On a hot day in August, 1971, a small group of traveling hippies decided to camp at Stonehenge. They pitched tents in the center of the standing stones, smoked some pot, and pontificated on the meaning of life. A storm rolled in later that night. Thunder boomed from above and lightning struck. The stones glowed blue. The light was so brilliant that witnesses across the field had to avert their eyes, but they heard screams coming from the collection of tents.
What Happened to the Hippies?
When the storm cleared and it was safe to venture out, people ran over to help any survivors. Instead of finding dead or dying campers, they found nothing. All that was left of the campsite was a smoldering tent and letters and journal entries scattered by the wind. The campers had completely disappeared.
This urban legend is a favorite, told and retold around campfires and on podcasts. There is no evidence that the incident ever happened, but the story persists. It has all of the ingredients of a good story: mystery, tragedy, and a fantastic setting. What makes this story captivating is that it echos the history of Stonehenge itself, the mystery, death, and the supernatural.
Stonehenge captivates us because we don’t have all of the answers. We look upon this massive monument, one that took between 3 million and 30 million man-hours to create, and we are confounded. Who built it? How did they build it? When did they build it? Perhaps most importantly, why did they build it?
We know some of these answers, and we know that this is the collective act of a society. It took people, resources, money, and time. It was tremendously important to the people who built and used it for thousands of years. We just aren’t exactly sure what it…. is.
What is this pile of rocks?
What makes Stonehenge supremely unique across a British landscape dotted with standing stone circles, is the post-and-lintel system. A massive sandstone lies supported, “hanging,” suspended by the two supporting stones. What we can’t see is that the stones are fixed using traditional woodworking joints like tongue and groove and mortise and tenon.
Britons have been living in, amongst, and around standing stone circles for thousands of years. But Stonehenge has always been special. It has always captured the imagination. It’s not the biggest (Marden Henge) or the best preserved (we’d argue it’s Skara Brae) Neolithic site in the British Isles, but it is and has always been, the favorite.
Stonehenge was built in several phases and what we see today is the evolution of the site and its degradation over time. Stones are buried, missing, and altered, which makes piecing together history even more difficult. The very first phase of Stonehenge, (Stonehenge I), didn’t involve stones at all but was a henge. Or a proto-henge if you’re a real henge-nerd.
A henge is a large earthwork – a series of trenches and ditches and raised causeways that are usually circular in shape. Henges are actually pretty common in Britain. About 100 remain, but there were probably many more that have been destroyed over thousands of years of agriculture. The henge heyday was 3000 -2000 B.C., or the end of the Neolithic period and the beginning of the Bronze Age.
How many Stonehenge’s are there?
About 1000 years later, the people of Stonehenge clearly thought that their henge just wasn’t good enough. It needed more cowbell. And so they traveled north to Wales and selected a set of bluestones. How they got the stones the 160 miles from the Preseli Hills in Wales to the Salisbury Plane (where Stonehenge sits so proudly) is the topic of much and ongoing debate.
Over the next period, Stonehenge (Stonehenge II) continued to evolve. Eventually, the people of Stonehenge decided that the bluestones weren’t impressive enough. Nearby Durrington Walls had giant sandstones, called sarsens, which towered above the bluestones. Perhaps, in a case of keeping up with the Jones’, what was good enough for Durrington Walls was certainly good enough for Stonehenge.
So, they hauled dozens of these stones from about 15 miles away. Keep in mind, these sarsens average a height of 23 feet and each weighs an average of 20 tons.
They took down the circle and horseshoe formed by the bluestones, erected the sarsens, complete with the complex joint system, and re-erected the bluestones. Historians and scientists believe that they did finally complete Stonehenge (Stonehenge III) exactly as they wanted, even though there is evidence of trial and error, and perhaps some mind-changing or trend-shifting. What we see today gives us the blueprint of what was once there, standing sentinel in a vast and lonely plain.
How did they do that?
Scientists love the question of how these stones got here. They also love the mystery of where exactly the stones came from. These are questions that scientists can and have answered. Use carbon dating! Match chemical compositions! Get a magnetometer! Do an earth-resistance survey! Have a theory, test your hypothesis, affirm it or start over! Let’s have a conference!
