Published: June 2008


Stonehenge at night

If the Stones Could Speak

Searching for the Meaning of Stonehenge

By Caroline Alexander
National Geographic Contributing Writer
Photograph by Ken Geiger
National Geographic Staff

The first glimpse often comes from the road. Blurring past on the A303 thoroughfare that cuts heedlessly almost across the monument's very entrance, Stonehenge appears as a cluster of insignificant protrusions on the big, otherwise featureless plain; and yet, even from this profane and glancing vantage, the great-shouldered silhouette is so unmistakably prehistoric that the effect is momentarily of a time warp cracking onto a lost world.

Up close, amid the confusion of broken and standing stones, it still seems smaller than its reputation, notwithstanding the obvious feat represented by the erection of the famous sarsen stones; the largest weighs as much as 50 tons. Unique today, Stonehenge was probably also unique in its own time, some 4,500 years ago—a stone monument modeled on timber precedents. Indeed, its massive lintels are bound to their uprights by mortise-and-tenon joints taken straight from carpentry, an eloquent indication of just how radically new this hybrid monument must have been. It is this newness, this assured awareness that nothing like it had existed before, this revelatory quality, that is still palpable in its ruined stones. The people who built Stonehenge had discovered something hitherto unknown, hit upon some truth, turned a corner—there is no doubt that the purposefully placed stones are fraught with meaning.

But what in fact do they mean? Despite countless theories offered over centuries, no one knows. Stonehenge is the most famous relic of prehistory in Europe and one of the best known, most contemplated monuments in the world—and we have no clear idea what the people who built it actually used it for.

In the past, archaeologists sought to crack this enigma by wringing every fact they could from the stones themselves, subjecting their contours, marks, and even shadows to scrutiny. Recently, though, the search has led investigators farther afield, away from Stonehenge itself to the remains of a nearby Neolithic village on the one hand, and on the other to a craggy mountain peak in southwestern Wales. While no definitive answer has yet emerged, these two very different searches-in-progress have stirred tantalizing new possibilities.

STONEHENGE AROSE from a rich tradition of equally enigmatic structures. Henges—circular banks of earth paralleled by an internal ditch—earth barrows and mounds, circular timber structures, monoliths, and circles and horseshoes of stone were all common throughout Neolithic Britain and parts of continental Europe. (Strictly speaking, Stonehenge is not, as its name implies, a henge, because the position of its bank and ditch are reversed.) At different stages of its evolution Stonehenge reflected many of these traditions. The first certain structural stones of Stonehenge, the bluestones, which were floated, dragged, and hauled from Wales, most likely arrived sometime before 2500 B.C. The giant sarsens followed, filling out the monument, which was at some point linked by an avenue to the River Avon. Stonehenge, then, is the culmination of a dynamic evolution; the pre-stone earthworks thrown up in grassland probably embodied different beliefs than the later monument of stone that was resolutely connected to water.

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