Theories about Stonehenge

Theories about Stonehenge

Stonehenge has been subjected to many theories about its origin, ranging from the academic worlds of archaeology to explanations from mythology and the paranormal.

Early interpretations

Many early historians were influenced by supernatural folktales in their explanations. Some legends held that Merlin had a giant build the structure for him or that he had magically transported it from Mount Killaraus in Ireland, while others held the Devil responsible. Henry of Huntingdon was the first to write of the monument around 1130 soon followed by Geoffrey of Monmouth who was the first to record fanciful associations with King Arthur which led the monument to be incorporated into the wider cycle of European medieval romance.

In 1655, the architect John Webb, writing in the name of his former superior Inigo Jones, argued that Stonehenge was a Roman temple, dedicated to Caelus, (a Latin name for the Greek sky-god Ouranos), and built following the Tuscan order [ Webb, John, 1665. "A vindication of Stone-Heng restored in which the orders and rules of architecture observed by the ancient Romans are discussed : together with the customs and manners of several nations of the world in matters of building of greatest antiquity : as also, an historical narration of the most memorable actions of the Danes in England", Printed by R. Davenport for Tho. Bassett: London.)] . Later commentators maintained that the Danes erected it. Indeed, up until the late nineteenth century, the site was commonly attributed to the Saxons or other relatively recent societies.

The first academic effort to survey and understand the monument was made around 1640 by John Aubrey. He declared Stonehenge the work of Druids. This view was greatly popularised by William Stukeley. Aubrey also contributed the first measured drawings of the site, which permitted greater analysis of its form and significance. From this work, he was able to demonstrate an astronomical or calendrical role in the stones' placement. The architect John Wood was to undertake the first truly accurate survey of Stonehenge in 1740 [ Wood, John, 1747, "Choir Guare, Vulgarly called Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain". Oxford] . However Wood’s interpretation of the monument as a place of pagan ritual was vehemently attacked by Stukeley who saw the druids not as pagans, but as biblical patriarchs [ Stukeley, William, 1740, "Stonehenge A Temple Restor'd to the British Druids". London] .

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.

The early attempts to figure out the people who had undertaken this colossal project have since been debunked. While there have been precious few in the way of real theories to explain who built the site, or why, there can be an assessment of what we know to be fact and what has been proven false.

First there is the matter of radio carbon dating the construction of the site itself. As has been already stated in the construction outlines above, the monument building of the site began around the year 3100 BC and ended around the year 1600 BC. This allows the elimination of a few of the theories that have been presented. The theory that the Druids were responsible may be the most popular one; however, the Celtic society that spawned the Druid priesthood came into being only after the year 300 BC. Additionally, the Druids are unlikely to have used the site for sacrifices, since they performed the majority of their rituals in the woods or mountains, areas better suited for “earth rituals” than an open field. The fact that the Romans first came to the British Isles when Julius Caesar led an expedition in 55 BC negates the theories of Inigo Jones and others that Stonehenge was built as a Roman temple.

The question that dominates the debate as to what Stonehenge was used for can be easily divided into whether it was a religious or a scientific observatory. As outlined in the theories section below, Gerald Hawkins noted 165 key sites that he stated correlated very strongly with the rising and setting points of the sun and moon. He believed that the site could be used to anticipate astronomical phenomena. This has sparked the belief that the site was created to help commemorate the solstices, as the alignment with the sun and moon would seem to indicate.

Further supporting this evidence is the fact that the site’s alignment is focused along the lunar lines in a way that increases the accuracy of precession, which is the amount that the Earth’s slight tilt on its axis, or “wobble” will eventually change the timing of lunar events. In short, the site could have been designed to more accurately predict events taking place in the heavens, though there is still no conclusive evidence that Stonehenge was indeed intended for use as an observatory.

