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Stonehenge: An Overview

Stonehenge, located in the English county of Wiltshire, is a world-renowned prehistoric monument, showcasing remarkable architectural complexity and precision for a society that existed thousands of years ago. As a testament to its significance, Stonehenge was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1986.

The monument consists of a ring of standing stones, each about 4 meters high, 2.1 meters wide, and weighing around 25 tons. These stones are set within earthworks, with a circular ditch and bank marking the boundaries. The formation was not constructed all at once but instead was the result of several stages of development spread over many centuries.

The first significant construction at Stonehenge was a circular earthwork enclosure, built around 3000 BC. This early henge monument was made up of a ditch and bank, with the ditch inside the bank – a feature that defines henge monuments. The use of Stonehenge during this time is unclear, but it’s likely that it was used for a mixture of religious ceremonies, communal gatherings, and possibly as a site of burial.

Around 500 years later, in 2500 BC, the iconic standing stones were erected. The largest stones, known as “sarsens,” are up to 30 feet tall and weigh 25 tons on average. They were arranged into an outer ring and an inner horseshoe shape. In addition, smaller stones, called “bluestones,” were arranged in a double arc between the two sarsen structures. Remarkably, these bluestones were sourced from the Preseli Hills in Wales, about 200 miles away – a testament to the Neolithic builders’ determination and technical capability.

Alternative Views and Theories

There are several theories regarding the purpose and function of Stonehenge, often based on archaeological evidence, historical texts, and cultural comparisons.

Stonehenge as an Astronomical Observatory

The theory that Stonehenge functioned as an ancient astronomical observatory has been a significant focal point of research for many years. This concept is known as archaeoastronomy, which examines how ancient societies understood and utilized phenomena in the sky to shape their worlds.

The layout and positioning of the stones at Stonehenge have provided compelling evidence for this theory. The monument has a precise alignment with the rising sun at the summer solstice, and with the setting sun at the winter solstice. The summer solstice sunrise occurs precisely over the Heel Stone when viewed from the center of the stone circle, while the winter solstice sunset aligns with the view along the central axis towards the south-west sector.

One of the more notable features of Stonehenge’s design is the presence of the Avenue, a parallel pair of ditches and banks leading from the northeastern entrance of the monument, down a slope, and towards the River Avon. This Avenue is aligned with the summer solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset, suggesting a ceremonial pathway aligned with the solstices.

Further supporting this theory, several of the internal components of Stonehenge show alignments with significant astronomical phenomena. For instance, the four Station Stones form a rectangle, of which the shorter diagonal also aligns with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset.

Despite these indications, it should be noted that many archaeologists and astronomers warn against over-interpretation of these alignments. While the solstice alignments are likely intentional, other proposed alignments (for example, with moonrise and moonset) are less certain and could be coincidental.

Nevertheless, the idea of Stonehenge as a prehistoric observatory highlights the astronomical knowledge possessed by Neolithic people and their desire to create a lasting monument integrating that knowledge. Whether or not the site was used to predict celestial events like eclipses is still a matter of debate, but the solstice alignments suggest at least a rudimentary form of celestial observation and commemoration.

Stonehenge as a Sacred Burial Site

The theory that Stonehenge served as a sacred burial site or a place of ancestor worship stems from the discovery of various human remains in the vicinity of the monument. These findings have offered archaeologists valuable insights into the monument’s cultural and ritual significance during the Neolithic period.

In the early 20th century, cremated human bones were found within several of the Aubrey Holes, a circle of pits at Stonehenge named after John Aubrey, the 17th-century antiquarian who first identified them. Initial studies suggested that these remains belonged to high-status males, possibly religious or political leaders, but recent research using modern techniques has revealed a more diverse group, including men, women, and children.

Moreover, the Stonehenge Riverside Project, which ran from 2003 to 2009, discovered additional burials in the vicinity of Stonehenge. In 2008, the project team uncovered a large Neolithic settlement in Durrington Walls, a few kilometers away from Stonehenge. The excavation revealed numerous ‘grooved ware’ pottery fragments and animal bones, suggesting feasting activities. Additionally, they found a variety of human remains, including the famous ‘Amesbury Archer,’ buried with rich grave goods, indicating a place of significant ritual and possibly mortuary activity.

Excavations also uncovered the remains of the ‘Stonehenge Archer,’ whose bones were found in the outer ditch of the monument. He was buried with several artifacts, including archery equipment, suggesting a possible high-status individual or warrior.

While it’s clear that burials took place at Stonehenge, the purpose and significance of these burials are still a subject of debate. Some scholars argue that the site was primarily a necropolis, with the stones serving to honor and connect with ancestors. Others suggest that the burials were secondary to the site’s other functions and were part of the broader ceremonial landscape of the area.

Overall, while Stonehenge’s exact purpose and use may never be fully known, the presence of human remains and associated grave goods adds a compelling layer to our understanding of this enigmatic monument.

