Stonehenge: Its Stones, History and Archaeology

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Stonehenge in 1645

Stonehenge (16 kilometers north of Salisbury, 137 kilometers west of London) is the famous group of 4500 year old standing stones. Believed to have been a calendar, or possibly a religious center, it consists of rocks organized into two main circles and two horseshoes, that were in turn are surrounded by a circular mound of earth 300 feet in diameter. A henge refers to a particular type of earthwork of the Neolithic period, typically consisting of a roughly circular or oval-shaped bank with an internal ditch surrounding a central flat area of more than 20 meters in diameter. Henges of various types are found throughout Britain and include the Standing Stones o' Stenness on the northern island of Orkney and the Maumbury Rings in southern England county of Dorset.

The Stonehenge that is visible today is thought to have been completed about 4,500 years ago, although the first earthwork henge is thought to date back to 3050 B.C. — long before Greek temples, or even the Pyramids of Giza, were built — and was constructed by people with neither metal or writing. The builders affixed the stones with mortise and tenon (hole and peg) fasteners and used digging tools made from sharped bones and antlers taken from slaughtered animals. Dating cremated bone fragments of men, women and children found at site puts origin of first circle to around 3,000 B.C., 500 years earlier than originally thought. Stonehenge was dated by examining a ditch that encircles the stones and is regarded as one of the oldest places at the site. Antlers in the ditch were dated using Carbon 14 to be 5,000 years old. Similar groups of standings stones are found all over Europe, but Stonehenge is the largest and best preserved.

According to UNESCO: “Stonehenge is one of the most impressive prehistoric megalithic monuments in the world on account of the sheer size of its megaliths, the sophistication of its concentric plan and architectural design, the shaping of the stones - uniquely using both Wiltshire Sarsen sandstone and Pembroke Bluestone - and the precision with which it was built. Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world. It is unrivalled in its design and unique engineering, featuring huge horizontal stone lintels capping the outer circle and the trilithons, locked together by carefully shaped joints. It is distinguished by the unique use of two different kinds of stones (Bluestones and Sarsens), their size (the largest weighing over 40 tons) and the distance they were transported (up to 240 kilometers). The sheer scale of some of the surrounding monuments is also remarkable: the Stonehenge Cursus and the Avenue are both about 3 kilometers long, while Durrington Walls is the largest known henge in Britain, around 500 meters in diameter, demonstrating the ability of prehistoric peoples to conceive, design and construct features of great size and complexity. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage sites website]

In its day Stonehenge was at the center of the largest ceremonial center in Europe. The belief that the structure was a calendar or some kind of astronomical observatory is based on the fact that one stone is aligned with summer solstice and others appear to predict solar and lunar eclipses and line up with the sun's position on other important solar days. Yet other stones are oriented toward cycles of the moon, the four station stones seemed to be lined up with the extremes of the midsummer moonrise. During the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, when the sun's reaches it highest point in the sky, sunlight passes directly over a pointer rock outside the stone circle and sunbeams shine straight down a track called The Avenue onto the "altar stone" in the center. Even so some archaeologists say Stonhedge probably wasn't constructed or used for religious ceremonies.

Good Websites Archaeology News Report ; : ; Archaeology in Europe ; Archaeology magazine ; HeritageDaily; Livescience ; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine ; Current Archaeology magazine

Book: “Stonehenge” by John North

Construction of Stonehenge

Stonehenge stones

An early form of Stonehenge was built about 5,000 years ago. The famous stone circle that still stands today was put together in the late Neolithic, around 2500 B.C., according to English Heritage, the U.K. trust that manages the site. Salisbury Plain, the plateau where Stonehenge sits, was considered a sacred area by ancient people, and holds evidence of older structures dating back as far back as 10,500 years ago. [Source: By Jonathan Gordon, Live Science, April 30, 2022]

