With the click of a mouse, archaeologist Vince Gaffney proudly summons up a vision of an ancient landscape. Amid the clutter of his office at the University of Birmingham in England, the 52-year-old professor of landscape archaeology is displaying early results of a virtual excavation at Britain’s best-known prehistoric monument. On the screen: a giant ring of wood posts that may have stood roughly 1,000 yards northwest of Stonehenge, a timber twin of its grander neighbor. In 2010 Gaffney began a three-year project heading an international team that will probe the surrounding countryside in one more attempt to unravel the site’s mysteries, this time with the aid of the very latest technology. The first reward came quickly. Within just two weeks the team, armed with high-powered magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar, discovered traces of that putative timber ring—possibly the most important find on the site in half a century.
Gaffney’s is one of many recent discoveries that have scientists rethinking Stonehenge. The recovery of new materials, along with the reanalysis of earlier finds using modern archaeological techniques, has led to a steady flow of new information. Advances in carbon dating mean experts can provide a more accurate chronology. More sophisticated chemical analysis of human remains allows archaeologists to identify the likely origin of the earliest visitors to the site. The pace is quickening. Radar devices can turn out data at a rate inconceivable even a few years ago. (Gaffney’s equipment collected as much data in two days at Stonehenge as he managed in three years at a previous site.) And with more data come fresh ideas. New evidence is now emerging to bolster a front-running theory: Stonehenge never stood in majestic isolation. Says Gaffney: “It was just part of a much wider ritual landscape.”
An Enduring Enigma
Scholars have been struggling to unscramble the significance of Stonehenge since the 17th century. Almost every generation has thrown up its own solutions to the big questions of who built the monument, how and why. At different times, its function has been described as an astronomical observatory, a burial place for the great, a temple for Druid priests of the Iron Age, and more. Before scientists assigned credit for its construction to Neolithic humans, the list of possible builders included the Romans, the Danes and Merlin the magician.
Trouble is, telltale signs of the builders are frustratingly scarce—a smattering of charcoal from their fires, stone chippings, cattle bones, arrowheads and the occasional antler pick. All that is known for certain is a broad outline of the chronology. A circular ditch and bank, possibly surrounding a circle of timber posts, appeared around 3,000 B.C., and over the next 1,000 years the monument gradually took its final shape. On the outside: a ring of sarsens—huge blocks of sandstone probably dragged to the site from quarries in the Marlborough Downs 18 miles away. On the inside: arrangements of smaller bluestones, somehow transported 150 miles from the mountains of southern Wales, and one more horseshoe of giant sarsen slabs. The placement of the stones appears to have been significant, aligning the central axis with the rising sun at dawn on the summer solstice and sunset at midwinter.
Since the construction, much has happened to confuse the archaeologist’s task. Stonehenge’s early builders appear to have changed the arrangement of the bluestones. Some have vanished altogether. Today only around half of the total—originally 80 or so—remain. The messy habits of the 20th century have not helped. Gaffney’s magnetometers pick up the debris—scraps of metal and bottle tops—dropped by the crowds at the music festivals of the 1970s and 1980s. That is not to mention the spectral outline of trenches dug when the land was used as a military training ground in World War I or the problems caused by the casual approach of the earliest archaeologists who allowed evidence to disappear. The designation of Stonehenge as a World Heritage Site in 1986 helped to protect the monument and its environs, but it also limited the scope for archaeological digging.
Cradle to grave
The idea of Stonehenge as the focal point of a much wider ritual landscape is not new—one glance at a map shows a rich scattering of tombs, some predating Stonehenge, across the surrounding countryside. And aerial photography revealed the site of a timber henge called Woodhenge as far back as 1925. But slowly the evidence is accumulating that allows archaeologists to speculate on how the ceremonies that governed life and death might have fitted together.
A few years before Gaffney’s team picked up the latest circle of timber posts, other excavations in the greater Stonehenge area had already begun to yield hints of a bigger picture. In 2007 archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield in England and his team from the Stonehenge Riverside Project, which includes some of the country’s leading archaeologists, announced discovery of the remains of a vast prehistoric settlement, possibly the largest in Britain, at Durrington Walls, a massive man-made enclosure just two miles northeast of the monument itself. The smart application of soil chemistry—think nitrogen or phosphorus levels—yielded a mass of information about how its residents might have organized their homes, from where the cooking took place to where they slept. (Bed-wetting babies leave their mark even after millennia through traces of urine.) And hyperaccurate carbon dating suggested that the village was occupied for less than 45 years, leading Parker Pearson and his collaborators to speculate that this was where the builders of Stonehenge once lived, moving on after their work was complete.
Just as important, the team had excavated traces of another henge, prior to Gaffney’s: a concentric ring of timber posts dubbed the Southern Circle that was apparently aligned to mark sunset at the summer solstice—the mirror image of the arrangement at Stonehenge. Parker Pearson posits that Stonehenge had its own wood counterpart, the two monuments forming a single spectacular ceremonial site linked to the worship of the ancestors and the sun. “This is evidence that clarifies the site’s true purpose,” he asserts. “We have found that Stonehenge was just half of a larger complex.”
