Published: June 2008
If the Stones Could Speak
Searching for the Meaning of Stonehenge
By Caroline Alexander
National Geographic Contributing Writer

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.

Standing within the collapsed circles, it is not easy to make out the monument's original blueprint. Easier to imagine are the actions that lie behind it: the planning and engineering; the diplomacy required to negotiate transportation of stones through different territories; the logistical maneuvering to supply and equip a labor force; the ability to cajole, inspire, or compel able-bodied men to leave their animals, fields, and hunting grounds—in short, the many necessary human acts that we still recognize, although we know little about who these early Britons were, how they were organized, or what language they spoke.

We do know that some were farmers and pastoralists, and that they had long since begun the task of domesticating their landscape, making inroads into the ancient birch, pine, and hazel forests. Skeletal remains indicate that despite physically demanding lives, the people of Neolithic Britain were more lightly built than us. Their relative lack of dental decay suggests a diet low in carbohydrates, and although life expectancies are difficult to calculate, people seem, overall, to have enjoyed good health. Then as now, life held unexpected hazards. "Five to 6 percent of these populations showed massive blunt-force trauma to the crania," according to Michael Wysocki, a senior lecturer in forensic and investigative science at the University of Central Lancashire. "This was equally the case between male and female." Explanations for this trauma range from ritualized violence to the possibility that life of the era was simply brutal.

Recently, dramatic and wholly chance discoveries have provided biographical outlines of individual men. In 2002 archaeologists working on Boscombe Down, on the east side of the Avon, two and a half miles southeast of Stonehenge, unearthed two burials dated at between 2500 and 2300 B.C. They contained the remains of a 35-to-45-year-old man whose leg had been badly damaged—he would have walked with a horrific limp—and a younger relative, perhaps his son. The older man's grave contained the richest burial goods of the era found in Britain: gold jewelry for hair, copper knives, flint tools, two archer's wrist guards of polished stone, a "cushion stone" for working metal, along with pottery of the distinctive Beaker style common at the time in continental Europe but not in Britain. Chemical analysis of the tooth enamel of both men gave startling results: The younger man was from the local chalk country of Wessex; the older man, dubbed the "Amesbury Archer," came from the foothills of the Alps in the region of what is now Switzerland and Germany.

"I suppose it was inevitable," said Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology, who conducted the excavation, with a wan smile, showing me a cartoon depicting Stonehenge flying a German flag. The hard facts suggest a romantic story. Migrating from Europe, with his advanced pottery and his skills in metalworking, the Archer had made good in Wessex, acquiring considerable wealth and status along with a family.

One year after the discovery of the Archer and his companion, and less than a quarter mile away, construction workers laying pipe stumbled on yet another grave from roughly the same period, this one containing the remains of seven individuals, at least four of whom were males, also apparently related and, like the Archer, not native to the area. Analysis of the premolars and molars of the three adults revealed, according to Fitzpatrick, "that they were in one place up to the age of six, and in another up to the age of thirteen." Matches for the place of infancy include northwestern Britain, Wales, or Brittany. "The larger point is not where they came from," Fitzpatrick emphasized, "it's that people of the era traveled. This is the best example of prehistoric migration in Europe yet found."

WHILE IT IS NOT FANCIFUL to speculate that these immigrants saw Stonehenge—perhaps even helped build it—remarkable new evidence has recently been unearthed about the community that surely used it. Since 2003 the Stonehenge Riverside Project, headed by Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield and five other team leaders and supported by the National Geographic Society, has been conducting a series of excavations of the wider Stonehenge landscape, focusing on a massive henge, some 1,500 feet in diameter, known as Durrington Walls. Nearly two miles northeast of Stonehenge, Durrington was known as early as 1812 and excavated in the 1960s ahead of road construction. Erosion and land use have now blurred its once formidable outlines, made of earth banks formerly as wide as one hundred feet and at least as high as ten.

In and around the giant henge were three circular timber structures whose footprints survive in traces of their postholes. Two—the Northern and Southern Circles—lay within the henge itself, while a later monument known as Woodhenge stood just outside. "There is evidence to suggest that timber circles were secretive places, their interiors hidden by screens as well as the multiplications of posts," said Alex Gibson, an authority on timber circles at the University of Bradford. Recently, inside the henge banks, the Riverside Project unearthed two structures, lofty and distinguished by individual ditches and palisades, perhaps residences of elite officials overseeing the circle, or even cult houses.

