In the first decade of the 2000s, archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson led the Stonehenge Riverside Project, which was responsible for the research and excavations that have shed so much new light on Stonehenge and its builders. Thanks to the new information, Pearson and others have crafted new theories that might explain Stonehenge and its original purposes.
Pearson theorizes that Stonehenge was a place of the dead in the same way that Durrington Walls was a place of the living. The discovery of timber circles and another natural "avenue" made of broken flint leading from the River Avon to the southern circle in Durrington Walls supports this theory. Pearson also points out that Durrington was mostly filled with animal remains from feasting, whereas Stonehenge has a higher concentration of human remains. In addition, the mortise-holes-and-tenons feature of the outer Stonehenge circle is a feature typical of woodworking and unnecessary for the stone monument, suggesting its symbolic imitation of a house for the living.
However, Stonehenge wasn't a burial site for just anybody. It was probably meant just for an elite group. Pearson notes that the cremated remains include a high proportion of men. He also argues that the discoveries of a polished stone mace head and incense burner among the remains suggest the buried individuals were political and religious leaders.
Another theory considers Stonehenge a monument to unification. The Britons were of diverse ancestry, building Stonehenge at a time when tribal people blended at peace with one another. It was possibly symbolic to bring bluestones from a place of Welsh ancestry together with British sarsens. The monument's orientation suggests a cosmic unification of the earth, sun and moon [source: Pearson].
Others point to the high occurrence of injury and illness in the burial remains around Stonehenge. This could suggest that Stonehenge was a place of healing. Steven Waller, a specialist in archaeoacoustics, speculates that the ancient Britons were inspired to erect the stones by the phenomenon of noise-cancelling effects that happen when two pipers play in a field. Waller connects this with one folk origin story having to do with pipers leading maidens to the field and turning them to stone [source: Pappas].
Considering that the ancients rearranged bluestones several times over centuries and many of the sarsens are missing or perhaps never even made it to their final resting place, we might never know the true purpose of Stonehenge. Yet, what we have found out about the monument has been a fascinating glimpse into prehistoric society and its impressive accomplishments.
Author's note: How Stonehenge Worked
I've always had the vague idea that Stonehenge was an impressive prehistoric monument and that archaeologists have little knowledge of how it was erected. But I'm embarrassed that I didn't know how much we have found out about Stonehenge in the past few decades. For those like me who don't actively follow archaeological news, it's eye opening to return to a subject and discover how quickly modern ideas about it have changed. Here's hoping we can continue to advance our technological and archaeological methods to discover more about ancient civilizations.
- BBC2. "Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath." British Broadcasting Corporation. Sept. 11, 2014. (Feb. 13, 2015) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cAKbdC-jCw
- English-Heritage.org. "Avebury." English Heritage. (Feb. 18, 2015) http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/avebury/
- English-Heritage.org. "Building Stonehenge." English Heritage. (Feb. 13, 2015) http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/stonehenge/discover/building-stonehenge/
- John, Brian S., and Lionel E. Jackson, Jr. "Stonehenge's Mysterious Stones." EarthMagazine.Org. January 2009. (Feb. 13, 2015) http://www.earthmagazine.org/article/stonehenges-mysterious-stones
- Last, Jonathan. "Prehistoric Henges and Circles." English Heritage. May 2011. (Feb. 18, 2015) https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/iha-prehistoric-henges-circles/prehistorichengesandcircles.pdf
- Loomis, Laura Hibbard. "Geoffrey of Monmouth and Stonehenge." PMLA, Vol. 45, No. 2, June 1930. (Feb. 13, 2015) http://www.jstor.org/stable/457800
- Monmouth, Geoffrey. "Histories of the Kings of Britain." Translated by Sebastian Evans, 1904. Sacred-Texts.com. (Feb. 13, 2015) http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/gem/gem09.htm
- NOVA. "Secrets of Stonehenge." Public Broadcasting Station. Nov. 16, 2010. (Feb. 13, 2015) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/secrets-stonehenge.html
- Pappas, Stephanie. "Stonehenge Inspired by Sound Illusion, Archaeologist Suggests." LiveScience. Feb. 16, 2012. (Feb. 13, 2015) http://www.livescience.com/18525-sound-illusion-stonehenge.html
- Pearson, Mike Parker. "Stonehenge: A New Understanding." Workman Publishing. 2013.
- Pearson, Mike Parker. "Stonehenge." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 2015. (Feb. 13, 2015) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/567331/Stonehenge