Stonehenge was built in two waves of intense construction 5,000 and 4,500 years ago. Archaeologists have determined that some of the monument's stones came from Wales, and others from a woodland area nearby. According to Business Insider: Archeologists think that the Durrington Walls site, found about 1.7 miles from Stonehenge, was the center for ritual celebrations that took place during the construction of the stone circle in 2,500 B.C. Evidence suggests that for a period of 10 to 50 years neolithic humans came from all corners of England during the winter months to help build the stone monument. "They didn't seem to live there continuously. They lived in southern Britain, they farmed their crops in the summer. And then they came to Durrington walls in the winter to not only put Stonehenge together but also to hold religious festivals there," Piers Mitchell from Cambridge's Department of Archaeology told Insider. [Source: Marianne Guenot, Business Insider, May 20, 2022]

The original circle of Stonehenge consisted of 157 standing stones. Only 63 complete stones remain today. The outer circle of stones is 30 meters (98 feet) across at its widest point. The tallest remaining stone stands seven meters above the ground.

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The construction of the monument at Stonehenge took place in a series of stages between 3100 B.C. and 1100 B.C. Originally the site may have featured a wooden circle built, but around 3100 B.C. the bluestones from Wales arrived at the site. (The other stones at Stonehenge are the huge sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs 20 miles away and a sandstone altar stone from southeast Wales). [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, February 21, 2021]

The bluestones may have served as grave markers as the cremated remains of men, women, and children were found in the series of circle shaped pits that enclose the area. Strontium analysis of the remains of these individuals conducted by a University of Oxford team revealed that they had not lived for very long in the vicinity of Stonehenge and had, instead, almost certainly migrated there from west Wales.

Stonehenge Stones

Stonehenge contains the world's largest trilithons (megalithic structures consisting of two upright stones and a third across the top as a lintel). Although a few of the stones have toppled over, the ancient monument for the most part has retained its original shape. The largest of 80 or so stones stands 9.1 meters (30 feet) and is buried in the ground to a depth of 2.4 meters (eight feet), The heaviest weighs about 30 tons, and would have required 550 men to pull it up a 9-degree gradient.

Stonehenge is made up of two main types of rock. The sarsens, sandstone slabs weighing 25 tons on average, form the iconic central horseshoe, the uprights and lintels of the outer circle, as well as the outlying Station Stones, Heel Stone and Slaughter Stone. A variety of 2- to 5-ton igneous rocks known as bluestones, due to their bluish tinge when wet or freshly broken, form the smaller inner horseshoe. The Bluestones were transported to the Stonehenge site from Wales, [Source: Morgan Winsor, Good Morning America, February 12, 2021]

Most of the stones were raised about 1500 B.C. mostly likely using the following method: 1) putting a large stone on a ramp, and pushing it so it leans over the edge of the ramp; 2) sliding a a smaller stone on a larger stone, which causes that large stone to fall in an upright position. 3) sliding lintel (tops) on the standing stones with large ramps. The 35-ton Heel Stone was brought from 24 miles away.

David Keys wrote in The Independent: A laser survey showed “that the prehistoric stone masons, who helped create Stonehenge, used two different stone-working techniques. The stone-dressing work on the monument’s great circle (both uprights and lintels) was accomplished by working parallel to the long sides of the stones, while the five stone ‘trilithons’ (the great horse-shoe arrangement of linteled stones) within the great circle were dressed by working at right-angles to the sides of the stones. This previously unknown fact – revealed by the laser scan operation – suggests that the great ‘trilithons’ may have been constructed slightly before the great circle rather than being contemporary with it”.[Source: David Keys, The Independent, October 9, 2012 |~|]

Stonehenge Was an Important Hunting Spot Long Before the Monument Was Built

The region where Stonehenge is located was an important hunting and grazing area for Mesolithic cultures. During Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers frequented the site, using it as a hunting ground. Later, farmers and monument builders moved into the region, a study was published online on April 27, 2022 in the journal PLOS One study finds.

