The Mysteries of Stonehenge

What was Stonehenge used for and how and why was it built?

Stonehenge mysteries
The mysteries of Stonehenge capture the imagination

We described what you will actually see at Stonehenge on our What is Stonehenge? page. On this page we look at arguably the more interesting aspect of Stonehenge, the great mysteries of Stonehenge - what was it used for and how it was built.

The Neolithic age in which Stonehenge was built is so long ago that firm, factual information is sparse. As a result there is no shortage of conflicting dates and views about Stonehenge.

Mysteries of building   What was Stonehenge used for?   Burials at Stonehenge   Astronomical alignments   Healing & pilgrimage at Stonehenge

What do we know about Stonehenge?

Stonehenge landscape
The ancient Stonehenge landscape

Nearly every year respected archaeologists will put forward papers suggesting dates need to be adjusted and our assumptions about Stonehenge changed. Just pick up a few books on Stonehenge in the gift shop and even fundamental dates will differ markedly from one book to another.

So, this page aims to give you an overview into the various viewpoints surrounding Stonehenge, how such a huge undertaking was built in a time before technology as we know it today even existed. It will also look at why it was built, the ceremonial purposes for which it was used, as part of the wider Stonehenge Landscape.

Stonehenge Landscape - more details

There are fundamentally three strands of theories about Stonehenge of how and why it was built:

The Archaeologist's viewpoint is based on observation, digs in and around Stonehenge, carbon dating and conclusions at other Neolithic sites all around the British Isles.

The Archaeoastronomer's viewpoint stems from the fact that nearly all the stones at Stonehenge are precisely sited and correlate to significant events of the planets orbit like solstices. A suggestion that Stonehenge is perhaps a place where ancient astronomy took place, perhaps part driven by the need to predict agricultural seasons.

The New Age viewpoint is a loose term we have used to summarise a spiritual input. Religion for want of a better term in Neolithic times had similarities to pagan religions nowadays.

The concept of Mother Earth and Father the Sun overlap to some extent with the Archaeoastronomer's viewpoint, the concept of 'energies' and the siting of Stonehenge at the intersection of many Ley Lines also follow a back to nature theme.

Today the Druid religion uses Stonehenge as a key religious monument, though druidism itself wasn't around at the time of the Neolithics.

The mysteries of building Stonehenge

Stonehenge sunset
Sunset at Stonehenge

One of the major mysteries of Stonehenge was how it was built.

The ditch and bank itself would have been dug with antler picks about 6 feet deep and piled up to make a bank about 6 feet high. At the time of creating the bright white fresh chalk would have contrasted vividly against the surrounding grassland.

The first stones - the bluestones from the Preseli Hills

The first stones, the bluestones (weighing around 4 tons each) were sourced from the only place in the UK where such stone exists, in the Preseli Hills in north Pembrokeshire in Wales, nearly 200 miles away. There is much archaeological debate surrounding the theories of how the stones got from Wales to Salisbury Plain.

A popular theory with some academics is that these stones were quarried from the spot in Wales and then transported largely by water, and then by log roller systems over land to the site of Stonehenge. However nobody has even today successfully re-enacted this feat with the technologies available at the time. Nor found any evidence along the way to support this. The other major and perhaps more plausible theory suggests the stones were moved naturally to Stonehenge by glaciers during the Ice Age.

The big ones - the Sarsen stones

The larger stones the Sarsen stones came from only about 20 miles away, but again with no modern machinery and before the wheel this would have been a huge undertaking, through the undulating countryside. The sarsens would have been roughly cut where they were found, and then dragged on top of tree trunks, working as rollers, to Stonehenge. It has been estimated that as many as one thousand people would have been needed for the man-power to haul these gigantic stones, and perhaps taking ten years to complete.

An elite group of knowledge

Due to the complexity of organising such a mammoth task, it seems likely that an elite group of people possessed and passed on specialist building knowledge, like a guild today, organising the engineering within local - and more distant - communities. Leaders over many generations must have been able to inspire the masses into the concepts and beliefs that drove them to attempt such a monument.

Stonehenge itself is put together like woodwork. Joints and sockets have been carved into the stone so each stone fits into each other precisely. Stonehenge is unique in that it has horizontal stones to form arches. These horizontal stones have been engineered so they were flat, on a sloping site. Stonehenge is also unique in that the stones have been shaped into flat sided blocks.

