Stonehenge. What do we really know?
Although Stonehenge's origins go back at least 5000 years and human activity in the locality stretches even further back, perhaps another 5000 years, it's no surprise that this extraordinary place continues to fascinate. And seemingly, it continues to make headlines. The recent announcement that the long awaited tunnel taking the intrusive A303 out of site of the monument made international news.
Stonehenge from the South with the bank and ditch in the foreground.
Archaeological excavations and advances in analytical techniques continue to add to our knowledge and understanding of this, most enigmatic of sites. As a tour guide who regularly takes clients to Stonehenge, I have really enjoyed taking more of an in-depth look at some of the latest theories to emerge about the building and function of this spectacular monument. This short blog attempts to unpick what we now know about Stonehenge, from those theories that remain, for now, unproven. What is clear, is that there are some very basic questions about the site that remain unanswered.
It might seem like an obvious point, but it is so important to understand that Stonehenge does not stand in glorious isolation. It is part of a much larger landscape that has been shaped, modified and used by humans over at least ten millennia.
To try and make this as simple as possible, I thought I would ask the questions that I always get asked and have a crack at answering them as accurately as I can with reference to some of the most available recent literature. For anyone looking for a comprehensive overview of the site, they should look no further than English Heritage's excellent guidebook, written by the distinguished archaeologist, Julian Richards.
When was Stonehenge built?
Good dating evidence, largely from the carbon dating of antler picks and cremation material, provides us with a fairly confident timeline as to the various phases of construction. In short the phases go something like this.
Phase 1, 3000 BC. Bank and ditch construction, and digging of a circle of post holes or stone sockets (now known as the Aubrey Holes). Human cremation material had been deposited in these holes prior to wooden posts or Bluestones (a rock type originating from the Preseli Hills in South Wales) being erected. One theory suggests that the Aubrey Holes had Bluestones occupying them from a very early stage. This is based on the discovery of very fine ground Bluestone debris being found in the bottom of the holes.
Phase 2, 2600-2500 BC. Inner horseshoe of 5 Sarsen (a very hard naturally occuring sandstone) trilithons, (two vertically erected megaliths with a lintel placed horizontally, linking the stones together) constructed first followed by the Sarsen outer circle complete with lintels.
Stonehenge Sarsen stone Trilithon. Smaller Bluestone visible leaning at an angle to the right of the Trilithon.
Phase 3, 2500-2300 BC. The Avenue (a ceremonial processional route delineated by parallel bank and ditches) linking Stonehenge to the River Avon is constructed.
Phase 4, 2200 BC. Bluestones rearranged to form an oval between the Sarsen Horseshoe and outer Sarsen ring.
Who built Stonehenge and where did they live?
The people who built and later engaged in whatever activity was going on there were living at Durrington Walls, another enormous henge monument located about 2 miles West of Stonehenge. Dwellings have been discovered together with evidence of substantial amounts of feasting activity in the form of butchered animal bones, predominantly pig. It seems that people were coming with their own pigs to feast at Durrington. Isotope analysis on pig and some human bones appears to show that people travelled from across the UK, as far as from Scotland and even from continental Europe. Most importantly, Durrington appears to be a seasonal encampment. Most of the feasting appears to be taking place at mid winter. Analysis shows that the majority of pigs slaughtered at Durrington were killed at about 6-8 months old. Pigs at this time were reproducing according to the natural cycle, that is to say piglets were born once a year from about March to April.
Similar evidence is not found at Stonehenge and it seems clear that the monument was a place where the dead were placed following cremation. Who were they? This is more difficult to answer, but we can say that many appear to have travelled some significant distance from the monument.
What was the function of Stonehenge?
Stonehenge is the largest known Neolithic cemetery in Europe. Perhaps as many as 100 individuals have been identified from the cremation remains found in the Aubrey Holes. There is isotope evidence that some of these cremations have their origins away from the immediate area. There is no evidence that cremations were taking place at Stonehenge. In other words individuals were being cremated elsewhere and brought specially to the monument for burial.
The stones are orientated to align with the sunrise at the midsummer solstice and to the sunset at the midwinter solstice. So there is evidence that the monument acted as an astronomical clock, perhaps to tell the population when daylight hours would start to increase. One hypothesis is that the midwinter sunset was the more important of the events as it seems to coincide with the feasting going on at Durrington Walls and perhaps marked the lead up to spring when food would become more plentiful.
