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How Stonehenge Worked


The History of Theories Surrounding Stonehenge
The theory that Druids built Stonehenge originally surfaced in the 17th century. Today, people calling themselves Druids visit Stonehenge to celebrate events like the Summer Solstice.
The theory that Druids built Stonehenge originally surfaced in the 17th century. Today, people calling themselves Druids visit Stonehenge to celebrate events like the Summer Solstice.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images News/Thinkstock

Many questions still surround Stonehenge, including whether it was ever finished and what purposes it served throughout time. But archaeologists have been able to debunk many of the old popular theories.

One of the oldest origin stories we know of comes from 12th-century cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book "Historia Regum Britanniae" ("History of the Kings of Britain"). He writes that giants originally brought the stones from Africa and erected them in Ireland, where it was known as "the Giant's Dance" with special healing powers. To commemorate the deaths of 460 Britons who died in battle against the Saxons, the fabled wizard Merlin suggested stealing the Giant's Dance. Merlin brought 15,000 men on the mission, but after they defeated the Irish defense, the men couldn't move the stones. Naturally, Merlin employed magic to load them on the boats [source: Monmouth].

Some scholars believe Geoffrey of Monmouth didn't invent the story, but simply recounted known folklore, while many other experts doubt an oral folktale could've survived from the Neolithic. Regardless, the account aligns with the theory that Stonehenge was meant to honor the dead and that the stones were originally believed to have unique healing powers.

In the early 17th century, King James I commissioned an excavation in the center of Stonehenge, but his workers found only animal bones and burnt coals. An architect, Inigo Jones, surveyed the monument and guessed it was the work of the Romans. Later that century, however, John Aubrey (aforementioned discoverer of holes) theorized that Stonehenge was a pagan temple, and therefore attributed it to the Druids. The Druids were a secretive Celtic cult of pagan priests thriving from the third century B.C.E. until the Romans suppressed them in C.E. 61.

In the 18th century, antiquarian William Stukeley offered some insight that supported Aubrey's Druid theory. He became the first to note the alignment of Stonehenge with the sunrise on the summer solstice (the longest day of the year), and therefore, the sunset on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year). For many, this revelation shed light on the original purpose of Stonehenge, which could've been a temple to the sun. After all, the Druids had studied astronomy. However, modern dating techniques employed in the 20th century dated Stonehenge to well before the Druids.

In 1963 Gerald Hawkins published a best-seller declaring Stonehenge to be a calendar and predictor of eclipses. Archaeological experts accept the theory that it marked solstices intentionally, but they remain skeptical that the monument was built for astronomical capabilities beyond that [source: Pearson].


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