Many gathered last week to celebrate the verbal equinox at Stonehenge. Thought to be created between 3000 and 2500 B.C.E., Stonehenge is getting something of a makeover. This year will see the closure of of the A344, the road alongside monument. The £27 million pound project will add a visitor center, remove a parking lot, “restore the dignity” of the stones’ setting and “minimize the intrusion of the modern world,” according to English Heritage.
Can’t argue with that, though the plan to restore the site to more of its original naturalistic state does not go quite as far as hoped. A plan for all major roads to be diverted via tunnels has been scrapped, for instance.
Thanks to radiocarbon dating, archaeologists and historians have been able to figure out that, around 3000 B.C.E., the huge circular ditch that now surrounds the stones was dug and a number of bluestones erected. It was around 2600 B.C.E. that the sarsens, the giant stones, were erected and massive rock lintels placed atop them. Five trilithons (with three stones, a horizontal one capping two verticals slabs) were raised. All these were aligned such that the setting midwinter sun and the rising midsummer sun shine through the very middle of the site and down through the road leading up to it.
What purpose the stones and site served has been the subject of constant speculation since ancient times:
1) Back in the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth said that no one less than the legendary wizard Merlin had built Stonehenge as a burial place for knights slain in fighting the Saxons.
2) ) Most recently, University College London professor Mark Parker Pearson has suggested that Stonehenge was in essence a celebration site that unified Britain. While originally a burial site, Pearson says that, just as today, people gathered at the massive stones to celebrate the solstices in what was like “Glastonbury festival and a motorway building scheme at the same time.”
Some 80,000 bones from cattle from all over Britain have been found near the site; Pearson suggests that Stonehenge was a “monument that brought ancient Britain together,” at a time that was the only one “in prehistory in which ‘the people of Britain were unified’ and all engaged in a ‘common cultural activity.’”
3) Professor Tim Darvill of Bournemouth University instead suggests that Stonehenge was a “place for the living” where people came to seek cures, in the manner of pilgrims visiting the shrine of our Lady of Lourdes.
4) Scientists have some other ideas. Based on the alignment of the stones, Stonehenge was a sort of observatory, where astronomical calculations could be made to predict phenomena like lunar eclipses.
5) Anthony Perks of the University of British Columbia’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology has suggested that the whole circular monument is meant to be a fertility symbol, in the shape of the female sexual organ (pdf) in honor of some sort of prehistoric mother goddess.
6) A 2011 study by an international team of archaeologists suggested that, long before the sarsens were erected, the pits surrounding Stonehenge had been used for sun worship, another argument for it being a sacred site.
7) Druids have often been associated with Stonehenge (including with building it). While some say Stonehenge existed before Druidism came into being, others argue that the Druids predate Stonehenge by a good millennium and that the connection between them and the huge stone circle “may be fairly recent.”
8) An architect, John Webb, dispensed with the idea that those indigenous to Britain built Stonehenge. The huge structure was rather built by the Romans as a temple to a sky-god Coelus.
9) Others suggest that it wasn’t the Romans but the Danes who built Stonehenge — and others take the notion of someone “foreign” building Stonehenge a bit further and suggest that aliens built it.
10) Geologists have suggested that Stonehenge’s builders were neither human nor alien but the forces of nature itself and that glaciers “snatched” the huge stones from the Preseli Hills and deposited them on Salisbury Plain. Never underestimate the power of mother nature?
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