Much of the support for a religious use has developed from a purely political standpoint. The modern Celts -- the Celts long having been regarded as the creators of the site -- have moved to claim it as their own. They now hold festivals and ceremonies at different times during the year. The problem with this theory has been outlined above, with the carbon dating refuting Celtic involvement in the site’s creation. However, some assumptions have supported this claim. It is known that on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, the sun shines directly through the centre of the structure, a fact that, given many of the cultural attitudes of sun worship that were rampant in antiquity, suggests a religious purpose. However, the fact that so many religious structures, such as temples, have survived from antiquity when most secular structures have not has tended to weight non-scholarly lay views in favor of a religious interpretation of Stonehenge.

ecular calendar theory

Most theories have guessed at a cultic purpose behind the astronomical design of the monument, on the grounds that such a mammoth undertaking must have had an ideological rather than practical basis. They derive from anthropology rather than from cultural and technological history. But Lockyer ("Stonehenge Astronomically Considered", 1906) and others have pointed out the practical value of astronomical observation at a time when there was no other way to establish precise calendar dates, whether these were needed for agricultural, social, or seasonal-religious reasons.

The double-level circle and the central stone of the monument define an observational vantage-point from which the precession of constellations could be accurately established. It would have been known from earlier and less massive constructions that these events corresponded precisely with the cycle of seasons, but wooden edifices, earth-mounds and even standing-stone circles would not retain accuracy over any long period. Without at least one authoritative standard, events and seasons had no chronological index, since the exact length of the year (including part-days) was not known, nor would the mathematics have been available to extrapolate from it. There was a good reason for a massive and permanently immobile construction at a flat inland location where all sides of the sky could be equally measured.

The modern view of astronomy as a pure-science, which would seem to be of little practical use to primitive Britons, can make us forget that astronomy was a key factor in the transition from the hunter-gatherer culture to an agricultural one. The motivation for the sort of co-operative effort needed by such a large constructive undertaking can be appreciated in relation to the unique value of accurate dating for the whole region of southern Britain, but our ignorance of the social context of the time makes it difficult to speculate on how it might have been organised.

Since there was a considerable dividend for the whole population, Stonehenge could have been the culmination of lesser regional investments in this kind of technology over a long period. What sort of society might have existed which could draw labour and commitment from a wide geographical area, and over presumably a long period of years while the monument was being erected? Perhaps the astro-technology of that era was sufficiently trusted and valued to make this possible.

The bluestones

J. F. S. Stone felt that a Bluestone monument had earlier stood near the nearby Stonehenge cursus and been moved to their current site from there. 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 came either from Wales or from some other European area of ancient rocks. Petrological analysis of the stones themselves has verified that they could only have come from the Preseli Hills.

The main source of the bluestones is now identified with the dolerite outcrops around Carn Menyn although work led by Olwen Williams-Thorpe of the Open University has shown that other bluestones came from outcrops up to 10 km away. Dolerite is composed of an intrusive volcanic rock of plagioclase feldspar that is harder than granite.

Aubrey Burl and a number of geologists and geomorphologists contend 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. There is good geological and glaciological evidence that glacier ice did move across Preseli and did reach the Somerset coast. However, it is uncertain that it reached Salisbury Plain, and no further specimens of the unusual dolerite stone have so far been found in the vicinity. One current view is that glacier ice transported the stones as far as Somerset, and that they were collected from there by the builders of Stonehenge. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/south_west/5072664.stm] .

Healing

Britain's Bournemouth University archaeologists, led by Geoffrey Wainwright, president of the London Society of Antiquaries, and Timothy Darvill, on September 22, 2008, found it may have been an ancient healing and pilgrimage site [ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/stonehenge/ Stonehenge - The Healing Stones (BBC)] ] , since burials around Stonehenge showed trauma and deformity evidence: "It was the magical qualities of these stones which ... transformed the monument and made it a place of pilgrimage for the sick and injured of the Neolithic world." Radio-carbon dating places the construction of the circle of bluestones at between 2,400 B.C. and 2,200 B.C., but they discovered charcoals dating 7,000 B.C., showing human activity in the site. [ [http://uk.reuters.com/article/scienceNews/idUKTRE48M0R320080923 uk.reuters.com, Stonehenge may have been pilgrimage site for sick] ] It could be the primeval equivalent of Lourdes, since the area was already visited 4,000 years before the oldest stone circle, and attracted visitors for centuries after its abandonment. [ [http://ph.news.yahoo.com/ap/20080923/twl-eu-britain-stonehenge-c8e2916.html news.yahoo.com, UK experts say Stonehenge was place of healing] ] [ [http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/sep/23/archaeology.heritage guardian.co.uk, The magic of Stonehenge: new dig finds clues to power of bluestones] ]

tonehenge 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 Malagasy archaeologist Ramilisonina to suggest that timber was associated with the living and stone with the ancestral dead amongst prehistoric peoples. They have argued that Stonehenge was the terminus of a long, ritualised funerary procession for treating the dead, which began in the east, during 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, they consider, 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. Many also believe that the site may have had astrological/spiritual significance attached to it.

