Standing in the heartland of England, Stonehenge is one of the most famous archaeological sites on Earth. But what is its meaning and how did it come to be?
It’s a mystery that has gripped archaeologists for centuries, with theories ranging from a religious monument to a giant calendar to an astronomical observatory. As more information about Stonehenge comes to light, we may finally get some answers.
The story begins around 3100 BC. Archaeologists have determined that this was a time when people were transitioning between farming to herding. They began building large stone monuments throughout Europe, including at Stonehenge. The stones would serve as burial mounds or memorials to their dead.
In fact, the first phase of construction at stonehenge tickets online consisted of two concentric circles of up to 80 standing stones, arranged in pairs along a straight line (known as bluestones). There were also four massive trilithons – three upright stones set in a V shape that created an opening through which you could see the sky – and then another circle made of sarsens, which are large rocks weighing several tons each.
According to the archaeologists who excavated the site, the builders dug down into the bedrock beneath Stonehenge, creating a huge pit known as the Aubrey hole. It had been filled with gravel and rubble, creating a platform that may have supported a wooden structure before the stones were placed there.
Why go to all this trouble? Why not just bury your loved ones in soil? Because, according to some experts, these structures served as temples where rituals involving human sacrifice may have occurred.
Another theory suggests the outer circle was used for ceremonial dances. It seems obvious now, but back in those days everyone wore animal skins and danced barefoot. And Stonehenge was in the middle of nowhere. That meant nobody could hear anything. So if you wanted to dance without being heard by anyone, you needed a big space like Stonehenge.
But why build such a monumental stone structure here? Because it wasn’t always here. In fact, Stonehenge isn’t even the oldest structure at the site. That honor goes to a ring of stones found underneath the inner circle. These were originally buried in a ditch. Some say they were cremation burials. Others believe they were sacrificial burials. However, it appears these were only temporary burials that were later covered over with dirt.
So what happened? Did people abandon the site because it became too sacred to live near? Or did something bad happen to them? Either way, Stonehenge didn’t stay intact forever. In 1800 BC, a fire burned a portion of the site, destroying parts of the bluestone circle. Another fire destroyed much of the remaining circle in 1600 BC. The trilithon was damaged during the same fire. And that was it.
Archaeologists have found evidence of other fires at the site. One of the largest was caused by lightning. This destroyed the site entirely and brought an end to Stonehenge. After that, no one lived anywhere close to Stonehenge for thousands of years.
How did the site become so important again after the fire? Maybe because it was rebuilt. Evidence indicates a new circular stone enclosure was built around 1200 BC. Then, around 100 BC, a second circular enclosure was constructed. It contained 20 stones rather than the previous 100.
Around AD 500, another structure was added to the outer circle. The inner circle was still made of bluestones, but the outer circle was composed of sarsen blocks. There are dozens of these stones at the site, many weighing hundreds of tons. At least 10 of them were dragged from as far away as Wales, meaning they were transported by boat.
But what does any of this mean? Is Stonehenge a temple to the sun god, or a place where people worshipped the moon goddesses? Was it a meeting place for druids and shamans, or a place where ancient kings performed human sacrifices? We’ll probably never know.
What we do know is that the builders took great care to align the stones precisely. Some historians think this proves the builders were extremely talented. Other experts argue that the placement of the stones at Stonehenge was random. Whatever the case, the builders knew exactly what they were doing.
And what about the purpose of the site itself? Many people believe Stonehenge was a temple to the sun god. The main lines of the site are oriented east-west, running perpendicular to the sun’s path across the sky. And the alignment is perfect — the Sun rises directly in front of the midsummer solstice marker, at the summer solstice.
Others claim the site was instead dedicated to the moon goddesses. A lunar eclipse takes place directly above the solstice marker at the summer and winter equinoxes. And then, on the spring and autumnal equinoxes, the sun passes directly overhead.
Still others maintain that Stonehenge was a giant sundial built to measure solar eclipses. Some say it was a giant astrolabe designed to determine accurate positions for planets in our solar system.
One thing is certain: Stonehenge is unlike any other archaeological site on Earth. But its true purpose remains shrouded in mystery.