Photo by English Heritage
For us, this has to be one of the more eye-catching headlines! Who isn’t a fan of this endlessly fascinating place?
Archaeologist Julian Richards has a new book out (‘Stonehenge:The story so far’ and no, this isn’t a ‘plug’ – your blogger hasn’t read it yet!) and, in the process, is giving a series of talks in the area. It is worth catching one of those if you have the chance…
The famous 17th century architect Inigo Jones (the new St Paul’s Cathedral) attributed it to the Romans, who, interestingly, didn’t apparently mention it in their writings about Britannia.
The antiquary John Aubrey surveyed Stonehenge in the late 17th century, and was the first to record the Aubrey Holes (hence their name). His studies of stone circles in other parts of Britain led him to conclude that they were built by the native inhabitants, rather than Romans. As the Druids were the only prehistoric British priests mentioned in the classical texts, he attributed Stonehenge to the Druids.
Aubrey’s idea was expanded by the 18th-century antiquary William Stukeley, who surveyed Stonehenge and was the first to record the Avenue and the nearby Cursus. Among Stukeley’s theories about Stonehenge, he too thought it was a Druid monument.
Serious excavation took place in 1901 when there was concern about the stability of the stones and Professor William Gowland was called in to help. His digging led him to suggest a late Neolithic or early Bronze Age date for Stonehenge. A further programme of restoration and excavation, led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Hawley, was carried out between 1919 and 1926. So far, so good.
The story of Stonehenge in the 20th and 21st centuries, however, might be described as one of quiet controversy. The latest theory (forget temple, sacrifices, Druids, place to observe constellations, large house, even aliens…) is that Stonehenge is where it is because of the apparently glacial striations that appear in the ground below the current layer of grass which, because they coincidentally line up with the winter solstice, made the place special to early peoples. It is also possible that the Heel Stone was a natural feature and that the whole structure was then (eventually) erected as a result of all of this. Julian Richards would be the last to say this is the final answer however. One of the joys of hearing him speak is how careful he is to relate everything to the evidence. And sometimes, of course, there isn’t a lot of evidence.
Archaeology suggests that the site began as a ditch c 3 000BC. But there are disagreements over the exact date. The 56 Aubrey holes held timbers. Or did they? Some archaeologists say stones. The Blue Stones came from Wales after c 2 500BC. Probably. The latest thought is that they came all the way around the coast and up the Avon but this sort of theory is based only on what seems most likely. The Sarsens came from the Marlborough Downs, although Julian points out that the excavation pits, which ought to show up where huge stones were quarried from the ground, have never been identified.
There has been a great deal of experiment to try and work out how the stones were moved, and erected. Julian says that he managed to save the 40 ton concrete blocks used for a TV programme for further experimentation. A friendly farmer has them in a barn.
The recent discovery of pre-historic houses in the vicinity of Durrington which suggest huge numbers of labourers in that area (and the houses definitely date from the period of main construction) are very important but to use these as a way of assessing the number of workmen on site at any one time is tricky. Archaeology uses dates that cover hundreds of years. Were all the houses in use at one time? Or are there a couple of hundred years when there was no-one there at all? Burials and cremations in the area don’t necessarily fit with any known activity and there are, apparently, periods of history in Britain when we appear to have no burials at all! A lot still does not make sense. Julian kept coming back to what the evidence tells us. And what we have no evidence for…
Julian’s answer to questions about the purpose of Stonehenge echoed that of Francis Pryor speaking at Salisbury Museum a few months ago – that is like asking what Salisbury Cathedral is for. It depends who you are and what you seek, how you feel about it, where you are in your life, and the fashion and mood and mores of the age in which you live.
And the research and argument goes on. “My book is already out of date” Julian says. There’s an honest man.