After a historic excavation of Stonehenge, archaeologists say that construction began 300 years later than previously estimated and theorize that it was a place of healing.
A ‘Neolithic Lourdes’
Archaeologists Geoffrey Wainwright and Timothy Darvill announced Monday the findings of their Stonehenge excavation, the first excavation of the prehistoric monument since 1964. They made several surprising discoveries and hypothesize that people traveled there for its healing properties.
Wainwright and Darvill focused on the monument’s bluestones, the smaller stones located inside the ring of massive sarsen stones. Using radiocarbon dating, they have dated the formation of the bluestone circles to 2,300 B.C.E., 300 years later than previously estimated.
The bluestones were assembled before the sarsens and, according to Wainwright and Darvill, they were the reason that pilgrims visited Stonehenge. They say that 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.
Wainwright and Darvill 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, 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 distance with an injured knee suggests that he was attracted by the bluestones’ supposed healing powers.
There is 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 will be broadcast in a BBC Timewatch documentary, airing Sept. 27 on BBC Two and the Smithsonian Channel.
Background: The building of Stonehenge
Sources in this Story
- The BBC: Dig pinpoints Stonehenge origins
- The Times of London: An observatory? A shrine? Now they think Stonehenge was an A&E centre
- The BBC: Stonehenge—The Healing Stones
- Encyclopædia Britannica: Stonehenge
- National Geographic: Stonehenge Decoded
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 are not found 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 wasn’t for another 800 years that 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.
Opinion & Analysis: Theories about Stonehenge
There are many theories as to why and how Stonehenge was built. The extraordinary amount of labor needed to construct Stonehenge illustrates the importance the monument had for its creators.
Many past theories have linked the building of Stonehenge to the Druids, King Arthur or even extra-terrestrials, but these have been debunked. Archaeologists have reached a consensus that it was built by Britons during the Bronze Age, but the reasons for its construction remain uncertain.
Many theories center around the fact that the entrance of the bluestone circle aligns perfectly with the sunrise on the summer solstice. This leads many to believe that Stonehenge was a center for worshipping the sun or perhaps a tool to predict lunar and solar eclipses.
A recent study by University of Sheffield archaeologist Mike Parker-Pearson found evidence of houses dating to 2,600–2,500 B.C.E. in the area surrounding Stonehenge. Pearson believes that the people living there were the ones who built Stonehenge and theorizes that Stonehenge was part of a much larger religious center.
His team also found evidence of burials and cremations dating back to 3,000 B.C.E., which leads Pearson to believe that Stonehenge was built as a “domain of the dead.” His study was chronicled by National Geographic channel for the documentary “Stonehenge Decoded.”