Stonehenge as a Healing Site

The idea that Stonehenge was a site of healing or even a prehistoric pilgrimage destination for the sick is a theory that has been investigated with the help of modern archaeological techniques. This idea primarily stems from the analysis of human remains discovered near and around the monument, which bear evidence of significant illness or injury.

A study led by archaeologists Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright proposes that the bluestones – the smaller stones at the site – were believed to have healing properties by the Neolithic people. According to their research, these stones were specifically sourced from the Preseli Hills in Wales, not only for their size and shape but also for their supposed curative powers. They argue that the long, difficult journey to transport the bluestones to Stonehenge indicates that they must have been considered extraordinarily significant.

Supporting this ‘healing’ theory, analysis of human remains in the area has shown that a significant number of the individuals suffered from serious physical ailments. Some of the skeletons exhibit signs of debilitating illness or injury, and the teeth of some individuals suggest that they traveled from far away, possibly seeking healing at Stonehenge.

Furthermore, small fragments of the bluestones found at the site show signs of being chipped away. Darvill and Wainwright suggest that these fragments were likely taken as talismans, again indicating a belief in the healing properties of these stones.

However, while the evidence supporting this theory is compelling, it’s important to note that it is still a matter of debate within the archaeological community. The study of prehistoric belief systems is complex, and while the presence of ailing individuals and the significance of the bluestones suggest a possible healing function, other scholars argue that these could be interpreted differently, such as the integration of the sick or injured into religious or ceremonial activities.

Stonehenge and Acoustic Illusions

A fascinating and more contemporary hypothesis regarding Stonehenge’s purpose pertains to the potential acoustic properties of the monument. This theory posits that the builders of Stonehenge designed it in a way to create auditory illusions, enhancing or manipulating sound within the circle.

British researcher Rupert Till of the University of Huddersfield pioneered this approach. His studies, including detailed acoustic measurements at the site and at replica Stonehenge monuments, suggest that the architecture of Stonehenge had the potential to create a unique auditory experience. Sounds made in the center of the monument, such as speaking, clapping, or musical notes, have a more resonant and reverberant quality, and the stones themselves appear to amplify these sounds.

Moreover, Till’s research also suggests that the specific layout of the stones could have been designed to create an illusion of sound localization. In other words, sound originating from the center of the circle could appear to come from the outer stones when heard from certain positions. This phenomenon could have contributed to the site’s perceived mystique and sacredness.

Additionally, other studies have reported a phenomenon called “the frequency of the missing fundamental” at Stonehenge. In this case, when two musical notes are played simultaneously at the site, listeners also perceive a third, lower pitch, even though it’s not actually being played. This effect may have added to the aural mystique of ceremonies or gatherings at the site.

While the acoustic theory is fascinating, it remains a subject of ongoing research and debate. The original state of Stonehenge and the missing stones make it difficult to confirm these acoustic properties definitively. However, this research opens up exciting new considerations in understanding how prehistoric peoples might have interacted with and experienced monumental spaces like Stonehenge.

While these theories offer possible explanations, it is likely that Stonehenge served multiple purposes over its long history, shifting with the needs and beliefs of the societies that used it. The true purpose of Stonehenge remains one of the world’s most intriguing historical mysteries.

References:

British Archaeology, no. 96, July/August 2007. Darvill, T. and Wainwright,
G. “Stonehenge excavations 2008,” pp. 44-49.

British Archaeology, no. 96, July/August 2007. Darvill, T. and Wainwright,
G. “Stonehenge excavations 2008,” pp. 44-49.

Darvill, T., & Wainwright, G. (2009). Stonehenge excavations 2008. The
Antiquaries Journal, 89, 1-19.

Devereux, P., Krippner, S., Totton, N., & Brookes, M. (2011). Acoustic
and psychic aspects of the Avebury complex, Wiltshire. Time and Mind, 4(1),
61-70.

English Heritage. (n.d.). History of Stonehenge. https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/history/

Fitzpatrick, A. P. (2011). The Amesbury Archer and the Boscombe Bowmen: Bell
Beaker burials at Boscombe Down, Amesbury, Wiltshire. Wessex Archaeology
Reports No.27. Wessex Archaeology Ltd.

Parker Pearson, M. (2012). Stonehenge: exploring the greatest Stone Age
mystery. Simon & Schuster UK.

Parker Pearson, M. (2016). The many mysteries of Stonehenge. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/decoding-secrets-stonehenge-180963661/

Parker Pearson, M., et al. (2009). Who was buried at Stonehenge? Antiquity,
83(319), 23-39.

Ray, B. (2007). The Astronomy behind the Neolithic monument. https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/british_prehistory/stonehenge_01.shtml

Till, R. (2014). “An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Acoustics of
Stonehenge.” Archaeoacoustics: The Archaeology of Sound, edited by Linda C.
Eneix. The OTS Foundation, Myakka City, FL, USA.

Till, R. (2014). “An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Acoustics of
Stonehenge.” Archaeoacoustics: The Archaeology of Sound, edited by Linda C.
Eneix. The OTS Foundation, Myakka City, FL, USA.

UNESCO. (1986). Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/373/

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