With two degrees in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.
What Is Stonehenge?
When we think of Stonehenge, often what comes to mind is a circle of standing stones. It is a place shrouded in mystery, and it has been the subject of speculation for ages. What activities took place there? Theories have ranged from worship to aliens to inter-dimensional portals. Today, many New Age activities are held at Stonehenge. But no one can quite agree what happened there historically. So was Stonehenge a burial ground, a temple, a calendar, or a center of trade?
Archaeologists and historians are trying to answer those questions. Archaeological excavations have revealed that the Stonehenge “compound” is far larger and complex than first imagined. The activity encountered there encompassed many of the previously mentioned events at different times in the past. There are hundreds of burial mounds and smaller ceremonial sites and temples situated nearby. Stonehenge has also been found to have been a center of life for prehistoric peoples and it has served several functions through the ages.
In the Beginning
Stonehenge began as a bank and ditch type of enclosure constructed around 3000 BC. This is often considered the first phase of construction, or Stonehenge I. There, archaeologists had discovered votive offerings, stone tools, and animal bone.
Neolithic man had used deer antlers as picks to dig a circular ditch approximately 320 feet around and twenty feet deep. Further, two entry stones were erected at the northeast section of the circle. Only one of which has survived until today and has been dubbed the “Slaughter Stone.” This first phase of Stonehenge was in use for approximately 500 years.
Fifty-six shallow holes called the Aubrey Holes, in honor of the man who discovered them, have been found within the original circle. Buried inside these holes, the cremains of 58 Neolithic humans were discovered.
Interestingly, through scientific analysis, it was determined that the cremains belonged to peoples from Wales. More specifically, the deceased came from the same area in Wales from which the later erected bluestones had arrived. Further evidence revealed that the remains had been carried from their homes in Wales to be deposited in what we now called Stonehenge. In other words, those who had died in Wales were cremated and then taken to be buried at what we now call Stonehenge.
It was around this time that the purpose of the Stonehenge complex shifted. During the construction phase, known as Stonehenge II, the complex was renovated. It was then that 80 bluestone pillars that weighed several tons were assembled in the center of the circle.
Additionally, around that time, people began to bury their dead with grave goods, rather than cremated human remains and buried ashes. Men were buried with grave goods such as pottery and early metal tools and weapons. This was the first time that metal objects began to appear around Stonehenge. It was also during this time that it became a burial site much like the cemeteries of today.
Research has determined that the remains of men, women, and children had been deposited at Stonehenge, cemetery style, over the course of five hundred years. It was theorized that the first bluestones were used as grave markers or headstones. Three Neolithic graves of archers have been discovered there and at nearby locations. Analysis of the remains of the men revealed that none of them were local to the area, yet not of Welsh origin as were the earlier cremains. This led researchers to theorize that they had come to Stonehenge because it was considered a place of healing.
Who Was the Amesbury Archer?
The Amesbury Archer was found to have been from the region of the Alps and had suffered a terrible injury to his kneecap which would have caused him to walk with a limp. His grave contained numerous grave goods that included gold and copper objects which were the oldest found in Britain. Furthermore, he was buried with a cushion stone that indicated that he was a metal worker.
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It was believed that this gave positive evidence of a vast trade route for early man as metal works were in demand, and these men traveled from far places. It would be reasonable that Stonehenge was also utilized as a center of trade during this time period. It was easily seen from surrounding areas and would have been often visited.
Nearby a settlement had been unearthed called Durrington Walls. Situated approximately two kilometers north-east of Stonehenge, it was presumed that it belonged to the early builders. The village of Durrington Walls existed concurrently with the earliest phase of Stonehenge, and both appeared to have been abandoned at about the same time in approximately 2500 BC.
At Durrington Walls, a mirror complex of Stonehenge, constructed of timber has been discovered. It existed concurrently with the finale stage of Stonehenge, or Stonehenge III. It is believed that at this point, the area became a temple dedicated to the sun.
Forming "Modern" Stonehenge
At about 2000 BC, the linteled stones and horseshoe of sarsen stones were erected. Within the first decade, the bluestones were rearranged to fit within the horseshoe setting. During the last phase of Stonehenge III, the avenue was extended toward the River Avon in about 1100 BC. It was believed that the timber circle at Durrington Walls was part of a ritual held at the Stonehenge complex in which early worshipers proceeded from one to the other symbolizing the turning of the wheel from life to death, and back to life again.
