Science

Stonehenge meaning, Stonehenge purpose

Researchers Disagree About Purpose of Stonehenge

October 10, 2008 03:55 PM
by Denis Cummings
Two research teams have recently reached different conclusions about the purpose of Stonehenge after studying its bluestones.

Recent Studies Disagree on Stonehenge's Meaning

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Researchers from the Stonehenge Riverside Project, led by Mike Parker-Pearson, Mike Pitts and Julian Richards, revealed this week the findings of their excavation of Stonehenge’s Aubrey Holes. They said that the monument’s bluestones were brought to the site in approximately 3,000 B.C.E., far earlier than previously thought.

Their report comes less than a month after archaeologists Geoffrey Wainwright and Timothy Darvill announced the findings of their excavation within Stonehenge. Wainwright and Darvill found that the bluestones were assembled in 2,300 B.C.E.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project researchers say that their findings, combined with the findings of Wainwright and Darvill, suggest that bluestones were brought to the site of Stonehenge seven centuries before they were assembled.

The two research teams reached different conclusions about the purpose of Stonehenge. The Stonehenge Riverside Project researchers say that evidence of human remains in the Aubrey Holes show that Stonehenge was a burial site. Wainwright and Darvill believe that it was a healing site, attracting the sick and injured who believed that the bluestones would cure them.

Opinion & Analysis: Burial ground or healing site?

Burial Ground
The Stonehenge Riverside Project researchers studied the Aubrey Holes, a circle of 56 holes surrounding the ground on which Stonehenge was built. The holes, which had been previously examined in 1950, were known to contain cremated human remains. The research team found that Aubrey Hole 7 contained a layer of crushed chalk, suggesting that it had once held bluestones.

“These stones were very closely associated with the remains of the dead,” said Parker-Pearson. “There were cremation burials from inside the holes holding the stones and also the areas around them.”

Parker-Pearson had previously excavated ground near the Stonehenge area, an excavation chronicled by the National Geographic channel for the documentary, “Stonehenge Decoded.” It is during this study that he developed his theory that Stonehenge was built as a “domain of the dead.”

He found evidence of burials and cremations dating back to 3,000 B.C.E., as well as evidence of houses dating to 2,600–2,500 B.C.E. Pearson theorized that the people living there were the ones who built Stonehenge and theorized that Stonehenge was part of a much larger religious center.
Healing Site
Wainwright and Darvill were given the opportunity to excavate ground within Stonehenge, completing first excavation of the prehistoric monument since 1964. On Sept. 21, they announced that they had made several surprising discoveries and hypothesized that people traveled there for its healing properties.

They said the bluestones were brought from the Preseli hills in Wales—where there are springs thought to be holy wells—because of their believed healing power. The bluestones then attracted pilgrims looking to heal themselves.

They found chips of the bluestones scattered around the site, leading them to believe that people had broken off pieces to heal themselves. Also, in studying bodies previously dug up from the site, they observed that there were a large number of seriously injured corpses and analysis of the corpses’ teeth showed that about half of them were not native to the area.

One body, that of a man from central Europe who had an infected kneecap and abscessed tooth, is thought to have died around 2,300 B.C.E. The fact that the man, known as the “Amesbury Archer,” traveled such a distance with an injured knee suggests that he was attracted by the bluestones’ supposed healing powers.

There was also evidence that Stonehenge was a significant site long before the creation of the stone circles or even the earthworks around the stones. Charcoal fragments found at the site date back to 7,330 B.C.E., meaning that people were there 4,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The results of Wainwright and Darvill’s excavation were broadcast in a BBC Timewatch documentary, on Sept. 27 on BBC Two and the Smithsonian Channel.

Background: The building of Stonehenge

Stonehenge is located in the county of Wiltshire in England’s Salisbury Plain. It features a circular arrangement of sarsen stones and bluestones, many of which have been removed over the last 2,000 years.

The bluestones weigh several tons and the large sarsen stones weigh several dozen tons; these stones did not originate in the Salisbury Plain and likely had to be carried hundreds of miles to the site.

The site’s construction began with circular earthworks, dug around 3,100 B.C.E., containing 56 holes known as the “Aubrey Holes.” It took another 800 years before the first ring of bluestones were added inside the circle. The bluestones were removed 200 years later to make room for the erection of five sarsen stone trilithons. The bluestones were put back into place, along with a second circle outside the trilithons. Finally, a ring of sarcen stones was added around the existing monument.
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