Stonehenge is one of the most famous megalithic monuments in the world and may once have been an observatory for predicting important astronomical events. Stonehenge is located in the English county of Wiltshire, about 2.0 miles west of Amesbury and 8 miles north of Salisbury.
Stonehenge is a strange and powerful magnet, attracting people of all kinds, from all across the world to view and sense the mystical and magical aura of its huge and ancient stones. Many people of all faiths and religious denomination now make it an annual pilgrimage, particularly during the summer solstice. Yet the original purpose of Stonehenge is still an enigma, one that even the best brains in the world have failed to unravel. Lord Byron in his poem 'Don Juan' echoed one of the questions 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 stones 'Stonehenge' or the 'Hanging Stones', while medieval writers refer to it as the 'Giant's Dance'. Inigo Jones the renowned 17th-century architect and the first to make a serious study of it, considered Stonehenge to be a Roman temple. Then 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 a more realistic conclusion as to its purpose.
The open Wiltshire countryside surrounding Stonehenge lies in the heart of southern England and is rich in prehistoric remains, these include: Woodhenge (a henge or enclosure once consisting of great wooden posts), Durrington Walls (once a structure similar to that in Avebury) and the Cursus (a pair of banked ditches 100 m (300 ft) apart and running straight for about 3 km (2 miles), they are believed to be dated around the 4th millennium BC). Then there are some 400 barrows, a lying testament to the intense communal activity of our ancient ancestors, those who grazed animals and cattle, grew wheat and other crops while at the same time worshiping their gods in and around Salisbury Plain. The purposes of some of these sites are still unknown, but many believe them to have been religious. Then in around 3500 BC they started to build Stonehenge.
The stones of Stonehenge are surrounded by a large circular ditch measuring 104 m (340 ft) in diameter and 1.5 m (5 ft) deep, within the ditch is a bank and a ring of 56 pits or holes, now known as Aubrey holes, after their discoverer the British biographer and antiquarian John Aubrey (1626 –1697). At the northeast end of the circle a break gives access to a ditch-bordered avenue, this travels in a northeastwardly direction toward the East Avon River and measures 23 m (75 ft) wide and nearly 3 km (2 mile) long.
The monument itself consists of four arrangements of its stones. The outermost range is a circle 30 m (100 ft) in diameter containing large linteled sandstone blocks called sarsen stones. Inside this outer ring is a circle of smaller blue stones, consisting mainly of spotted dolerite with four specimens each of rhyolite and volcanic ash. This inner circle encloses a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of five linteled pairs of large sarsen stones and within this a smaller horseshoe-shaped arrangement of blue stones encloses a slab of green micaceous sandstone known as the ‘Altar Stone’. Near the entrance to the avenue lies another stone called the ‘Heel stone’, this again is of sarsen stone and may originally have stood upright.
Grouped around the main structure of the monument are a number of barrows, some of which contain chips of blue stone similar to those that make up the inner ring. These blue stones were brought down from the north flank of the Prescelly Mountains in Wales, while the Altar Stone is believed to have come from a region near Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire.
British archaeologists and notably Richard Atkinson established in the 1950s that the building of Stonehenge was constructed in three phases over about 1500 years. The first stage was the circular bank and ditch containing the Aubrey holes, at which time the first of the standing stone was erected outside the single entrance to the circle.
The second stage began some 200 or more years later. New builders constructed the avenue of parallel banks linking Stonehenge with the East Avon River about 3km (2 miles) away. It was during this phase that they brought down blocks of bluestone from the north flank of the Prescelly Mountains in Wales, a massive undertaking in those times. These large stones are thought to have been carried by raft around the coast of Wales to Bristol, then transported up local rivers and hauled overland until finally being dragged on rollers up the avenue to Stonehenge, there they were erected forming two circles.
However, the bluestone circles were soon dismantled and replaced by the giant stones that still dominate the site today. Since some of these stones measure 5.5 by 2 m (18ft by 7 ft) and weigh in at around 26 tons, their manipulation and erection must have involved a very large workforce. The men responsible for erecting them were obviously skilled craftsmen, for they shaped the stones making them slightly convex, carefully they fitted them into place with lintels covering each of the two vertical stones by 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 the small pillar stones dwarfed by the trilithons. Holes were dug outside the main circle for the erection of a double circle of bluestones, but for some reason this construction was never started. Some 1500 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 from Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, 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 its construction, demonstrates how important Stonehenge was to the peoples of its time. The fact that the architects needed the blue and green stones from Wales and the trouble they went to too get them, suggests that the stones themselves had special significance. It is evident then that Stonehenge was not designed to be a simple meeting place for the local people. But what was it designed for? What was its purpose? Today we can only speculate on a few tantalizing clues that point to its possible function.
