Researchers working at Stonehenge have concluded, after ten years of archaeological investigation at the site, that it was built as a monument to unify the peoples of Britain after a long period of conflict and regional differences.
The researchers theorize that the stones symbolize the ancestors of different groups of people. The origins of the different stones are from completely different parts of the country, some coming from southern England and others from as far away as western Wales.
The research team was composed of people from the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Southampton, Bournemouth and University College London, all working together on the Stonehenge Riverside Project (SRP). Though they explored Stonehenge and its surrounding environment, they also investigated “the wider social and economic contexts of the monument’s main stages of construction around 3,000 BC and 2,500 BC.”
“When Stonehenge was built,” said Professor Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, “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.”
The location that Stonehenge was built in may have already been a place of special significance to prehistoric Britons. The researchers found that its “solstice-aligned Avenue sits upon a series of natural landforms that, by chance, form an axis between the directions of midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset.”
Professor Parker Pearson said: “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.”
In modern times, Stonehenge is a popular tourist attraction during the summer solstice, but the winter solstice was the more significant date for Britons when Stonehenge was built 5,000-4,500 years ago.
“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. 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 researchers completely reject the ideas that Stonehenge was inspired by ancient Egyptians or extra-terrestrials. “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.”
Some of the previous theories about Stonehenge have suggested that it was used as a prehistoric observatory, a temple for the sun, a destination for healing pilgrimages, and a druidic temple. The Stonehenge Riverside Project’s researchers have one by one rejected all of these possibilities, after a 10-year-long period of archaeological research, the longest ever done at the site.
In addition to finding many houses and a large village near Stonehenge at Durrington Walls, the researchers also “discovered the site of a former stone circle – Bluestonehenge – and revised the dating of Stonehenge itself.”
“Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument located in the English county of Wiltshire, about 2.0 miles (3.2 km) west of Amesbury and 8 miles (13 km) north of Salisbury. Stonehenge is composed of a circular setting of large standing stones set within earthworks. It is at the centre of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds.”
Interestingly some of those buried there came from fairly far away, “A teenage boy buried approximately 1550 BC was raised near the Mediterranean Sea; a metal worker from 2300 BC dubbed the ‘Amesbury Archer’ grew up near the alpine foothills of Germany; and the ‘Boscombe Bowmen’ probably arrived from Wales or Brittany, France.”
Records of construction at the site begin around 8000 BC and continue for many thousands of years.
“Archaeologists have found four, or possibly five, large Mesolithic postholes, which date to around 8000 BC, beneath the nearby modern tourist car-park. These held pine posts around 0.75 metres (2 ft 6 in) in diameter which were erected and eventually rotted in situ. Three of the posts were in an east-west alignment which may have had ritual significance; no parallels are known from Britain at the time but similar sites have been found in Scandinavia. Salisbury Plain was then still wooded but 4,000 years later, during the earlier Neolithic, people built a causewayed enclosure at Robin Hood’s Ball and long barrow tombs in the surrounding landscape. In approximately 3500 BC, a Stonehenge Cursus was built 700 metres (2,300 ft) north of the site as the first farmers began to clear the trees and develop the area.”