an observatory to track cosmic events

1–13 Stonehenge

Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, England. c. 3000–1500 bce.

The site started as a cemetery of cremation burials marked by a circle of bluestones, transported over 150 miles from the west, where they were quarried from a site in Wales that was also a prehistoric healing site. Through numerous sequences of alterations and rebuilding, Stonehenge continued to function as a place of the dead. Between 2900 and 2600 bce, the bluestones were rearranged into an arc. Around 2500 bce, a circle of huge sarsen stones—a gray sandstone—created the famous appearance of the site, with the bluestones rearranged within. The center of the site was now dominated by a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of five sarsen trilithons, or pairs of upright stones topped by lintels. The one at the middle rose taller than the others to a height of 24 feet, with a lintel over 15 feet long and 3 feet thick. This group was surrounded by the so-called sarsen circle, a ring of uprights weighing up to 26 tons each and averaging 13½ feet tall.

Many theories have been advanced to explain the meaning of Stonehenge. In the Middle Ages, people thought that Merlin, the legendary magician of King Arthur, had built it. Later, the complex was erroneously associated with the rituals of Celtic druids. Because its orientation is related to the position of the sun at the solstice, some have argued that it was an observatory to track cosmic events or a calendar for regulating agricultural schedules. None of these ideas is supported by current archaeologists and recent evidence. We now believe that Stonehenge was the site of ceremonies linked to death and burial, and that this complex can only be understood in relation to nearby prehistoric sites dating from the same period when it was in use.

1–14 Diagram of Stonehenge

The settlements built near Stonehenge also follow circular layouts, but they were built not of stone, but wood, and they were the site of human habitation rather than burial and ritual. A mile from Stonehenge is Durrington Walls, a large settlement (almost 1,500 feet across) surrounded by a ditch and containing a number of wooden circles and circular houses. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that some people who stayed here had traveled from regions far away from the site and may have been visiting as pilgrims. Stonehenge and Durrington Walls were connected to the Avon River by banked avenues, joining the world of the living (the wood settlement) with the world of the dead (the stone circle). Neolithic people would have moved between these worlds as they walked the avenues, sometimes to bring the dead for burial, sometimes to participate in ceremonies or rituals dedicated to the memory of ancestors. The meaning of Stonehenge, therefore, rests within an understanding of the larger landscape that contained habitations as well as ritual sites.