Hands on History: The Stonehenge
By Shani Asokan
Ceylon Today Features
Have you seen this mysterious rock formation before? Located on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, Stonehenge is a huge circle of standing stones. These flat slabs of stone weren’t just left here by nature, they’re man-made!
Stonehenge was built by our ancestors over hundreds of years. Yes, it took that long to build. Today, it is one of the world’s most famous prehistoric monuments in existence. This means that it was built before the first records of history we have today. And did you know that aside from being super old, Stonehenge is also surrounded by mystery? Yes, this stone structure has raised more questions than answers over the years. Let’s find out all about it.
When was it built?
It is believed that our human ancestors began building Stonehenge around 5000 years ago, in the late Neolithic age. The Neolithic age is the latter part of the Stone Age of human civilization when ground or polished stone weapons and other tools were used by our ancestors to hunt, or help in their daily lives. The Neolithic period is said to be the final stage of cultural evolution for prehistoric humans.
Though work started in the Neolithic age, it took over 1000 years for the prehistoric humans to finish building this structure. Archaeologists believe that the final touches were added to Stonehenge in the early Bronze Age. The Bronze Age followed the Neolithic Era, and gets its name because it was during this time that humans first began to use metal in tools and weapons.
If you visit or look at pictures of Stonehenge today, you will observe large slabs of stone still standing strong in a circle. Archaeologists believe that this structure didn’t always look like this. Research shows that the structure of Stonehenge changed over time as it was built and rebuilt by generations of ancient people over a 1000 years.
When it was finished in the Bronze Age, Stonehenge was made up of standing stones called ‘sarsens’. These sarsens surrounded five huge stone arches in horseshoe shape (like an upside down U). There were also two smaller circles of stones made from ‘bluestones’ – one inside the outer circle and one inside the horseshoe arches. There were also four ‘station’ stones positioned outside the central part of the monument. The entire stone structure was surrounded by a circular ditch and bank, which you can still see today!
How was it built?
One of the biggest mysteries of Stonehenge is how these ancient people lifted, transported and arranged such humongous pieces of stone. To date, we still have no clear explanation as to how they did it! Like all mysteries however, there are some theories.
One such theory is rooted in a legend from the 12th century that tells the tale giants who placed Stonehenge on a mountain in Ireland before a wizard named Merlin magically moved it to the Plain in England. This is a great theory, if only it were true. We’d all like a little magic sometimes, wouldn’t we?
The biggest stones, the sarsen stones, weigh 22 tonnes each. That’s as heavy as four African Elephants. So how these prehistoric humans, who had only just discovered how to use stone, managed to haul them up to the field is all the more mysterious. Some Archaeologists believe the stones were hauled using big wooden sleds. However, the bluestones have been traced to rock outcrops all the way in Wales, which is 225 km away from Stonehenge! It is thought that perhaps they used the wooden sleds to float the rocks down a waterway, but this too it just a theory.
What was it used for?
The short answer, is that no one really knows. Some theories link Stonehenge to a sort of Calendar. A single stone called the Heel Stone stands just outside of the main monument. It has been observed that the sun always rises over the Heel stone on the longest day of the year and sets over the same stone on the shortest day of the year. So this structure could have been used to study the stars.
Other theories suggest that it could have been a place of healing. Perhaps our ancestors believed the stones to have miraculous healing powers, and brought their sick there in hopes of healing them. Another theory suggests that Stonehenge was used to keep track of solar and lunar eclipses, or as a temple to the sun or moon gods.
One thing we know for sure though, is that the site was used as a cemetery. Research estimates about 200 people are buried on the grounds of Stonehenge. A theory, one that maybe the closest one to reality we have, is that Stonehenge was used by prehistoric humans to conduct important funeral ceremonies. It is thought that is why some of their dead are laid to rest there.
Though there is much we cannot know about this prehistoric structure, there is still a lot that we have learned. Some of which you have learned today. Maybe one day in the future we will solve some of the mysteries surrounding this giant structure but until then, the search is on!