Jonathan Gordon wrote in Live Science; Earlier research had suggested that before Stonehenge was built, the surrounding landscape included a closed-canopy forest. "There has been a long-running debate as to whether the monumental archaeology of Stonehenge was created in an uninhabited forested landscape or whether it was constructed in an already partly open area of pre-existing significance to late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers," the researchers wrote in the study. [Source: By Jonathan Gordon, Live Science, April 30, 2022]

Newer research shows that the area was historically an open woodland where large herbivores such as aurochs, an extinct cattle species, once grazed. Given the site's high use over time, it's likely that there was continuity between the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and the Neolithic, or New Stone Age monument builders, the researchers said. In other words, it's not as if Stonehenge's builders suddenly "discovered" the site for the first time; rather, it appears that people had known about this spot for centuries.

The study centered around Blick Mead, an early hunter-gatherer spot on the edge of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. Previous excavations of Blick Mead confirmed that Mesolithic people settled there prior to 8000 B.C., and the new research suggests that humans continued to use this area into the Neolithic period. To investigate Blick Mead, Samuel Hudson, a researcher at the University of Southampton in the U.K., and colleagues dug a newly opened trench at the site and analyzed ancient pollen, spores and DNA, as well as animal remains, found within the samples to learn more about how ancient people used the land during the late Mesolithic, between 5200 B.C. and 4700 B.C.

Their analysis revealed that the area used to have damp meadow conditions that sat next to an open grassland with a deciduous woodland close by, the team wrote in the study. Wild animals would have grazed in those open fields, and hunter-gatherer communities that lived there 4,000 years prior to Stonehenge's construction would have then hunted the grazers, the researchers found.

"The Stonehenge World Heritage Site is globally recognized for its rich Neolithic and Bronze Age monumental landscape, but little is known of its significance to Mesolithic populations," the study's authors said in a statement. But now it's clear that "hunter-gatherers had already chosen part of this landscape, an alluvial clearing, as a persistent place for hunting and occupation."

Large Stonehenge Stones Originated From 25 Kilometers Away

Stonehenge stones

The Sarsens (the large Stonehenge stones) originated from about 25 kilometers (15 miles) away from Stonehenge. In July 2020, researchers said geochemical testing indicated that 50 of Stonehenge's 52 pale-gray sarsens, share a common origin at a wooded site called West Woods on the edge of Wiltshire's Marlborough Downs. “Still, Stonehenge's builders had to drag the 50,000-pound (22,700-kilogram) sarsens about 15 miles — "which is insane really if you think about it," David Nash, the lead author of the study, published in the journal Science Advances, told Business Insider. [Source: Aylin Woodward, Business Insider, December 12, 2020]

“The sarsen stones make up the iconic outer circle and central trilithon (two vertical stones supporting a horizontal stone) horseshoe at Stonehenge. They are enormous," said Nash, a University of Brighton geomorphologist.“How they were moved to the site is still really the subject of speculation," Nash added. "Given the size of the stones, they must have either been dragged or moved on rollers to Stonehenge. We don't know the exact route but at least we now have a starting point and an endpoint." [Source: Will Dunham, Reuters July 30, 2020]

The discovery was made thanks to a core sample that had been kept in the United States for decades. Reuters reported: A sarsen core sample, extracted during conservation work in the late 1950s when metal rods were inserted to stabilize a cracked megalith, provided crucial information. It was given as a souvenir to a man named Robert Phillips who worked for the company involved in the conservation work and was on-site during drilling. Phillips took it with him with permission when he emigrated to the United States in 1977, living in New York, Illinois, California and finally Florida, Nash said. Phillips decided to return it to Britain for research in 2018. He died this year.

“The researchers analyzed fragments of the sample — destructive testing being off limits for megaliths at the site — to establish the geochemical fingerprint of the sarsen from which it was taken. That fingerprint matched sandstone still at West Woods and all but two of the Stonehenge sarsens. “I hope that what we have found out," Nash said, "will allow people to understand more about the enormous endeavor involved in constructing Stonehenge."