Outside the henge and under the embankment, the project excavated a cluster of seven small houses. Tentatively dated at between 2600 and 2500 B.C., they straddle a hundred-foot-wide flint-paved avenue to the Avon. Standing inside the foundation outline of one of the houses, Mike Parker Pearson pointed out domestic details, such as an oval hearth in the middle of the floor. "These are heel, or maybe buttock, marks," he said, squatting by way of demonstration beside indentations on the plaster floor. Remains of a cooking area stood to one side. Five houses show evidence of furniture, including slot marks for the edges of wooden beds. Parker Pearson waved a hand toward the dark tree fringe in the distance. Trial excavations and geophysical surveys have detected a multitude of other possible hearths in the valley. "There may be as many as 300 houses," he said, making it the largest Neolithic settlement found in Britain.

Drawing on field experience in Madagascar, Parker Pearson advocates a bold interpretation of the site and, with it, the "answer" to Stonehenge. In Malagasy culture, the ancestors are revered with stone monuments, signifying the hardening of bodies to bone and the enduring commemoration of death; wood, by contrast, which decays, is associated with transient life. Stone is ancestral and male, while wood, as Parker Pearson put it, is "soft and squishy, like women and babies." As he allows, no such gender distinction has yet been discerned in Britain, but it's the same principle underlying Western commemorative practice: "You lay flowers on the grave, then you put up a tombstone."

Guided by this model, Parker Pearson sees suggestive associations between Durrington Walls, with its defining wooden structures, and the hard monumentality of Stonehenge. Durrington has a path to the Avon that could be a ceremonial avenue, though it is just over 550 feet long, while that at Stonehenge runs a mile and three-quarters, and its processional character is defined by flanking ditches and banks.

To Parker Pearson, the contrasts are equally suggestive. Stonehenge is aligned on both the axis of the summer solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset, while the Southern Circle at Durrington Walls catches the winter solstice sunrise. A profusion of pottery and animal bone debris, especially of pigs, implies that Durrington Walls saw much feasting, while very little pottery has been found at Stonehenge. Scarcely any human remains have been found at Durrington, but 52 cremations and many other burials have been uncovered at Stonehenge, which may contain as many as 240—the largest Neolithic cemetery in England. Durrington, in this new theory, represents the domain of the living, and Stonehenge, the domain of the ancestral dead, with the two linked by seasonal processions along a route formed by the avenues and the river. The ashes of most of the dead would have been entrusted to the river. Other cremated remains, possibly the society's elite, were deposited ceremonially at Stonehenge itself.

"Many specialists would go along with the dead and living in a loose sort of way," said Mike Pitts, editor of the journal British Archaeology and one of the few people around today who have actually excavated at Stonehenge. It is the details of the new theory that are problematic. The assumption has always been that burial remains at Stonehenge were common only during the period of the pre-stone earthworks and timber structures, though Parker Pearson now believes they continued into the period of the stones. But environmental evidence from the immediate landscape around Stonehenge indicates the usual activities of the living, such as farming and grazing of animals, which do not seem compatible with a larger ritualized domain of the dead. And there is no agreement about when the sarsen stones arrived. Similarly, the date of the avenue leading from Stonehenge to the Avon, the necessary link between the two sites, needs to be resolved by more evidence. Filling in these gaps is crucial for any meaningful correlation of activities between the two sites.

Summing up, Pitts said of Parker Pearson's theory: "The value of this interpretation is not just the idea of linking stones and ancestors, but that it works with the entire landscape. Previous interpretations have taken the independent sites separately."

IRONICALLY, A MORE DIRECT approach to the heart of Stonehenge might lie in fieldwork far from its own landscape, miles away in a small site amid convulsed, fractured outcrops of dolerite and shale in the Preseli Mountains of southwestern Wales—the source of Stonehenge's oldest stones, the fabled bluestones. The erection of the bluestones marked a critical transition from the original timber settings toward the monument we have today. "Dusted with magic," is how one archaeologist described the famously atmospheric hills to me, in a region long known for its intriguing stone circles, dolmens, and other megalithic monuments. As long ago as 1923, specific outcrops around Carn Menyn, at the eastern end of the Preseli hills, had been identified as the bluestone source; subsequent geochemical work in 1991 refined this to roughly one square mile.

