Riddles of Stonehenge
The debate still rages about the origins of those famous standing stones
A PALE sun creeps over the rim of the world. Stonehenge throws a gallows shadow across turf crisp with frost.
Romantic? Yes. Mysterious? Oh, yes. Also, blinking cold. Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire on a bleak midwinter’s dawn is the kind of place that induces dreams of mulled wine and hot roast pork.
Apparently our ancestors felt the same way. Four and a half millennia ago, wild parties were all the go around here.
A couple of miles away from Unesco-listed Stonehenge is Durrington Walls, today j ust a hollow of farmed downland on the edge of a village. But archeologists have uncovered something startling here: a massive enclosure almost 470m across, with ditches originally 6m deep and walls of twice that thickness. A giant circle of wooden columns stood here, and from it a gravelled avenue led down towards the River Avon.
The avenue has a solstice alignment, which means it lines up with the point on the horizon where the sun sets on the shortest day of the year. Or, if you are an optimist and look the other way, the point at which it rises at midsummer.
Within the walls there were houses, perhaps hundreds of them, neat wattle- and- daub affairs complete with furniture; traces of cupboards, beds and hearths have been unearthed. And between the houses lay heroic quantities of animal bones, mostly those of pigs, often thrown away half-eaten. ‘‘These are domestic pigs, but they may have been ritually hunted,’’ says Susan Greaney of English Heritage, which has custody of Stonehenge, ‘‘as arrowheads are found embedded in the bones.’’
The animals were mostly killed at about nine months old, and since pigs are born in the spring, it follows that all this jollity was kicking off at midwinter.
Mike Parker Pearson, the University of Sheffield professor who led the excavations at Durrington Walls, says: ‘‘You could call it the first free festival. This is where they went to party.’’
But who were ‘‘they’’? Parker Pearson and his team date Durrington Walls to about 2500BC, just when the great sarsen stones were being erected at nearby Stonehenge ( the smaller bluestones, from Wales, probably came a bit later). So it looks as if the partygoers at Durrington Walls set up the sarsens at Stonehenge, while their work camp grew to be the biggest settlement in the British Isles, with thousands of inhabitants.
This is the Stone Age in Britain, only a century or so after the great pyramids of Egypt were built and 2000 years before the ancient Greeks. Stone Age people are supposed to have lived in scattered hamlets of miserable huts, scraping a living from the soil and from herding cattle.
But these people weren’t poor. A process known as geological mapping tells researchers that the slaughtered animals came from across England and even Scotland. If the inhabitants of Durrington Walls could afford to gorge on animals driven in from such distances, and then toss the bones away half-gnawed, somebody was making a healthy surplus.
And their management skills must have been impressive. The sarsen stones, some of them weighing 40 tonnes, were dragged 30km from the Marlborough Downs to the north. Experiments show that it would take about 12 days for 200 men to drag a single stone along that route, using a wooden sled on rollers or rails.
The sarsens then had to
be worked, set up in a precise design, and the massive lintel stones raised (somehow) to lie across the uprights, where they were locked in place with mortise and tenon joints carved out of solid rock.
Stonehenge must already have been a big deal to warrant such a building program. And yet we still don’t know what it was for. An astronomical navigation point for aliens? Unlikely. A conference centre for early Druids? Nope. Druidism evolved much later.
Worshippers probably went in for rituals to ensure the return of the sun. Stonehenge, like Durrington Walls, is aligned with the solstice. Midwinter in northern Europe was dark and brutal, and people prayed to have the lights and heating back on.
Parker Pearson believes Stonehenge was a cemetery and that the stones represented the eternal dead, while the wooden henges at Durrington Walls signified the transience of life. In his analysis, the peaceful River Avon was a Stone Age River Styx. It’s true that the cremated bones of several dozen individuals have been found near the stones. A man known as the Stonehenge Archer was buried in the ditch after a violent death: the three stone arrowheads have broken off in his bones.
But Tim Darvill, a professor at Bournemouth University, has other ideas. In 2008, Darvill and English Heritage’s Geoff Wainwright became the first archeologists to dig at Stonehenge for more than 40 years. They believe the secret lies with the smaller bluestones.
These bluestones come from the Preseli Hills in West Wales, 240km away. No one knows for sure how they got to Stonehenge. Perhaps they came by ship up the Bristol Channel, and then along the River Avon, before being dragged overland to the site.
‘‘Traditionally, bluestones have magical healing properties,’’ says Darvill. ‘‘To this day people drink the water from medicinal springs in the Preseli Hills. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the 13th century, is the first person to write about Stonehenge, and he specifically describes it as a place of healing.’’
Darvill points out that the Stonehenge Archer was found buried with a piece of bluestone beside him. ‘‘Maybe he was injured elsewhere and they brought him here in a desperate attempt to save his life.’’
Whatever the secret of the stones, there’s no doubt that Stonehenge was famous hundreds of years before the Durrington Walls revellers began their sea- sonal pig- outs. Something has stood here at least since 3000 BC, and possibly for much longer.
Other monuments in the area go back even further. The creepily named Cursus, between Stonehenge and Durrington Walls, is a roughly rectangular earth enclosure about 2.7km long and 100m wide. The antiquarian William Stukeley, who first spotted it in the 17th century, called it the Cursus because he thought the Romans might have done a Ben Hur and held chariot races here.
But the Cursus is much earlier than the Romans. It has now been dated to about 3500BC, and so have various nearby barrows and burial mounds. And there’s more.
Pits found under the Stonehenge car park in the 1960s appear to have held groups of ‘ ‘ totem poles’’ from a mind-boggling 8000BC, which seems impossibly old — before settled agriculture, and not long after Britain separated from mainland Europe.
‘‘This adds up to a landscape heavy with spiritual significance to the people who lived here,’’ Greaney points out.
‘‘It’s clear that we have to see all the sites in context, to get some idea of how they must have related to one another.’’ Which is why English Heritage starting work in May on a
is new, Australian-designed visitors’ centre more than 1km away from the stones. About one million visitors turn up every year and they will now be taken around on land trains pulled by four-wheel-drives.
There will be more tours on foot, too, to give a wider perspective of the whole area.
The minor road that passes the stones will be closed and Stonehenge returned to its original open grassland setting. But a long campaign to have the nearby southwest trunk route diverted under Stonehenge in a tunnel has been deemed too expensive.
Still, anyone who drives that way down to the West Country might not mind too much. The image of those great stones silhouetted against a wild sky is a sight no one is likely to forget.
There’s something indefinably weird about the whole place. Stop on a midwinter’s evening within sight of the stones and get out of the car. And listen. Do you hear the sound of revelling carried on the bitter wind? I dare you to try it. english-heritage.org.uk visitbritain.com Tim Griggs is an Australian historical novelist living in Oxford, England. His latest book is Distant Thunder (by T.D. Griggs; Orion).
Stonehenge remains an object of fascination thousands of years after its creation; work begins this year on a new visitors’ centre, below, designed by Australian firm Denton Corker Marshall, below