Stonehenge keeps many secrets well hidden, as we will discuss, but it has given up a few in recent years. Just recently, a core of one of the stones reappeared. Robert Phillips, who worked on the Stonehenge site in 1958 borrowed (stole?) the 3-foot-long cylindrical core, and now, 60 years later, it has reappeared.
Scientists were able to compare the mineral makeup of the core (undamaged by environmental forces the past half-century, thanks to Mr. Phillips) with other sarsen stones around the country. They discovered an exact match – or as exact as one can find – with the stones of West Woods, near Marlborough. This is a thrilling discovery. Now, we can imagine the people of Neolithic England, traipsing up and down the West Woods, searching out the perfect sarsens. The taller and heavier the better.
The second recent and exciting discovery is that the bluestones do, in fact, hail from the hills of Wales’ rocky Pembrokeshire coastline. Not only are they from the Preseli Hills, but there is hope that scientists have found an exact standing stone site that may have once been home to the bluestones of Stonehenge, Haun Mawn. The theory is that the stones were picked from an existing circle, transported, and re-erected. This is a relatively new discovery, but archaeologist, Mike Parker Pearson, recently published an article in Antiquity that presents a convincing case.
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What’s the Millennial Stone doing in Wales?
The National Botanical Garden of Wales is home to a wayward bluestone. The stone was left on a dock after an ambitious, expensive, failed project, Menter Preseli, was unable to move the stone from the Preseli Hills to Stonehenge using Stone Age methods. Actually, it failed using modern-day methods as well, as they ended up using cranes and salvage equipment.
Dependent on thousands of dollars in public funding and dozens of volunteers, this Millennium project planned for the Millennial Stone to be pushed and pulled, sailed and hauled by road, sea, and river, all the way to the Salisbury Plain. Instead, after a shortage of both financing and volunteers, the stone broke loose from its barge and sank to the bottom of the bay at Milford Haven. It was salvaged and remained in Milford Haven for months until the Botanical Garden said “hey, if you guys aren’t using it….”
And so the mystery endures as to how exactly these Neolithic Britains managed the relocation of the bluestones. But what is most fascinating about this failed project is that it failed largely due to the shortage of volunteers. People just weren’t interested in showing up to pull a big stone across the countryside.
And so the real question remains. If modern-day people don’t want to do this fantastical feat, why and how did the people of the Salisbury Plain do it in 3000 B.C.?
Was it aliens… or giants?
Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about Stonehenge in his 1130 A.D. His History of the Kings of Briton explains the complicated origins of the mysterious stone circle. The stones, he asserts, came from Ireland and were known as the Giants’ Dance Stone Circle. Merlin, magician and contemporary of King Arthur, led 15,000 men to defeat the Irish and steal the stones. “A giant from Africa” then helped transport the stones to the Salisbury Plain and erected Stonehenge. The Stonehenge monument, as the story goes, was commissioned by King Arthur, to commemorate the death of 460 Britons slaughtered by savage Saxons.
Which, of course, all makes sense. If 40-weekend volunteers can’t move one stone in 2000 A.D., Stonehenge was obviously the work of giants and magicians. It was also maybe, possibly, the work of aliens. One pseudo-academic, Erich von Daniken, argued with a straight face and a whole book, that alien astronauts arrived on earth and helped build Stonehenge (as well as the Pyramids of Giza). They shared their advanced technology from the outer reaches of the universe out of the generosity of their hearts. This theory is fun, but widely, well, pretty much universally, debunked.
What was it all for?
What historians, archeologists, and scientists do agree on is that Stonehenge was very important to the people who created it. It is also interesting to note that contrary to other Bronze Age sites, there is a surprising lack of historic trash or refuse. This was not a place where people lived. This was a place that was special, perhaps even sanctified.
The Neolithic, early Bronze Age people of Britain did not leave written records. We only have these incredible monuments and must make all kinds of assumptions and suppositions as we present arguments.
The first popular idea is that Stonehenge was a prehistoric Lourdes, a place of pilgrimage and healing. The bluestones supposedly possess healing powers, as well as acoustic qualities. There are also a substantial number of graves in the area of people who suffered debilitating illnesses in life.
A second theory is that perhaps the monoliths, which are aligned to the summer solstice, create a temple to worship the sun. This is a popular hypothesis with many offshoots. The site’s connection to the sun, the summer solstice, and probable alignment to lunar events are long-established.
