♔More than 1 million people visit Stonehenge each year. It is one of Britain’s most important ancient monuments, having been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986.
The Neolithic monument is widely believed to be a prehistoric temple built to mark the movements of the sun. Each year thousands of people descend on the ancient religious site to watch the sun rise for the summer solstice, marking the longest day of the year and the first day of summer.
As archaeologists and researchers continue to study the area, their recent finds paint a picture of a far more mysterious and elaborate Neolithic and Bronze Age world than previously thought.
Archaeologists believe the area was occupied beginning around 9,000 years ago, suggesting it had significance long before Stonehenge was built. Remains of pits and cremations within and around the area, suggest as many as 150 individuals were buried at Stonehenge, making it the largest late Neolithic cemetery in the British Isles.
Stonehenge was in the making for at least 400 years. The first phase, starting around 3,000 B.C was a simple circular “henge” an earthwork enclosure consisting of circular banks of earth paralleled by an internal ditch, these can be found throughout the British Isles.
Sometime from 2,600 B.C the first stone construction was built of bluestones. The 4-8 tonne bluestones came from Carn Menyn, 170 miles away at the eastern end of the Preseli hills, in Wales. The Preseli hills are today still dotted with dolmens (ancient tombs), stone circles, and other megalithic monuments.
How the fabled bluestones were transported has been hotly debated over the years. The general consensus is that they were transported by river along the coast of Wales, across the Severn estuary, into the upper reaches of the Avon, a 250 mile journey. On arrival the stones would have been dragged along the Avenue – the ancient processional approach to Stonehenge, and up to the site. Here they would have been decoratively stippled, grooved and smoothed, then erected in pairs to form a double arc.
Soon after, the larger outer circle of giant stones Sarsens- a local hard sandstone weighing 25 tons, were erected. These huge standing stones (Trilithons) were brought in from Marlborough Downs, 20-30 miles away. At some point the stones were linked by an avenue to the River Avon.
The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes project, (2010/14) a four year collaboration between the University of Bradford, England, and the Boltzmann Institute Vienna, produced the first detailed underground survey of the area surrounding Stonehenge.
The team used underground radar and magnetic imaging techniques to produce a 3-D map of a four square mile area. The map showed that Stonehenge lies at the centre of a complex web of structures of ancient burial mounds, unknown settlements, processional routes and even gold-adorned burials; far from the ‘guarded area’ once believed.
Studies conducted by Michael Allen, an expert in environmental archaeology, revealed that the Stonehenge landscape was cleared, grazed, and farmed, people lived around the site going about their everyday business:
I see it being used like a cathedral, or Wembley Stadium,” Allen said. Some days it was used to hold solemn rituals, other days for more ordinary gatherings.
Prof. VIncent Gaffney, co-director of the Hidden Landscapes Project explains:
Most research to date has been concentrated on the monuments you can see, and the tendency was to believe that there was effectively a cordon sanitaire around Stonehenge. The bits in between the visible monuments, effectively the majority of the landscape, have been essentially terra incognita. (unexplored territory).
By using magnetometry and a whole raft of other modern technologies to get this information together we are starting to have a pretty radically different approach to the landscape.
To the north is the long thin strip called the Stonehenge Cursus, or the Greater Cursus.
The Cursus was given its name by the antiquarian William Stukeley in the 18th century because it looked like an ancient Roman race course that ran east to west for nearly two miles. Dug in the fourth millennium B.C, it’s a 3km long structure of parallel banks built 700m north of the henge itself, its construction is thought to pre-date the first building work at Stonehenge by several hundred years.
The Hidden Landscapes Project’s instruments discovered several new clues about the Cursus: Firstly, they found gaps in the ditch in the northern side, indicating that movement of people was not just along the path of the sun, east to west, as previously thought, but there were channels through the landscape to guide the movement of people north to south, probably during rituals.
Adding to this impression, was the exciting revelation of two huge pits at each end of the Cursus. In the archaeologists minds it could only have ritual implications “as a marker of some kind.” Project Director Prof. Vince Gaffney explains:
If you drew a straight line between the pit and the heelstone at Stonehenge, it ran directly along the final section of The Avenue, on the path of the sunrise on the summer solstice. We thought, That’s a bit of a coincidence! That was the point at which we thought, What’s at the other end? And there’s another pit! Two pits, marking the midsummer sunrise and the midsummer solstice, set within a monument that’s meant to be something to do with the passage of the sun.
The pits are vast, five metres by at least one metre deep, and while it’s possible the solar alignments are coincidence, it’s unlikely, says Gaffney. If the pits are contemporary with the Cursus, which is held to be earlier than Stonehenge, it tells us that the area of Stonehenge is coming to the fore at this point. They tie together the area of Stonehenge and the Cursus.
Prof. Mike Parker Pearson (UCL Institute of Archaeology) who led the Stonehenge Riverside Project (2003/09), takes a more cautious approach:
To be sure, he said the data from the Hidden Landscapes Project backs up the pattern we’ve already been seeing for some years. We have an excessive number of solstice-aligned monuments in that landscape. Nowhere in the rest of Europe comes even close he added. This is fantastic stuff that’s been done, and it’s raised a whole series of new questions, he said. It’s going to take years.
The Golden Question: Why was Stonehenge built?
All you can say is that something once happened here in the deep past, and once it had, it was reinforced and became more important over a larger area, pulling in more and more people from great distances, That is how ritual works, through repeated actions, says Parker Pearson. Monuments have lives of their own and their significance changes over the huge amount of time that they are built and re-built.
During June 1668 Samuel Pepys the great diarist, took a holiday tour of southern England. This included a visit to stonehenge on June 11 hiring horses and a guide to take him over the plain. His first impression still resonates true today:
To Stonage, over the plain and some prodigious great hills, even to fright us. Came thither, and find them as prodigious as any tales I ever heard of them, and worth going this journey to see. God knows what their use was! They are hard to tell, but yet may be told.
Stonehenge is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage; the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust.