On the Mystery of Stonehenge

Stonehenge Essay
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Stonehenge. Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

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Growing up anywhere around the world, I believe we have all heard of Stonehenge in some way or the other, either in school or through basic general knowledge. For the unaware folks out there who have never heard of Stonehenge, do not worry. This essay aims to address your curiosity while simultaneously looking into the mystery surrounding Stonehenge.

Often regarded as one of the greatest and most mysterious wonders of the world, Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument located on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, two miles west of the town of Amesbury.

Stonehenge consists of an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones, each around 13 feet (that is 4 meters) high, seven feet (that is 2.1 meters) wide, and weighing around 25 tons. These vertical sarsen stones are topped by connecting horizontal lintel stones. Inside the outer ring of sarsen stones is a ring of smaller bluestones, inside which are free-standing trilithons, two bulkier vertical sarsens joined by one lintel. The stones are set within earthworks in the middle of the densest complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England and include several hundred burial mounds.

The monument is aligned toward the sunrise on the summer solstice. The stones are arranged in a way so as to display mirrored symmetry, with the only undisputed alignment to be found in that of the solstices, which can be regarded as the axis of that symmetry.

Stonehenge, although in ruins now, is one of the most famous monuments not just in the United Kingdom but throughout the world. It is a legally protected monument in Britain and was even deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

Now, you might be wondering when was Stonehenge constructed and why was it constructed in the first place. After all, what could possibly be the use of such a weird-looking stone structure?

Well, after countless hours of research and intense study of the monument, experts have come to a more or less unanimous conclusion that Stonehenge was built sometime around 3000 BC to 2000 BC. Now, I know that this is not a small range and might seem too vague for you to get an accurate idea of when it was constructed. But, unfortunately, it must be noted that Stonehenge was not built in a day, or even in a century for that matter. It was constructed over the course of several centuries.

If you came here looking for an exact date or year, I apologize, for an exact date and year do not exist.

The circular earth bank and ditch surrounding Stonehenge date back to about 3100 BC. And the first bluestones of the inside ring are believed to be erected sometime between 2400 and 2200 BC. However, it is speculated that these bluestones, though erected between 2400 and 2200 BC, may have been present at the site as early as 3000 BC.

Human bones that date back to 3000 BC, which was when the earth bank and ditch are believed to be first dug, have been found at the site. Such human bones dating back to around 2500 BC have been found at the site, thereby leading archaeologists to speculate that Stonehenge was possibly a burial ground from its earliest beginnings around 3000 BC, and continued to serve as one for another 500 years, that is up until around 2500 BC.

It is generally accepted that Stonehenge was constructed in several phases that spanned at least 1500 years. However, this too is not certain, for subsequent findings have provided evidence of some kind of large-scale construction at the site and around it that could extend the time frame to around 6500 years.

Unfortunately for us, Stonehenge was constructed by a civilization that left no written records, thereby making it difficult, maybe even impossible, for us to come up with completely accurate dates and details. Further, the dating and true understanding of the several phases that led to its construction is very difficult and complex due to poor quality and unreliable early excavation records, the absence of scientifically-verified dates, and the disturbance of the natural chalk by periglacial effects and animal burrowing.

All these issues serve as major hindrances to acquiring accurate information and forming concrete, scientifically-proven conclusions.

You might wonder now what could possibly be the use of a bunch of stones put together in a seemingly random and haphazard manner. Well, unfortunately for you the answer to this question is still unknown and debated, and probably will always remain so. The answer to this question is, in all likelihood, lost to prehistoric history forever.

However, the lack of certainty regarding the matter has given birth to several fascinating myths and theories. Needless to say, these myths and theories are steeped in speculation and even fiction, ranging from scientific archaeological explanations to explanations from the paranormal and mythology.

Beginning with the early historians, who functioned at a time when science was not the driving factor in their research, it is quite evident that they were heavily influenced by supernatural and fantastical folktales while rendering their theories for Stonehenge.

Some early historians believed that the devil himself had constructed the structure, or at least ordered its construction. While some other historians believed that a mythical figure named Merlin, who is best known as a mage and who frequently features in the legend of King Arthur, was responsible for its construction.

The first known instance of Merlin’s association with the construction of Stonehenge can be seen in British cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s work, The History of the Kings of Britain, also known as On the Deeds of the Britons, which is a pseudohistorical account of British history written sometime around the year 1136. The work chronicles the lives of the kings of the Britons over the course of two thousand years.

As per the work, when Merlin was asked by king Ambrosius Aurelianus as to what might serve as an appropriate burial place for the dead princes of Britain, Merlin suggested that the king organize an army to go to collect magical stones from Mount Killarus in Ireland. Upon reaching Mount Killarus, when the soldiers attempted to remove the stones by using ropes, ladders, and other machinery, Merlin laughed at them and then proceeded to use his own machinery to remove the stones. After this, he commanded the soldiers to load the stones onto their ships to take them back to England, where they were then used to construct Stonehenge.