Gerald Hawkins did all kinds of complicated calculations in the mid-1960’s with his cutting-edge, take-up-a-whole-room computer that showed the alignments of Stonehenge stones were astrological. He argued that Stonehenge was, in essence, an astrological calendar. There are those who also argue that the site is an observatory – a place to monitor the heavens, track the stars. Alexander Thom, for example, studied numerous stone circles and decided they were used to predict eclipses. Throughout the subsequent decades, historians largely debunked this theory. You see, one look at the tall stones and you think, it sure would be hard to see all the stars blocked by the giant post and lentil boulders.
What about all of those dead people?
While this may sound macabre, there is a widely popular theory that Stonehenge provided a place for the living to connect with the dead. The earliest phase of Stonehenge included pits filled with cremated remains. Not the entire remains of a person, but a small portion, almost as if symbolic or ceremonial. There was also, at one time, a single body buried on the axis line of the circle. The remains were uncovered, though unimportant, and reinterred somewhere during a less precise period of archeology. There are a number of gravesites scattered around Stonehenge from this period.
This idea is loosely connected with the theory that Stonehenge was erected by the Celtic Druids who used it for their complex ceremonies. The relationship between Stonehenge and the Druids persists in the modern day. The European Court of Human Rights even granted contemporary Druids the right to worship at Stonehenge, which they see as their temple. However, the Celtic Druids post-date Stonehenge by thousands of years.
That’s not to say that the relationship between standing stones, a faith tradition, and the afterlife isn’t valuable. Historian Benjamin Ray argues that Stonehenge provided a “connection between the transcendent and terrestrial, divine with the human, living with the dead.”
Religious scholar, Mircea Eliade, asserts that the “continuity between life and death is apprehended through the exhalation of the ancestors as identified, or associated, with stones.” There is also the most recent scholarship that suggests that the bluestones were brought by the Welsh of Waun Mawn. Perhaps they were bringing their ancestors with them.
Maybe all of these theories are right?
Stonehenge evolved over time, over thousands of years. There is as much time between Geoffrey of Monmouth and us today as there was between Stonehenge I and Stonehenge II. It is possible, therefore, that its purpose and use shifted over time. The people of Britain were going through their own societal changes. Communities became more stratified as power became more centralized. People were buried as individuals, not in communal graves. The Bronze Age brought more wealth and connections to a wider world. Evidence from later periods of Stonehenge III reveals remains of people and animals from all over the British Isles. It stands to reason that as the people changed, the purpose of Stonehenge may have as well.
Benjamin Ray argues a similar point. He has a theory that seems to blend all of the theories into one. The Neolithic people used Stonehenge to connect with the realm of the dead. This was in some way connected to how the people viewed their own place in the world, as related to the stars, the sun, and the earth.
“The sun,” he argues, “was regarded as a sacred body whose apparent cyclical rhythm, its seasonal strengthening, and weakening, had a positive, magical effect upon the life of human beings.” Perhaps it wasn’t the summer solstice that was so remarkable to these people, but the winter. On the darkest night of the year, they gathered. The harvest was over, the ground was frozen, they were surrounded by generations of ancestors buried nearby. And then, as the sun rose and set and the shortest day passed, there was hope. From then on the days would lengthen with the blush of spring. There was a promise of bright, warm, sun-kissed seasons of life ahead of them.
What’s your Stonehenge?
Ray begins his treatise by remarking that every age has its own Stonehenge. The information changes, the scholarship shifts, we learn more, we alter our interpretations. We view the colossal monoliths through the lens of our own society, our cultural experiences. The complete dearth of record allows Stonehenge to be subjective, if not allegorical.
It inspired Wordsworth and Emerson. Thomas Hardy placed his heroine, Tess D’Urbervilles, at Stonehenge before her arrest and execution. Spinal Tap sang of Stonehenge, “we’ll go back in time/to that mystic land/where the dewdrops cry/and the cat’s meow,” against a comedically minuscule set. No actual hippies were harmed while camping at Stonehenge in 1971, but we still retell the story.
Preeminent historians of their eras believed that Stonehenge was built by Britons, Romans, Mycenaeans, or Druids, and less scholarly ones argued for giants and aliens. As we collect evidence, we know better now who, certainly what and where, but the why and how elude us.
And so we continue to marvel at the sheer determination of our ancestors. And we wonder, what would motivate us to mountains.