What’s the meaning of Stonehenge

Map of Wiltshire and the wider Stonehenge landscape, made by me!

Map of Wiltshire and the wider Stonehenge landscape, made by me!

The beginning of this story dates back to May 2013 (or the stone age if you want to take it really literally) but the ending is a lot more recent. One of the fortunes that befalls a graduate student in the Cambridge department of Archaeology, is a discounted trip to Stonehenge; lead by the world expert on… Stonehenge. Sadly, I can barely remember the beginning of the trip. It began on the same day as my final Cambridge essay deadline, so I had edited all night, for once remembered to change out of my pajamas and brush my hair, put on a pair of miss-matched socks and a jumper, and stumbled down the hill to the department ca. 7am. Dropped essay off, rolled into the bus, passed out. Not sure what I packed, not sure what was happening. Despite the rough beginning to the trip, I can tell you there is a wrong way to do Stonehenge (walk up to fence, take photo, leave), and a right way (keep reading).

When you are accompanied by a serious landscape archaeologist (or two, or twenty) you cannot just go take a picture of Stonehenge and tick it off your bucket list in celebratory fashion. So, a few hours down the road I was woken up from my essay coma to go view Danebury. This is an Iron Age hillfort located in current Hampshire (at one point also Wessex, if that rings a bell with anyone /Vikings). First thing you should know about hillforts: they look a lot more like hills, than forts. Just to dampen your enthusiasm there. It is over 5 ha and it was built ca. 7th-6th century BCE, which is quite early as far as English archaeology goes. There is a kind of ring of ramparts, which you can walk around, and a few dips around the place where they once stored grain. If I remember correctly, the information signs scattered throughout the site have helpful re-construction drawings on them. The site was excavated between 1968 and 1989, and besides having to sort out those pits, they also found over 10 000 post-holes. While post-holes are very exciting to discover (indicating buildings) they are also by far my least favourite things to excavate. Tiny post-hole+big total station+strong wind = bad back. So 10 000 of those, wow. The people at Danebury were farmers, who lived in little round houses. It was a community of 300-400 people who occupied the site for over 500 years! In the surrounding landscape it has been possible to detect field systems with ditches, enclosures and trackways (which can be seen on aerial photographs). They were also very religious people and there have been a few suggestions about which bits of the hillfort were used for this purpose. They were very connected to the landscape back then and worship likely centered around hills, trees and rivers. If you are less interested in the history, it is also a beautiful area for walking.

It is possible to see the chalk in the landscape around Danebury.

It is possible to see the chalk in the landscape of Danebury.

Walking around Danebury hillfort.

Walking around Danebury hillfort.

Toilet facilities at Danebury : ) (Not super hygienic, mind.)

Toilet facilities at Danebury : ) (Not super hygienic, mind.)

We also visited Woodhenge. This is the kind of site that really requires a vivid imagination, because wood does not generally survive this long, and therefore, it is gone. Some funny re-constructor stuck a few concretes poles in the field to give some idea of what it was like though. Woodhenge was probably built c. 2300 BCE, and it would have been a burial mound surrounded by a bank and ditch which have since been destroyed by enthusiastic farmers. Archaeologists found a child buried there and got very excited by the prospect of child sacrifice; however there is little evidence to prove this in my opinion. Henges are generally associated with ritual however, and the entrances almost align with the midsummer sunrise, so there is that. While there is evidence that oak timbers once stuck out of the post-holes, nothing else can be deduced about them: were they carved, painted, connected? Artefacts show the site was still used in c. 1800 BCE so whatever was going on, there was a long tradition of it.

Woodhenge is next to Durrington Walls. This is a giant bank-ditch structure dating to c. 2500 BCE. It is c. 500 meters wide/long. It was actually cut out of the chalk bedrock which makes it so wall-like. The outer bank was 30 meters wide and 3 meters high, and the inner bank 40 meters wide and 6 meters high. If anything ever was, this is your equivalent of a Neolithic fortress. It wasn’t actually a fortress though! It was another henge monument. There was also a large timber structure there, with orientation towards the winter and summer solstice. Next to it traces of some Neolithic houses have been found, suggesting there was a village there. I remember reading somewhere that a place like this does not have to be a ‘ritual site’; it could also be a site which was additionally used for rituals sometimes. I think that seems like a suitable description here! Sadly, Durrington Walls has been cut in two by the A345 road from Netheravon to Durrington. Sigh. But, it is free to visit!

The re-construction of Woodhenge...

The re-construction of Woodhenge…

A beautiful bell barrow in the vicinity of Stonehenge.

A beautiful bell barrow in the vicinity of Stonehenge.