The cremation burials discovered in the Aubrey Holes, show that funerary rites were once performed at Stonehenge, so could it be that during the mid-summer solstice as the sun rose between the Heel Stone and another stone no longer present, that the earliest Stonehenge was used to expose ancestral remains to the life-giving sun at this significant time of year, and that the Aubrey holes symbolized places of entry into the Underworld?
In more recent times American astronomer Gerald Hawkins used a computer to decode many of the stone alignments and from this concluded that Stonehenge was a sophisticated means of observing the heavens. But it is doubtful if these early observations were precise, or that the ancients were engaged in the same quest of discovery as scientists are today. Their most likely concerns would have been to establish 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. As no one has yet has determined Stonehenge's true function, it may well be that John Michell, the British author and esoteric researcher is right when he suggested 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”.
What remains of Stonehenge today is but a shadow of its past, though still an impressive view of its former glory. The original shape of the temple (if that’s what it was) can be discerned, though more than half the stones have either fallen, gone missing or been buried beneath the turf. Had an aerial photo of the monument been taken some 4,000 years ago, the 'Giant's Dance' would have been complete showing the four stone arrangements from the outside to the centre, the ring of sarsen sandstone monoliths linked by lintels and standing some 5m (16ft) tall, the circle of bluestones, the horseshoe of five sarsen trilithons and a horseshoe of bluestones, in the middle of which lay the great Altar Stone itself. To the northeast and outside the entrance would have stood the bulky Heel Stone guarding the avenue to this sacred site.
The size of the monument, the origin of the stones, the orientation of the site (from northeast to southwest), the man-hours of construction time and the centuries over which it was built, all point to Stonehenge being more than a peasant farmers meeting place. While most archaeologists now agree to a religious function, anyone who has witnessed the sunrise over the great sarsen stones at the time of the midwinter solstice can hardly doubt the additional astronomical function of Stonehenge.
Although the mystical 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 which, when transferred to water, could cure all manner of ailments. Rural gatherings have been held here for centuries and for the last 80 years, white-robed descendants of the United Ancient Order of Druids (founded by freemasons in London in 1833), have performed ritual passed down through oral tradition. At dawn on the morning of the summer solstice, these latter-day Druids play harps and trumpets, saluted the Heel Stone and the sarsen stones, intoned murmuring chants and raised oak leaves or incense into the air. These modern Druids though, have no connection with the original Celtic priesthood that once celebrated the summer solstice at Stonehenge.
However, in the past the site have taken it toll, and has weathered and endured the weight of many people. Sadly some have even abused the site by climbing the stones and painting them with graffiti. Happily today, much of this damage has been erased by the elements. As a precaution against further damage, in 1989, much to the consternation of many, the authorities banned both the Druids and the festival for fear that the stones and the surrounding land would be damaged by the pressure of so many feet walking among the stones, the effect of which was pounding the grass into dust.
This caused much discontent amongst the populace, for at this time Stonehenge was also the spiritual focus of many ‘New Age’ religions and peoples of a nomadic way of life. Throughout the late 1980’s and early 1900’s, conflicts and riots ensued over who should have access to the stones, and on several consecutive mid-summer occasions many had to be forcibly kept from access by the police. Fencing now encircles the site throughout the year, simply to protect it from vandalism.
Happily this conflict has now been resolved, and while access to the stones throughout the year is still prohibited, except by special approval, annually on the summer solstice, four hours before dawn until four hours after, all barriers are taken down and free access is allowed to all who wish to celebrate and worship.
While the conflict of access may have been resolved, still the most glaring intrusion of Stonehenge remains. These are the two roads that now appear to dissect the landscape, one of which is so close that it appears to touch one of the stones and is separated only by a chain-link fence. The other passes a little farther away, some 200 yards from the site. However, hope is in the offing, interested archaeologists and historians want more than protection of the site, they also want the experience of Stonehenge to be enhanced. A new 'Stonehenge Master Plan' has been proposed involving all associated interested groups, English Heritage included. This plan is to ensure that the landscape will be returned to its original grandeur by changing roadways, restoring landscapes and improving visitor facilities to the site.
May the future respect the past, and the ancients rest in peace.
Written and compiled on the 15th November 2002 © George Knowles