There is an intriguing footnote to the alignment of the Stones. An excavation of The Avenue (processional walkway) revealed a series of parallel lines appearing to be cut into the chalk surface exactly aligned with the midwinter sunset/midsummer sunrise. It transpired that these features are naturally occurring. Is it possible that the decision to locate Stonehenge and the siting of the Avenue were based on these naturally occurring features in the ancient landscape?
One other theory is worthy of note. It has been postulated that Stonehenge was regarded as some kind of special healing place. There is one startling piece of evidence for this in the shape of a remarkable archaeological discovery made in 2002. In the nearby village of Amesbury, a grave was discovered containing the remains of a man now dubbed the "Amesbury Archer". He dates to around 2,300 BC, e.g. during the period that human activity is at its height around the monument. The grave contained over 100 grave goods and was incredibly rich. But crucially, isotope analysis revealed that he was not a local man and was raised on the continent not far from the Alps. In addition, his jaw revealed evidence that he had suffered from a very severe tooth abscess that would have caused him excruciating pain. Did the Amesbury Archer come to Stonehenge seeking relief from his suffering?
How were the stones erected?
Archaeological investigation is unlikely to come up with a definitive answer to this question. We can say that the positioning and raising of the stones would have required lots of manpower and an understanding of geometry and astronomy. Experimental archaeology has been quite successful in demonstrating that, with enough people, the stones could be moved, put into the correct position and lifted into place using basic ropes, levers and rollers. Placing the lintels on top of the trilithons was perhaps the most tricky of the operations but, given enough time, shallow earth or timber ramps could have been constructed to allow the precise positioning of the lintels.
Where are the stones from and how did they get to this location?
This remains one of the more controversial areas of debate. The orthodox view is that the Sarsen stones were transported from the Marlborough Hills about 20 miles away. The stones occur naturally on the surface and although requiring significant effort to lift and transport, experimental archaeology has shown that even megaliths weighing in excess of 30 tonnes could be moved perhaps by the use of rollers or along temporary wooden "rails" greased with animal fat.
The Bluestones are smaller, perhaps less than 5 tonnes in weight, but still very tricky to move. Of course, the more important factor with the Bluestones is that their origin appears to be the Preseli Hills in South Wales around 150 miles distant from Stonehenge! The prevailing view in the archaeological literature is that the Bluestones were either transported across the land (an unbelievably arduous challenge) or more likely moved to the South Wales coast and transported via sea and river to within a few miles of their final resting place.
There is an alternative theory that both Sarsen and Bluestones were transported to the area by glacial action. The geological evidence tends not to support this theory, but it cannot be entirely discounted.
An interesting coda to the glacial theory is that in 2000, a project took place to move a 3 tonne Bluestone from the Preseli Hills by land and water to Stonehenge. To cut a very long story short, the task proved to be extremely difficult. At one point, the stone was lost in the choppy waters of Milford Haven before being recovered from the sea bed. The stone never made it to Stonehenge. There were perhaps 80 Bluestones used in the construction of Stonehenge. If nothing else, this experiment revealed the significant practical difficulties of moving these stones.
Did the Druids carry out human sacrifices at Stonehenge?
No. There is no evidence that human sacrifice took place at the monument conducted by Druids or indeed anyone else.
This blog barely scratches the surface of the myriad theories and hypotheses put forward around the mystery that is Stonehenge. If you want to learn more, here is a select bibliography. Even better, come on one of my tours and let me explain, whilst on location, the best analysis of what Stonehenge is all about.
All photography by Richard Ing.
Stonehenge, Julian Richards, English Heritage Guidebook.
Stonehenge, Mike Parker Pearson, Simon and Schuster.
The Bluestone Enigma, Brian John, Greencroft Books.
The making of British Landscape, Francis Pryor, Allen Lane.
Stonehenge, Rosemary Hill, Profile Books,
Stonehenge; the biography of a Landscape, Darvill T C, Stroud: Tempus
A History of Ancient Britain, Neil Oliver, Orion.
Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, www.birmingham.ac.uk.