What was Stonehenge?
Everyone recognizes the iconic stones of Stonehenge. What everyone may not know is that’s the tip of the iceberg in the Stonehenge landscape.
This landscape extends for miles around the circle of stones and has many individual yet interconnected and unique sites. These would have been used in tandem with Stonehenge as a large religious region. It would have been a place to come to on a pilgrimage. It would have potentially housed people for short or longer term.
In the last few years, remarkable new discoveries have been made around Stonehenge indicate it was likely part of a bigger site than originally thought. This blog covers only some of those discoveries.
Two miles north-east of Stonehenge is a secondary site known as Durrington Walls. Archaeologists refer to it as a wooden Stonehenge site: Woodhenge. True, the timber circle is long gone, but evidence to its existence remains. Woodhenge was identified initially in 1926 from an aerial photograph. This site would have been a 500 meter diameter circle of giant wooden timber posts. The find is critical and still being investigated for full understanding. The site consists of 6concentric oval rings of postholes. They are surrounded by a single flat-bottomed ditch over 7 feet deep and as much as 39 feet wide. Then there is an outer bank over 3 feet high.
At the center of the rings was the crouched burial of a child which has been interpreted as a dedicatory sacrifice. The skull has been split. Unfortunately the bones were destroyed, making further examination impossible. This is but one discovery at this site. To list them all would require more room than this blog allows.
Woodhenge’s postholes have been excavated to better understand the site since its 1926 discovery. What is considered at present is the site was never completed perhaps because of changes in religious practices at the time of its initial construction. Work would have stopped around 2460 BC despite being nearly completed. The posts were lifted out of their post holes, and the holes were filled in with blocks of chalk then covered over. Archaeologists seek what might have caused such a dramatic religious and possibly political shift strong enough to cause the demolition of this site.
Near Durrington is another site, Larkhill, whose remains could date to be older than Stonehenge itself. These remains are of a Neolithic causewayed enclosure or a major ceremonial gathering place. It is 300 yards in diameters and dates from around 3650 BC. There are about known 70 enclosures of this type around England. There is a second site like this in the Stonehenge landscape. The other is Robin Hood’s Ball on the Salisbury Plain Training Area, north-west of Stonehenge.
For a map of the Stonehenge landscape, visit: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/history/stonehenge-landscape/
The Larkhill enclosure has produced pottery sherds, dumps of worked flint, and a large stone saddle quern used to grind grain into flour. This would indicate some form or settlement. There is also evidence of sheep and cattle which may have been used for ritual activity. This evidence is based on the discovering of a disposal area for deceased animals. There are also human skull fragments potentially also from ritual ceremonies.
This area, as the name implies, includes long barrows and cursus (large parallel lengths of banks with external ditches) monuments. The long barrows may have served as markers. Some of these points would have been key overlook areas to survey the landscape. There are also further burials.
The Greater Cursus, an earthwork of about 2 miles in length, is the longest structure. It connects and divides parts of the landscape. It separates Larkhill from Stonehenge, which was built about 700 years after Larkhill. This area would indicate that what became the Stonehenge landscape was significant before Stonehenge was constructed. Religious practices did not begin with Stonehenge.
Robin Hood’s Ball is older still, perhaps as much as a thousand years older than Stonehenge. Like Larkhill, Robin Hood’s Ball consists of long barrows, causewayed enclosures, and 20 giant tombs. There are more monuments.
The full meaning of these two sites is not fully known. Evidence continues to point to ceremonial, religious, political, and mortuary roles.
There are further sites as well. Detailing just three should give indication of what a complex and wide-reaching area the Stonehenge landscape can be. And not only is the landscape giving up secrets of just how big and significant Stonehenge is, even Stonehenge itself has some secrets to share.
Jokes like the Underhenge of Doctor Who aside, there remain many mysteries about the stones. The summer of 2013 was particularly dry. As dry spots in the grass appeared around the standing stones, one of the caretakers of the site made some considerations. Previously to this, archaeologists had unsuccessfully looked for evidence of other, lost standing stones which may have completed the Stonehenge “circle.” The circle currently is not complete. The parched marks in the grass, once investigated further, were marks where the missing standing stones had been. Finally, better evidence to reveal what Stonehenge might have looked like complete.
This blog does not give full justice to the Stonehenge landscape. If you’re interested in understanding more, this is a good resource:
Stonehenge: Making Sense of a Prehistoric Mystery (Parker Pearson, Mike, Pollard, Joshua, Richards, Colin, Thomas, Julian, Welham, Kate)
OK, so enough about the landscape. What about all the human sacrifices the Druids performed there? Isn’t that the cool part? I have hinted at sacrifices, both animal and human. Burial evidence points that way. So what did the Druids do?
Stuff of Hollywood. Or, to be more exact, the stuff of Julius Caesar. It was he who contrived that theory. Stonehenge, if you’ve been paying attention, is older than Druids. The Druids didn’t build Stonehenge, although they certainly could have repurposed it in their time well after many of the sacrifices were performed. Thanks to Julius Caesar, the idea has stuck. The famous story of the Wicker Man, even made into a movie, is not founded on facts. There were sacrifices, but don’t blame the Druids.
There is no argument that the Druids were a problem to the Romans. The Druids would finger the Romans and call them the problem. Weren’t the Romans invading their lands?
So about those sacrifices? Were they the bloody, inhuman acts depicted by Hollywood, the Romans, or others? Scientific evidence seems to think otherwise. These sacrifices may have been for religious reasons. It’s even possible those being sacrificed were volunteers. This is an altogether broader topic which will be visited in another blog.
The important thing to understand is Stonehenge and its landscape is still giving up secrets. Much has been discovered. There could be just as much more to discover as scientific tools continue to evolve and come available.