Waun Mawn — the 5400-Year-Old, Stonehenge-Like Site in Wales

Archaeology magazine reported: “A team of archaeologists and geologists excavating two ancient quarries in the Presili Hills of west Wales has confirmed that these sites are the sources of the 43 “bluestones” erected at Stonehenge. Weighing on average between one and two tons, these igneous and volcanic rocks were transported to Stonehenge sometime around 3000 B.C. But radiocarbon dating of charcoal discovered at quarry-related camps shows that Neolithic workers were active at the two sites some 300 to 500 years before the earliest installation of bluestones at Stonehenge. This suggests that the megaliths may have been quarried and erected in the immediate area long before they were transported to Stonehenge. “We suspect that there is a dismantled stone circle monument somewhere in the area between the quarries,” says University College London archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson, who led the team. “We expect to find it and excavate it in 2016.” [Source: Eric A. Powell, Archaeology magazine, March-April 2016]

Stonehenge location

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The Stones of Stonehenge research project conducted a study at the Neolithic site Waun Mawn, in the Preseli Hills in Wales. In 2018 excavations there unearthed the remnants of a stone circle. The monument had been erected from stones retrieved from nearby bluestone quarries. Carbon dating of sediment and charcoal in the holes revealed that the now-missing stone circle was initially constructed around 3400 B.C. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, February 21, 2021]

Subsequent comparison between the sites at Waun Mawn and Stonehenge revealed a number of parallels. Both structures were aligned with the midsummer solstice sunrise and are of a comparable size — the diameter of Waun Mawn and that of the ditch that surrounds Stonehenge are both approximately 110 meters. In addition, an unusual cross-section in one of the Waun Mawn holes matches that of one of the bluestones at Stonehenge and, of course, the stones at Waun Man and some of the stones at Stonehenge are made of the same bluestone material.

Morgan Winsor of Good Morning America reported: Parker Pearson said they had identified Waun Mawn "from the very beginning, but discounted it because of disappointing geophysical survey results." Archaeological excavations in 2018 uncovered six empty holes for missing monoliths, confirming that the four remaining standing stones were part of a former circle. Subsequent comparison between the sites at Waun Mawn and Stonehenge revealed both structures were aligned with the midsummer solstice sunrise. [Source: Morgan Winsor, Good Morning America, February 12, 2021]

Moving Stonehenge’s Bluestones from Wales

The Stonehenge bluestones originated in the Preseli Mountains of west Wales. Some think they were quarried there and pulled 350 kilometers (216 miles) across Britain by large groups of men who rolled the stones on logs. Many scientists now believe the stones were carried most of the way by water. Some think the stones were found a few miles from Stonehenge and were moved there naturally from Wales by ice-age glaciers. Mike Parker Pearson of University College London has theorized that the bluestones might were lifted onto huge wooden lattices and carried by dozens of men to the site.

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: In academic circles the theory of a dismantled circle was first raised in 1923 by the geologist Herbert Thomas who connected the bluestones to the Presli Hills. Academics weren’t the first to float this idea either. In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth, the author of the History of the Kings of Britain, speculated that the circle was built using stones from the Giant’s Dance circle at Mount Killaraus in Ireland. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, February 21, 2021]

According to his legend, the circle was disassembled by the famous magician-turned-structural-engineer Merlin and moved to Salisbury Plain by a team of 15,000 men. Geoffrey’s story is pure legend: he anachronistically claims that Stonehenge was built to commemorate the slaughter of innocent Britons by supposedly treacherous Saxons, but there were no prehistoric Saxons. Elements of Geoffrey’s story, however, would turn out to contain a kernel of truth: the stones have been moved. The fact that, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s time, west Wales was considered to be Irish territory might help explain some elements of the legend.

Thea Chard wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The 82 bluestones — the double circle of large rocks, some weighing as much as 4 tons — were brought to Stonehenge during the second stage of Stonehenge, which began about 2150 B.C. and account for the first stone construction at the site. About 150 years later, these were rearranged and surrounded by a circle of the much larger sarsen stones that define Stonehenge we know today. Some scientists believe the bluestones were transported manually from Wales. Others say it is possible that the former Irish Sea Glacier pushed the stones to Salisbury. If the bluestones were hauled to the Salisbury Plain from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, Wales, researchers say understanding why they were moved holds the key to understanding Stonehenge. [Source:Thea Chard, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, May 11, 2008]

Stonhenge plan today

Were Stones from Waun Mawn Moved to Stonehenge?

