Tag Archives: stone circle

Stonehenge: Archeological Myths and Truths

Stonehenge is on my bucket list to visit one day. Until then, I had the opportunity to dig in to some of its history for my anthropology class research paper. I received an A, so here it is in all its APA glory. Enjoy!

            The ancient ring at Stonehenge has baffled historians, researchers, and archeologists for centuries. While it is not the only stone ring found in Britain, it is the most famous and most intact of the mysterious neolithic structures (Pearson, 2021). Archeologists have no definitive consensus on how the structure was built, but they have come to agree that Stonehenge was likely used as a central gathering point for worship, offering a comparison of the concentric stone circle simply being a form of neolithic outdoor church. However, not all accept such a basic approach. Many modern theorists speculate that it was a primitive calendar, star chart, or a sacrificial site built as part of a druidic or Roman temple. Archeological excavation beginning in the 1950s has proven the formation predates both druids and Romans in England (Stonehenge, n.d.). Those cultures may have used it or improved upon it, but they did not build it. There is some evidence backing the calendar and star chart theories, yet the timeline of construction proves that was not its original purpose for being built.

Stonehenge today is not what it looked like when first built.

            Excavations at Stonehenge have revealed artifacts proving multicultural and multi-use purposes over long periods. These finds prove that Stonehenge may have been built for a specific reason—which remains a mystery—but was utilized for many different purposes based on which culture controlled the landscape in its over-five-thousand-year history. The site underwent three distinct phases of construction spread over 2,000 years beginning in 3100BC. Sometimes the site was not utilized for anything, with archeological evidence showing the site was built, abandoned, reclaimed, and rebuilt multiple times (Stonehenge, n.d.). This continuous restructuring and reuse by multiple peoples and cultures shows an interconnected web of relationships to this complex structure that are similar, though not necessarily related.

            Many legends surround the stones concerning origin, purpose, transportation, alignment, magical creatures such as elves, trolls, giants, and even aliens. The application of fantasy to the unexplainable was a result of a limited frame of reference for early archeologists. Anything that could not be interpreted as biblical truth was assigned a supernatural origin (Wolcott Paskey and Beasley Cisneros, 2020). While the legends are mostly fantastical in nature, some of them may contain grains of truth that are not yet understood. Modern researchers and archeologists are suspending the obvious disbelief of such stories and examining these fanciful origins to extract the reality behind them with some success. While the mysticism of Stonehenge conjures unbelievable feats of magic and fantasy, the evidence shows that the stone circle was not created by magic. It was built by early humans devoted to their cause in three distinct phases over two thousand years, and possibly a reconstruction of an earlier monument called Waun Mawn.

Waun Mawn in western Wales, a possible earlier predecessor to Stonehenge. (Photography by A. Stanford)
Waun Mawn in western Wales, a possible earlier predecessor to Stonehenge. (Photography by A. Stanford)

Stonehenge Phase One: An Early Cemetery

An early-period grave discovered at the Stonehenge site.

The first phase of Stonehenge’s construction began with a circular twenty-foot-wide ditch and chalky berm flanked by two large barrows and a standing stone entry. The ditches were dug by hand with tools made of stone and antler by native neolithic peoples about 3100 BCE prior to the arrival of the Beaker peoples (Stonehenge, n.d.). The perimeter was ringed with fifty-six holes, called the Aubrey Holes, that went unused and refilled naturally with silt. Early scientific excavation strictly focused on human remains, grave goods, and typographical classification of monuments (Pearson, 2021). Since early neolithic inhabitants of Britain cremated their dead, little biological evidence remains to prove the holes were intended for graves. Though many remains were found, the discoveries were inconclusive on the intent of the Aubrey Holes. Prevailing theory states they were intended for erecting the first standing stones of the monument, but the effort remained incomplete. After five hundred years of use as an early cemetery, the entire Stonehenge site was abandoned and reclaimed by nature. The reason for abandonment is unknown, though some stone features remained intact afterward. One of the two ‘Slaughter Stones’ marking the entrance, the ‘Heel Stone,’ and two of the four ‘Station Stones’ within the circle is still standing (Stonehenge, n.d.).  

