Stonehenge and other Megalithic Sites

(adapted from a lecture given by Clive Ruggles during Oxford V conference on Cultural aspects of astronomy)

Stonehenge in many ways embodies archeoastronomy -- it is both misunderstood and inexplicable. It many ways Stonehenge has tricked moderns into seeing the past in its own image as it searches for the astronomical alignments in the site. It has provided an excellent case study in the limits of archeology and archeoastronomy. Exactly what was this structure used for? How old is it? How and why did the early inhabitants of Britain construct this huge monument?

The progress in understanding Stonehenge, largely through the works of the Thom family, have shed much light on this subject. It seems clear that Stonehenge developed in three phases. The earliest phase of human monuments in this region of the Salisbury plain appears to have begun by 8000 B.C., when the inhabitants erected a series of large wooden posts in this spot by the River Avon. The posts were part of an extensive series of ceremonial sites, which extended across much of early wooded Britian.

By about 4000 B.C. this site began to evolve along with the early Britons. The ceremonial centers across the land became "encosures", which consisted of circular ditchess surrounded by raised earthen walls. The surrounding plain began to be cleared for agriculture, and a more extensive trading network began to develop within Britain. At this time over 63 similar sites have been identified across Britain. Several of these sites are barely recognizable, and lie beneath present day farms, forests, roads and fields.

By 2950 B.C. Stonehenge was expanded by adding many wooden posts along a circular arrangement within the earthen wall. This precise date is possible due to radiocarbon dating of wood samples recovered from the site. In addition a large number of holes at the edge of the wall appear to have been added to the site, and may have been the location of offerings of food, axeheads, pottery and other sacred objects. Some analysis has suggested that several of the holes had special significance, and may have been associated with seasonal rituals. The positions of the more significant holes begin to hint at some early awareness of astronomy, and connect the site with solstice situals.

The introduction of stones to Stonehenge appears to have begun by 2500 B.C. At first only a few small stones were added in the center of the site. Geological analysis suggests that these rocks arrived from Wales, over 200 km away. Several other Megalithic rock sites appear to have been constructed at this time and begin to form something of a "sacred landscape". The exact purpose of these early monuments in unknown, but may be connected with the expansion of trade and the emergence of nation in Britain. Soon afterwards, by 2450 B.C., the larger stones were introduced. These stones were dragged from a site to the north.

The astronomical significance of Stonehenge is undeniable, and yet overstated. The alignments of the sun with the heelstone at the solstice appears to be real, and perhaps other lunar alignments were observed by the early inhabitants of the region. The Stonehenge site clearly had great political, religious and social significance, and was tied into the yearly rituals of the people. It may have played an important role in setting the calendar of the people. Many more of the astronomical meanings of the site appear to be disproved by a statistical analysis of this and other sites in Britain. Also contrary to popular belief, Stonehenge has nothing to do with Druids, past or present.

Stonehenge will always be a site surrounded by both misconceptions and mysteries. We must appreciate it in the context of the people who lived there, and not by our own modern habits and aspirations.



Image Gallery of Stonehenge

Below are a series of images from the book "In Search of Ancient Astronomy", edited by E.C. Krupp.