Stonehenge - Encyclopedia

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STONEHENGE (Sax. Stanhengist, hanging stones), a circular group of huge standing stones (see Stone Monuments), situated on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, England, about 7 m. N. of Salisbury. Until comparatively recent times the surrounding district was in a state of nature with merely a thin coating of turf interspersed with tufts of heath and dwarf thistles, but bare of trees and shrubs and altogether devoid of the works of man, with the exception of a series of prehistoric barrows of the Bronze Age which, singly and in groups, studded the landscape. It is safe to say that no prehistoric monument in Great Britain has given rise to more speculation as to its origin, date and purpose; and although the few hoary stones still extant are but a small portion of the original structure they are still sufficiently imposing to excite the wonder of the passing traveller, and mysterious enough to puzzle the antiquary.

Stonehenge was first mentioned by Nennius in the 9th century, who asserts that it was erected in commemoration of the 400 nobles who were treacherously slain near the spot by Hengist in 472. A similar account of its origin is given in the triads of the Welsh bards, where its erection is attributed to Aurelius Ambrosius, the successor of Vortigern. This was regafded as a miraculous feat brought about by the incantations of the magician Merlin, who caused a great stone circle in Ireland (said to have been previously carried thither out of Africa by giants) to be transported to Salisbury Plain, where, at Merlin's "word of power," all the stones moved into their proper places. On the other hand, the Welsh bard Aneurin states that Stonehenge existed before the time of Aurelius, whose title of Ambrosius may, as suggested by Davies, have been derived from Stonehenge. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in recording the death of Constantine, which took place about the middle of the 6th century (Historic britonum), states that he was buried "close by Uther Pendragon, within the structure of stones which was set up with wonderful art not far from Salisbury, and called in the English tongue, Stonehenge." Inigo Jones, in his work on Stonehenge, published in 1655, endeavours to prove that it was a "Roman temple, inscribed to Coelus, the senior of the heathen gods, and built after the Tuscan order." This theory was attacked by Dr Charleton (1725), one of the physicians of Charles II., who maintained that it was erected by the Danes, and consequently after the departure of the Romans from Britain. The next controversialist who appeared on the scene was the famous Dr Stukely (1740) who propounded the theory that Stonehenge, the stone circle at Avebury (Abury), &c., were temples for serpent worship, "Dracontia" as he called them, the serpent worshippers being the Druids. Subsequent writers dropped the ophite portion of this theory, but still continued to regard Stonehenge as a temple or observatory of the Druids. Lord Avebury regards it as a temple of the Bronze Age (150o - 1000 B.C.), though apparently it was not all erected at one time, the inner circle of small unwrought, blue stones being probably older than the rest (Prehistoric Times). On the other hand James Fergusson (1872) contended that it was a sepulchral monument of the Saxon period.

The original number and position of the stones have suffered in the course of time from wind and weather, in days when archaeological interest was not alive to the importance of preserving so ancient a monument. That, however, these natural causes of its dilapidation were assisted by the sacrilegious hand of man there is no lack of documentary evidence. Thus Inigo Jones laments the disappearance of stones that were standing when he measured it; and both Stukely and Aubrey deplore the loss of fallen stones that were removed to make bridges, mill-dams and the like. On the evening of the 31st of December 1900, one of the outer trilithons (22 on plan), with its lintel, was blown down in the course of a severe storm, this being the first collapse since the 3rd of January 1797, when one of the fine trilithons 58) of the horseshoe fell. This catastrophe attracted renewed attention to the state of Stonehenge, and much discussion took place as to the taking of precautions against further decay.

The annexed plan, which is that of Professor Flinders Petrie, xxv. 31 shows the state of Stonehenge at the moment preceding the fall of the trilithon on the 31st of December 1908. Within a circular earthwork, 300 ft. in diameter and approached from the northeast by a road or avenue which can still be traced by banks of earth, is an outer circle of trilithons (ioo ft. in diameter) formed by great monoliths (sarsens), originally thirty in number, with large }?5?.

30 60 b', 5 S5a 39 10 20 90 40 50 60 70 Scale Of Feet ®Stones otaruirng on 30tDecember /900 Stones recumbent on same date.. lintel stones. About 9 ft. within this circle and concentric with it is another, formed of smaller "blue stones," originally forty in number, but only a few of which now remain in situ; within that was a horseshoe of five huge trilithons formed by ten monoliths with their imposts (all sarsens); and within the horseshoe was an inner horseshoe of "blue stones," originally nineteen in number. The open part of the horseshoe exactly faces the sunrise at the summer solstice. Beyond the outer circle (not shown on plan) a great monolith - the sun stone, or so-called "Friar's Heel" - standing on the axis of the horseshoe, marks the point where a spectator, centrally placed within the horseshoe, would see the sun rise on the horizon at the solstice. On the circumference of the earthern circle or surrounding rampart (not shown on plan), which is here intentionally broken, a great recumbent stone - the slaughter stone - lies along the axis: and across the axis, near the central curve of the inner horseshoe, lies a fine recumbent stone - the altar stone-15 ft. long.

Only half the outer circle (sarsens) now remained upright, three on the west, thirteen on the east; and this indicated the effect of the prevalent west wind. The fall of trilithon 22 and its lintel opened a larger path to the wind, and added to the danger of further destruction. Moreover, the narrow passages between the eastern monoliths had become worn by use into hollows which threatened their foundations. The acquisition of Salisbury Plain by the war office for military purposes seemed likely, again, to add to the risk of harm from thoughtless visitors. For all reasons an attempt to preserve Stonehenge was desirable; and the owner, Sir Edmund Antrobus I was willing, on certain conditions, as to limitations of access, to co-operate with the Society of Antiquaries, Wiltshire Archaeological Society and Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments in taking such steps as might be necessary to prevent more stones from falling, and even (if possible) to set up some which had fallen.