The Slaughter Stone

The ‘Station Stones’ appear to also be aligned with lunar cycles and sunrises, possibly marking times for harvests or seasons and lending to a theory that Stonehenge could have been intended as an agrarian monument before becoming a cemetery (Introductory Astronomy: Stonehenge, n.d.). Archeological excavations due to a highway tunneling project revealed not only graves, but further evidence of agrarian uses around the site as well. The discovery of Late Bronze Age pottery shards, hazelnut fragments, cereal grain husks like barley, and wheat with some hulled varieties with evident preservation is proof of the site being used for purposes other than funeral ritual. The 2018 excavation of the Winterbourne barrow ditches by Wessex Archeology on the Stonehenge site also revealed multiple neolithic pottery shards, worked flint, cattle bones, deer antler, and a stone axe (Roberts et al, 2018). The infamous bluestones and triliths seen today would come much later.

Stonehenge Phase Two: The Myth of Magic

The second phase of Stonehenge is the most active and hardest to explain because the landscape of Britain during this time is extremely complex. Beginning around 2100 BCE, the Bell Beaker peoples migrated into areas not occupied by the original Neolithic peoples who built phase one and lived side by side with them. This blending of migrating cultures heralded the beginning of Britain’s bronze age. While the two cultures shared ideas and culture, it is likely the Beaker peoples resurrected the Stonehenge site with further ideas of burial ritual relevance of the site up to and including a limited understanding of astronomical marking (Pearson et al, 2019). The decision to create artificial sacred places was an early indication of the ability of humanity to transcend its environment (Devereaux, 2000, 119). Stonehenge is surrounded by other neolithic sites that the Beaker peoples adopted into their own culture of belief systems and used them for ritual burials, even though they were unrelated biologically or culturally to the original builders of Stonehenge. (Pearson et al, 2019). During this time is when the first bluestones arrived, and the legends began.

A bluestone of Stonehenge

Arthurian legend tells of an ambitious plot to capture sacred healing bluestones from a stone circle in Ireland. Briton King Aurelius Ambrosius desired a monument for the murder of over four hundred British nobles at Mount Ambrius (modern Amesbury) by Saxon assassins. His advisor Merlin suggested these magical stones should be erected as a monument to the dead at their burial place on Ambrius (Coghlan, 1994, 225). Ambrosius sent his brother, Uther, and Merlin at the head of a vast army to bring the stones back to England, which according to Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, they do. In Geoffrey’s history, Uther was the father of the mythical King Arthur. To explain the logistics of moving monoliths weighing over five tons, Geoffrey escapes the difficult engineering question by asserting Merlin simply used magic to move them over water.

An illuminated 14th century text depicting the wizard Merlin

Two facts give a breath of truth to the bluestone origin legend. First, that due to the large amount of actual human remains discovered on the Stonehenge site, perhaps some massacre did occur there, and this site could be their monument. Second, the bluestones were hewn from a quarry at the Perseli Mountains in southern Wales. The Irish kings controlled parts of southern Wales where the Perseli Mountains are located causing Wales to possibly be considered part of Ireland at that time (Pearson, 2021). These facts blur the lines of Geoffrey’s tale to determine if his story was a work of pure imagination or based in any historical truth. In either case, his timeline depicts Stonehenge being built around 400 CE when there is overwhelming proof against that date, further diminishing his historical credibility.