An army of people

Without metal, it would have been very labour intensive to shape these vast stones using stone on stone. A whole army of people would have been required on site to perform the shaping. We know this as the land around Stonehenge is full of the chippings.

How did they get those huge stones up there?

Erecting the stones also would have been problematic without modern aids. Ditches would have been dug into which the stones would be sited. The uprights we see at Stonehenge have about a third of their length concealed below ground. The most common theory is that large earthen ramps would have been erected and the stones toppled over the top into their prepared holes and somehow pulled vertical, perhaps with primitive A frames for leverage.

What was Stonehenge used for?

Over the years of research regarding Stonehenge there have been several different theories put forward as to why Stonehenge was built. The three most plausible seem to be:

1. A Sacred Burial Site

2. A Site for Celestial or Astronomical Alignments

3. A Place for Healing

Historically popular opinion was that it was used as a Druid temple, however more modern understanding recognises that Stonehenge pre-dated the Druids by some 2,000 years. However the legacy lives on - thousands of modern day druids and people of alternative religions visit Stonehenge every year, particularly around the solstices and equinoxes.

Burials at Stonehenge

Stonehenge barrows
Stonehenge barrows

The evidence supporting the sacred burial site idea, is all around the area, you only have to visit and see the in the wider Stonehenge landscape the burial mounds all around. Archaeological finds have turned up skeletons too, such as the archer, the Bronze Age man discovered in 1978 in the outer ditch of Stonehenge.

The evidence seems to suggest that Stonehenge was a sacred area, people lived away from the site and came to worship. In recent years more than bone fragments of 63 people have been discovered at Stonehenge. More recently archaeological evidence seems to point to Stonehenge being a burial place for the elite only- the 'royals'.

The other archaeological finds around Stonehenge show evidence of a large settlement of houses nearby. Theories are that Stonehenge formed part of a larger ceremonial complex along the nearby Avon that also included the vast earth mound at Silbury Hill, as well as Durrington Walls, and Woodhenge. The River Avon is thought to have been a conduit between the world of the living (Woodhenge) and the world of the dead (Stonehenge). Academics say that a pre service took place at Woodhenge and then the people proceeded for a final service at Stonehenge.

The existence of a ceremonial route up to Stonehenge suggests an organised procession where some kind of ritual took place within the inner sanctum of Stonehenge by the Altar Stone. The fact that Stonehenge had banks 6 foot high surrounding it precluding viewing into it raises the spectre that perhaps only the highest echelon were part of the ceremony.

Astronomical alignments

Stonehenge summer solstice
Summer Solstice - Pagan celebrations

It is also clear that astronomy had something to do with Stonehenge, it is just too much of a coincidence the siting of the stones. The pure theory that Stonehenge was all to do with astronomy, the private fiefdom of a 'priest' like figure or group that studied astronomy to predict the seasons for agriculture is largely discredited.

Similar peoples across the water in what is now Europe were perfectly able to successfully farm without the use of such structures and there is evidence there was trade/contacts between the two.

A common view is that the timings of the ceremonies was all important and this is the only astronomical significance.

And what is the significance of the ley lines that bisect Stonehenge and many other similar Neolithic monuments that statistically go well beyond it being just coincidence?

Today Stonehenge is of course famous for being a gathering place for thousands of people, for one day every June, from all walks of life, including pagans and druids and those looking to experience the spectacular wonder of Stonehenge at dawn at the solstice.

Summer Solstice tour from London

Healing and pilgrimage at Stonehenge

There is also evidence that Stonehenge and Durrington Walls was a place of pilgrimage. What is clear is that people travelled some way to Stonehenge. A skeleton found when studied was from a person originating from what is Switzerland today for example.

The bluestones first brought to Stonehenge were thought by some ancient societies to have healing properties. Some human remains found show evidence of significant injuries to those attending.

So one theory is that Stonehenge was thought to be a place of pilgrimage where miracles of healing may take place.
The religious aspect also has to be accounted for and logically is the key to understanding what went on at Stonehenge. Unfortunately we will never know for sure the detail of what they believed.

Today, Stonehenge is used by pagan religions which have some similarities. Druids often use Stonehenge for formal ceremonies, normally long before the tourists arrive.

Nobody knows for sure what Stonehenge was used for; that is part of the appeal and fun of visiting Stonehenge. Just come to your own personal conclusions.



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