Photograph by: Ken Geiger, National Geographic June 2008
Stonehenge, one of the greatest mysteries left to us by the ancient world, is a Neolithic monument constructed on England's Salisbury Plain during the third millennium B.C. Though much of Stonehenge's purpose during its centuries of activity can only be guessed at, one thing is certain—it was used as a cemetery.
Stonehenge was built in three major stages: an earthwork formed of a circular ditch and bank; timber settings with postholes dug into the area surrounded by the circular bank; and eventually, the stones so familiar to us today. The exact date for the beginning of each stage is uncertain, but it's most likely that the earthwork was established around 3000 B.C., the timber settings a hundred to a few hundred years later, and the first stone settings by 2500 B.C.
Why the uncertainty about when the stones were added to the monument? Since stone is an inorganic material and therefore can’t be dated using radiocarbon analysis, organic matter that coincides exactly with the period in which a stone was set in place must be found. An antler used for digging might be unearthed, or burial remains might be found at the base of a stone, perhaps put there when the stone was erected, as an offering or as a way to honor the person.
Yet even when archaeologists have organic material to radiocarbon-date, it's often hard to tell which remains belong with which rock, since Stonehenge's stones have been moved many times over the millennia. The bluestones arrived first, but were moved aside before the larger sandstone sarsens were brought to the site. The bluestones were later installed inside the sarsen ring. Then, too, many stones fell and were re-erected in modern times. Finally, excavations in the early 20th century did not take careful note of the site's stratigraphy (the precise layer of dirt artifacts or remains are found in), making it difficult for researchers to interpret early finds.
Only part of the monument has been excavated, but so far 52 cremation burials and 40 pieces of unburned bone have been found within the site's earthen banks. Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, which has been excavating in the area over the past five years, has radiocarbon-dated burial remains that indicate Stonehenge was used as a cemetery in all three periods—earth, timber, and stone. An agreed-upon date for the stone period could help confirm this. (Parker Pearson, of the University of Sheffield, directs the Stonehenge Riverside Project along with Joshua Pollard of the University of Bristol, Colin Richards and Julian Thomas of the University of Manchester, Chris Tilley of University College London, and Kate Welham of Bournemouth University.)
In April 2008 a team of archaeologists excavated for two weeks within the stone circle at the monument—the first such excavation in decades. They hope their results (they're still doing tests) will clarify when the bluestones arrived.
Alexander, Caroline. "If the Stones Could Speak." National Geographic (June 2008), 34-59.
Stonehenge general information. English Heritage.
Stonehenge interactive map. English Heritage.
Stonehenge Riverside Project. University of Sheffield.
Stonehenge Riverside Project. University of Manchester.
Bayliss, Alex, and others. "The World Recreated: Redating Silbury Hill in Its Monumental Landscape." Antiquity (March 2007), 26-53.
Castleden, Rodney. The Making of Stonehenge. Routledge, 1993.
Cunliffe, Barry, and Colin Renfrew, eds. Science and Stonehenge. British Academy, 1997.
Parker Pearson, Mike, and others. "The Age of Stonehenge." Antiquity (September 2007), 617-639.
Richards, Julian. Stonehenge: The Story So Far. English Heritage, 2007.
The word "henge" came to its current definiton—a Neolithic earthwork with an internal ditch and an outward bank—in a roundabout way. It was apparently first used in relation to Stonehenge, probably as a Saxon reference to the "hanging stones" or horizontal lintels across the tops of the upright stones of the monument.
Stonehenge is the most renowned of the many British Neolithic earthworks, and thus became a reference point when talking about similar sites, with or without stones. "Stone" was dropped, and the sites became simply "henges." Since other British Neolithic ditch-and-bank constructions have the ditch inside a surrounding bank, over time a henge has come to describe that variety of construction—meaning that technically Stonehenge is no longer a henge, as its ditch lies outside its bank.
Henge defined. English Heritage.
Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Spurred by his work in Madagascar—where timber is associated with the living or the female and stone with the dead or the male—Mike Parker Pearson has linked the solar alignments of the timber circle at the settlement of Durrington Walls, another Neolithic monument on Salisbury Plain, and the cemetery at Stonehenge at the two annual solstices. He believes there were related celebrations and processions at each site tied to the rising and setting sun and the cycles of life between summer and winter. On the summer solstice—the longest day of the year—revelers would have gathered at Stonehenge to witness the sun rise and would then have proceeded northeast to Durrington Walls for a midsummer celebration.
Juvenile pig bones at Durrington Walls indicate feasting around the time of the winter solstice; the animals seem to have been brought in from elsewhere, as they all apparently died at about the same time and at about the same age, evidence that they were born in the spring and then killed on-site in midwinter. According to Parker Pearson, celebrants would have attended the winter solstice sunrise at Durrington Walls and then proceeded down to the River Avon. He posits that the ashes of people who'd died during the year were thrown into the river and that the ashes of important people in the community were transported downriver, then up the avenue at Stonehenge to be buried in the sacred precinct, perhaps as the winter solstice sun set between the aligned stones.
Parker Pearson's theory is as yet unproved. His archaeologist colleagues want to see more evidence before they accept it as a valid explanation of the sites' use. However, archaeologists generally agree that Parker Pearson's way of looking at the sites as part of a whole, related landscape on Salisbury Plain instead of disparate, unrelated sites is useful.
Stonehenge Builders' Houses Found. BBC News.
Parker Pearson, M., and Ramilisonina. "Stonehenge for the Ancestors: The Stones Pass on the Message." Antiquity 72 (1998), 308-26.
Parker Pearson, M. Bronze Age Britain. Anova Books, 2005.
Last updated April 15, 2008