In 2021, in an article published article in Antiquity, scientists suggested that stones from Waun Mawn may have been dismantled and used in an early phase of Stonehenge’s construction. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The scientists involved speculated that the stones from the Waun Mawn circle had been moved 175 miles to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, the site of Stonehenge. In 3400 B.C., when the Waun Mawn circle was built, the Preseli Hills were a densely inhabited part of Britain where intense quarrying and construction took place. Then, sometime around 3000 B.C., the inhabitants of the region uprooted themselves and disappeared. Mike Parker Pearson, a professor at University College London who oversees the Stones of Stonehenge project, told Heritage Daily, “It’s as if they just vanished. Maybe most of the people migrated, taking their stones…with them.” [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, February 21, 2021]

Calculations of the labor involved in transporting the bluestones, probably by sled, suggest the journey from Waun Mawn to the present Stonehenge site could have been completed in one summer. "You can cover 3 miles [5 km] a day, if you've got your trackway prepared," he said. "They might have had feasting, food and drink … just like a rolling party that moved from one place to another." [Source: Tom Metcalfe, Live Science February 16, 2021]

The recent discovery is evidence of the importance of stone monuments to the identities and culture of the people who inhabited Waun Mawn and, later, Stonehenge. That the relocation of the group involved the cumbersome dismantling and movement of heavy bluestone blocks shows the integral role that these monuments played in Neolithic societies. Whereas later groups might consider building new structures, these stones were a part of identity. The Neolithic migrants from Wales, Pearson Parker and his team said, “brought their monument… as a physical manifestation of their ancestral identities” that they could recreate in their new home. It might also, as others have suggested, served as a unifying monument for different people.

The stones at Waun Mawn may have been moved as part of a population migration out of western Wales, as the first people to be buried at Stonehenge are likely to have once lived in that region. This new evidence raises as many questions as it answers. What events, be they environmental, social, politic, or economic, drove the people of the Preseli Hills to migrate to Wiltshire? And how was it that Salisbury Plain, which had been an important site for communal gatherings and ceremonial rituals for thousands of years before the arrival of the Preseli Hills migrants, was “ripe for take-over”? We may know from where the first stones of Stonehenge came, but we still don’t know how Stonehenge came to be.

“We don't know enough about the bluestones at Stonehenge," Parker Pearson said. "Many are entirely buried beneath the grass and were last seen in the 1950s and 1960s when nobody bothered to properly identify the types of rock, so that's a very necessary but straight-forward job to lift some turf and take samples." “We've not yet tracked down the sources of all of the different types of bluestone in Preseli or pinpointed the source of the Altar Stone, thought to have come from the Brecon Beacons," he continued. "And I suspect there were more stone circles in Wales that contributed their bluestones to Stonehenge. It would be great to track these down but it's not going to be easy." [Source:Morgan Winsor, Good Morning America, February 12, 2021]


Hints of the Merlin 'Stonehenge' Legend at Waun Mawn?

The findings at Waun Mawn give a little support to the legend that the mythical wizard Merlin ordered giants to move Stonehenge from Ireland and rebuild it in its current location. According to Live Science: Archaeologists think the stones at Wuan Mawn and other stone circles nearby represented ancestors or ancestral lineages to families of Neolithic people from the area, so they took the stones with them when the left to live somewhere else The researchers aren't sure why so many Neolithic families left the Preseli Hills suddenly to live so far away. Parker Pearson thinks their community may have wanted to unite for political or social reasons with a distant group of people, and so they brought their ancestral stones with them to cement their presence in their new territory. [Source: Tom Metcalfe, Live Science February 16, 2021]

Like Stonehenge, the circle at Waun Mawn was aligned so its some of its stones lined up with the sunrise on the summer solstice; similar alignments have been found at other Neolithic monuments throughout the British Isles, and they could reflect the eternal pattern of movement of the sun in the heavens, he said.