Support for this view also comes from the historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, who compares the site to other megalithic constructions around the world devoted to the cult of the dead (ancestors). "Like other similar English monuments (For example, Eliade identifies, Woodhenge, Avebury, Arminghall, and Arbor Low) the Stonehenge cromlech was situated in the middle of a field of funeral barrows. This famous ceremonial centre constituted, at least in its primitive form, a sanctuary built to insure relations with the ancestors. In terms of structure, Stonehenge can be compared with certain megalithic complexes developed, in other cultures, from a sacred area: temples or cities. We have the same valourisation of the sacred space as "centre of the world," the privileged place that affords communication with heaven and the underworld, that is, with the gods, the chtonian goddesses, and the spirits of the dead.". [Eliade, Mircea, "A History of Religious Ideas, vol. I, From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries", p. 118, translated: W. Trask, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978] In addition to the English sites, Eliade identifies, among others, the megalithic architecture of Malta, which represents a "spectacular expression" of the cult of the dead and worship of a Great Goddess. [Id., see also, Id., pp. 114 - 138 for other examples of megalithic constructions.]

Dr. Anthony M. Perks, a retired professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of British Columbia and Darlene Marie Bailey offered "a theory based on the resemblance of the henge to the human vulva, with the birth canal at its centre" - "Because Stonehenge was a place of life and birth, not death, a place that looked towards the future". [ [http://www.rsm.ac.uk/media/downloads/stonehenge.pdf "Stonehenge: a view from medicine"] "Royal Society of Medicine", Journal of; Volume 96: Pages 94-98, February 2003 accessed 2007-12-06] Dr. Perks and Darlene Bailey's "Earth Mother and Sun Father" theory is commonly referred to as Stonehenge "human vulva" or "birth canal" theory.

Construction techniques and design

A recently published analysis draws attention to the fact that the stones display mirrored symmetry and that the only undisputed alignment to be found is that of the solstices, which can be regarded as the axis of that symmetry. This interpretation would see the monument as having been designed off-site, largely prefabricated and set out to conform to survey markers set out to an exact geometric plan [Johnson, Anthony, "Solving Stonehenge: The New Key to an Ancient Enigma". (Thames & Hudson, 2008) ISBN 978-0-500-05155-9] .

The idea of ‘precision’ (below) demands that exact points of reference were used, both between the structural elements and in relation to the axis (i.e. that of the solstices). Johnson’s work draws attention to the fact that prehistoric survey markers could not have been placed within the footprint of the stones, but would have had to have been (as in any construction) external to the stones. That almost all the stones have one ‘better’ i.e. flatter face, and that face is almost invariably inwards, suggests that the construction was set out so that the prehistoric builders could use the center point of the inner faces as reference. This is very significant in respect of the Great Trilithon; the surviving upright has its flatter face outwards (see image on right), towards the midwinter sunset, and was raised from the inside. The remainder of the trilithon array (and almost all of the stones of the Sarsen Circle) had construction ramps which sloped inwards and were therefore set up from the outside. Placing the centre face of the stones (regardless of their thickness) against markers would mean that the ‘gaps’ between the stones were simply consequential. The study of the geometric layout of the monument shows that such methods were used and that there is a clear argument for regarding other outlying elements as part of a geometric scheme (e.g. the ‘Station Stones’ and the stoneholes 92 and 94 which mark two opposing facets of an octagon). A geometric design is scalable from concept to construction, removing much of the need for measurements to be made at all.

