In the Salisbury plains, southern England, there is a compound of enormous carved stones, strange holes and a trench in the shape of a ring. This complex survived for thousands of years until our days. Who put them there, why and what for, are some of the greatest mysteries from prehistoric times.
Stonehenge is formed by a ditch 6 meters wide and 1,4 to 2 meters deep, already eroded, carved in the terrain and drawing a circle 110 meters in diameter. The excavated soil was piled forming an inner ring at the ditch. This circle is interrupted at the northeast side, giving way to an entrance and an avenue that extends to the river Avon, a distance of 2780 meters away.
Inside the circular ditch and its inner earth ring there is another circle, 33 meters in diameter, formed by enormous stones of tertiary sandstone. Each stone is some 4,1 meters high, 2,1 meters wide and 1,1 meters deep; they widen at their tops, giving the optical illusion that their widths do not vary. The inner faces of these stones have a better finishing than the outer faces. They are separated a distance of 1 meter from one to the other, and today a total of 17 vertical stones are still standing, leaving the circle uncompleted, because 30 would be required. It is estimated that each stone weights some 25 tons. Above these stones other horizontal stones were placed, like lintels, each one 3,2 meters long, 1 meter wide and 0,8 meter deep.
The lintels are curved to the inside and are fixed by tongues, carvings and protuberances excavated into the stones. Total height with the lintels is 4,9 meters. At present time there are six lintels, again being needed 30 in order to close the circle.
Inside this structure there is a second structure of even taller stones, forming a horseshoe 13,7 meters in diameter. The tallest stone rises 6,7 meters above the terrain (it has a further 2,4 m below the ground) and weights some 50 tons. It also has lintels fixed with complex techniques. They were crafted until smooth and regular forms were obtained. This inner horseshoe is somewhat different from the circle of stones in the sense that the stones are paired, with a lintel above each pair. In this case each lintel does not join with its neighbor. In the horseshoe, eight vertical stones, from a total of 10, are still standing, and three lintels, from a total of five, still survive.
The opening of the horseshoe faces the opening of the circular ditch; in other words, towards the avenue.
On the avenue, outside the circular ditch, there is a peculiar stone, standing unaccompanied, also of tertiary sandstone, 4,8 meters high and 2,4 meters wide. It can be seen that in the complex other stones have also been set: between the unaccompanied stone in the avenue and the central structures, just at the entrance of the great circle formed by the ditch, there is a fallen stone 4,9 meters long, and in the middle of the inner horseshoe there is another big fallen stone, of green mica sandstone and weighting six tons.
Also, inside the circle of stones and horseshoe there are other lesser stones, of a characteristic blue color, about 2 meters high, 1,5 meter wide and 0,8 meter deep, and weighting some 4 tons. These stones were carved in dolerite, rhyolite and volcanic ash.
Just touching the inner edge of the ditch and its ring of earth there is a great rectangle inscribed inside a circle, formed by two vertical stones, diametrically opposed, and two small earth mounds.
Henry of Huntingdon was the first person to record, in written, the existence of Stonehenge, around the year 1130 C. E.. Since then, it has received all kinds of interpretations. Some legends come up that Merlin the Wizard built it and transported it from a mountain in Ireland. Others believed that the responsible was the Devil himself. One Inigo Jones thought there were traces of classical architecture in it, and in 1615 proposed that its creators were the Romans. Later it was thought it was from the Danish. In the 18th century, William Stukeley popularized the idea that it was built by a religious cult called the druids, and even today many of their followers try to revive their alleged rituals. Latter days’ folklore favor, obviously, that it was made by extraterrestrials that visited the Earth in prehistoric times.
ARCHAEOLOGY AT STONEHENGE
In 1666, an antiquary called John Aubrey noted several strange holes in the ground, but the first archaeological excavations on the record were performed only in 1789, by William Cunnington, exploring the foundations. Together with Richard Hoare, in 1810, he confirmed that many of the fallen stones were indeed earlier in time standing, while other stones are now missing. In 1900, William Gowland determined that the foundations were initially dug using picks made out of deer horns, and that the stones were carved only after they arrived at their final location.