During the Midwinter festival, the return of the light was celebrated. For farmers who have been indoors for months as the world became darker and colder, such a celestial event would have been something to celebrate. This would be the first time seeing one’s neighbors in several months, and a time to socialize and enjoy life. This marked the beginning of the return of the light. From the winter solstice onward to the summer solstice, each day would last just a fraction longer than the previous day.
Putting the Pieces Together
The question of why Stonehenge was constructed in its current location has remained a mystery. However, continued research and examination has revealed clues relative to solving that mystery. Geophysical surveys have revealed the presence of what might be earlier monuments predating the earliest model of Stonehenge.
It is worth noting that earlier henges and monuments dotted the landscape of Europe. Many of these early models represented calendars of celestial events. It is within reason that Stonehenge would also have represented the changing of the seasons in an agricultural society, as well as all the other uses previously mentioned. It would have been vital for early farmers to watch the skies in order to know when to plant and reap. This can be evidenced by the alignment of the stones toward the midwinter sunset and sunrise at Stonehenge. Whatever purpose Stonehenge was built to provide, has changed with human evolution. It is a monument that means so much to so many and I am sure will continue to serve many purposes as we continue to evolve.
- “Amesbury Archer.” Amesbury Archer | The Salisbury Museum. Accessed November 18, 2019.
- Bartos, Nick. “Rethinking Durrington Walls: A Long-Lost Monument Revealed.” Current
- Archaeology, December 13, 2016. https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/rethinking-durrington-walls-a-long-lost-monument-revealed.htm.
- Evans, Steve. “An Ancient Murder Mystery: The Stonehenge Archer.” Tellurian Studies.
- Accessed November 18, 2019. http://tellurianstudies.weebly.com/an-ancient-murder-mystery-the-stonehenge-archer.html.
- Fagan, Brian M. From Black Land to Fifth Sun: The Science of Sacred Sites. Oxford: Perseus,
- Guarino, Ben. “People Buried at Stonehenge 5,000 Years Ago Came from Far Away, Study
- Finds.” The Washington Post. WP Company, April 29, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2018/08/02/people-buried-at-stonehenge-5000-years-ago-came-from-far-away-study-finds/.
- “Research on Stonehenge.” English Heritage. Accessed November 18, 2019.
- “Stonehenge.” Stonehenge. University of Oregon. Accessed November 18, 2019.
- “Stonehenge Timeline • Stonehenge Facts.” Stonehenge Facts. Accessed November 18, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Brandy R Williams
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 30, 2020:
Bee Williams, you're welcomed.
Brandy R Williams (author) from West Virginia on May 30, 2020:
Thank you all for your lovely comments! I am so glad that you enjoyed this article and it has opened a door of intellectual discussion!
Jim Henderson from Hattiesburg, Mississippi on May 30, 2020:
Thank you, Miebakagh57. I agree. It seems ironic how modern civilization still ponder things such as this, yet somehow consider ourselves “advanced” and our progenitors “primitive.”
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 30, 2020:
Hi jimagain, I think these or such primitive civilizations should now begin to be addressed as "advanced technology." These civilizations like any other wonders of the ancients that survived to the present has balfled modern scientists. Little wonder how the stones were made or carried up the foundation of the stonehenge were not easily understood. Thanks for the lovely comments.
Jim Henderson from Hattiesburg, Mississippi on May 29, 2020:
One of the better articles I've read on the subject, one that makes sense based on real world civilizations and their needs. I've read how cairns and dolmens were not unusual constructions by earlier cultures and there are many instances of these types of structures located around the world. I would hesitate to think of these earlier civilizations as primitive, so who knows what we have yet to learn from our forbears?
Thank you once again!
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 29, 2020:
Brandy, this is really interesting and curious. Like all ancient land marks, the stonehenge is one that has baffled modern scientists for decades. They are many things it was erected to serve, time being of prime importance. Thanks for sharing an aweresome research piece.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on May 28, 2020:
Brandy, that was very interesting to read. I would love to visit Stonehenge someday.
Brandy R Williams (author) from West Virginia on April 21, 2020:
I'm glad you enjoyed it!
Sourav Rana on April 17, 2020:
Stonehenge has been a mystery for a long time. Thanks for providing some additional information about it.