Yet for more than 80 years after the discovery of the bluestone source, "no one actually got their trowel out and did anything," said Timothy Darvill, a professor of archaeology at Bournemouth University. "It's perverse, really." Together with Geoffrey Wainwright, a distinguished authority on the Neolithic and the original excavator of Durrington Walls in the 1960s, Darvill began a systematic survey around Carn Menyn in 2001, accompanied by a small team of researchers from Bournemouth University, including Yvette Staelens, a senior lecturer. "It's a place where strange things happen," Staelens said of the hills. She described reaching the top of a sheer rock outcrop and finding a fox impaled on rock. "Guts and blood were spilling down—we think a large raptor must have dropped it. Strange things like that."

"It's a natural monument," said Wainwright, of the chaotic rock formations of columns and pillars that litter the ground. "The stones of Stonehenge didn't have to be quarried; they could be simply carried off." Up to six feet in height and four tons, the approximately 80 original bluestones—the exact number formerly located at Stonehenge is unclear—are mostly dolerite spotted with milky feldspar. Freshly cut and wet with rain, they do indeed glisten blue. Still, these are not the only striking stones within the British Isles. "Why did they bring these stones 250 miles to build Stonehenge?" Wainwright asked. "And why did they retain these stones throughout its structural history?"

So far the Preseli hills have not yielded an answer, but they do offer some clues. As Staelens recalled, on the first day Wainwright and Darvill began their field survey, Wainwright laid his hand on a rock. "And it had rock art. The pair of them were very academic blokey about the discovery. Geoff said, 'Look at this, Tim.' Tim said, 'That looks important, Geoff.' They just stood there, very British low-key."

The handful of examples they eventually discovered of the distinctive "cup mark" art, a motif of circular hollows within hollows, could be dated only very broadly at between 3800 and 2000 B.C. "We didn't get anything we could confidently put in for dating," Darvill said. This much, however, is known: Perhaps as early as 4000 B.C., people were constructing monuments in this atmospheric area where rock pinnacles seem to pierce the sky and commemorating the site with motifs associated elsewhere with "special" sites. "In Neolithic times people are going to the Preseli hills and venerating them," was how one archaeologist put it.

Whether the stones were moved to Salisbury Plain in a single, sustained campaign or an ongoing effort spread out over a generation or more is not known. Similarly, how the stones were transported has been hotly debated over the years. "That's a blue-collar question," Wainwright said, relishing what was clearly a well-rehearsed line, "and I am not an engineer." Although glacial drift may initially have worked the stones loose from the hills, an old theory that glaciers swept them onto Salisbury Plain has been discounted by modern studies; somehow people must have moved them. The shortest accepted route—by river and along the coast of Wales, across the Severn estuary, into the upper reaches of the Avon—is about 250 miles. It is impossible to judge just how remarkable a feat such transport was in its day. As Darvill points out, in continental Europe even more massive stones were being lugged around. "Increasingly, the 'unaccountable effort' argument is under attack," Darvill said. "The Grand Menhir in Brittany—what does it weigh? Three hundred and forty tons, something like that, and it was moved at least a few miles." Whether the stones were pulled by teams of men or oxen, on sleds with greased tracks, giant rollers of wood, or some other unsuspected means, Neolithic man evidently, as Darvill said, "had transportation sorted out."

Archaeologists can only speculate about the significance of the bluestones. Carn Menyn may have been a landmark charged with special meaning in a key overland route for trade or travel. Some claim the arrangement of the types of bluestone—dolerite, rhyolite, and tuff—at Stonehenge mirrors their natural arrangement on Carn Menyn. Then again, perhaps the very effort of transporting the stones or their exotic nature was the point&#mdash;a kind of statement of ability and power.

Darvill and Wainwright believe the answer lies in an old tradition. Writing in the 12th century A.D., Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his rambling, gossipy meander through the history of the kings of Britain, gave a fanciful account of how Stonehenge was carried bodily—on the orders of the wizard Merlin, no less—from Ireland to Salisbury Plain, where it was set down to be a place of healing. The story may represent oddments of tenaciously preserved folk memory garbled by a long—in this case, 3,600-year-old-oral tradition; the stones of Stonehenge were, after all, brought from a far place in the west by seemingly magical means.

