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Since prehistoric times, people have been creating art and sculptures to represent the world around them. In the study of astrology, much of what we discover about the knowledge and ideas ancient people have had are through artifacts left behind. Most special and expository to us are architectural structures. People have been studying the sun, moon, and planets for thousands of years. Many of these archeological structures created by the Neolithic people are based around what people have seen in the sky. They have studied the movements of celestial bodies and represented them in their sculptures. One of the most well known and earliest discovered structures is Stonehenge. Though it is a household name today, the structure is surrounded by mystery. Its purpose, function, and even where its stones came from are a topic of debate for modern astrologists and historians. In this paper, we will be discussing the most popular theories as well as the ones that hold the most credence surrounding Stonehenge’s function, in accordance to Giulio Magli’s book Archeoastronomy: Introduction to the Science of Stars and Stones.
First, it is vital to discuss the visual impact and physical presence of Stonehenge to later analyze how its structure lends itself to function. Stonehenge was built in what is now Whiltshire England, in an area called Salisbury Plain. The structure is on a stretch of land called a bank, or mound, that extends to about 300 feet in diameter. It is surrounded by a narrow ditch, which gives it the illusion that the structure is elevated. Outside of this runs an Avenue, which looks like a corridor to the entrance of the mound. Within the Avenue, the entrance appears to be labeled by a Heel Stone. Today, only one of these Heel Stones still stands. However, historians postulate that the structure when fully formed, had two Heel Stones. These sister Heel Stones, only a few feet away from each other, were thought to allow the sunlight to peak between the two of them during the solstices. At the end of the Avenue, going into the circle and appearing to be the beginning of the outermost circle of the structure, is the Slaughter Stone. Within the main mound of the whole structure, we can see two main concentric circles. These circles are made by upright stones. The outer circle is made up of a string of sarsen stones, the structure of which includes 30 trilithon (ie, two parallel vertical slabs of rock with one smaller horizontal slab of rock lying across it), each approximately 20 feet high. In the book Archaeoastronomy, Magli writes, “it is difficult to escape the idea that the Stonehenge outer stone circle was meant to suggest a sphere” (Magli, 130). Furthermore, the inner circle is made up of much smaller individual-standing rocks called bluestone, a mystery in itself because we cannot truly know how the Neolithic people had acquired stones that were not local to the site. Within these two concentric circles we see, closer to the center, two concentric horseshoe shapes. These horseshoes have an opening that aligns with the Avenue. The outer horseshoe is also made of sarsen stone trilithons, yet they are larger and fewer than the outer trilithons. These larger ones are approximately 30 feet tall. The inner horseshoe is yet again filled with small, individual bluestone standing stones. In addition to this, outside of these horseshoes and circles, yet still within the mound of the structure as a whole, are station stones. Though only two of them still stand, it appears as if they were used to form the corners of what would have been an imaginary quadrilateral within the mound.
This entire structure is intricate and elaborate, and historians agree that it is very deliberate. It closely mimics another structure, Woodhenge, which is made of wood instead of stone. It is important to note, however, that Stonehenge was built and altered throughout a span of several thousand years, and we can only examine its ruins now. There is no written history from the Neolithic period, so we can only make our best estimates to assume what its original architectural framework was supposed to be.
Stonehenge comes veiled in more mystery. One mystery is the idea of how the stones got to Salisbury Plains in the first place. To our knowledge, the Neolithic people did not have wheels or other technology to transport giant bluestone rocks from 150 miles away in Wales. However, they were somehow able to use those stones in the structure. There are two major schools of thought that speculate how this could be. Some historians believe that glacial movement could have influenced the location of the rocks – ie, bluestone rocks that are currently no where near Salisbury Plains used to be very close to the location, but the changing in our ice and land mass over extended periods of time made it so that those rocks are only now naturally found so far away from Stonehenge. The other argument, which seems to be a more widely held belief, is the idea that glacial movement could not have had such a drastic impact. Instead, the Neolithic people had methods or tools that we are still today unaware of that they used to move the stones. Both these hypotheses give us more questions than answers. Namely, why was this bluestone stone chosen specifically? What gave it special significance to the Neolithic people? What did they know that we do not?
The biggest and most debated mystery about Stonehenge, however, is that of what function it held for the Neolithic people. The Neolithic people looked at the stars, moon, and sun to predict the weather and furthermore the outcomes of crops and amount of food supply. Because of the specific architecture of Stonehenge, we can, even today, see the winter solstice sunset as well as the summer solstice sunrise align very closely to constructed openings in between rocks. However, the questions historians ask is – is the purpose of Stonehenge to see the winter solstice or the summer solstice?
If we stand in the center of the mound of Stonehenge and look out toward the Heel Stones and the Avenue, we can see the summer solstice align within a few degrees between the current Heel Stone and what would be its sister Heel Stone if it was still up today. Because of this alignment, historians initially believed that Stonehenge was made to commemorate and identify the summer solstice. However, when we look at the structure from a different vantage point, we can see another ideology of thought arise. If we stand within the Avenue and look towards the center of the whole structure, we can see the winter solstice align within the largest, center trilithons. Not only that, but the rest of the stones around it form a sort of “dome” appearance or wall that blocks out all surrounding light from that vantage point. This creates an even more intense visual display than the summer solstice does, yet another reason that the highlighting the winter solstice may be its intended function.
This ideology – that Stonehenge is made to commemorate the winter solstice, is supported by its relationship to another Neolithic structure. Woodhenge, located just a couple of miles away from Stonehenge, was thought to be architecturally very similar to Stonehenge, but instead made of wood. It however, faced a different direction in regards to the sun. So, just as we can see the winter solstice aligned so precisely by looking from the outside in at Stonehenge, historians theorize that when Woodhenge was erect, we could see the summer solstice aligned in the same way there from the outside-in vantage point. The idea is that Stonehenge and woodhenge commemorate two opposing elements. Stonehenge, made of rocks – a dead material – is thought to be on a burial ground. It is meant to commemorate winter – the death of crops – as well as the death of people. On the other hand, Woodhenge, made of wood – which were once living trees – is thought to be a commemoration of life. Which is why it displays the summer solstice – a time of growth in nature.
Because of a lack of written history from the Neolithic period, we may never really know the true function of Stonehenge. But our hypotheses coupled with what we did know about Neolithic people and how they valued tracking the sky can help us understand some of their cultural values and thinking. Though part of the beauty and intrigue of Stonehenge is the mystery behind it, this structure gives us a lesson in record keeping. We need written records to truly understand the thoughts of people from a time period and to really know why their structures have an intense significance surrounding them. We should not forget to note that, as Magli writes, “an artefact with such a long history may have had interchangeable, different and/or complimentary functions”. The mystery may never truly be solved.
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