The idea that Stonehenge was first built from a circle of stones transported from a great distance sounds strikingly similar to a medieval legend that Stonehenge was built at the command of Merlin, the legendary wizard who aided the equally legendary King Arthur. According to the legend, the stone circle was originally located in Africa, and giants relocated it to Ireland to serve as a magical center for healing. Later, the legend goes, Merlin had giants transport the stones to the current site at Salisbury Plain and reassemble them there as a monument to Britons killed while fighting the invading Saxons.

Parker Pearson said that when the legend was written down in the 12th century, the far west of Wales was considered part of Ireland; but it was unlikely the legend described a 5000 year-old folk memory of the Stonehenge relocation — the oldest-known oral histories, the Sanskrit Vedas from India, are estimated to be just 3000 years old. But "I have to admit that the evidence is highly intriguing," he said. "Maybe — just maybe — there's a tiny grain of truth in it."

Stonehenge Surrounded by Temples and Shrines

Advanced metal detectors, sensors and lasers, have helped archaeologists find Neolithic-age wood and stone temples and shrines near Stonehenge. Associated Press reported: “An extraordinary hidden complex of archaeological monuments has been uncovered around Stonehenge using new methods of subterranean scanning. The finds, dating back 6,000 years, include evidence of 17 previously unknown wooden or stone shrines and temples as well as dozens of burial mounds which have been mapped in minute detail. Most of the monuments are merged into the landscape and invisible to the casual eye. [Source: Associated Press, September 9, 2014]

“The four-year study, the largest geophysical survey ever undertaken, covered an area of 12 square kilometres and penetrated to a depth of three metres. British project leader Professor Vincent Gaffney, from the University of Birmingham, said: ''New monuments have been revealed, as well as new types of monument that have previously never been seen by archaeologists. All of this information has been placed within a single digital map, which will guide how Stonehenge and its landscape are studied in the future.

dagger carvings on a megalith stone

“The investigators used a battery of state-of-the-art instruments including magnetometers - essentially advanced metal detectors - ground-penetrating radar arrays, electromagnetic sensors and lasers. Among the new discoveries are massive prehistoric pits, some of which appear to form astronomical alignments. New information has also come to light about known monuments, including the Durrington Walls ''super-henge'' situated a short distance from Stonehenge. The survey showed that Durrington Walls, which has a circumference of nearly a mile, was once flanked by as many as 60 massive posts or stones up to three metres high. Among the many burial mounds is a striking long barrow 33 metres long within which signs of a massive timber building were found. Evidence suggests this was the site of complex rituals involving the dead, including the removal of flesh and limbs.

“Prof Gaffney said the new work showed that Stonehenge was not an isolated structure on the edge of Salisbury Plain, but the centre of a complex widespread arrangement of ritualistic monuments that had grown and expanded over time. ''The presence of monuments generates activity which generates more monuments,'' he told a press conference at the British Science Festival at the University of Birmingham. ''What we're seeing is this unconscious elaboration of the Stonehenge landscape.''You've got Stonehenge which is clearly a very large ritual structure which is attracting people from large parts of the country. But around it people are creating their own shrines and temples. We can see the whole landscape is being used in very complex ways.'' “The way Stonehenge and its surroundings were laid out was a ''highly theatrical arrangement,'' he said. As one approached the monument via an ancient procession route, it gradually emerged from the landscape. ''It's truly impressive, and you get some feeling for how processional activities affected people,'' said Prof Gaffney. Colleague Professor Wolfgang Neubauer, director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Austria, described Stonehenge as being ''more or less in the bottom of a really big national arena''. He added: ''You have all these burial mounds along the horizon looking down at the stones.''