1 The ownership of Stonehenge having been questioned, Sir E. Antrobus's legal title to it was confirmed by a lawsuit in 1905.




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The societies advised that trilithon 6, 7, with lintel - which had slewed round - and trilithon 56, which was leaning at a dangerous angle, should be examined with a view to replacement with as little excavation as possible; that the monolith and lintel 22 be replaced, and its companion sarsen (21) secured; and that trilithon 57, 58, should be re-erected in its place, which was exactly known. Steps were taken to place the matter in the hands of engineering experts. On the 19th of September 1 9 01 trilithon 56 was successfully raised to a perpendicular position. It then presented an imposing appearance, standing 21 ft. above ground: its total length was found to be 29 ft. 6 in., and its weight about 30 tons. The excavations were carried to a depth of 8 ft. 3 in. below the datum line, and many objects were found, including chippings and lumps of the stones, stone tools, bones, and (in the upper strata) coins and fragments of pottery. Nearly Ioo stone implements were excavated - axes, hammer axes, stone hammers and mauls - which, according to Dr Gowland, who superintended the work, had been used not only for breaking the rude blocks into regular forms, but also for working down their faces to a level or curved surface. No light was thrown, however, on the transport of the blocks.

Notwithstanding the many attempts, both by excavations and speculative writings, to elucidate the history of this unique monument, the archaeological data available are insufficient to decide definitely between the conflicting opinions held with regard to the date of its construction and the purpose for which it was originally intended. The finding of chips of "sarsens" and "blue stones" together "down to the bed of the rock" would seem to disprove the theory that the inner circle and inner horseshoe were built earlier than the rest of the monument. Dr Gowland at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries (Dec. 19, 1901), read a paper on his recent excavations on the site of Stonehenge, in which he came to the conclusion that the structure was a temple dedicated to the worship of the sun, and he assigns its erection to the end of the Neolithic period (2000 to 1800 B.C.), on the ground that no bronze implements or relics were found during his explorations. It does not follow, however, from the fact that only stone tools were found at the bottom of the trenches that the monument was constructed when metal tools were unknown, because none of the Stonehenge tools have the characteristic forms of Neolithic implements, so that they might have been specially improvised for the purpose of roughly hewing these huge stones, for which, indeed, they were really better adapted, and more easily procured, than the early and very costly metal tools of the Bronze Age. On the other hand, the recorded discovery of iron armour, Roman and British pottery and coins, together with the bones and horns of deer and other animals, is of little evidential value without a precise record of the circumstances in which they were found. Only one object, viz. an incense burner, seems to the present writer to have any chronological value, as it is an undoubted sepulchral relic of the Bronze Age.

That the sun on midsummer day rises nearly, but not quite, in line with the "avenue" and over the Friar's Heel, has long been advanced as the chief argument in support of the theory that Stonehenge was a temple for sun-worship. On the supposition that this stone was raised to mark exactly the line of sunrise on midsummer's day when the structure was erected, it would naturally follow, owing to well-known astronomical causes, that in the course of time the direction of this line would slowly undergo a change, and that, at any subsequent date since, the amount of deviation would be commensurate with the lapse of time, thus supplying chronological data to astronomers for determining the age of the building. The solution of this problem has recently been attempted by Sir Norman Lockyer (Stonehenge and other British Stone Monuments), who calculates that on midsummer day, 1680 B.C., the sun would rise exactly over the Friar's Heel, and in a direct line with the axis of the temple and "avenue." The above date he therefore considers to be the date of the erection of this great national monument, within a margin of possible error, on either side, of 200 years.

Looking at Stonehenge from the architectural standpoint, there can be no hesitancy in regarding it as an advanced representative of the ordinary stone circles, some two hundred of which, great and small, are known within the British Isles. It is, however, differentiated from them all by having hewn stones, capstones, tenons and sockets. That its analogues were chiefly used as sepulchres has been fully established, and this is presumptive evidence that the sepulchral element was, at least, one of the objects for which Stonehenge was constructed: and it was probably for this reason that it was erected on Salisbury Plain, where there already existed an extensive necropolis of the Bronze Age. Nor would this by any means militate against its use as a temple for consecrating the dead, or for sun-worship, or any other religious purpose.The most recent research suggests that Stonehenge was designed to a precise geometric plan,and was largely prefabricated.


Among numerous early writings on Stonehenge may be mentioned Stonehenge and Abury, by Dr William Stukely (1740; reprinted in 1840); Davies, Celtic Researches (1804), and Mythology of the Druids (1809) Hoare, Ancient Wiltshire (1812), vol. i.; Browne, An Illustration of Stonehenge and Abury (1823); Fergusson, Rude Stone Monuments (1872); Long, Stonehenge and its Barrows (1876); Gidley, Stonehenge viewed in the Light of Ancient History and Modern Observation (1877); W. M. Flinders Petrie, Stonehenge: Plans, Descriptions and Theories (1880); E. T. Stevens, Jottings on Stonehenge (1882); Edgar Barclay, Stonehenge and its Earth Works (1895); Lockyer, Stonehenge and other British Stone Monuments, Astronomically Considered (1906). See also The Times (April 9, 1901). For a complete bibliography of Stonehenge see The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine (Dec. 1901), by W. Jerome Harrison. (R. Mu.) More recent works include: Cleal, R. M. J., Walker, K. E. & Montague, R., Stonehenge in its landscape (English Heritage, London, 1995). Chippendale, Christopher Stonehenge Complete (Thames and Hudson, London, 2004) ISBN 0500284679. Johnson, Anthony,Solving Stonehenge: The New Key to an Ancient Enigma. (Thames & Hudson, 2008) ISBN 978-0-500-05155-9

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