Stonehenge is one of many rings of standing stones built by the ancient peoples in Britain, in this case on the Salisbury Plain. More is known about Stonehenge in particular than other stone circles because it was so well preserved that real archaeological work has been done around it.
A ‘henge’, in archaeological terms, is a large enclosure. It appears that the first ‘henge’ at Stonehenge involved no stones at all, but was an earthwork, composed of a ditch, a bank, and a series of dug holes called the ‘Aubrey holes, all begun around 3100 BC. The Aubrey holes are round pits dug into the chalk of the plain, each about a meter wide and deep, with steep sides and flat bottoms. These holes form a circle a little less than a 100 meters in diameter. In a way, then, it was a reverse of the current Stonehenge, in that the monument was dug into the ground instead of rising above it.
Excavations have revealed cremated human bones in some of the holes, but not such extensive remains that researchers are convinced these were primarily graves rather than for use as part of a religious ceremony. What that ceremony might have been, they don’t know.
Shortly after this construction was completed, Stonehenge was abandoned for 1000 years.
Then, around 2100 BC the Preseli Bluestones were brought from 150 miles away in Wales and erected in a circle such that they aligned with the sun on the summer solstice. As we talked about last week, religious beliefs associated with the sun seem to have been one of the primary tenets of Neolithic religion. Around 100 years after that, this first Bluestone circle was dismantled and then rearranged in the horseshoe and circle that we can still see today.
One of the final phases of Stonehenge saw the arrival of the Sarsen stones which were arranged in an outer circle with a continuous circle of lintels. Five trilithons were also placed in a horseshoe arrangement, part of which we can also still see today.
It is important to understand that Stonehenge was part of a religious landscape that included more than just these stones. Barrows and burial mounds numbering in the hundreds surround the site, along with the Stonehenge Cursus, a 1.9 mile earthwork running east to west and aligned with sunrise on the equinoxes. At Stonehenge itself, evidence suggests that upwards of 4000 people gathered to celebrate the summer soltice. There is also an avenue, composed of a parallel pair of ditches and banks leading two miles (3 km) to the River Avon.
And with that addition, maybe we have some insight into the actual religious beliefs and practices that surrounded Stonehenge. At about the same time Stonehenge was completed, a large timber circle and second avenue were constructed at Durrington Walls overlooking the River Avon. The timber circle was oriented towards the rising Sun on the winter solstice, as compared to Stonehenge’s alignment with the summer solstice. Evidence of huge fires on the banks of the Avon between the two avenues also suggests that both circles were linked. The avenues could have been used as a procession routes on the longest and shortest days of the year. The theory I like best is that the wooden circle at Durrington Walls was the centre of a ‘land of the living’, whilst the stone circle represented a ‘land of the dead’, with the Avon serving as a journey between the two.
I’m third from the left :)Heritage key has created a virtual tour of the site here: http://heritage-key.com/stonehenge
Or, you can buy your own desktop version from ThinkGeek: