It was a cold November morning 10 years ago when my train from London rumbled into the station at Salisbury. As I passed through the ticket barrier and exited into the station’s forecourt, I realized it was going to be another typical autumn day in the UK – at least weather-wise. The leaves were gone, and things looked rather barren in the light fog that hovered over the station at 9 a.m. It was cold, and it seemed usually dark and dreary even for England.
I had traveled here to visit the ancient and mysterious site known as “Stonehenge,” which is the best known pre-historic monument in all of Europe. There in the station parking lot, as promised, stood a large motorcoach with a banner on its side that read “To Stonehenge.” I boarded along with about 20 or so others for the 9-mile trip to the monument. As the bus arrived at the site, a light rain had begun to fall. It seemed to me that the chances of seeing Stonehenge were getting slimmer and slimmer, if such were even possible!
In true British fashion, however, I determined to “soldier on!” despite the rain. I bought my ticket and found a place to sit in the tiny visitor’s center. I was determined to wait out the rain. There were several brochures and booklets there for the taking, and I passed the time by reading about this famous monument. After little more than an hour, the rain stopped, and, as I walked up a slight incline toward the monument, just a trace of sun began to break through the low-hanging clouds.
Each year, more one million people travel from London to ponder the mysterious, giant stones that constitute Stonehenge. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has puzzled historians and archaeologists for decades. Located in southern England, in the Salisbury Plain of South Wilshire, it is comprised of massive stones placed upright in a circular layout.
There are so many mysteries surrounding this prehistoric monument that took Neolithic builders an estimated 1,500 years to erect that I scarcely know where to begin. Indeed, some of these theories about the origin of Stonehenge have been around for centuries. Several of the earliest ones grew out of mythical, supernatural folktales. According to one 12th century legend, the sorcerer Merlin (a mythical figure from Welch literature) recruited a giant to construct Stonehenge. Another legend suggested that the structure was magically transported from Mount Killaraus in Ireland to be reconstructed at its present location in Salisbury, U.K. Another suggested that it was the Devil himself who built the structure.
During the 17th century these earlier legendary approaches began to be informed by the emergence of more scientific methods for studying the origins of Stonehenge. One the first attempts to survey and understand the monument was made around 1640 by John Aubrey. His careful measurements of the site allowed for greater analysis of its form and significance.
Ever more detailed drawings of the site continued to emerge during the 18th century. In 1740, for example, an architect named John Wood made the first truly accurate drawing of Stonehenge. He suggested that Stonehenge was actually a Roman temple that had been dedicated to the Greek god Uranus. Still other theories followed on into the 19th century. These theories largely traced the origin of the site to more recent societies, like those of the Danes or the Saxons.
Then later in the 19th century, the British politician and scientist John Lubbock traced the origin of the site to the Bronze Age (3000-1200 B.C.). He brought the full weight of scientific methodology to the study of Stonehenge. Now thorough analysis of the site would lead to robust discussions and debates as to its origin and purpose.
Today, many archaeologists think that this iconic prehistoric ruin was actually built in stages. Sometime in the early neolithic period (about 3,100 B.C.) workers used primitive tools such as deer antlers to dig a deep, circular ditch and bank (known in antiquity as a “henge”). To mark the entranceway, they erected two parallel stones on the northeast side of the circle (one of which still survives). Also during this first stage the “station stones” were placed. Originally there were four of these stones, perhaps suggesting some now unknown geometrical or even astronomical alignment. This stage lasted for about 500 years before the site reverted to scrub land.
A second phase of development began about 1,000 years later when the complex was remodeled. Giant bluestone pillars, each weighing up to four tons, were hoisted upright in the center of the site. It is estimated that initially there may have been as many as 80 of these non-indigenous bluestones, 43 of which remain today. These bluestones came from the mountains in southwestern Wales and were probably transported by sea or river, although some researchers have argued that they were brought overland — a distance of more than 125 miles. These stones were intended to form the initial sections of two concentric circles, though these circles were never completed. In this phase, the entranceway was marked by placing bluestones that were aligned approximately at the sunrise during the summer solstice.
Today, the remains of the monument include two primary stone types: bluestone and sarsen sandstone. The older variety of the smaller igneous bluestones (three-four tons) and massive sarsens (25+ tons) are both found at Stonehenge. The sarsens came from a source (about 20 miles) that was much closer to Stonehenge than the south of Wales. These stones were “dressed,” making Stonehenge the only pre-historic monument composed of stones with smooth surfaces. Also, during this final stage of development, there was a circle of stones that included stones with lintels. It is these stones that form the most recognizable and iconic contemporary views at Stonehenge.
While researchers have been puzzled for decades about why a civilization without modern technology – or even the wheel – would even undertake to build such a weighty monument in the first place, no single aspect about Stonehenge has confounded researchers more than the central question: “what was its purpose?”
One theory suggests that Stonehenge was used as a Neolithic burial site and as a monument to the dead for at least the first half of the third millennium B.C. Archaeologists have unearthed a series of “post holes” around the site that contain charred remains. Analysis of these bones confirm that they were, in fact, buried during this 500-year period. After 2,500 B.C., humans remains were no longer interred within the stone circle itself but instead in the ditches around the periphery. This suggests a shift in the cultural significance of Stonehenge. The study of the recovered remains reveals that some of the bodies were cremated off-site and subsequently transported great distances to be buried at Stonehenge. For Neolithic Britons, Stonehenge appears to have held a great deal of significance.
Another theory is that Stonehenge was designed to be a primitive observatory built to track the movement of the sun, moon, and stars. This notion arises, at least partly, from the examination of the standing bluestones. These appear to have been carefully placed in accordance with the dictums of early astronomical knowledge. Stonehenge famously aligns to the Summer Solstice (longest daylight time) and Winter solstice (shortest daylight time). In 1965, the astronomer Gerald Hawkin identified 165 separate points at Stonehenge that could be linked to astrological phenomena, including the two solstices and equinoxes, as well as lunar and solar eclipses.
Other modern theories about the purposes of Stonehenge abound: a ceremonial site for various rituals; an historic equivalent of “Lourdes” as a place for physical and spiritual healing; a kind of mausoleum for kings and queens; a memorial erected to honor ancestors who are long dead.
So while decades of research have yielded significant, new amounts of knowledge about Stonehenge, there remain countless unsettled issues. At the top of the list of these unanswered questions are those relating to its purpose. One professor of archaeology from University College, Cardiff, Wales, summed it up this way: “Most of what has been written about Stonehenge is nonsense or speculation. No one will ever have a clue what its significance was.” Even though the professor is likely correct, I can tell you, nonetheless, that Stonehenge is an interesting and compelling place. For my part, these unanswered questions add to its mystery and make the place all the more alluring. If you get to London, I urge you to include the 90-mile trip to Stonehenge on your list of “must-see” places
Next time: “Bhutan: The Last Shangri-La”