In 1915, the land in which Stonehenge lies was acquired by the British government, and major excavations began about 1919, by William Hawley an his assistant Robert Newall. Working until 1926, they studied its various parts and proposed that Stonehenge was built in different stages through different ages.
They discovered more Aubrey holes, for a total of 56, forming a circle along the inner edge of the circular ditch and earth ring. These holes, 1 meter deep and 0,8 meter in diameter, are all filled but do not show signs of natural erosion, which indicates they were temporary. Chips from the carving of the enormous stones were found in the upper layers of the fillings, but not at the bottom, indicating that these 56 holes are older than the stone structures.
In 1950, Richard Atkinson, Stuart Piggot and John Stone found other holes (smaller, 0,4 meter in diameter) at the northeast entrance, at the center of the complex, and at its southern part. Moreover, they found many crematory remains and other artifacts, from different ages, that resulted being useful for dating Stonehenge’s various parts.
In the open space between the ditch and earth ring and the circular stone structure there are two other concentric circles, with diameters of 47 m and 37 m, made out of holes. These holes contain Roman artifacts and also Iron Age artifacts, transporting us up to 3600 years backwards in time.
Other markings on the ground indicate that the blue stones were formerly in another configuration. This was before a time some 3900 to 4300 years ago.
Tests by radioactive carbon-14, from ancient biological material found by the excavations, indicate that the placing of the stones were performed in a period between 4100 and 4600 years ago, and that the avenue was constructed at those times or later.
Petrographic comparisons show that the sandstones come from a site 40 km away from their current location, and that the blue stones were brought from 250 km away.
Carbon-14 shows that the cremation remains found in the 56-hole circle that internally borders the ditch and earth ring have an age of 4900 years. Fragments of picks made out of deer horns, found in the circular ditch itself, show an age of 5100 years. That must be the time when the construction began.
Completing the panorama, four holes were found outside the circular ditch, each 0,8 meter in diameter: they contain remains of pine trunks that, once upon a time, were stuck in place as poles. Carbon-14 shows for them an incredible age of 10 000 years.
Stonehenge is not the only prehistoric complex of ditches, poles and stones in England, but is the most spectacular. Its construction seems achievable, by human standards, if we consider an enormous numbers of workers, the long time available to complete the job and technologies already in existence since prehistory, such as river barges.
It is presumed that today’s Stonehenge was constructed in at least three different stages, by at least three different cultures: the stony structures are from the last period; the second-period one, intermediate, could have had a similar configuration but made out of wood; and the earliest, first-period one corresponds to the circular ditch and the 56 original holes that internally borders this.
In 1901, famous astronomer Norman Lockyer showed that a line drawn from the very center of Stonehenge out through the avenue, passing over the unaccompanied stone on it, corresponds to the Sun’s position in the horizon seen at dawn in the summer solstice. In 1963, Gerald Hawkins proposed that there exist many more alignments between different parts of the complex, suggesting that Stonehenge was a complicated computer used for predicting lunar and solar eclipses. Others, like cosmologist Fred Hoyle explained that only during its first stage Stonehenge was used as an astronomical observatory, and later it was converted into a religious temple when its users succumbed to mysticism.
Even today, in the 21st century, the contemporary use of Stonehenge is in dispute. The place has turned into one of England’s main tourist attractions. Facilities such as highways and a visitors’ center that are being installed to channel tourist money generates criticism from scientists, who wish to preserve the location as pristine as possible. In other ways, the modern rise of all kind of religions and cults based on pseudosciences and neomysticisms attracts an enormous number of “pilgrims”, who claim their right to use Stonehenge for expressing their ideas and feelings, a situation that generates attrition with the more “normal” tourists and of course with the scientists.
In this sense, Stonehenge is at the present time a mess, and it won’t be surprising if it was a mess from its origin itself, because, in the end, it was constructed by human beings. The only thing that we can transmit with certainty is that the mystery of who built its different parts, why and what for, persists.
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First published in ABC Color, on 20 August 2006. Photograph: Stonehenge itself is owned and managed by the English Heritage whilst the surrounding downland is owned by the National Trust. Photograph credit: Frédéric Vincent (original license, of the photograph only, available at: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en). Permission granted by Johann Dreo on behalf of Frédéric Vincent.