Stonehenge, one of the most enduring mysteries of the ancient world, perches unassumingly on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. This prehistoric monument, constructed approximately 5,000 years ago during the Neolithic Age, has captivated the imaginations of scholars, historians, and tourists alike, remaining an awe-inspiring testament to the ingenuity of our ancestors. A striking arrangement of massive stones set in concentric circles and horseshoe shapes, Stonehenge has left generations pondering its true purpose and the means by which it was erected.
The mystery behind Stonehenge lies not just in its purpose, but also in the sheer logistics of its creation. The larger “sarsen” stones, averaging around 25 tons with the heaviest weighing in at about 30 tons, were transported from Marlborough Downs, roughly 20 miles away. Meanwhile, the smaller “bluestones,” which weigh up to 4 tons, were brought all the way from the Preseli Hills in Wales, a staggering distance of approximately 140 miles.
Stonehenge as a Solar and Lunar Calendar
Astronomy and Alignment
One of the most widely accepted theories about Stonehenge is that it served as a type of astronomical observatory or calendar. This concept is based on the monument’s clear orientation towards the solstices. The most telling evidence is the alignment of the Heel Stone, a solitary sarsen outside the central circle, with the rising sun during the summer solstice.
Archaeologist and astronomer Gerald Hawkins furthered this theory in the 1960s when he used an early IBM computer to discover that specific alignments at Stonehenge corresponded with solar and lunar positions. However, this theory is not without its detractors, some of whom point out that these alignments could be coincidental.
Rituals and Celebrations
Building on the astronomical theory, it has been proposed that Stonehenge was a site for religious ceremonies or social gatherings tied to celestial events. The monument’s alignment with the solstices, coupled with evidence of pig slaughter on a massive scale during midwinter, suggests that Stonehenge may have been a gathering place for annual festivities or rituals.
Stonehenge as a Place of Healing
Another popular theory suggests that Stonehenge was a site of healing or pilgrimage. Geoffrey Wainwright and Timothy Darvill, two leading archaeologists, proposed this theory after analyzing the human remains found around Stonehenge. Many of the bodies exhibited signs of illness or injury, supporting the notion that people travelled to Stonehenge in search of healing.
The smaller bluestones play a crucial role in this theory. Folklore in the Preseli Hills, from where the bluestones originate, tells of their healing properties. If these tales were prevalent during the monument’s construction, it could explain why the builders went to such lengths to transport them.
Stonehenge as a Monument to the Dead
Some archaeologists argue that Stonehenge was a burial ground or a monument to the ancestors. This theory is supported by the discovery of cremated remains dating back to around 3000 BCE, suggesting that Stonehenge was used as a cemetery even before the larger stones were erected.
Further support for this theory comes from the so-called “Aubrey holes,” named after the 17th-century antiquarian John Aubrey, who discovered them. These pits, located around the monument’s perimeter, were likely used for ceremonial deposits and could have held the remains of the deceased.
The Construction Conundrum
Despite extensive study and sophisticated archaeological techniques, the question of how Stonehenge was constructed remains an intriguing puzzle. The sarsen stones, weighing up to 30 tons, would have required enormous effort to transport and erect. Some theories propose the use of sledges, rollers, or even boats to move these massive stones across the landscape. Others suggest the construction of a series of earthen ramps or platforms to raise them into place. The smaller bluestones from Wales present an even greater challenge given the extensive distance they traveled.
Experiments, such as the one carried out by the BBC Timewatch program in 1996, have shown that with sufficient manpower and determination, such feats are possible. Yet, the precise methods employed by the ancient builders remain speculative, underscoring the profound technical achievement Stonehenge represents.