The timing was impeccable.
In an announcement that comes just days after the summer solstice, British archaeologists have proposed a new theory about the fabled monument of Stonehenge. The researchers suggest that the rocky site may represent a monument to unity among the dwindling peoples of the ancient British west.
Stonehenge sits on a grassy plain near Salisbury, and is constructed of massive blocks of stone arranged in a particular way. Researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology have concluded a ten-year study of the site.
Sheffield’s Professor Mike Parker Pearson, who presents his conclusions in a new book, “Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery,” believes that indicators at the site reveal that the monument’s construction required a tremendous amount of cooperation between the various groups inhabiting western Britain when Stonehenge was erected around 4,000 to 4,500 years ago.
In 2009, Time’s Dan Fletcher compiled “A Brief History of Stonehenge Theories” to chronicle the good, the bad and the ugly of Stonehenge theories. Fletcher notes that the fascination with how or why the stones came to be started all the way back in 1130 A.D. when an English historian said that “no one can conceive how such great stones have been so raised aloft, or why they were built here.”
Fletcher notes that some believe that space aliens built Stonehenge. Aliens, he says, are often given credit for constructing Stonehenge because no one’s really sure how the stones were moved to their present location.
Perhaps stranger than the aliens theory, Fletcher says that some people believe that Stonehenge is meant to look like a large vulva, as a tribute to an ancient fertility god.
Dismissing fanciful claims that Stonehenge’s origins require exotic explanation, such as alien or Egyptian influence, Parker Pearson explains that Stonehenge’s characteristics are clearly appropriate to its time and place.
“All the architectural influences for Stonehenge can be found in previous monuments and buildings within Britain, with origins in Wales and Scotland. In fact, Britain’s Neolithic people were isolated from the rest of Europe for centuries. Britain may have become unified but there was no interest in interacting with people across the Channel. Stonehenge appears to have been the last gasp of this Stone Age culture, which was isolated from Europe and from the new technologies of metal tools and the wheel,” Parker Pearson says.
The team noted that such a massive undertaking at the time would have required vast resources and thousands of workers. The researchers say the vast resources required to build the monument would have likely served as a unifying force among the people in the area.
The researchers also suspect that Stonehenge’s location was chosen on the basis of a natural coincidence. They found that its main avenue, which was already known to line up with the sunrises of the yearly solstices, also align with features in the surrounding landscape.
“When we stumbled across this extraordinary natural arrangement of the sun’s path being marked in the land, we realized that prehistoric people selected this place to build Stonehenge because of its pre-ordained significance. This might explain why there are eight monuments in the Stonehenge area with solstitial alignments, a number unmatched anywhere else. Perhaps they saw this place as the centre of the world,” Parker Pearson notes.
The team noted that the sun’s path across the sky likely played into the reasoning for Stonehenge’s location, saying participants likely took it into account, although it was not the main reasoning.
“This is an extraordinary example of the sun’s path being marked on natural features of the land. There are eight man-made monuments in the Stonehenge area with solstitial alignments, a number unmatched anywhere else. Perhaps they saw this place as the centre of the world.”
Given the wide geographical origin of the stones, and the evidence of large numbers nearby during the time of its construction, Parker Pearson argues that Stonehenge should be understood in light of the widespread and unified culture that had then arisen.
“When Stonehenge was built there was a growing island-wide culture – the same styles of houses, pottery and other material forms were used from Orkney to the south coast. This was very different to the regionalism of previous centuries. Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labour of thousands to move stones from as far away as west Wales, shaping them and erecting them. Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification.”
Although many people flocked to Stonehenge for the summer solstice, it seems that the winter solstice was the more significant time of the year when Stonehenge was built.
“We can tell from ageing of the pig teeth that higher quantities of pork were eaten during midwinter at the nearby settlement of Durrington Walls, and most of the monuments in the Stonehenge area are aligned on sunrise and sunset at midwinter rather than midsummer,” says Parker Pearson. “At Stonehenge itself, the principal axis appears to be in the opposite direction to midsummer sunrise, towards midsummer sunset, framed by the monument’s largest stone setting, the great trilithon.”
The announcement came just one day after the summer solstice. Rain-sodden crowds welcomed a spectacularly wet summer solstice at Stonehenge in true British fashion Thursday: With stoicism and wit. English Heritage put the crowd at the summer festival at 14,500, well below figures which typically hover around 20,000. The rituals celebrate the ancestral belief that the sun’s arrival on the solstice infuses participants with energy.
The solstice was not without incident, though. Officers reportedly made 37 arrests for theft, drugs or alcohol-related offences and more than 100 people received cautions for cannabis use or possession. A further three people were arrested at the stone circles at Avebury, which is about 22 miles away from Stonehenge, according to local reports.
Previous theories have suggested the great stone circle was used as a prehistoric observatory, a sun temple, a place of healing, and a temple of the ancient druids. The Stonehenge Riverside Project’s researchers have rejected all these possibilities after the largest program of archaeological research ever mounted on this iconic monument. As well as finding houses and a large village near Stonehenge at Durrington Walls, they have also discovered the site of a former stone circle – Bluestonehenge – and revised the dating of Stonehenge itself.
The research was funded by, among others, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and National Geographic, and is reported by the University of Sheffield.