The most famous megalithic monument in the world may once have been an observatory for predicting important astronomical events. Who built it, when, and how? What was the extent of the architect's knowledge? Was it a centre for religious knowledge?
Stonehenge is a powerful magnet. People of all kinds are drawn into the aura of its huge and ancient stones, from archaeologists with specialist knowledge seeking to probe its mysteries to ordinary citizens wishing simply to visit this magical place. Yet Stonehenge is an astonishing enigma, for even the best brains in the world have failed to reveal the secret of its purpose. Lord Byron, in his poem Don Juan, echoed the question many have sought to answer: "The Druid's groves are gone - so much the better. Stonehenge is not, but what the devil is it?"
The Saxons called the group of standing stones "Stonehenge" or the "Hanging Stones", while medieval writers referred to it as the "Giant's Dance". Inigo Jones, the renowned 17th-century architect who made the first serious study of Stonehenge, considered it to be a Roman temple. And William Stukeley, an 18th-century antiquary, and freemason convinced many that Stonehenge was once a temple of the British Druids. Only in the 20th century have archaeologists established the true age of the monument and arrived at more realistic conclusions about its purpose.
The Building of Stonehenge
The open Wiltshire countryside surrounding Stonehenge in the heart of southern England is rich in prehistoric remains. Woodhenge, Durrington Walls, the Cursus, and more than 350 barrows are a testament to the intense communal activity of the semi-nomadic pastoralists who grazed animals, grew wheat, and worshipped their gods in and around Salisbury plain. Around 3500 BC they started to build Stonehenge.
British archaeologists, notably Richard Atkinson, established in the 1950s that the first Stonehenge was a circular bank and ditch with 56 holes, known now as the Aubrey Holes, in a ring around the perimeter. The first standing stone was the Heel Stone, erected outside the earthwork's single entrance. The second Stonehenge was started 200 or more years later. New builders constructed an avenue of parallel banks linking the henge with the River Avon about 3.2km (2mi) away. They brought 80 blocks of bluestone from the Prescelly Mountains 320km (200mi) away in southwest Wales. These large stones were probably carried by raft around the Welsh coast and into a different River Avon at Bristol. Transported up local rivers and overland, they were finally dragged on rollers up the avenue to Stonehenge where they were erected in two circles.
The bluestone circles were soon dismantled and replaced by the gigantic stones that still dominate the site today. Since some of these megaliths weigh around 26 tons, their transport from north Wiltshire must have been a major undertaking involving a large workforce. The men responsible for erecting them were obviously skilled craftsmen: they shaped and carefully fitted into place the lintels covering each of the two vertical stones by the use of ball and socket joints. Called trilithons because three stones were fitted together, they were erected in the circle and horseshoe shape still visible today.
The dismantled bluestones were later re-erected inside the circle of megaliths and can be seen as small pillar stones that are dwarfed by the trilithons. Holes were dug outside of the main circle for the erection of a double circle of bluestones, but for some reason, this construction was never started. Around 1,500 years after the beginning of Stonehenge, the final changes took place: the bluestones were dismantled yet again and re-erected in their present positions inside the circle. At the same time, the stone now known as the Altar Stone, a large block of green sandstone also from south Wales, was set up in front of one of the trilithons.
What Was Stonehenge's Purpose?
The elaborate planning and workmanship, as well as the many thousands of man-hours that went into this construction, demonstrate how important Stonehenge was. And the fact that the architects needed the Welsh bluestones and green sandstone suggests that these megaliths were a vital ingredient in the correct working of the site. Evidently, Stonehenge was not designed to be a simple meeting place for the local people. But what was it designed for? A few tantalizing clues point to its possible function. The midsummer sun rises between the Heel Stone and another stone no longer present - could the earliest Stonehenge have been used to expose ancestral remains to the life-giving sun at this significant time of year? The cremation burials discovered in the 56 Aubrey Holes show that funerary rites were performed here, and these holes may have symbolised places of entry into the Underworld.
American astronomer Gerald Hawkins has used a computer to decode many of the stone alignments, and concluded that Stonehenge was a sophisticated means of observing the heavens. But it is doubtful if the observations were precise and, indeed, if the ancients were engaged in the same quest for discovery as scientists are today. Their most likely concerns would have been to a basic calendar, and to chart the movements of the heavenly bodies for religious purposes.
The builders who constructed Stonehenge were not primitive people living the lives of country peasants. Even though they left no written record, it is almost certain they had remarkable knowledge and skills. Perhaps no one has yet dreamed of Stonehenge's true function. It may be that John Michell, British author, and esoteric researcher, is right when he suggests that Stonehenge was "a cosmic temple dedicated to all twelve gods of the zodiac. It represents the ideal cosmology, the perfect and complete image of the universe."
Stonehenge Retains Its Power
Although the mystic temple of Stonehenge was abandoned around 3,000 years ago, much of it has survived and its magic has never disappeared. Merlin the magician was credited with erecting the stones, while local people have long believed the stones had healing powers that, when transferred to water, could cure all manner of ailments. Rural gatherings have been held here for centuries and for the last 80 years, modern Druids (who have no connection with the original Celtic priesthood) have celebrated the summer solstice at Stonehenge.
For years, thousands of people have gathered here each June to hold a festival. But in 1985, the authorities banned both the Druids and the festival for fear the stones and the surrounding land would be damaged.