Following the recent discovery of hidden ancient ritual monuments surrounding Stonehenge, we take a look at the mighty pillars on Salisbury Plain, which have been a place of wonder and pilgrimage for centuries.
Denton Corker Marshall’s design for the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. © English Heritage
The fruits of a £27m part Heritage Lottery-funded project to radically improve visitor arrangements was marked by the December 2013 opening of the first ever Stonehenge Visitor Centre. The closure of part of the A344 reunited the henge with its ancient ceremonial avenue, and provided an improved view of the monument as it might have looked in its original setting.
Volunteers helping English Heritage test build three neolithic houses at Old Sarum. © Jon Rowley / SWNS.com/ English Heritage
Even today, much about Stonehenge remains a matter of conjecture, and getting an archaeologist to make a firm prognosis on why it was built remains difficult. Earlier generations of historians and antiquarians felt no such constraints, however. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th-century chronicler of Arthurian legend, never one to allow the imagination to be dulled by over-zealous adherence to the facts, opined that Merlin had used magical powers to transport a stone circle from Ireland to Salisbury Plain to celebrate a British victory on the battlefield over the Saxons.
Stonehenge aerial. © English Heritage
Inigo Jones, our first classical architect, was more scientific. Surveying the site in the 1620s, he concluded that the Romans had built it as a geometrically conceived temple to the sky god Coelus.
Stonehenge permanent exhibition. © English Heritage
But two of the most important figures in early efforts to explain Stonehenge were John Aubrey and William Stukeley. The former carried out meticulous surveys here and at nearby Avebury in the 1660s. He concluded that Stonehenge was the work of the Druids, mentioned in the writing of Julius Caesar. Stukeley, a century later, concurred, while also noting the axis of Stonehenge was aligned with sunrise on the 21 June – the midsummer solstice.
Stonehenge visitor shuttle. © English Heritage
Disappointingly for romantics, excavations at the turn of the 20th century revealed that most of the site dates from around 2,500BC, during the late Neolithic period – long before the Iron Age Druids arrived in England. Yet the image of Stonehenge as a magical, even other-worldly, spot has remained intact, reinforced by the art of such as John Constable and JMW Turner, depicting the columns lit by celestial rays, or as if on the point of collapse under apocalyptic skies. The Druid myth still has popular currency, 150 years after Thomas Hardy set the bleak climax of Tess of the d’Urbervilles in this “heathen temple,” his weary heroine symbolically resting on the stones as if in self-sacrifice, as dawn rose and the police closed in.
Progress in research and science has, however, enabled us to piece together a fuller picture of the real story of Stonehenge and its creators, says Susan Greaney, English Heritage’s senior properties historian. The stones may have a rough, primeval simplicity, but she says they were carefully shaped to fit together, the inner horseshoe trilithons (the uprights surmounted by lintels) graded in height, and the outer sarsen circle forming a perfectly flat ring.
Just bringing the stones to the site was a major undertaking. The sarsen stones, weighing up to 30 tons, were brought from the Marlborough Downs, about 20 miles away
“The actual feat of building Stonehenge suggests that this was an organised and sophisticated society,” she explains. “Just bringing the stones to the site was a major undertaking. The sarsen stones, weighing up to 30 tons, were brought from the Marlborough Downs, about 20 miles away. The smaller bluestones were transported from the Presceli Hills in south west Wales. Those involved must have been supported by a much wider community, to make rope, cut down trees for rollers and rafts, to source and cook food, and to build shelter.”
But what was Stonehenge for? There’s no evidence that the, now fallen, Slaughter Stone, which marked the entrance, or the Altar Stone, at the centre, were used for ritualised human slaughter ceremonies, but, given its complicated arrangement and location on a slight rise with views in all directions, some have suggested the structure was an observatory built to calculate the annual calendar and the changing seasons.
Leading contemporary archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson, who has headed extensive investigations at and around Stonehenge, including excavating 64 cremation burials, has described it as “a place of the dead.” He contrasts the site with nearby Durrington Walls, an earthwork henge monument where he has found the remains of several small houses. Dating to the same time Stonehenge was built, this may have been where its builders lived.
Whatever its purpose, it continued to be a place of significance for succeeding generations. Susan Greaney says: “About 300 years after the stones were raised, the smaller bluestones were rearranged into a circle and an oval, and the earthwork avenue or processional approach was built. Later, Stonehenge became the centre of a vast concentration of early bronze Age burial mounds, some containing extraordinary rich burials.”
Victorian visitors were prone to chipping bits off as keepsakes, or scratching their names on the stones – many of which were in danger of toppling over
Years later, long after true meaning was forgotten, Stonehenge became one of the earliest British tourist attractions, the likes of Samuel Pepys traveling miles to gaze in wonder. A tour guide in the 19th century with a gift for a turn of phrase called it “the last surviving building from before Noah’s flood.”
Yet popularity had its drawbacks, and Victorian visitors were prone to chipping bits off as keepsakes, or scratching their names on the stones – many of which were in danger of toppling over. The monument wasn’t finally “saved” for the nation until after the First World War, during which mine explosions had shaken the ancient stones, and the surrounds been ploughed to grow corn and potatoes.
Recent drawbacks for visitors – who by 2009 numbered nearly a million a year – included a lack of explanatory information, an approach via a dispiriting concrete underpass, and a car park situated uncomfortably close to the monument.
Bob Trubshaw is delighted by the closure of the A344. “If visitors approach Stonehenge via the avenue, they will notice how the whole monument disappears as you drop down into a dip a few hundred yards away before appearing as you get closer to the Heel Stone. It’s only been possible to do this again now the road has closed. The same thing happens if you approach Avebury from along the West Kennet Avenue. This surely cannot be a coincidence.”
The new Visitor Centre is located a more discreet 1.5 miles away, from where visitors are driven to the stones by shuttle, with the option of walking part or all of the way themselves. The Centre places a much greater emphasis on explaining what it was like to live at the time when Stonehenge was being built. Outside the main gallery, reconstructions of the houses found at Durrington Walls show how the builders or users of Stonehenge might have lived.
Visitors are able to step inside the houses, see the technology and tools available, and, as Susan Greaney puts it, “sense something of the prehistoric past.” We may not be anywhere near unravelling the mystery of why Stonehenge was built, but we are at least beginning to grasp more about the environment of its creators.
STORY: Jack Watkins