Stonehenge: The Enduring Enigmas

Stonehenge in England is one of the world’s biggest archeological puzzles today. Its construction and purpose are topics of intensive debate, but nobody has proved anything concrete as to why it is there or what it meant to ancient peoples. Who knows why civilizations felt the need to construct these circular rings of stone. However, based on the amount of effort it took to construct over more than a thousand years, this place held great significance.

Stonehenge

The earliest phase of the Stonehenge monument dates back to 3100 BC. Image: Goodfreephotos.com. Public domain

The Rings

One major feature of the Stonehenge site are the rings. And there are more than one ring. The circle of stones near the center are called trilithons. Outside the trilithons are a circular series of bluestones that were erected between 2400-2200 BC. Scholars have now decided that the blue stones originated in the Preseli Mountains in Wales. Somehow they were transported 150 miles to the Salisbury Plain (about 90 miles west of London) where the henge now stands. Each stone weighed several tons, and there were approximately 60 stones in the circle. A prevalent theory is that the bluestones were transported by ship and over land by several hundreds of men. Many bluestones are gone now, and it isn’t known for certain where the missing ones are located.

The outer ring is much more famous and the focus of numerous studies and the subject of thousands of photographs. These are divided into two groups: the vertical stones, known as sarsen, and horizontal stones called lintel stones, which were placed atop the sarsen. Each sarsen stone weighs around 40 tons and there are currently 17 sarsen still standing in the circle.

Aerial view of Stonehenge showing rings and carved circular ditch surrounding the site.

Wading Through Stonehenge  Theories

Some academics have claimed that the site of the henge was originally an earth monument carved out of the ground with animal bones as tools. It was several thousands of years later that the first stones were placed in those grooves and patterns.

While there are only a few theories of how the henge was constructed, there are various suggestions and outright misinterpretations of who built the structure that spanned many generations of workers.

On the Fringes of Belief

Most people with only a passing amount of information may be familiar with the theory of the stones being placed by the supernatural powers of ancient druids. Writers of the first century BCE, including Julius Caesar, made this claim. But, in fact, Stonehenge had stood at least 2,000 years before druids lived in the area. Indeed, digs that unearthed flint and bone and pottery indicate that the area was inhabited by ancient peoples long before the giant stones were brought there.

Another educated guess concludes that a group now called the Beaker Folk (because they used pottery for many household containers) may have built the structure.

And the Arthurian legends proclaim that the wizard Merlin put the henge together in the 5th century CE, from stones in Ireland in recognition of the soldiers who had fallen in battle. He was able to lift the heavy stones because he had transformed himself into being more than twenty feet tall.

Whoever made Stonehenge did a remarkable job. Over the years stones have fallen and broken (known tumblings of upright stones occurred in 1797, 1900 and 1963), but the remains give a clear picture of how it would have looked when it was newly completed.

Scholarly Thoughts

Another large question remains: what was it used for? Theories have come out postulating that it was an astronomical tool, a calendar, or a holy place for sacred worship. Other guesses include the stones being used as a musical instrument or a way to communicate with distant peoples.

O’Connell, Professor of Astronomy at University of Virginia has this to say about Stonehenge:

Solsticial Alignments: A line from the monument center to the “Heelstone”, which lies on the centerline of the Avenue, points to sunrise at the summer solstice (the northernmost sunrise of the year and the longest day of the year). The reverse points to sunset at the winter solstice. The Heelstone is a large, isolated stone lying outside the circular structures between two parallel banks.

Stonehenge

Diagram showing the features of the Stonehenge site. Source: OConnell

Another natural idea would be that Stonehenge and the surrounding area was used as some form of cemetery. Relics and burial mounds from long-buried people have been found in the ground surrounding the henge. However, there is no evidence of the area being used as a burial place for more than a few people. There was certainly mass grave there.

And Stonehenge is not alone. Sites that once contained bluestones and wooden posts have come to light, as has a chalk circle carved in neighboring farmland, two miles away from Stonehenge. In 2015, a group of diggers discovered a buried series of standing stones formed into the shape of a “C” and facing the River Avon. The purposes of all these monuments is similarly unknown, although some feel that the site facing the Avon could have been some kind of public arena.

Ancient History Protected

Stonehenge today is an archaeological highlight for scholars and amateur theorists around the world. While it is currently not accessible to tourists, a nearby encircling path makes the glorious monument up close nonetheless. And the site itself is occasionally open to modern followers of druidism and other similar religious beliefs.

Today, over one million people visit the site every year. Thus, it is now protected by its owners, the Natural Trust. As an enduring testament of our distant past, Stonehenge will remain a constant bundle of unanswered questions for future generations to marvel.

Sources:
Britannia web site, pulled 1/22/17.
A&E History website, pulled 1/22/17.
“Where is Stonehenge?” by True Kelley. ISBN: 0448486938
University of Virginia

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Doug MacGowan

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published five books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.

Historic Mysteries