We made it to Stonehenge right when the sun was about to set (the photographer in me was happy). We had special permission to walk among the stones, which is normally very strictly prohibited (with the exception of midsummer, which is a whole different story). On one hand I think it is very sad the general public has to view the monument from a distance, because it is really not the same experience. On the other hand, if you see up close what kind of damage people have done over the years, it is completely understand-able. This is a perfect example where a 3D re-construction, or a multimedia type experience, would be a suitable accompaniment to a site. When I was there, they were just beginning the construction of a giant new visitor centre, a bit down the road. I think it opened later in the year. And I have a feeling they will have created exactly that kind of experience there. Be warned, this is a very big, very new, and very fancy visitor centre, so it will be expensive. But keep in mind, you are not supporting some rich boss of something with the ticket, you are supporting Stonehenge.

The thing you really need to understand about Stonehenge, is that is is not just that iconic circle of stones. From before ‘Stonehenge’ there are four or five post-holes (but of the very large non-back-breaking variety) dating as far back as 8500-7000 BCE. What that may have been is of course still somewhat of a mystery. Around c. 3500 BCE a complex materialises, which included a long and narrow causewayed enclosure and two rectangular-ish banks with external ditches (The Cursus). If you visit Stonehenge, this is where to start. It’s thought that this was a processional route up to the monument, so if you cross the field (c. 1km), you will walking the same path as the people of the past. Keep this scale in mind! In this area there are over 350 other burials mounds, as well as a few other henges (i.e. Woodhenge).

Around about 3000 BCE a circular ditch with an inner and outer bank was built. Within it another 50 or so post-holes were found, suggesting a timber structure once stood there (but they could have also been for stones). Over 60 cremations were found there, of perhaps as many as 150, which makes Stonehenge the largest late Neolithic cemetery in Britain. Around 2500 BCE the actual stones turn up at the site. What`s important, and why it is cool to see it up close, is that these are two different types of stone: the larger sarsens (inner horse-shoe, outer circle) and the smaller bluestones (in-between them in a double arc). These blue-stones were re-arranged two or three centuries later, to form a circle and inner oval and then re-arranged again to form another horse-shoe. (How archaeologists managed to establish this is just amazing to me.) This is also when people made an earthwork avenue, connecting the monument to the river Avon. The sarsens probably came from the Marlborough Downs, 19 miles to the north, and the bluestones came from the Preseli Hills, a whole 150 miles away! They were erected using interlocking joints, which is really unheard of for this period.

Later on, c. 1800-1500 BCE they dug two rings of pits around the stone settings. (Why, is again a slight mystery.) The Romans were clearly also impressed with Stonehenge, as a lot of Roman artefacts were found around the site (I wonder what they called it?). And there are a few Saxon bits as well. The going theory is that Stonehenge was a type of temple; a place for ritual or worship. This is nearly always what archaeologists say when they have no idea what is going on. However, it is a good theory. Each society probably used it for slightly different purposes (be it burial, or looking at the alignment of the sun), and we are talking pre-history here, so no one wrote anything down about it. I will refer you to the song recorded by Ylvis (see below).

Now, what I find really interesting, is the alterations to the stones. As many as fifty carvings of axes and daggers occur on a few of the sarsens. They look like axes from c. 1800-1500 BCE (Arreton Down type), so a whole five centuries younger than the stones! Axes on contemporary monuments are associated with burials, and in combination with surrounding burial mounts, this could, maybe, suggest that in these days at least Stonehenge was a kind of memorial. The stones have also been inscribed with a range of ‘modern’ scribbles, such as the name of famous 17th century architect Sir Christopher Wren. You would think he would have had a little more respect for the monument.

Approaching Stonehenge the ancient way.

Approaching Stonehenge the ancient way.

Realistic close-up of Stonehenge.

Realistic close-up of Stonehenge.

Reminds me of Cambridge : D

Reminds me of Cambridge : D

Afternoon sun over Stonehenge : )

Afternoon sun over Stonehenge : )

Afternoon sun over Stonehenge : )

Afternoon sun over Stonehenge : )

Entering the inner circle of Stonehenge.

Entering the inner circle of Stonehenge.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I think this is an example of the interlocking joints.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I think this is an example of the interlocking joints.

Inside Stonehenge.

Inside Stonehenge.

Modern inscriptions over ancient axes and daggers.

Modern inscriptions over ancient axes and daggers.

Inside Stonehenge.

Inside Stonehenge.

Traces of modern graffiti.

Traces of modern graffiti.

Hi! : )

Hi! : )

Inside Stonehenge.

Inside Stonehenge.

When the sun had set we left for a youth hostel in Salisbury. This is of course a very famous cathedral city, but since I was visiting with a group of landscape archaeologists I had to leave exploring the city for another day. All I can say is that it had good pubs. Fun was had. If you are visiting the area I reckon this is a good bet for finding a place to stay. However, if you are after something slightly more eccentric, I recommend the nearby market town Devizes. It grew around a beautiful 11th century Norman castle, and it used to be a centre for bankers and solicitors. As a result it has over 500 listed buildings.