This was the first and original myth regarding Stonehenge that involved Merlin. When the medieval Norman poet Robert Wace translated Geoffrey’s original text into French, he added another detail that became part of the myth, which was that Merlin had ordered a giant to build Stonehenge for him.

This was how Merlin the mage came to be so closely associated with the myth and legend of Stonehenge.

As the centuries rolled by, more explanations for Stonehenge were put forward. For instance, in 1655, British architect and scholar John Webb suggested that Stonehenge was actually a Roman temple dedicated to the Roman sky God Caelus and that it was built following the Tuscan Order.

Some later commentaries proposed that the Danes, a North Germanic tribe inhabiting southern Scandinavia, had constructed Stonehenge. And up until the late 19th century, Stonehenge was attributed by some historians to the Saxons or some other relatively-recent societies.

English antiquary John Aubrey was the first to propose that Stonehenge was built by the Druids, who were members of the high-ranking class in ancient Celtic cultures. They were religious leaders, political advisors, legal authorities, medical professionals, and practitioners of other high-status professions, and they left no written accounts.

Aubrey’s view gained traction and popularity when English antiquarian William Stukeley began to support and advocate this view.

Aubrey’s survey and study of the site and his analysis of the first measured drawings of the site led him to the conclusion that the arrangements of the stones had a calendrical and astronomical purpose, one that was difficult for us to decipher.

In the following century, Aubrey’s explanation gathered more momentum, especially among scholars who were looking for a deeper purpose behind the construction of Stonehenge, rather than just a burial site. Aubrey’s explanation provided them with this deeper purpose.

However, after undertaking the first accurate survey of the site in 1740, English architect John Wood suggested that the site was a place of pagan ritual.

It was only around the early 19th century that English scientist John Lubbock successfully proved that the site belonged to the Bronze Age after bronze objects were discovered in the nearby barrows during a survey.

But the advent of science and technology in later years would prove several of these theories false and inaccurate. Radiocarbon dating of the site revealed that the construction of Stonehenge began around the year 3100 BC and ended around the year 1600 BC. This finding lays to rest and renders obsolete Aubrey’s theory that Stonehenge was built by the Druids, which by then had become the most popular theory.

The reason Aubrey’s theory was invalidated was that the Celtic society that the Druid priesthood were members of came into being only after the year 300 BC, a good 1300 years after the construction of Stonehenge was believed to have ended. Moreover, it is said that the Druids preferred to hold their rituals and sacrifices in the mountains or woods, and not on open fields.

The findings from radiocarbon dating also invalidate John Webb’s theory that Stonehenge was intended to be a Roman temple, as the Romans first came to the British Isles when Julius Caesar led an expedition in 55 BC, a good 1545 years after the construction of Stonehenge is found to have ended.

If the abovementioned explanations and speculations were not enough, there are several other explanations put forward by scholars and archaeologists over recent years. And although I cannot mention all the various theories and speculations in this essay, let us take a look at a couple of popular ones.

British archaeologist J.F.S. Stone speculated that a bluestone monument had earlier stood near the Stonehenge Cursus, a large Neolithic cursus monument on Salisbury plain, near Stonehenge, which had been moved to the site of Stonehenge. This speculation gave rise to the theory that the bluestones were probably transplanted at the site as a mark of superiority over a conquered enemy or to cement some kind of an alliance between two cultures.

Some archaeologists speculated that the sedimentary sarsens and igneous bluestones symbolized the union between multiple different cultures from different backgrounds and landscapes. English archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson proposed that Stonehenge was a monument of unification that brought together different groups with different ancestries. He theorized that the five trilithons in the center of Stonehenge probably symbolized five tribal lineages charting their descent from five original ancestors who were originally from the Preseli Hills. This may have been the reason why the bluestones were brought all the way from Preseli Hills to the site of Stonehenge.

The trilithons may have also represented a D-shaped meeting house for the ancestors of the Stonehenge builders. Similar structures representing meeting houses have been found at other Neolithic sites in Britain as well.

Some scholars have even speculated that the trilithons represented doorways to another world.

In recent times, scholars Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright have speculated that Stonehenge might have been an ancient pilgrimage and healing site since burials around the site show evidence of deformity and trauma. The magical qualities that the stones supposedly possessed probably attracted people to the monument, thereby making it a pilgrimage site for the sick and injured of the Neolithic world.

Theories regarding the structure’s intended purpose have been proposed as recently as 2015. Australian writer Lynne Kelly in her 2015 work Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory, and the Transmission of Culture, speculates that Stonehenge might have served the purpose of a mnemonic center for recording and retrieving knowledge and information by Neolithic Britons, who did not have a written language.

Some scholars believe that the site had an astrological and spiritual importance associated with it.

There are several other theories proposed regarding this matter, none of which I shall get into now. I believe this was enough to give you an idea of the uncertainty, mystery, and speculation in which Stonehenge is shrouded.

