Stonehenge
Ancient prehistoric monument of standing stones located in
Wiltshire, England. The name derives from the Old English
hengen (‘‘hung up’’), referring to the horizontal lintel stones.
Over the centuries, legend ascribed Stonehenge to Druidic,
Roman, and Danish construction, but it is now generally accepted
that it dates from Neolithic times and stands as the culmination
of the period of megalith construction, remnants of
which can be found across the British Isles. It was probably last
in use about 1400 B.C.E. Megalithic (large stone) monuments
exist in many locations in Europe.
A major step in understanding the use and significance of
Stonehenge occurred in the 1960s when it was discovered that
the alignment of the stones seems to facilitate the prediction of
a variety of astronomical events, such as the summer solstice,
and were thus probably related to late Neolithic worship ceremonies.
The Stonehenge site is composed of three distinct elements—an
outer circle of local sarsen stones and two inner circles
of blue stones from the Prescelly Mountains of Wales, 200
kilometers (125 miles) away. The first and third circles are
capped with stone lintels, and the whole construction is encircled
by a ditch, inside the bank of which are 56 pits known as
the ‘‘Aubrey Holes’’ and a cemetery associated with them.
Isolated outside the stone circles is the Heel stone, over
which the sun rises on Midsummer Day (June 24). It is clear
that Stonehenge had special astronomical significance, since,
in addition to the marking of the summer solstice by the Heel
stone, the center of the great circle indicated the orbits of sun
and moon, and holes were positioned for posts to mark these
orbits. The whole construction indicates remarkable astronomical
and mathematical knowledge on the part of the ancient
builders. Like the pyramids of ancient Egypt, Stonehenge and
similar monuments also involved considerable engineering
skill in mining and transporting the huge stones.
Prior to modern archaeological investigations, Stonehenge
was surrounded by confusing legends of origin and use. Radiocarbon
dating has now established a date of around 2000 B.C.E.
for the first monument, the second a few centuries later, and
the third about the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. It
is possible that the Druids inherited an oral tradition of the significance
of Stonehenge and used it for sacred rituals involving
sun worship.
Folklore credits such sites with magical power, and they
have been associated with witchcraft rites. In France young girls
would slide down such ancient stones with bare buttocks in the
belief that it would make them fertile.
Early Christian missionaries attempted to absorb or neutralize
such occult traditions by building churches inside prehistoric
mounds. In medieval times, at the great stone monument at
Avebury in southern Britain, there was a ceremony in which a
single stone was dislodged and ritually attacked to symbolize
the victory of the Christian Church over the Devil. Most sites,
including Stonehenge, have also suffered vandalism over the
centuries.
Modern Stonehenge
In the 1980s Stonehenge became the center of another
strange ritual every midsummer. Thousands of hippies, living
a nomadic life in battered automobiles (often unlicensed), reminiscent
of the American dust bowl days, descended on the
fields surrounding Stonehenge and set up makeshift camps, intending
to gain access to Stonehenge to celebrate the summer
solstice. But the site has been fenced off with barbed wire and
the solstice ceremony restricted to a modern revival Druid organization
and no more than six hundred ticket-holding visitors.
To prevent the hippies from overrunning the site, farmers
annually barricaded paths and byways with trailers and machinery,
while hundreds of police stood by in riot gear.
For many years there was a ritual battle between hippies and
police. Rocks, bottles, and other objects were thrown, while police
with helmets and batons forced back the intruders and arrested
many of them. After the summer solstice, the hippies
were obliged to retreat to their battered vehicles.
Stonehenge remains one of England’s most visited tourist
sites in spite of the fence, which prevents visitors from walking
among the stones.
Sources
Burl, Aubrey. The Stone Circles of the British Isles. New Haven,
Conn. Yale University Press, 1976.
Chippendale, Christopher. Stonehenge Complete. Ithaca,
N.Y. Cornell University Press, 1983.
Hawkins, Gerald. Stonehenge Decoded. Garden City, N.Y.
Doubleday, 1965. Reprint, London Souvenir Press, 1966.
Hitching, Francis. Earth Magic. London Cassell, 1976.
Mitchell, J. Astro-Archaeology. London Thames & Hudson,
1977.
Newham, C. A. The Astronomical Significance of Stonehenge.
UK John Blackburn, 1972.
Thom, Alexander. Megalithic Sites in Britain. Oxford Oxford
University Press, 1967.

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