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Stonehenge: Unearthing A Mystery Essay, Research Paper

Stonehenge maybe, in many peoples’ minds, the most mysterious place in the world. This set of concentric rings and horseshoe shapes on the empty Salisbury Plain, is, at the age of 4,000 years, one of the oldest, and certainly best preserved, megalithic (that means large, often ancient, stone) structures on Earth. It is a fantastic construction with many of the larger stones involved weighing 25 tons and quarried from a location 18 miles away. The rings and horseshoes of Sarsen (a type of sandstone) also carry massive lintels connecting them so that when they were all in place there was a ring of stone in the sky as well as on the ground.

We know almost nothing about who built Stonehenge and why. A popular theory advanced in the 19th century was that the Druids, a people that existed in Britain before the Roman conquest, had built it as a temple. Modern archaeological techniques, though, have dated Stonehenge and we now know that it was completed at least a 1,000 years before the Druids came to power. If Druids used Stonehenge for their ceremonies they got the site secondhand. Despite this, modern Druids have laid claim to Stonehenge and an annual ceremony takes place at Stonehenge during Summer solstice, one of the ring’s astronomical alignments.

There is evidence there was activity on the Stonehenge site as far back as 11,000 years ago. It wasn’t until about 3100 BC, though, that a circular bank, following the current Stonehenge layout, appeared. At the same time pine posts were put into place. Around 2100 BC stones started being erected. First bluestones from Wales, then the larger Sarsens stones. During this period some stones were erected, then later dismantled.

Why did the builders create, dismantle and rebuild this isolated site? It’s hard to say. They apparently didn’t have a written language and left no records. We can say one thing about Stonehenge based on archaeological digs at the location. There is almost no “trash.” A number of pieces of flint, antler picks or axes have been found, but very few items that one would expect to see discarded at a human habitation (Trash pits turn out to be some of the best sources of material for archaeologists to examine). This leads some archaeologists to conclude that Stonehenge was “sacred ground,” like a church. As one scientist put it Stonehenge was a “clearly special place were you didn’t drop litter.”

Stonehenge at about 1500 BC consisted of a circular ditch, with a raised bank on the inside. Within the bank was a circle of 30 Sarsen stones with lintels creating a raised circle. Today only 17 of those stones still stand and few of the lintels are still in position. Within the ring were five “trilithons” (two massive upright stones supporting a lintel) arranged in a horseshoe. On the open side of the horseshoe, outside the ditch, was the heel stone, some 120 feet from the ring. Once a year, on summer solstice (the longest day of the year), the sun will rise in alignment with the heel stone as seen from the center of the ring.

In addition to the Sarsen stones there was a less elaborate set of blue stones. Some set in a ring outside the trilithons, and the others in a horseshoe within the thrilithon horseshoe. There are also four “station stones” set in a rectangle outside the ring. The station stones may have been used to predict the movement of the moon.

Perhaps what is strangest about the Stonehenge ring of stones is that it is far from being unique. Though Stonehenge is the most intact and elaborate, there are known to be over a thousand remains of stone rings through out the British Isles and Northern France. Some of them were small, like Keel Cross in County Cork which is just 9 feet in diameter. The largest, Avebury, covers over 28 acres and encircles what is now a whole village. Some of the stones at Avebury weighed 60 tons.

How did the makers move these massive rocks many miles? Probably by dragging them on wooden sledges. Before the first one could be moved, though, a road had to be cleared from, what was then, a thick forest. Not an easy job in itself. Especially for a people who probably spent most of their time and energy just fighting for survival. The construction of both Avebury and Stonehenge must have been the work of many generations.

Archaeologist Clive Waddington has suggested that the earliest henges, simple ditches with surrounding mounds, my have been stock enclosures for cattle. Remains of fence and gates found at the Coupland Henge, which is more than 800 years older than Stonehenge, support his idea. Waddington thinks when cattle were moved into the enclosure during certain seasons, rituals were performed. As time went on the circles functional aspect faded away and they became purely religious structures.

Most of the rings were smaller than Avebury and simpler than Stonehenge. While some of them had astronomical alignments built into their design, many did not. This suggests that their use as observatories may have been a secondary function. Perhaps, for some, Waddington’s corrals were the primary function, though, we may never be able to say for sure. As Professor Richard Atkinson, of University College, Cardiff, a researcher at Stonehenge, once said, “You have to settle for the fact that there are large areas of the past we cannot find out about…”

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