Rounding out this story is an old local belief, still potent today, that attributes healing powers to springs arising in the Preseli hills. The sum of these two traditions posits Stonehenge as a kind of Lourdes of the prehistoric world. Among colleagues this healing theory has received a mixed, but cautiously interested, reception. "I mean, it's plausible," one expert said. Until further evidence comes to light, then, the trail returns to where it began, with only the most basic of hard facts: People had found something special in the Preseli hills and transported this to southern England.

AT THE TIME the bluestones arrived on what is now Salisbury Plain, the old-growth forest had been cleared for centuries into open grassland. If brought by river, the stones would have been dragged from the willow-and-sedge-lined banks of the Avon up to the site. Decoratively stippled, grooved and smoothed, the stones were erected in pairs to form a double arc and were perhaps also yoked by lintels that have since fallen away.

The old earthworks were now refashioned to highlight the northeast entrance, thus confirming the import of the monument's alignment with the solstices—an emphasis that perhaps reflected beliefs about the meaning of the stones in their location at Preseli, or perhaps the new beliefs of a changing age. At some later date the giant sarsens of hard sandstone were dragged in from the Marlborough Downs, 20 to 30 miles away. Although subsequent ages would fiddle with the internal design, the erection of the sarsens—the great broad-shouldered guardians of the smaller stones from Wales—bestowed on Stonehenge its enduring aura of unassailable assurance. Mystifying as it is to us, there is no mistaking the confident purposefulness of its massive, monumental features.

Studies conducted by Michael Allen, an expert in environmental archaeology, demonstrate that throughout the long period of Stonehenge's construction, people of the area carried on with the mundane tasks of their lives. Charcoal remains, pollens of weeds associated with crops, and, most valuably, snail shells—which can be matched to different habitats—show that the Stonehenge landscape was cleared, grazed, and farmed. Whatever its function, Stonehenge was embedded in the community it served. "I see it being used like a cathedral, or Wembley Stadium," Allen said. "Some days it was used to hold solemn rituals, other days for more ordinary gatherings."

That so much has been found so recently on this historic landscape underscores how much may yet be revealed. Projected work on the avenue could establish when it was extended to the Avon, clarifying at what stage the river became ritually linked to the monument. Cremation remains that were excavated and reburied at the monument as long ago as 1935 could benefit from rigorous new analysis with up-to-date technology. In April Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright conducted a two-week dig inside the stone circle—the first such excavation in decades—hoping to pin down when the bluestones arrived. Their planned reexamination of skeletal remains from the Stonehenge region may indicate whether a high percentage of the people had been in need of "healing." Fieldwork already under way in the Preseli hills may yield datable burial finds, possibly shedding light on the significance of the Preseli stones.

TO ALL THOSE who seek to read the meaning of Stonehenge in its stones, ritual texts from the dawn of history offer cautionary tales. Take, for example, a random Late Bronze Age text of ritual practice from the Luwians, who lived in what is now Turkey between roughly 1700 B.C. and 800 B.C.: "Then they hold it [the sheep] out to him and he spits into its mouth twice. The Old Woman speaks as follows, 'Spit out pain and woe, the god's anger... .' Then they bring a piglet of dough and a living piglet. They wave the living piglet at some distance." It is fair to say that no diligent fieldwork or application of logic and reason could have led even a visionary archaeologist to reconstruct this ritual from artifacts like bones and ceramics. There are no texts to explain Stonehenge. Secure in its wordless prehistory, it can thus absorb a multitude of "meanings": temple to the sun—or the moon, for that matter; astronomical calendar; city of the ancestral dead; center of healing; stone representation of the gods; symbol of status and power. The heart of its mystique is, surely, that it excites in equal measure both zealous certitude and utter bafflement.

Stonehenge represented the end of the grand tradition of monument building in Neolithic England. It fell out of use around 1500 B.C., and over the centuries many of its stones toppled, broke, or were carried off—casualties of nature as well as man. From time to time reports were made about the enigmatic ruins. A first-century B.C. Greek historian, Diodorus of Sicily, cites a lost account set down three centuries earlier, which described "a magnificent precinct sacred to Apollo and a notable spherical temple" on a large island in the far north, opposite what is now France. (Apollo, intriguingly, is the god of healing.)

In more recent history Samuel Pepys, the great diarist, visited the stones in the summer of 1668, hiring horses and a guide to take him over the plain. His account still resonates today. The stones, he wrote, were "as prodigious as any tales I ever heard of them and worth going this journey to see. God knows what their use was."