Much speculation has surrounded the engineering feats required to build Stonehenge. Assuming 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. In a 2001 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 for some miles (with great difficulty) on a wooden sledge over land, using modern roads and low-friction netting to assist sliding, but once transferred to a replica prehistoric boat, the stone sank in Milford Haven, before it even reached the rough seas of the Bristol Channel.

A recent article has argued that the massive stones could be moved by submerging in water and being towed below an ancient vessel or group of vessels. This technique would have two significant advantages. It would reduce the load born by the vessel while part of the stone's weight is displaced by the water. Secondly, the arrangement of the load below the vessel would be much more stable and reduce the risk of catastrophic failure. Naturally, this would apply only for transportation over water.

As far as the stones, it has been suggested that timber A-frames were erected to raise the stones, and that teams of people then 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. In 2003 retired construction worker Wally Wallington demonstrated ingenious techniques based on fundamental principles of levers, fulcrums and counterweights to show that a single man can rotate, walk, lift and tip a ten-ton cast-concrete monolith into an upright position. He is progressing with his plan to construct a simulated Stonehenge comprising of eight uprights and two lintels.

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 invariably 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 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 Stonehenge put the total effort involved at millions of hours of work. Stonehenge 1 probably needed around 11,000 man-hours (or 460 man-days) of work, Stonehenge 2 around 360,000 (15,000 man-days or 41 years) and the various parts of Stonehenge 3 may have involved up to 1.75 million hours (73 000 days or 200 years) of work. The working of the stones is estimated to have required around 20 million hours (830 000 days or 2300 years) of 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.However, Wally Wallington's work suggests that Stonehenge's construction may have required fewer man-hours than previously estimated.

Alternative views

Stonehenge's fame comes not only from its archaeological significance or potential early astronomical role but also in its less tangible effect on visitors, what Christopher Chippindale describes as "the physical sensation of the place" [Chippendale, Christopher, "Stonehenge Complete". (Thames and Hudson, London, 2004) ISBN 0500284679] , something that transcends the rational, scientific view of the monument. This manifests itself in the spiritual role of the site for many different groups and a belief that no single scientific explanation can do justice to it as a symbol of the great achievement of the ancient Britons and as a symbol of something that continues to confound mainstream archaeology.

Paleoastronauts theory of Erich Von Daniken has its share of claims toward Stonehenge. Some people claim to have seen UFOs in the area, perhaps connected with the military installations around Warminster, that has led to ideas over it being an extraterrestrial landing site. Alfred Watkins found three ley lines running through the site and others have employed numerology, dowsing or geomancy to reach diverse conclusions regarding the site's power and purpose. New Age and neo-pagan beliefs might see Stonehenge as a sacred place of worship which can conflict with its more mainstream role as an archaeological site, tourist attraction, or marketing tool. Post-processualist archaeologists might consider that treating Stonehenge as a computer or observatory is to apply modern concepts from our own technology-driven era back into the past. Even the role of indigenous peoples in archaeology, rarely applied in Western Europe, has created a new function for the site as a symbol of Welsh nationalism.

The significance of the 'ownership' of Stonehenge in terms of the differing meanings and interpretations held by the many orthodox and unorthodox stakeholders in the site has been increasingly apparent in recent decades. Researchers Jenny Blain and Robert J. Wallis ("Sacred Sites, Contested Rites/Rights" project [http://www.sacredsites.org.uk] ) have pointed to the huge variety of views which show the continued and growing importance of Stonehenge today, as symbol and 'Icon of Britishness'; and indicate also the increased awareness of pasts by many people with no training in archaeology or heritage. For many, Stonehenge and other ancient monuments form part of the 'living landscape' which holds its own stories and which is there to be engaged with as people mark the seasons of the year. Today's mythology around Stonehenge includes the recent history of the Battle of the Beanfield and the previous Free festivals. Stonehenge has not one meaning but many. Today, curators English Heritage facilitate 'managed open access' at solstices and equinoxes, with some disputes over the days on which these fall. Blain and Wallis argue that issues over access relate not only to physical presence at the stones but to interpretations of past and validity of 'new-indigenous' and pagan usages in the present and such 'alternative' views have been central in alerting public awareness to the issues of roads, tunnels and landscape.

References


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