Stonehenge stands on the bare, windswept downs of Wiltshire, about 13 kilometres north of Salisbury in South West England. Although it is often described as a stone circle, it actually consists of the remains of several circles put up at different times, probably between 2,500 and 2,000 BC, until eventually it became what it is today: the most impressive Bronze Age monument in northwestern Europe. The reason why this ancient monument was constructed in the first place has been a matter of conjecture for centuries. Human remains found at the site, including bones identified to be almost 3,000 years old through carbon dating, indicate that Stonehenge could have been a burial ground from its earliest beginnings. It is often said that Stonehenge was built by the druids, who were the priests of the Celtic people before the Romans invaded Britain. However, Stonehenge in its final form was completed over a thousand years before the druids appeared in Britain at all. From the earliest times Stonehenge seems to have been planned so that the sun on midsummer morning is seen to rise behind the tip of one of the stones, known as the Heel Stone. It seems possible, therefore that the monument helped to keep a kind of annual calendar. Other stones seem to be lined up in such a way that they could be used to foretell astronomical events such as eclipses. If this is so, the people of that time had far more knowledge of mathematics and astronomy than prehistorians ever imagined. Who knows what secrets are hidden by the stones?
The very first Britons, a farming people who lived in Britain before even the Celts arrived, built the foundations of Stonehenge – the original bank and ditch around which wooden posts were placed initially rather than stones. The small pits inside this encircling bank contained grim human remains in the form of burnt bones. It was the mysterious Beaker Folk (so called because of the beaker-like vessels found in their graves) who later built around the centre of the Stonehenge enclosure a double circle of upright stones known as the bluestones. These bluestones were brought all the way from the the Prescelly Hills in the west of Wales, which would have been a tremendous undertaking in those days. For the next rebuilding of Stonehenge, a large number of enormous blocks of sandstone, known as sarsens and weighing up to 50 tonnes each, were brought from the Marlborough Downs. The bluestones were removed and 30 sarsens were set up in a great circle, 32 metres across. The top of each stone was connected to the next by a stone known as a lintel. Inside this great sarsen circle five sets of lintelled stones (known as trilithons) were set up in the form of a horseshoe – the closed end of which contained an enormous sarsen, now known as the altar stone. There are faint carvings on four of the stones which show axes and daggers of a kind known only to have been used at Mycenae in ancient Greece. This and other evidence hints that the construction of Stonehenge was overseen by a man from Greece or Crete – certainly such fine work dating from so early a time has not been found anywhere else in northwestern Europe.
So Stonehenge’s construction involved a monumental effort over a vast expanse of time and the co-operation of peoples divided by blood, culture and history. To say that this was unique – at any point in history, let alone on a primitive island in the Bronze Age – is something of an understatement. Some archaeologists have suggested that the igneous bluestones and sedimentary sarsens had some symbolism, of a union between two cultures from different landscapes and therefore from different backgrounds. Others believe that that is pure fantasy and that Stonehenge had a far more practical purpose as some sort of secular calendar. The practical value of astronomical observation at a time when there was no other way to establish precise calendar dates, whether these were needed for agricultural, social, or seasonal-religious reasons, seems obvious. More recently it has been suggested that Stonehenge was a place of healing – the primeval equivalent of Lourdes. Another popular modern theory is that the monument was intended to unify the different peoples of Britain. The suggestion is that the massive amount of labour involved in the construction of Stonehenge necessitated inter-regional cooperation, especially as many of the stones were moved over very long distances, for example from quarries in Wales.
All of this speculation is very sensible but, if you are ever lucky enough to find yourself alone on Salisbury plain, watched only by the mighty stones, it is impossible to shake the sense that there are other, older forces at work. Stand still and listen closely and it is almost as if you can hear the voices of the past – the ancient builders who toiled in a labour that would last, they hoped, for an eternity. Suddenly, folk tales rather than history seem a more plausible explanation for the existence of the stone circle. Some legends held that the wizard Merlin had a giant build the structure for him or that he had magically transported it from Mount Killaraus in Ireland, while others held the Devil responsible. Then there is the little known story that the ancestors of the vikings erected some of the stones – a theory which has a solid factual basis in the existence of similar stone circles in Norway, Sweden and Denmark (all of which feature the axe-and-dagger design referred to above). Then there is the fact that the classical Greek writer Diodorus Siculus refers to Stonehenge in his writings in the 1st century BC (don’t forget, long haul travel and mass communication were practically unknown in those days – so how did he hear about Stonehenge?). Finally there is the ley line theory of the strange old Englishman, Alfred Watkins.
Watkins was a businessman, self-taught amateur archaeologist and antiquarian who is most famous now for coining the term ley lines to describe the apparent arrangement of straight lines positioned along ancient features on the British landscape. It was while standing on a hillside in Herefordshire, England, in 1921 that Watkins experienced a revelation and noticed on the landscape the apparent arrangement of straight lines positioned along ancient features dating from Neolithic times. He presented his idea that this was the work of the ancient Britons in his book The Old Straight Track, which was widely disparaged by learned archaeologists, who considered that these people were too primitive to be responsible for such an arrangement. It has to be said that in his published writings Watkins did not attribute anything particularly out of the ordinary, let alone supernatural, to ley lines. His theory was that these alignments were created simply for ease of overland trekking by line of sight navigation during Neolithic times and had persisted in the British landscape over several millennia. In more recent times, however, the term ley lines has come to be associated with dowsing and New Age beliefs, including the idea that ley lines have spiritual power or that ley lines and their intersection points resonate a special psychic or mystical energy. Watkins was known to have speculated verbally that ley lines were not limited to Britain and in fact existed in networks all over the world – a theory with quite far-reaching implications, suggesting connections between cultures and peoples previously thought to have had nothing in common with each other. The key to unlocking this secret, one suspects, may well be concealed within Stonehenge.