Stonehenge was built as a monument to the unification of Britain’s different tribes of people after a long time period of regional conflict and differences, says researchers, following a ten year long investigation into the site.
Each of the large stones are thought to symbolize the different tribes of Britain, with each stone coming from distinctly different regions of Britain, from southern England to western Wales. The movement, shaping, and erecting of such large stones from all over Britain would have been very labor-intensive, and, for practical purposes, a very unnecessary undertaking.
The researchers investigated not just the Stonehenge site itself, but all of the social and economic contexts at the time of its main construction period, 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.”
It also appears that it was built at a site that was already of great importance to the people living at the time. 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.”
“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.”
The site appears to have been especially important during the winter solstice. “We can tell from aging 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.”
In response to the fringe theories that the Britons at the time couldn’t have built the site, Pearson had this to say: “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.”
All of the previous theories on the site: an observatory, a temple, a healing site for pilgrimages; were all rejected one by one during the researchers investigation, though of course these could have been minor or secondary functions of the site throughout its long history.
Other sites in Britain from this time include the somewhat recent discovery of a settlement off the coast of what is now the Isle of Wight, but that at the time was above sea level, as was a large land-bridge connecting Britain and Europe.
“This is a site of international importance as it reveals a time before the English Channel existed when Europe and Britain were linked. Earlier excavations have produced flint tools, pristine 8,000-year-old organic material such as acorns, charcoal and worked pieces of wood showing evidence of extensive human activity. This is the only site of its kind in Britain and is extremely important to our understanding of our Stone Age ancestors from the lesser-known Mesolithic period.”
“At first we had no idea of the size of this site, but now we are finding evidence of hearths and ovens so it appears to be an extensive settlement. We are hoping that this excavation will reveal more artefacts and clues to life in the Stone Age.”
This site has been underwater nearly 8000 years, as are many sites of human settlement from this time period and much earlier; sea levels during some time periods in the last million or so years have been considerably lower than they are now.
Research shows that Britain has been occupied by humans on and off at least as far back as 800,000 years ago. This earliest evidence was found at a dig in East Anglia, researchers found over 70 flint tools and flakes (wooden and organic artifacts generally don’t last nearly as long as stone ones).
Simon Parfitt, who is based at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, said: “This challenges our views that early humans spread only during periods of exceptional warmth. Instead, the new evidence demonstrates that early humans were capable of adapting their behaviour as the world changed around them.”
“Until recently, humans living during this early period in Europe were thought to be confined to the area south of the Pyrenees and Alps, and the earliest finds in Britain were dated from sites like Boxgrove, Sussex, at about 500,000 years. However, in 2005 evidence from Pakefield, Suffolk, indicated that humans had managed to reach Britain about 700,000 years ago, when for a brief period the climate was comparable with that of the Mediterranean today. The findings from Happisburgh extend this record of human presence in Britain even further back in time.”
“Tools found at Happisburgh provide the first record of Early Pleistocene human occupation on the edges of the cooler — or ‘boreal’ — northern forests of Eurasia. Much of northern Europe was covered with boreal forests, which grew and shrank with the ebb and flow of the ice ages. Edible plants and animals were few and far between, and short winter daylight hours and severe winters exacerbated the already tough living conditions that our predecessors faced.”
Mr Parfitt added: ”The flood plain would have been dominated by grass, supporting a diverse range of herbivores, such as mammoth, rhino and horse. Predators would have included hyaenas, sabre-toothed cats and of course humans.”
“The site is exceptional because of the unprecedented preservation of the original materials, from pollen grains to chunks of wood, and mammoth bones to voles and mice. We’ve even found remains of beetles and plants, which are missing from other sites. What we have in Happisburgh is a complete buried landscape.”