One of the most iconic sites in the UK is also one of the oldest: Stonehenge, the great stone circle that lots of people have studied, but no one can completely explain. I’m not kidding – even in the Visitor Centre at Stonehenge, there is a HUGE sign that says, “The purpose of Stonehenge is lost to us. There will always be debate about its meaning.” Translation: “we’ve got no idea.” *Shrug*
Though scholars don’t know why Stonehenge was built or used, they’ve ruled out a few possibilities: defense, Roman religious practice, and Druid religious practice. Stonehenge predates both the Romans and the Druids, and both would have found it a curious site but not religiously significant. There is also no evidence human or other sacrifices were practiced there.
Scholars think Stonehenge was begun in BC 3050, with several phases of construction, the last of which as late as BC 2800. It seems to have been abandoned in the BC 800s, which coincides with the arrival of the Celts and Druids.
Stonehenge is not the only henge in England – there are many similar sites, but it’s the most famous. The henge is actually the circular ditch and mound that would have been dug before the stones were erected. We think of it as grassy because that’s how it has been for hundreds of years, but the original henge would have exposed the underlying chalk that’s native to this area. Therefore the stone structure we picture would have been surrounded by a white (from the chalk) ditch and mound. Stonehenge is backwards (inexplicably) – usually these structures went mound > ditch > stones from outside to inside. Stonehenge’s mound is inside its ditch.
The stones themselves are of two types: Sarsen and bluestones. The Sarsens are the big stones arranged in trilithons (think top-heavy goal posts) in two concentric circles. The bluestones are the smaller stones that would have once been arranged in a circle and an oval inside the larger Larsen circles. The Sarsen stones weigh about 25 tons each and were brought about 20 miles – before power tools. The bluestones weigh 2-5 tons each but were brought over 150 miles – again, before power tools. All of the stones were shaped using deer antlers and/or ox shoulder blades.
The stones were also arranged so the sun perfectly aligns with the structure on the longest day of the year and shortest.
Stonehenge is a ruin today mostly because Puritans during Oliver Cromwell’s Interregnum (1649-1660) destroyed whatever they could of anything they deemed pagan. Aside: Cromwell also canceled Christmas – that guy was really running a “hearts and minds” campaign. /aside To be fair, the Saxons probably cherry-picked what they could of the stones to use for defense against the Vikings from AD 700-900, but the circle was mostly intact when John Aubrey “discovered” it in the 1640s, before the wholesale destruction began after 1649.
Stonehenge is fascinating, not just because of the mystical aura it radiates. The mysteries surrounding its creation and purpose certainly add to the experience of visiting the stones. It’s the kind of place you think you know a lot about, but the reality is somewhat different.
Title quote: William Wordsworth, “Guit & Sorrow” #XIV, Poems Written in Youth