Of course what we did, was visit the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes. At the time they were re-doing the place, and it looked like it was going to be really good. I would recommend having a look. According to the website it is a ‘Must See before Visiting Stonehenge or Avebury’. It costs c. 5 GBP. I wonder if it is struggling a little since the enormous new visitor centre opened, so please do not skip this little one!

Very helpful sign in the Wiltshire museum.

Very helpful sign in the Wiltshire museum.

Wandering around Devizes.

Wandering around Devizes.

Wandering around Devizes.

Wandering around Devizes.

Next, we drove past Adam`s Grave (or Woden’s Barrow), which is a huuuge Neolithic long barrow (or, hill). It has been destroyed, but originally it would have had a chamber system in the mount like its neighbour, West Kennet Longbarrow. Like Stonehenge it dates to c. 3500 BCE, and it looks like it was closed c. 2000 BCE. It was used as a burial chamber for nearly 50 people, and it is possible to go inside. These tombs were used by whole families or clans, and ancestor-worship was likely an important part of their culture. Studies have been done on the way in which people were buried (male bones on on side, female bones on another, missing skulls) but as far as I can remember there are not necessarily consistent patterns. People were buried with grave goods and they have found a variety of vessels and tools at West Kennet. To get there you have to climb up a hill and make your way across some farmland; beware if it is raining! It is free to visit though.

Adam`s Grave longbarrow.

Adam`s Grave longbarrow.

Walking up to West Kennet longbarrow.

Walking up to West Kennet longbarrow.

Outside West Kennet longbarrow.

Outside West Kennet longbarrow.

Inside West Kennet longbarrow!

Inside West Kennet longbarrow!

Exterior of West Kennet longbarrow.

Exterior of West Kennet longbarrow.

Lastly, we visited Avebury. This is currently the largest known stone circle in the world (I am told) yet decidedly less famous than Stonehenge. It is also older, its construction dating to ca. 2850 BCE. There is a biiig (over 1km) chalk-stone bank circle, with an inner ditch, which has four entrances. Originally it had close to a hundred stones, but most of those have gone missing now. There are also two smaller stone circles, from about 25000 BCE. Again, they had almost 30 stones each before, of which only a few are left standing now. It is a very large site and you can easily spend a day there. It comes with a little village, where you can have very expensive tea. Bill Bryson famously complained how costly Avebury is. However, he was wrong. It is, amazingly, free to visit! As long as you don`t use the pricey parking, and have the fancy tea, etc.

Like Stonehenge, Averbury is still a sacred place today. When I visited I saw a group of druid-dressed people (I am not sure what the culturally appropriate terminology is) who were about to gather for something. While it is interesting to speculate what the site was used for in the past, it is equally fascinating to find out why people still come there today. I took to Google and inspected what the British Druid Order has to say about it. They describe a rite where they are “reawakening the male and female spirits of our own lands, re-connecting our own spirits with them, and re-connecting them with the great spirit of our Mother Earth and with the spirits of our kin around the world who have also connected spiritually through the World Drum.” I wonder if the group which I saw could have been the Avebury Gorsedd. They describe their gathering as follows: “The celebrations begin with a gathering outside the restaurant near the National Trust shop at 12 noon. From there, we move to the great southern entrance to the henge. A woman (usually) sits in the seat of one of the two huge sarsen stones that flank the entrance to represent the guardian of the stones. After she has given her blessing on our presence, we move to the Ring Stone for any handfastings, then (usually) on to the southern inner circle for the main part of the rite, which ends with bardic performances.

One of the surviving stones of Avebury.

One of the surviving stones of Avebury.

Modern use of ancient sites; tying ribbons to trees (for well-wishes?)

Modern use of ancient sites; tying ribbons to trees (for well-wishes?)

Present-day spiritual gathering at Avebury

Present-day spiritual gathering at Avebury

Main surviving stones of Avebury

Main surviving stones of Avebury

Finally, and the reason I am writing this post today, I want to mention the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes project. Between 2010 – 2015 a large team of archaeologists from all over Europe carried out detailed geophysical surveys of the landscape around Stonehenge. Among other things, it has revealed a large stone monument hidden beneath the bank of the Durrington Walls. At the moment it is thought to have had around 90 stones, so comparable to the size and importance of Avebury. This would have been built about a century after the Stonehenge circle down the road, which has major implications for the ritual landscape of the 3rd millennium BCE. It covered a massive area of inter-connected monuments, which were expanded and added to over hundreds of years. Stonehenge did not stand alone.

If you are Dutch, and you are actually reading this when I am posting it, British project leader Professor Vincent Gaffney is holding a lecture about the project this Wednesday, the 17th of February, in Amsterdam.

Written by Zen

Qualified archaeologist and inquisitive adventurer. Also cartographer, pixel artist, Latin tutor and music teacher. Interested in affordable street-food and friendly couch-surfing. Originally from Holland, studying in the UK, living in Germany. Always learning a new language.

2 Comments

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I think that there is a special application you can make to go among the stones, without any Uni or anything involved. They allow x number of people every year. I am not sure how it works though!

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