Stonehenge is one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world. It is a megalithic monument in the English county of Wiltshire, about 13 kilometres northwest of Salisbury. In 2007 the building of Stonehenge was dated to 2,300 BC, 300 years later than previously thought.
The enormous monument is consists of an earthen wall surrounding a circular arrangement of large, primitively worked, standing stones. It is – despite the name – not a true henge. A henge is a round or oval earthwork consisting of a wall and a ditch with one or more entrances. The ditch at Stonehenge, unlike a true henge, lies outside the barricade.
The structure and its surroundings are listed as a Protected Ancient Monument by the British government and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. Stonehenge itself is owned by the Crown and is managed by English Heritage. The site has appeared on at least three postage stamps – English in 1990, American in 1992 and French in 2012.
Archaeologist Ricard J.C. Atkinson has made a special study of the Stonehenge complex. He concluded that the site was constructed in three separate phases. It was probably first created around 3,000 BC with wooden posts placed in a circle and surrounded by a ditch. There was a large entrance in the northeast and a smaller in the south. The builders placed the bones of deer and cattle and a few flint tools in the bottom of the ditch. The bones were actually far older than the antlers which would have been used to dig the ditch; the people who dug it had seemingly kept the bones for a long time before burying them.
The second phase began around 2,600 BC when the wooden posts were replaced by the famous large stones which can still be seen today. The northeastern entrance was widened so that it faced directly towards the rising sun in midsummer and sunset in midwinter. The last phase of construction took place between 2,100 and 1,500 BC, when the outermost circle of stones was erected. This consisted of 30 enormous stones which were brought to the site and joined together with mortice and tenon joints. The horizontal stones lying on top, weighing up to 25 tons, were joined together with tongue and groove joints.
Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield have carried out carbon dating of cremated human remains found in the ditch at Stonehenge, which shows that the monument was used as a place of burial from its earliest period until around 3,000 – 2,500 BC. Experts believe that the human remains found in the ditch came from the members of one family who died natural deaths. From recent research Stonehenge is being re-interpreted as a place of cremation and burial, the oldest known of its kind in the United Kingdom.
In September 2008 British archaeologists announced new finds, the first since 1946. These included many skeletons with physical disorders, not all of whom came from the local area. The scientists believe that the function of the complex was as a health centre – a kind of Lourdes for antiquity.
It is not certain why Stonehenge was built, but most researchers believe that it had a religious or ceremonial purpose. In 1965 a new theory was put forward that the location of Stonehenge might have been related to the position of the sun. The stones seem to be perfectly aligned to measure the longest and shortest day of the year. For that reason it has been suggested that Stonehenge was originally a temple to the sun. To this day hundreds of people gather at the monument to celebrate the Summer Solstice.
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Translation Alun Harvey