Intriguing mysteries: Who really built Stonehenge?

Since time immemorial, travellers on Salisbury Plain have felt a need to discover Stonehenge's origins. The awe-inspiring monoliths have inspired folklore and conspiracies alike, and even with advancements in science, theories are probably about as close as we can get to their original purpose.

Let's travel back to ancient times

Merlin helped by a giant to build Stonehnge
Folklore: Merlin is helped by a giant to build Stonehenge

Centuries ago, a visitor might have attributed Stonehenge's construction to magical powers; a typical 12th-century British legend asserted it was built "not by force but by Merlin's Art," and the site has long been associated with Druid assemblies.

More recently, its design has so impressed archeologists that they have insisted it could only be the product of an advanced, colonising population. Mycenae, a flourishing citadel culture on the Greek mainland, and Brittany, in northwestern France, were suggested as possibilities for this invading force, because each boasted similar, if less impressive, gigantic structures made of stone.

 

"Tests confirmed that Stonehenge was built
in stages spanning a period
of up to 1,500 years"

 

So the archeological world was shocked when, in the 1960s, carbon dating revealed that the original building of Stonehenge occurred possibly as early as 3000 BC, centuries before the Mycenaean period. In fact, the tests confirmed that Stonehenge was built in stages, spanning a period of up to 1,500 years, as later immigrants renovated the original site.

 

Computer rendering of Stonehenge original site
Computer rendering of the original Stonehenge site

Stonehenge I—the earliest version—was little more than a raised bank with a ring of 56 shallow pits just inside. Stonehenge II, begun in about 2000 BC and more sophisticated in its design, consisted of a double circle of huge bluestones; some time before 1500 BC, these were replaced in Stonehenge III by a 100-foot diameter ring of 30 larger sarsen sandstone monoliths.

On top of some of these stones were set huge lintels, with peg and socket joints used to secure them in place, forming a vast horseshoe of trilithons.

 

Was it the Beaker Folk?

Neolithic man
Depiction of Neolithic man by Viktor Vasnetsov

The first builders of Stonehenge were probably members of a prosperous, warlike group of people called Beaker Folk, known for their use of pottery drinking vessels. Even so, one can sympathise with the archeologists who remained incredulous that a primitive Stone Age people, lacking initially both metal tools and a system of writing, could build such a complex structure.

The ultimate success of the builders depended on a combination of ingenuity and sweat. Stonehenge contains some marvelous, delicate touches: the upright stones, for example, were fashioned with a central bulge (as in the columns of many classical Greek temples), so that a circular perspective was preserved when viewed from below. But much of its grandeur is due to the bluestones' sheer size—and that, of course, translates into back-breaking labour.

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Stonehenge illustration via English Heritage
Illustration of Stonehenge via English Heritage

The bluestones used in the first ring came from the Preseli Mountains in Wales, some 240 miles away, transported by water with rafts and on land in wooden sleighs. A team from the BBC demonstrated that this was possible; a group of able-bodied young men moved stones of a similar size using a sleigh tied to log rollers. 

The larger sarsen stones, weighing as much as 50 tons apiece, were found loose in a region 20 miles away. They were dragged, one by one, by teams of up to 1,000 men. These stones, pounded into shape with smaller rocks, were placed into deep pits on the site, sloping to one side and later raised by using a primitive rope-operated lever.

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What was Stonehenge's purpose?

William Turner illustration of Stonehenge
William Turner's engraving of Stonehenge depicts an ominous scene, inspired by the looming presence of the monoliths (via Tate)

Scholars have long assumed the site had a religious significance, a theory supported by the absence of debris such as broken pottery. Quack theories proliferated until 1963, when British astronomer Gerald Hawkins introduced what is now the most widely accepted explanation.

Hawkins noted that when a person stands in the center of Stonehenge, certain celestial bodies appear over various stones with a regularity that defies coincidence. Hawkins recovered astronomical data from the time of Stonehenge's construction and, with the help of a computer, confirmed a number of these astronomical alignments.

Most spectacularly, during the summer solstice—an important date for an agricultural community—the sun seemed to rise directly over one of the larger stones. It seems as if Stonehenge functioned as a giant calendar and observatory, one of man's first great efforts to keep track of time.
 

Illustration of Stonehenge at Summer Solstice
Illustration showing how the sun cuts through Stonehenge during the summer solstice

In the wake of this discovery lay unanswered questions. Some archeologists suggest that Stonehenge was also used to predict solar eclipses. Its social function, as opposed to its religious or calendrical purposes, has yet to be fully understood.

These mysteries may very well endure as long as the ponderous stones themselves. As Henry James remarked about the mysteries of Stonehenge, "You may put a hundred questions to these rough-hewn giants…but your curiosity falls dead in the vast sunny stillness that enshrouds them."

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A Druid connection?

Druid celebration at Stonehenge
Illustration of a Druid solstice celebration

The theory that associated Stonehenge's origins with Druid festivals was first popularised by John Aubrey, a 17th-century English antiquary who discovered many of the site's more prominent features, including the ring of 56 shallow pits, which were named after him.

The Druids, ancient Celtic priests, lent the site an added dose of hooded mystery. Unfortunately, however, this alluring legend clashes with archeological fact.

The Druids emerged in England in the waning years of the pre-Christian era, more than two millennia after Stonehenge was first constructed. By 300 BC, as Celtic culture flourished on the island, Stonehenge lay in ruins.

 

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