Secrets and History of Stonehenge

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On the British Isles more than nine hundred stone rings exist. Most people preferto call them rings rather than circles for the reason that only two percent of them are truecircles. The other ninety eight percent of these structures are constructed in an ellipticalshape. Stonehenge in itself is roughly circular. Most of these rings cannot be datedexactly, but it is known that they are from the Neolithic period.

In southern England the Neolithic period begins around the time of the firstfarming communities in 4000 B.C. to the time of the development of bronze technologyaround 2000 B.C., by that time the construction of major monuments was mostly over. Because of the scarcity of the archaeological record at the stone rings, any attempts toexplain the functions of the structures are guesses. Most attempts tend to reflect thecultural relatedness of their times. Most people believe that these rings were constructedby a group of people called Druids.

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This idea of Stonehenge being constructed by Druids has become deeply implantedin the uneducated minds of popular culture from tie seventeenth century to the present. Itis common knowledge that the druids had nothing to do with these rings. The Druidsflourished after about 300 B.C., more than 1500 years after the last stone rings wereconstructed. Even more, there is no evidence that suggests that the Druids even usedthese stone rings for ritual purposes. Any Druidic connection with the stone rings ispurely hypothetical.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, prehistorians attributedStonehenge and other stone rings to Egyptian and Mycenean travelers who were thoughtto have infused Europe and Bronze age culture. With the development of carbon 14dating methods, the infusion-diffusion of British Neolithic history was abandoned and themegalithic monuments of Britain were shown to predate those in most other countries. While the carbon 14 method provided approximate dates for the stone rings it was no useexplaining their function. Research by scholars outside the discipline of archaeology suggested a use different to that of rituals.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Oxford University engineer Alexander Thom and theastronomer Gerald Hawkins pioneered the new field of archaeoastronomy-the study of theastronomies of ancient civilizations. Conducting precise surveys at various stone rings andother megalithic structures, Thom and Hawkins discovered many significant astronomicalalignments among the stones. This evidence suggested that the stone rings were used asastronomical observatories. Moreover, the archaeoastronomers revealed the extraordinarymathematical sophistication and engineering abilities that the native British developedbefore either Egyptian or Mesopotamian cultures.

While the findings of Thom and Hawkins were fascinating, even revolutionary,more recent studies by Aubrey Burl and Benjamin Ray have tempered some of the earlierclaims. Stonehenge, the most visited and well known of the British stone rings, is acomposite structure built during three distinct periods. In Period I (radiocarbon-dated to3100 B.C.), Stonehenge was a circular ditch with an internal bank. The circle, 320 feet indiameter, had a single entrance, 56 mysterious holes around its perimeter (with remains inthem of human cremations), and a wooden sanctuary in the middle. The circle wasaligned with the midsummer sunrise, the midwinter sunset and the most southernly risingand northernly setting of the moon.

Period II (2150 B.C.) saw the replacement of the wooden sanctuary with twobluestones, the widening of the entrance, the construction of an entrance avenuemarked by two parallel ditches aligned to the midsummer sunrise, and the erection, outsidethe circle, of a thirty-five ton Heelstone. The eighty bluestones, some weighing as muchas four tons, were transported from the Prescelly mountains in Wales, 240 miles away. During Period III (2075 B.C.), the bluestones were taken down and the enormousSaracen stones-which still stand today-were erected. These stones, averaging eighteenfeet in height and weighing twenty five tons, were transported from near the Aveburystone rings twenty miles north.

Sometime between 1500 and 1100 BC, approximately sixty of the bluestones werereset immediately inside of the Saracen circle, and another nineteen were placed in ahorseshoe pattern, also inside the circle. It has been estimated that three phases ofconstruction took thirty million hours of labor. It was unlikely that Stonehenge wasfunctioning much after 1100 BC. Current thinking regarding the use of Stonehengesuggests the primacy of ritual function rather astronomical observation.

Astronomical observations would indeed have been performed. Rather than beingfor the sake of accumulating data regarding the movement of celestial bodies, as is the solepurpose of modern observatories, the Stonehenge observations were probably intended toindicate the appropriate days in the yearly ritual cycle. Likely the primary use as a ritualsite, while its secondary purpose was an astronomical observation site in service to thatritual. In speaking about its architectural purpose, Benjamin Ray suggests thatStonehenge, in its middle and later form, was intended to be a stone replica of the kind ofwooden sanctuary that was locally common in Neolithic times.

Students of mythology and archaeology will be familiar with the fact that manyancient cultures had festivals on the solstices and equinoxes. The most commoninterpretation for these festivals is that they are occasionally for renewal; the renewal ofthe people and the land by the celestial powers; and also the renewal of land and thecelestial beings by the agency of human intention, celebration, and sacrifice. Theinterpretation usually stops there. Discussion may indeed continue regarding thecharacteristics of the festivals or their sociological function. Stonehenge in many peoples minds, is the most mysterious place in the world. This set of ring and horseshoe shapes on the empty Salisbury Plain, is about 4,000 yearsold, one of the oldest, and certainly the best preserved, megalithic(large often ancientstone) structures on Earth. It is a fantastic construction with many of the larger involvedweighing as much as 25 tons, and quarried from a location about 18 miles away. Therings and horseshoes of Sarsen(a type of sandstone)also carry large lintels or horizontalbeams. These lintels made it so that when all of the stones were in place, there was a ringof stone in the sky as well as on the ground.

We know almost nothing about who built Stonehenge and why. A popular theoryadvanced in the nineteenth century was that the Druids, a people that existed in Britainbefore the Roman conquest, had built it as a temple. Modern archaeological techniques,though, have dated Stonehenge and we now know that it was completed about 1,000years before the Druids came into power. If the Druids used Stonehenge for their ritualsthey got it second hand. Despite this, modern Druids have laid claim to Stonehenge andan annual ceremony is performed at Stonehenge during Summer solstice, one of the ringsastronomical alignments. There is evidence that there was activity on the Stonehenge site as far back as11,000 years ago. It wasnt until about 3,100 BC, though, that a circular bank, followingthe current Stonehenge layout, appeared. At the same time pine posts were put into place. Around 2100 BC stones started being erected. First bluestones from Wales, then the largerSarsen stones. During this period some stones were erected then later dismantled.

Why did builders dismantle and then rebuild this site? Its hard to say, Theyapparently didnt have a written language and left no records. We can say one thing aboutStonehenge based on its archaeological digs at the location, there is almost no trash. Anumber of pieces of flint, antler picks, or axes have been found, but very few items thatpeople would expect to see discarded at a human habitation (trash pits turn out to be someof the best sources of marerial for archaeologists to examine). This leads some archaeologists to conclude that Stonehenge was a sacredground, like a church. As one scientist put it, Stonehenge was a clearly special placewhere you didnt drop litter.

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