction took place over 1500 years it would be impossible for its purpose to stay static over time. It was clearly one of great significance, with the many burials, the feasts and celebrations all suggesting great religious or spiritual importance. People may have come to be healed, either through belief in the power of the stones, or the power of the spirits of the dead, and its astrological alignment may have given it use in predicting celestial events such as eclipses.
Today, Stonehenge is still used in some capacity as a religious site. In 1905, the Ancient Order of Druids performed a mass initiation ceremony, and use of the site continued until use of the site was stopped for several years after the Battle of the Beanfield. This was a clash between police and a convoy of New Age travellers who wished to set up the annual Stonehenge Free Festival. Since then, ritual use of Stonehenge is heavily restricted. However, during the summer and winter solstice, and the spring and autumn equinox, access to the monument is permitted, with many Druids in attendance.
Worshipers during the summer solstice of 2011.
In the twenty-first century, the handling of the site has attracted widespread criticism. There are two main roads – the A344 and A303 – that run in close proximity to the site, and in 2006 a National Geographic survey listed Stonehenge in “moderate trouble” due to its conditions. The site was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, and the increase of traffic on the two A roads in recent years coupled with its UNESCO status has resulted in plans to upgrade the roads to restore the site. However, this has not been met without resistance. In 2007 it was announced that there were plans to build a tunnel underneath the landscape, to remove the sight of the road and restore the above-ground landscape. Alongside this, there were plans proposed for a new visitor centre. In 2009 the government gave approval for a £25 million scheme for the visitors’ centre and the closure of the A344, and the plans were approved in 2010 by Wiltshire Council, along with support from English Heritage who currently manages the site.
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However, whilst the new centre opened in 2013, the tunnel has not yet been built. As recently as January this year, the British Government approved plans to improve the A303, aiming to invest £2 billion on the renovation. However, whilst the National Trust and English Heritage, both support the 1.7 mile tunnel, with the idea in principle being agreed on by UNESCO, historians and archaeologists have heavily criticised it. Historian Dan Snow, who is the president of the Council for British Archaeology, says that the plans “endanger this unique site”. Many worry that important archaeological information will be lost, as even as recently as November 2016 new complexes are still being found near to the site. The Stonehenge Alliance, which is campaigning against the tunnel, argue that if a tunnel is indeed considered necessary, then a longer one that avoids the site altogether should be built in order to protect Stonehenge.
Image found here.
Stonehenge has been a site of great significance, not just for England, but far beyond, for 5000 years. Even today, it is one of England’s most-loved and most iconic sites that continues to contribute exciting finds and theories to the field of archaeology and history. Whilst some may see it initially as a boring collection of stones, its importance cannot be overstated. Such a great feat of engineering for that period of human history, its role in unifying people from far away places, and its ability to still ignite passion today are all reasons why Stonehenge has made my list of Ancient Wonders.
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More information about Stonehenge can be found on the English Heritage Website and if you want to learn more about Stonehenge Alliance’s campaign, you can visit their website here. The UK Channel 5 recently aired an hour-long documentary called “Stonehenge: The Final Mystery” which looks into Pearson’s excavations and explores the purpose of the site – the documentary is available online until May 2018 here (although it may not be available to be watched abroad).