Stonehenge Stones Covered by Images of Ax Heads

A detailed laser-scan survey of all the stones of Stonehenge revealed 72 previously unknown Early Bronze Age carvings chipped into five of the giant stones.David Keys wrote in The Independent: “All of the newly discovered prehistoric art works are invisible to the naked eye – and have only come to light following a laser-scan survey which recorded literally billions of points micro-topographically on the surfaces of the monument’s 83 surviving stones. In total, some 850 gigabytes of information was collected. Detailed analysis of that data – carried out on behalf of English Heritage – found that images had been engraved on the stones, normally by removing the top 1-3 millimetres of weathered (darker coloured) rock, to produce different sized shapes. Of the 72 newly discovered images revealed through the data analysis, 71 portray Bronze Age axe-heads and one portrays a Bronze Age dagger. [Source: David Keys, The Independent, October 9, 2012 |~|] “Prior to the laser survey, 46 other carvings (also of axe-heads and daggers) were known or suspected at Stonehenge – mostly identified visually back in the 1950s. The laser-scan survey has now confirmed the existence of those other images and provided more details about them.

The 72 new ‘rock art’ discoveries almost treble the number of carvings known at Stonehenge – and the monument’s largely invisible art gallery now constitutes the largest single collection of prehistoric rock carvings in southern Britain. Although now largely invisible to the naked eye, back in the Early Bronze Age the images, composed of then-unweathered (and therefore lighter coloured) stone would have been clearly visible. |~|

“In the period 1800-1500 B.C., vast numbers of individual monumental tombs were constructed in the landscape around Stonehenge and additional features (various circles of ritual pits) were laid out around the monument. The carved axe-heads and daggers also belong to this enigmatic period – and may signify some sort of expansion or change in the great stone circle’s religious function. |~|

sun passing through a trilith

“In Indo-European tradition axe-heads were often associated with storm deities – and some surviving European folklore beliefs suggest that upwards-facing axe blades were used as magical talismans to protect crops, people and property against lightning and storm damage. It’s potentially significant that every single one of the Stonehenge axe-head images have their blades pointing skywards, while the daggers point downwards. The axe-heads – the vast majority of the images – may therefore have been engraved as votive offerings to placate a storm deity and thus protect crops. It may also be significant that the vast majority of the carvings either face a nearby set of tombs (from roughly the same period) – or the centre of Stonehenge itself. Rare evidence from elsewhere in Britain suggests that axe-head and dagger carvings could have funerary associations. |~|

“The laser-scan data shows that many of the axe-head images have exactly the same dimensions as up to half a dozen other images in the prehistoric Stonehenge ‘art gallery’. This in turn suggests that real axe-heads were being used as ‘stencils’ to help produce the images. If that’s the case, the largest axe-heads portrayed – up to 46 centimetres long – depict objects which were far bigger than archaeologists have ever found and which must have been for purely ceremonial or ritual use. The laser-scan survey was carried out for English Heritage by a Derby-based survey company – the Greenhatch Group – last year. A subsidiary of York Archaeological Trust – ArcHeritage, also operating on behalf of English Heritage – then spent many months analysing and cataloguing the vast quantities of data.”

History of Archaeology at Stonehenge

In ancient times Stonehenge was referred to as the "Dance of the Giants". According to Arthurian legend it was originally built in Ireland by African giants and then transported to the Salisbury Plain by giants. Although it was built before Druids arrived, some called Stonehenge the Druid Circle.

According to UNESCO: “Since the 12th century when Stonehenge was considered one of the wonders of the world by the chroniclers Henry de Huntington and Geoffrey de Monmouth, the Stonehenge and Avebury Sites have excited curiosity and been the subject of study and speculation. Since early investigations by John Aubrey (1626-1697), Inigo Jones (1573-1652), and William Stukeley (1687-1765), they have had an unwavering influence on architects, archaeologists, artists and historians. The two parts of the World Heritage property provide an excellent opportunity for further research. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage sites website]

Ed Caesar wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “The site has long proved irresistible to diggers. In 1620, the Duke of Buckingham had his men excavate right in the center of the monument. Although they did not know it at the time, they dug on the site of a prehistoric pit. Buckingham’s men found skulls of cattle “and other beasts” and large quantities of “burnt coals or charcoals”—but no treasure, as they had hoped. [Source: Ed Caesar, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2014 /+]

