New Light on Old Stones
PUBLISHED: 01:16 08 April 2011 | UPDATED: 21:31 20 February 2013
In the light of recent discoveries, Robert Harvey considers why this extraordinary stone circle was created on Salisbury Plain
Wiltshire has distinguished traditions of building fine houses (Longleat), great public works (the Great Western Railway), magnificent churches (Salisbury Cathedral) and architectural follies (too numerous to count). Standing proudly on Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge shows that our ancestors appetite for monumental construction started over forty centuries ago. But into which tradition does it fit? Was Stonehenge a place where people lived? Could it have been providing a public service? Maybe a religious centre to which pilgrims flocked from across ancient Britain? Or was it simply a landscape feature?
Any convincing explanation must account for the complexity of the ancient landscape within which Stonehenge stands. Within a few kilometres of the stone circle are Neolithic long barrows, Bronze Age round barrows (burial mounds), the enigmatic cursus, Durrington Walls and Woodhenge. They all appear to be components of a ritual landscape, created between 3500 and 1500 BC.
Thanks to recent excavations for the Stonehenge Riverside Project, we now know that Durrington Walls was a Neolithic village beside the River Avon. The makers of Stonehenge probably lived here. Nearby Woodhenge was originally a replica of Stonehenge, with the stone pillars substituted by timber. The wood decayed long ago but the holes in which theuprights stood can be detected, and have been filled with concrete posts to mark the original layout. Last year, evidence of other circular wooden henge monuments around Stonehenge was revealed.
Mike Pitts of British Archaeology argues that Stonehenge was principally a burial site. There are hundreds of cremation burials around the monument, of which at least 50 have been fully excavated. Woodhenge, on the other hand, is littered with the remains of pottery and other materials of daily life. Mike points to a symbolic distinction between wood and stone. This leads to the idea that Woodhenge was a place for the living (those who are transient) whilst Stonehenge was a place for the dead (those who are permanent). A similar idea prevails today amongst inhabitants of the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar. They ive in flimsy wooden houses but construct elaborate stone tombs. When travelling in Madagascar, I asked people the reason and the reply was We are dead for much longer than we are alive! It sounds curious logic to our modern, Western society, but could such an idea have motivated the ancient people of Wiltshire to live in timber structures and build Stonehenge as a monument to their dead?
A defining feature of Stonehenge is its orientation. The main axis runs north-west to south-east, precisely between the directions of mid-winter sunset and mid-summer sunrise. It seems that our forebears conducted ceremonies on one of these dates, but whether they celebrated the summer or the winter solstice we have no way of knowing.
Stand in the centre of the stone circle on 21 June, after the shortest night of the year, and the sun rises behind the heelstone. Today this is the great solstice celebration (to be covered in the August/September edition of Wiltshire magazine). Was it an occasion for revelry in Bronze Age Britain as well?
Many archaeologists believe midwinter solstice was more important to the builders of Stonehenge. On 21 December, the sun sets at its southernmost point on the horizon. An observer approaching the monument along the ancient Avenue, from the north-east, sees the setting sun pass between the highest stones of the inner sarsen horseshoe. In an age before calendars, clocks or writing, the monument would have allowed the identification of the shortest day of the year.
Ancient people needed to mark the passing of the seasons. As farmers, they needed to know when to plant their crops. We still have a mid-winter celebration today, passed down from ancient times, incorporated into our Christian traditions and observed four days later, on 25 December.
Association with the setting sun could also link with the idea of Stonehenge as a place for the dead, as the Avenue is the direction of approach from the settlement at Durrington Walls. Were inhabitants of the Neolithic village, upon death, carried along the Avenue towards the departing sun?
A less fashionable idea is that Stonehenge could have been an astronomical observatory. The great stone trilithons divide the sky into segments and, to an observer at the centre, would have defined the rising and setting points of sun and stars throughout the year. If, on the other hand, astronomy was not its purpose, perhaps the orientation of the monument to solstice sunrise and sunset was incidental. In a similar way, modern churches face east.
We understand the orientation of Stonehenge and we also know what it is made from. The great uprights or trilithons are sarsen stones, hauled from the Marlborough Downs, then fashioned into shape using bronze tools. On the other hand, the smaller bluestones within the outer circle originate from Pembrokeshire, ten times further away. Transporting the bluestones would have been a colossal undertaking. It is thought that they were probably moved by barge along the English Channel and the River Avon. Why go to such trouble? What made the bluestones so significant?
A clue may lie in the skeletons found at Stonehenge. Excavations in recent years have led some archaeologists to conclude that many show disfigurement before death. The Amesbury Archer, found in 2002, was missing a kneecap. This would have made walking difficult and painful.
Even more interesting is that the chemistry of his bones and teeth suggest he originated in central Europe. Goods buried with him came from what is now France and Spain he travelled far to reach Stonehenge.
Professor Geoff Wainwright believes that the bluestones lie at the core of understanding the purpose of Stonehenge. He recently explored Pembrokeshires Preseli Mountains to pinpoint the exact location from where the Stonehenge bluestones originated. By comparing their geology, he concluded that they were quarried at Carn Menyn. Bluestones here are associated with natural springs. Belief in the healing powers of water from these springs has endured into modern times. Some of the many springs on the hillsides have been decorated with bluestones. Were the bluestones believed to share the powers of the water? Is that why they were brought from Wales to Salisbury Plain, and why people with disabilities travelled to Stonehenge from Europe? Healing the sick could have motivated both the builders of Stonehenge and its ancient visitors.
The idea of Stonehenge as a hospital is gaining credence. Carbon dating of materials buried beneath the stones has now established that the bluestones were first erected in 2300 BC. The same excavations found evidence that they were removed and reset over many centuries.
Professor Tim Darville of Bournemouth University says:"They are celebrated and reused many times over, which hints at the importance of the bluestones to our ancestors. He also found numerous bluestone fragments around the monument and comments: The bluestones are being broken up pretty systematically... because people want bits of those stones to take away.
Mike Pitts, on the other hand, acknowledges the bluestones importance but describes the evidence of deformed burials as inaccurate. Casting doubt on the idea of a centre for healing, he argues that overseas visitors were more likely religious pilgrims.
Whilst there are many ideas on its function, none of the archaeologists I have spoken to can explain why Stonehenge was built on Salisbury Plain. The answer may be locked up in ancient tribal politics of which no tangible evidence remains.
The mystery of Stonehenge is part of its fascination. No one will ever know for sure its original purpose. Each new piece of evidence is used to support or develop one of the competing theories. A shrine to ancestors, a calendar or a hospital? In todays society these are distinct functions, each carried out at their own locations. For people removed from our ways of thinking by 170 generations, that may not have been so. Perhaps Stonehenge was a combination of all three.