Each half, he believes, had its own symbolic role. Most likely, the great ring at Stonehenge represented the domain of the dead, a lasting monument to the ancestors, whereas the Southern Circle was the opposite: a secular place where the living came first as builders of the stone circle and later for seasonal celebrations. Inspiration for this interpretation came partly from a colleague of Parker Pearson’s from Madagascar who saw similarities with practices at home where wood dwellings are matched by stone buildings for the dead. Tests on animal bones found at Durrington Walls offer some backing for the theory, suggesting that cattle were brought from many miles away in southern England, perhaps to be eaten at ritual feasts. Further evidence came in 2009, when the Stonehenge Riverside Project uncovered the site of a circle of 25 bluestones two miles from the monument (and the same distance from Durrington Walls), beside the river Avon—a site quickly dubbed Bluehenge. The stone slabs were gone, possibly taken to Stonehenge itself, but left behind were fragments of the distinctive blue rock and, more important, traces of charcoal suggesting the structure was erected around 5,000 years ago. Perhaps, Parker Pearson surmises, Bluehenge was a place of cremation, a sacred site where the dead began the final journey to Stonehenge.
Certainly the bluestones held a special meaning for Neolithic humans—why else would they have stood at the very center of Stonehenge protected by the bigger sarsen monoliths?—and one more theory now places them at the heart of the entire Stonehenge story while also assigning yet another role to Stonehenge. Evidence collected in a 2008 dig at Stonehenge itself—the first within the circle for 40 years—supports the idea that Stonehenge was mainly a place of healing, a destination for the sick who traveled hundreds of miles in the hope of a cure. “Like a great medieval cathedral, all sorts of things would have happened at Stonehenge, but its principal draw was as a sacred place of healing,” asserts Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University in England, who conducted the 2008 excavation with Geoff Wainwright, former president of the Society of Antiquaries in London.
Darvill and Wainwright’s theory could help explain the stupendous efforts undertaken to transport the massive slabs of bluestone—each weighing up to four tons—some 150 miles from their source in the Preseli Hills in South Wales all the way to southern England. (Not so difficult as it might seem: a team of students demonstrated last fall how the slabs might have been rolled across the ground on small stone balls. Experts devised the test after finding such balls close to a similar stone circle in Scotland.) It could also explain why so many of the bluestones are now missing. In the course of his 2008 excavation, Darvill found plenty of tiny flakes apparently deliberately chipped off the larger blocks, perhaps for use as talismans. Maybe whole stones were shipped off for use elsewhere.
But the dead, not the stones, provide the most telling support for Stonehenge’s past as a prehistoric equivalent of Lourdes, the Catholic shrine in France famed for its supposedly miraculous healings. In 2002 archaeologists excavating a building site three miles from Stonehenge at Amesbury reported that they had turned up the grave of a Bronze Age male, buried around 2,300 B.C., with a rich assortment of treasures. Studies of the skeleton, dubbed the Amesbury Archer for the archery gear that accompanied his remains, showed he had lost one knee, and infection had entered his bones. And intriguingly, analyses of his tooth chemistry revealed a blend of strontium isotopes that suggested his original home was far away in the Alps (tooth enamel forms in a child’s earliest years, storing a chemical record of where an individual was raised). Maybe he had crossed to England seeking a cure or at least relief from pain at the already fabled Stonehenge. Indeed, excavations at many of the tombs buried nearby have turned up remains of individuals who seem to have suffered serious injury. One likely interpretation is that the Amesbury Archer was one of a stream of visitors hoping for relief at Stonehenge.
Recent isotope analysis of tooth enamel from a grave found in nearby Boscombe in 2003 suggests that the archer was not the only visitor from afar. Seven of the grave’s occupants may have spent part of their early lives in Wales, the source of the bluestones. And last year Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey reported that similar tests on the remains of a teenager discovered nearby in 2005 appear to suggest that he came from a warmer, Mediterranean climate, although there are still question marks over the interpretation of the data.
The Lourdes theory, like all Stonehenge theories, has it doubters. The strongest argument against it is that there is insufficient evidence to back the idea that a disproportionate number of human remains found in the area show signs of trauma. Substantiating that point would require a far larger sample of bones. Yet even if further discoveries do indeed bolster the Lourdes hypothesis, they will not necessarily weaken Parker Pearson’s case, because the theories are not mutually incompatible. No doubt over the course of 5,000 years people used the site for different purposes and regarded it in different ways.
Despite all the new finds, much about Stonehenge remains a mystery. The peoples of the Stone Age have left scant clues as to their beliefs or how they lived their lives. But archaeologists, equipped with new technology, will not abandon the challenge. This year English Heritage, the state body that controls the site, hopes to conduct a laser scan of the stones, searching for telltale scratch marks and graffiti. And Parker Pearson is analyzing animal bones found at Durrington Walls as part of the Feeding Stonehenge project, looking exactly at how the people who built the stone circle lived, what they ate and where they came from. Meanwhile Gaffney’s own high-tech trawl, covering more than five square miles, will in time yield the first comprehensive picture of what lies underneath the soil. More revelations seem certain to come. Stonehenge, Gaffney says, appears to be part of a “complex multitude of monuments.” Complex but perhaps not impervious to scientific scrutiny.