“In the 19th century, “barrow-digging,” or the excavation of prehistoric monuments and burial hills, was a popular pastime among the landed gentry. In 1839, a naval officer named Captain Beamish dug out an estimated 400 cubic feet of soil from the northeast of the Altar Stone at Stonehenge. As Parker Pearson notes in his book Stonehenge, Beamish’s “big hole was probably the final blow for any prehistoric features...that once lay at Stonehenge’s center.” /+\

“Work at Stonehenge became less invasive. In 1952, Willard Libby—the American chemist and later a Nobel Prize winner—used his new radiocarbon dating technique on a piece of charcoal from a pit within Stonehenge to date the monument to 1848 B.C., give or take 275 years. That date has since been refined several times. The prevailing opinion is that the first stones were erected on the site around 2600 B.C. (although the building of Stonehenge was carried out over a millennium, and there were centuries of ritual activity at the site before the stones were in place).” /+\

Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project

Vince Gaffney is an archaeologist from Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England. Ed Caesar wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Gaffney’s latest research effort, the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, is a four-year collaboration between a British team and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Austria that has produced the first detailed underground survey of the area surrounding Stonehenge, totaling more than four square miles. The results are astonishing. [Source: Ed Caesar, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2014 /+]

Stonehenge, 3500 years ago

“The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project is different from everything that came before it. When Gaffney and his team started their work, they were less interested in theories than in data. To that end, they concentrated on taking what amounts to a three-dimensional and yards-deep photograph of the entire landscape. “The perceived wisdom was driven by the monuments we knew about,” says Gaffney. “We’ve put in the data between the monuments.” /+\

“Chris Gaffney, Vince’s younger, slighter and less voluble brother, was one of the instigators of this new approach. The duo’s grandfather was a metalwork teacher from Newcastle with an interest in archaeology, who took his clever grandchildren on trips to Hadrian’s Wall, the old barrier between the Roman Empire and the blasted north. Small wonder that Vince became an archaeologist and Chris a geophysicist, now at the University of Bradford. /+\

“The Gaffney brothers’ interest in new technologies that were becoming available to archaeologists led them to the first GPS-guided magnetometer systems. A magnetometer has sensors that allow a geophysicist to see evidence of historic building, and even ancient ditch-digging, beneath the soil by mapping variations in the earth’s magnetic field. The GPS-guided versions were able to pinpoint some of those discoveries to within one centimeter. The Gaffneys believed that Stonehenge scholarship needed a massive magnetometer- and radar-led survey of the whole site. “We just didn’t know if anything’s there,” Vince Gaffney recalled. “So we’re constructing various hypotheses on the basis of something we don’t know.” /+\

“Around the same time, an Austrian archaeologist named Wolfgang Neubauer, now of the Boltzmann Institute, was hoping to conduct large-scale projects all over Europe using tools including GPS magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar. Neubauer’s team had also developed software to process the 40 or 50 gigabytes of raw data that these instruments could create in a day. Suddenly, instead of waiting weeks or months to see what the machines had found, it was possible to cover several acres with magnetometers and radar in a day and to display that information on a screen almost instantaneously. /+\

“One of the areas Neubauer wanted to scan was Stonehenge, and in the spring of 2009 he contacted Vince Gaffney. A few months later, the Boltzmann Institute and the University of Birmingham—plus several other British and European universities, museums and companies that contributed expertise and resources—began their collaboration at Stonehenge. /+\

“Their first days on site, Gaffney recalled, were “like a geophysical circus has come to town.” Tractors pushed the ground-penetrating radars, which looked like high-powered lawn mowers. All-terrain vehicles dragged the magnetometer sensors on long strings. Delicate instruments covering hard, uneven ground kept mechanics and technicians busy. “I have seen one of our magnetometers shear clear apart in front of me,” said Gaffney. “It was back in service the next day.” In all, the fieldwork took about 120 days, spread over four years. /+\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

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