In this second phase, the structures known today began to take shape. The addition of two concentric circles of standing bluestones came about but was left incomplete. Also, the entrance, now called ‘The Avenue’ was widened and fitted with additional stones that aligned with the summer solstice sunrise, showing a more advanced understanding of marking time by the builders (Stonehenge, n.d.). This period is also when the myth of healing properties within the bluestones becomes prevalent in historical record. This evidence is linked to the discovery in 2008 of burials near the site with unusual injuries. A Bell Beaker grave known as the ‘Amesbury Archer’ with a jaw abscess and severely damaged kneecap was found, along with two burials with trepanned skulls, appearing to be some sort of early attempt to cure head injuries and swelling (Pearson, 2021). These finds show a potential link to pilgrims travelling to the site seeking relief through the purported healing power of the stones. Framed in a medieval mindset of biblical truth, these legends likely influenced Geoffrey of Monmouth again for other ecclesiastical claims that water splashed on the stones gave them additional healing properties (Pearson, 2021).

Gravesite of “The Amesbury Archer”, photo: Wessex Archeology

Stonehenge Phase 3: A Remodeling for the Heavens

            The third phase of construction can be broken into three parts: the early stage, second stage, and the final stage, and is begun around 100 years after the second phase of construction (2000 BCE). Within this time, Stonehenge is transformed into what is found today on the Salisbury Plain in England. The features are grander and more ceremonial than in previous phases and are seemingly aligned on axial lines with purpose to mark annual events of nature, such as the times of solstices and equinoxes, sunrises and sets, and cardinal directions.

Phase 3: Early Stage

            Phase three construction of Stonehenge suggests a large tribal or chiefdom-led social structure due to the relatively coordinated labor of many people and craftsmen to cut, shape, transport, and erect the sandstone triliths that are seen on the modern Stonehenge landscape (Wolcott Paskey and Beasley Cisneros, 2020, 161). In addition, the motivations of a small population to take on such a monumental project must come from a deep-rooted belief system in the effort. The first change in the site during this phase is the addition of thirty upright stones in a circle with a continuous lentil cap called the Sarsen Circle, and five triliths in a horseshoe shape within the circle. Each stone is approximately thirty feet long, weighs an impressive fifty tons, and shaped in a curved fashion by hand with stone hammers, with mortise-and-tenon and tongue-and-groove joints to support the lentils. These were erected into the shape of a horseshoe at the center of the stone ring and aligned with an expansion of ‘The Avenue’ entrance stones, further suggesting a large amount of expected visitor traffic (Stonehenge, n.d.). Some evidence suggests the stones were taken from another dismantled stone circle at Waun Mawn over 200 miles away, which ironically, has similar astrological alignments of the solstice with Stonehenge (Pearson, 2021).

            The ‘Heel Stone’ that remains on ‘The Avenue’ appears to be in direct northeast alignment with the opening of the horseshoe shape, casting a long phallic shadow into the triliths at the summer solstice sunrise. This is thought to be an intentional representation of the mating of earth and sky. These mythical coincidences of shadow usage do not appear coincidental at all but are also not scientific, leaning more toward astrology than scientific astronomy (Devereaux, 2000, 140-141). The Station Stones remain intact throughout reconstruction, furthering the likelihood they were still used for lunar cycle and sunrise alignments. These alignments with astrological events also strengthen the popular myth of a druidic ritual purpose for Stonehenge, but no archeological proof of this has been discovered.

Phase 3: Second Stage

            Less than a century later, this stage sees a removal and realignment of the bluestones, suggesting the continued belief and use of them as healing objects. When wet, the bluestones take on a distinctive blue hue which was thought to deliver their healing properties (Pearson, 2021). About twenty of the bluestones were redressed, some carved with small axes and daggers, then replaced in an oval pattern within Sarsen Circle. The remaining bluestones were set aside for later installation in yet another circle to surround the Sarsen Circle. The holes were dug in two circles for their placement, yet never filled and left open to fill with silt on their own. Shortly after, for an unknown reason, the oval resetting of bluestones was removed, and the installation of the two surrounding bluestone circles was abandoned (Stonehenge, n.d.).