Now let us look into another interesting and equally mysterious aspect of Stonehenge, which is the stones themselves.

Although there are several other stone circles and Neolithic henges dating back to the same age as Stonehenge, Stonehenge is still quite a unique structure, different from the others in a few aspects. Being over 7.3 meters (that is 24 feet) tall, its extant trilithons’ lintels are held in place with mortise and tenon joints, thereby making the structure unique from its contemporaries.

This uniqueness raises the question of how such huge stones were transported to the site, from where were they transported, and how were they arranged the way they are arranged.

Needless to say, the answers to these questions are also subject to speculation, although the primary source of the bluestones is generally and almost unanimously identified with the dolerite outcrops around Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-Felin in the Preseli Hills in Wales.

However, a survey undertaken by Olwen Williams-Thorpe has also revealed that some other bluestones were identified with dolerite outcrops up to 10 kilometers away from the site.

Now, this begs the question, how did the builders of Stonehenge manage to transport these stones over such vast distances? Although we do not yet have an accurate and scientifically-proven answer to this, multiple theories have been put forward to explain how the stones were transported.

Several geologists and archaeologists such as Aubrey Burl are of the view that the bluestones were not transported by human efforts but were instead brought at least part of the way from Wales by glaciers during the Pleistocene.

Upon finding glaciological and geological evidence that glacier ice moved across Preseli and reached the Somerset coast, it was speculated that glacier ice transported the stones from Preseli Hills to as far as Somerset, and then the stones were transported from there by the builders of Stonehenge. This was speculated because there is no evidence found to suggest that glacier ice reached Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge is located.

In 2015, research confirmed that the stones at Stonehenge indeed came from two Neolithic quarries in the Preseli Hills, namely Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-Felin. Radiocarbon dating has revealed that quarry activities existed in Craig Rhos-y-Felin around 3400 BC and in Carn Goedog around 3200 BC.

And since these stones were not installed at Stonehenge until around 2900 BC, it is speculated that it could have taken Neolithic stone draggers at least a good 500 years to transport the stones to the site of Stonehenge. However, scholars agree that this theory is highly unlikely.

But, for the sake of the argument, if it is assumed that the stones were indeed brought from the Preseli Hills in Wales to the site by human labor and not by glacier ice, the question remains how were they transported across such a vast distance?

Well, several methods have been suggested in answer to this question.

In an experiment conducted in 2001, an attempt was made to transport a large stone along a land and sea route from Wales to the site of Stonehenge. The stone was pulled for some miles with great difficulty by a group of people, using a wooden sled on land. The experiment was conducted on modern roads and with the assistance of low-friction netting to assist sliding. However, the experiment made it very clear that it would have been difficult for even the most organized of tribal groups to pull large numbers of such stones across the rough, boggy, and densely wooded terrain of West Wales.

In 2010, another method for transporting the stones was suggested after researchers found stone balls near Stonehenge-like monuments in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. These stone balls were more or less of the same size, that is the size of a cricket ball, thereby suggesting that they were meant to be used together for some purpose. This led to the idea of attempting to transport stones over short distances using ball bearings on a wooden track. This technique proved effective but not definitive.

Other methods were put forward as well, some effective and possible, but none indicating the accurate method that could possibly have been used.

One method proposes that such huge heavy stones could be moved by submerging them in water and then towing them below a vessel or a group of vessels. This technique would reduce the load borne by the vessel as part of the stone’s weight would be displaced by the water, and the arrangement of the load below the vessel would be much more stable, thereby reducing the risk of failure. However, when this technique was tried in an experiment with a single bluestone, it proved to be a failure.

Some methods proposed proved effective and workable, but not without the help of modern technology for safety and other reasons. While some other methods, though successful in application, raised several logistical questions that rendered the method doubtful.

For instance, an experiment was conducted to pull a 2-ton stone on wooden tracks with the help of around 16 men. The stone was placed on a wooden sled and the sled was placed on a wooden track, and then the 16 men pulled the stone with two groups of eight men. The experiment revealed that in order to transport the stones to the site of Stonehenge, the builders of Stonehenge would have had to build a lot of track, or move and rebuild the track in pieces, as the stones were taken to the site.

Overall, after countless surveys and research on the matter, it is speculated that the manpower required to construct Stonehenge could be estimated to have required around 20 million hours (that is approximately 2300 years) of work, with the help of the primitive tools used at the time.

This calculation leads to the assumption that the construction of Stonehenge and its maintenance were carried out by an advanced social organization and a strong will to construct such a site, indicating that it surely has some significance and symbolism that we have not discovered yet.

Although we may never uncover the mysteries of Stonehenge, it is perhaps these very mysteries that make Stonehenge such a beautiful, interesting, fascinating, and mythical monument. I personally wouldn’t mind the continuance of these myths and legends surrounding Stonehenge, for I believe that is what makes the monument unique and special.