On the British Isles more than nine hundred stone rings exist. Most people prefer
to call them rings rather than circles for the reason that only two percent of them are true
circles. The other ninety eight percent of these structures are constructed in an elliptical
shape. Stonehenge in itself is roughly circular. Most of these rings cannot be dated
exactly, but it is known that they are from the Neolithic period.
In southern England the Neolithic period begins around the time of the first
farming communities in 4000 B.C. to the time of the development of bronze technology
around 2000 B.C., by that time the construction of major monuments was mostly over.
Because of the scarcity of the archaeological record at the stone rings, any attempts to
explain the functions of the structures are guesses. Most attempts tend to reflect the
cultural relatedness of their times. Most people believe that these rings were constructed
by a group of people called Druids.
This idea of Stonehenge being constructed by Druids has become deeply implanted
in the uneducated minds of popular culture from tie seventeenth century to the present. It
is common knowledge that the druids had nothing to do with these rings. The Druids
flourished after about 300 B.C., more than 1500 years after the last stone rings were
constructed. Even more, there is no evidence that suggests that the Druids even used
these stone rings for ritual purposes. Any Druidic connection with the stone rings is
During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, prehistorians attributed
Stonehenge and other stone rings to Egyptian and Mycenean travelers who were thought
to have infused Europe and Bronze age culture. With the development of carbon 14
dating methods, the infusion-diffusion of British Neolithic history was abandoned and the
megalithic monuments of Britain were shown to predate those in most other countries.
While the carbon 14 method provided approximate dates for the stone rings it was no use
explaining their function. Research by scholars outside the discipline of
archaeology suggested a use different to that of rituals.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Oxford University engineer Alexander Thom and the
astronomer Gerald Hawkins pioneered the new field of archaeoastronomy-the study of the
astronomies of ancient civilizations. Conducting precise surveys at various stone rings and
other megalithic structures, Thom and Hawkins discovered many significant astronomical
alignments among the stones. This evidence suggested that the stone rings were used as
astronomical observatories. Moreover, the archaeoastronomers revealed the extraordinary
mathematical sophistication and engineering abilities that the native British developed
before either Egyptian or Mesopotamian cultures.
While the findings of Thom and Hawkins were fascinating, even revolutionary,
more recent studies by Aubrey Burl and Benjamin Ray have tempered some of the earlier
claims. Stonehenge, the most visited and well known of the British stone rings, is a
composite structure built during three distinct periods. In Period I (radiocarbon-dated to
3100 B.C.), Stonehenge was a circular ditch with an internal bank. The circle, 320 feet in
diameter, had a single entrance, 56 mysterious holes around its perimeter (with remains in
them of human cremations), and a wooden sanctuary in the middle. The circle was
aligned with the midsummer sunrise, the midwinter sunset and the most southernly rising
and northernly setting of the moon.
Period II (2150 B.C.) saw the replacement of the wooden sanctuary with two
bluestones, the widening of the entrance, the construction of an entrance avenue
marked by two parallel ditches aligned to the midsummer sunrise, and the erection, outside
the circle, of a thirty-five ton Heelstone. The eighty bluestones, some weighing as much
as four tons, were transported from the Prescelly mountains in Wales, 240 miles away.
During Period III (2075 B.C.), the bluestones were taken down and the enormous
Saracen stones-which still stand today-were erected. These stones, averaging eighteen
feet in height and weighing twenty five tons, were transported from near the Avebury
stone rings twenty miles north.
Sometime between 1500 and 1100 BC, approximately sixty of the bluestones were
reset immediately inside of the Saracen circle, and another nineteen were placed in a
horseshoe pattern, also inside the circle. It has been estimated that three phases of
construction took thirty million hours of labor. It was unlikely that Stonehenge was
functioning much after 1100 BC. Current thinking regarding the use of Stonehenge
suggests the primacy of ritual function rather astronomical observation.
Astronomical observations would indeed have been performed. Rather than being
for the sake of accumulating data regarding the movement of celestial bodies, as is the sole
purpose of modern observatories, the Stonehenge observations were probably intended to
indicate the appropriate days in the yearly ritual cycle. Likely the primary use as a ritual
site, while its secondary purpose was an astronomical observation site in service to that
ritual. In speaking about its architectural purpose, Benjamin Ray suggests that
Stonehenge, in its middle and later form, was intended to be a stone replica of the kind of
wooden sanctuary that was locally common in Neolithic times.
Students of mythology and archaeology will be familiar with the fact that many
ancient cultures had festivals on the solstices and equinoxes. The most common
interpretation for these festivals is that they are occasionally for renewal; the renewal of
the people and the land by the celestial powers; and also the renewal of land and the
celestial beings by the agency of human intention, celebration, and sacrifice. The
interpretation usually stops there. Discussion may indeed continue regarding the
characteristics of the festivals or their sociological function.
Stonehenge in many peoples minds, is the most mysterious place in the world.
This set of ring and horseshoe shapes on the empty Salisbury Plain, is about 4,000 years
old, one of the oldest, and certainly the best preserved, megalithic(large often ancient
stone) structures on Earth. It is a fantastic construction with many of the larger involved
weighing as much as 25 tons, and quarried from a location about 18 miles away. The
rings and horseshoes of Sarsen(a type of sandstone)also carry large lintels or horizontal
beams. These lintels made it so that when all of the stones were in place, there was a ring
of stone in the sky as well as on the ground.
We know almost nothing about who built Stonehenge and why. A popular theory
advanced in the nineteenth century was that the Druids, a people that existed in Britain
before the Roman conquest, had built it as a temple. Modern archaeological techniques,
though, have dated Stonehenge and we now know that it was completed about 1,000
years before the Druids came into power. If the Druids used Stonehenge for their rituals
they got it second hand. Despite this, modern Druids have laid claim to Stonehenge and
an annual ceremony is performed at Stonehenge during Summer solstice, one of the rings
There is evidence that there was activity on the Stonehenge site as far back as
11,000 years ago. It wasnt until about 3,100 BC, though, that a circular bank, following
the current Stonehenge layout, appeared. At the same time pine posts were put into place.
Around 2100 BC stones started being erected. First bluestones from Wales, then the larger
Sarsen stones. During this period some stones were erected then later dismantled.
Why did builders dismantle and then rebuild this site? Its hard to say, They
apparently didnt have a written language and left no records. We can say one thing about
Stonehenge based on its archaeological digs at the location, there is almost no trash. A
number of pieces of flint, antler picks, or axes have been found, but very few items that
people would expect to see discarded at a human habitation (trash pits turn out to be some
of the best sources of marerial for archaeologists to examine).
This leads some archaeologists to conclude that Stonehenge was a sacred
ground, like a church. As one scientist put it, Stonehenge was a clearly special place
where you didnt drop litter.