Phase 3: Final Stage

            After the abrupt removal of the oval bluestone circle at the center of the triliths, they were replaced in a specific sequence and horseshoe pattern within the trilith horseshoe. The removed bluestones from the second stage were redressed yet again into obelisks and pillars, with the largest bluestone, misnamed the ‘Altar Stone,’ at the axial center. The remaining bluestones were also reshaped and reinstalled outside the horseshoe but within the Sarsen Circle (Stonehenge, n.d.). There is no evidence revealing why such drastic changes were made in short succession. A final change to the site dated at 1100 BCE was another widening of The Avenue and a lengthening of almost two miles to connect with the River Avon. This suggests an increased interest in travel to the sight, now including a road access for river travelers and that the enduring site of Stonehenge held a popular relevancy and attraction still two thousand years after the first chalk berm and ditch were excavated by its neolithic founders.

A Lack of Consensus on Stonehenge Archeology and Research

            Since the first excavation at the behest of King James I by the Duke of Buckingham in 1620, Stonehenge has only offered more questions than answers as to its origin, purpose, and builder’s motivations. Even amongst modern technological advances, the simple neolithic stone circles of early man remain largely closed. However, certain truths remain clear: Stonehenge was not built by magic, and it was not a druidic or Roman temple, but some of the myths and legends have yielded supporting facts that help unravel the mysteries. A final point that becomes clear in the dedicated people who study Stonehenge and monuments like it, is that there is little agreed upon and even less definitive answers to the questions such sacred places ask.

The Summer Solstice sunrise at Stonehenge

            A deeper study of the astrological significance may reveal how early humans used sacred places like Stonehenge, at least in phases two and three of its construction, to further advance their societies, particularly in agriculture. Even in modern times, many still make the annual purchase of Farmer’s Almanacs, though they amount to about the same result as a newspaper horoscope. However, that modern written tradition may have roots carved in the same stones that the builders of Stonehenge sought out in the movements of the sun and moon to guide their harvests and mark their seasons. A further study of the burials around the site could also reveal the thinking of early humans within the limited framework of their beliefs in nature being a great healer. In this research, I have learned a great deal that early man may have been more advanced than modern society gives them credit for, and that perhaps they were able to find answers among the stars that our modern minds cannot comprehend, begging the question of which society is more advanced after all.

References

Coghlan, R. (1994, September 1). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends. (pp. 224-225). Element Books, Limited.

Devereux, P. (2000, November 1). The Sacred Place. In The Ancient Origin of Holy and Mystical Sites. (pp. 114-119). Burns & Oates.

Introductory Astronomy: Stonehenge. (n.d.). Introductory Astronomy: Stonehenge. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from http://astro.wsu.edu/worthey/astro/html/im-lab/stonehenge/stonehenge.html

Pearson, M. P. (2021, December 30). Archaeology and legend: investigating Stonehenge. ScienceOpen. Retrieved November 18, 2022, from https://uclpress.scienceopen.com/hosted-document?doi=10.14324/111.444.ai.2021.09

Pearson, M. P., Chamberlain A., Jay, M., Richards, M., Evans, J., and Sheridan, A. (Eds.), (2019, March 31)., The Beaker People: Isotopes, Mobility and Diet in Prehistoric Britain (Vol. 7). Oxbow Books.

Roberts, D., Valdez-Tullett, A., Marshall, P., Last, J., Oswald, A., Barclay, A., Bishop, B., Dunbar, E., Forward, A., Law, M., Linford, N., López-Dóriga, I., Manning, A., Payne, A., Pelling, R., Powell, A., Reimer, P., Russell, M., Small, F., . . . Worley, F. (2018). Roberts et al. Internet Archaeology. 47. Recent Investigations at Two Long Barrows and Reflections on their Context in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and Environs. Summary. Roberts Et Al. Internet Archaeology. 47. Recent Investigations at Two Long Barrows and Reflections on Their Context in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and Environs. Summary. Retrieved November 18, 2022, from https://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue47/7/

Stonehenge. (n.d.). Stonehenge. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/glossary/stonehenge.html

Wolcott Paskey, A. and Beasley Cisneros, A. (2020). Digging Into Archeology: A Brief OER Introduction to Archeology with Activities. (pp. 19). Academic Senate for California Community Colleges.