Stonehenge is one of the most famous monuments in the world. The outline of the trilithons, the great gate-like constructions that form its outer ring, are enough to identify it. They appear on T-shirts, badges and even, in the English Heritage gift shop, as earrings.
Yet Stonehenge remains mysterious. The British Museum’s new exhibition, The World of Stonehenge (February 17 to July 17) considers the advances in archaeological techniques, carbon dating and probability theory that have helped the modern age to understand it better.
We know that construction was begun around 3000 BC with the outer ditch, which was dug using antlers as picks, and that the monument was built, added to and modified over a period of about 1500 years. What we still do not know is why it was built or how it was used. This, however, has only added to its fascination and fuelled centuries of speculation. Stonehenge is, as Henry James wrote, both “immensely vague and
These qualities have made it a subject of heated debate since the Middle Ages. One of the first attempts to explain it was in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written some time in the 1130s. Geoffrey claimed that the stones had been transported from Ireland by the wizard Merlin. Later in the century his fellow priest and historian William of Newburgh thought this was unlikely and accused Geoffrey of making it up.
Scholars have been arguing ever since with the most recent rows including clashes between modern pagan and druid groups who have challenged English Heritage over access to the stones to celebrate the summer and winter solstices. What everyone agrees, however, is that Stonehenge has a meaning. It speaks across millennia to a human sense of mystery and of hope that combine in what we might call the religious impulse.
What then can we know about its builders? These people were genetically identical to us, if slightly smaller. They made pottery, wove cloth, kept pigs and cattle and lived in houses – some of which have been excavated at nearby Durrington Walls – that had fireplaces and sometimes built-in beds. They were in touch with other countries. Analysis of burials near Stonehenge shows that visitors came from as far away as the Alps. By the time the first ditch was dug, the landscape of Salisbury Plain was well populated. The brownish-yellow chalk downland had long since been cleared of forest and the site was surrounded by long barrows, large communal graves, already more than 1,000 years old. This was a sophisticated society.
Although the full extent of the alignment of Stonehenge is another subject of debate – it may or may not be related to phases of the moon – there is no doubt its sight lines are arranged so that the sunrise and sunset on the winter and summer solstices form a focus from the centre of the circle. The builders of Stonehenge were looking out into the heavens and trying to understand their place, perhaps to secure their future, within the cosmos, trying to make a connection between the world they knew and the power that lay beyond which ordered them, governing the seasons, bringing feast or famine. We may be sure that a spiritual impulse lay behind the building of Stonehenge because it had no practical purpose. No pig bones or other signs of habitation have ever been found there, despite many excavations. It was a place of ceremony, of actions with no material outcome but of ritual, metaphysical significance. In the outer ring of pits, known as the Aubrey Holes, cremated human remains have been found. This was a permanent dwelling only for the dead.
After the quarrels of the medieval chroniclers there was a lull in the investigations into Stonehenge until the 17th century and the arrival of what became known as the New Learning. This was an age of empirical enquiry and the birth of what became science when all the remains of the past – not only its written records – began to be of interest. It was then that John Aubrey, after whom the outer holes are named, took a survey of Stonehenge. Aubrey has some claim to be the first archaeologist. He made his observations not from his library but by field study, what he called “comparative antiquitie … writ upon the Spott” (sic). He looked at other stone circles including the one nearby at Avebury. He deduced, correctly, that these were British monuments, and not as some people thought, Roman. He thought Stonehenge was a temple and concluded that it was built by the druids, described by Caesar as the native British priests. Being a religious sceptic, Aubrey was untroubled by the idea that it could not be Christian. His successor, the first great scholar of Stonehenge, William Stukeley, was, however, a deeply pious man.
Stukeley transformed the understanding of Stonehenge. He had trained as a physician and introduced the technique of vertical dissection, learnt in the anatomy school, to his excavations. He made a more detailed survey of the monument than Aubrey’s and working over a number of years he noticed what was “never previously observed”, that Stonehenge was aligned with the solstice. His book, Stonehenge, the first devoted to the subject, appeared in 1740. Even today, when some of the features he observed have since been lost, archaeologists rely on Stukeley’s work. Admiration, though, is mixed with exasperation because, in his search for Stonehenge’s religious meaning, he introduced theories about the druids which, though historically impossible, have remained attached to Stonehenge ever since.
As a scientist and friend of Sir Isaac Newton, Stukeley was fascinated by “the universe of things”. He wanted to find a single primal cause, an explanation of existence that reconciled Christian truth with his own time, an age that was discovering the civilisations of the Americas. He noticed similarities between religions in places that had no contact with one another, in Peru and China, in Egypt and among the Incas. He could not believe that so many souls could be lost because they were beyond the reach of Christianity. He studied hard and thought deeply. He learnt Chinese and measured Stonehenge again. Finally he arrived at the solution. Stonehenge was a Neoplatonic model of the cosmos that could transmit “the divine influences of the archetypal mind” of God to the material world. Built by druids who were also in his theory proto-Christians, it represented a fundamental urreligion. His book received mixed reviews and its sequel, devoted
to Avebury, which further elaborated his ideas was greeted with “great carping”.
Yet Stukeley’s theories put Stonehenge on the tourist map for the first time. His findings and his druidic theories still linger among the stones. The thousands who come for the summer solstice and the hundreds who brave the cold for the winter one, may never have heard of Stukeley but they have inherited his vision. Wrong as he was in many details of chronology and history, he was surely right to understand the builders of Stonehenge as worshippers on whom a Christian age could look back with affection and respect.
The World of Stonehenge at the British Museum, until 17 July.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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