Probing Question: How and why was Stonehenge built?

Mar 18, 2010 By Jesse Hicks
Probing Question: How and why was Stonehenge built?
Photo credit Wikimedia Commons

From the grassy deserted plains of southern England rises a circle of standing stones, some of them up to 24 feet tall. For centuries they have towered over visitors, offering tantalizing hints about their prehistoric past. For centuries, everyone who has stood before them has wondered the same thing: Who built this mysterious rock monument? And why?

“Since was built and rebuilt over a period of centuries, no one group has sole credit for its construction, but the main building seems to have been done by a people known as the ‘Beaker Folk,’” says Benjamin Hudson, professor of history and medieval studies at Penn State. The Beaker Folk (who earned their name from the distinctive inverted bell-shaped pottery drinking vessels they made) scattered throughout prehistoric western Europe.

The earliest construction at Stonehenge began about 3000 B.C., says Hudson, with a stone circle inside a ditch and bank. Within that circle lay a timber building; researchers have excavated from the site about 56 pits containing the remains of human cremations.

Construction continued for 600 years, in several phases of landscaping: Burial mounds (most pointing east-to-west) and ceremonial pathways were added to the site. In 2400 B.C., the builders erected the large sandstone blocks which give the site its name. (Coined by Henry of Huntingdon, a 12th century English historian, “Stonehenge” means “hinged or supported stones.”)

The means of moving those enormous standing stones has provoked centuries of speculation, with theories ranging from demonic powers to Merlin's magic to alien technology. The reality is much more ordinary, says Hudson. “Much of the construction was little more than putting enough men under a stone to move it into place,” he notes, “although some basic engineering was required for the larger stones and the lintels.” One theory holds that the builders used simple inclines and levers to move the stones into place. Like the Egyptian pyramid-builders, the Stonehenge constructors relied more on brute labor than sophisticated technology.

Though one of the most complete and monumental examples of Neolithic and Bronze Age construction, Stonehenge was not alone in its time. Hudson notes one estimate that places it among 300 surviving stone monuments throughout the British Isles — including the famous stone circle in Avebury. The connections between and among these sites often remain murky, and undoubtedly many creations of the Beaker Folk have returned to nature, leaving few traces of their existence.

“Stonehenge forces us to reconsider the period of history that is not accompanied by written records,” Hudson says. Since the builders left no explanation, the precise purpose of their work remains obscure. One theory sees Stonehenge as a temple, pointing to the elaborate landscaping surrounding the site. More recently, historians and archaeologists have suggested it provided an observatory for either moon or sun cults. The Beaker Folk are believed to have been sun worshipers who aligned Stonehenge with certain important sun events, such as mid summer and winter solstices.

While the absence of records makes it nearly impossible to be certain about Stonehenge's purpose, the site itself does leave us with a portrait of Beaker Folk society. “The building of the monument required knowledge of civil engineering, transportation, and quarrying,” he says. “The society that constructed it was wealthy enough to afford such an expensive venture and it also had a developed theology that provided the guidance for the designs whose meanings still elude us.”

Perhaps it is that elusive meaning that has, for centuries, drawn people to Stonehenge, to sit and wonder among the silent stones.

Explore further: Earliest ancestor of land herbivores discovered

Related Stories

'Blue Stonehenge' discovered

Oct 06, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Archaeologists have released an artist’s impression of what a second stone circle found a mile from Stonehenge might have looked like.

Megalithic rock art discovered in Anglesey

May 10, 2006

Spectacular megalithic rock-art has been discovered within one of Britain’s most important Neolithic monuments and recorded by a team of archaeologists from the University of Bristol.

Israeli archaeologists discover ancient quarry

Jul 06, 2009

(AP) -- Israeli archaeologists have uncovered an ancient quarry where they believe King Herod extracted stones for the construction of the Jewish Temple 2,000 years ago, the Israel Antiquities Authority said ...

Bronze Age building saved from the sea

Aug 25, 2008

A team of archaeologists have saved a Bronze Age building on Shetland from destruction by the sea... by moving it brick by brick to a safe new location.

Ancient tombs discovered by Kingston University-led team

Jun 09, 2009

A prehistoric complex including two 6,000-year-old tombs representing some of the earliest monuments built in Britain has been discovered by a team led by a Kingston University archaeologist. Dr Helen Wickstead and her colleagues ...

Recommended for you

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

5 hours ago

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

6 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 8

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

axemaster
3.3 / 5 (3) Mar 18, 2010
"theories ranging from demonic powers to Merlin's magic to alien technology"

Wow... I never can understand how this kind of junk manages to persist in the modern world. Demonic powers? Really? It was just a bunch of reasonably intelligent people moving some rocks. What's so magical about that?
Alphakronik
5 / 5 (2) Mar 18, 2010
Not magical, just mysterious. What does make me curious is where the foundry was they found the stone in, and what tools the Beaker People used to cut these stones from the quarry.

Granted, Stonehenge has NOTHING on Puma Punku.

robbor
not rated yet Mar 18, 2010
One man built Stonehenge
http://www.youtub...x5gSnfW4
baudrunner
not rated yet Mar 19, 2010
What does make me curious is where the foundry was they found the stone in
Foundry..? Stones are found in quarries.

No doubt these stone arrangements delineate some kind of village "square" or other gathering place, like an early forum. It's typically human to ascribe mystic or paranormal rationalizations to what we don't know enough about. I stay away from that, having a clearer grasp on reality.
Loodt
1 / 5 (2) Mar 19, 2010
baudrunner,

Conjecture, postulations, and tall stories, what a lovely way to earn a living!

Have you seen the rubbish in this story?

http://www.physor...693.html

Until Saxon man came on the scene with the long saxon sword, death was a slow, prolonged, and painfull business.

You must have read about the great number of stone-age skeletons found with bashed in skulls! Being clubbed to death by a starving stone age warrior must have horrendous!
danman5000
not rated yet Mar 19, 2010
The Beaker Folk (who earned their name from the distinctive inverted bell-shaped pottery drinking vessels they made)

Technically this would make them the Erlenmeyer Flask Folk, but I guess that name doesn't have as good of a ring to it.
Alphakronik
5 / 5 (1) Mar 19, 2010
What does make me curious is where the foundry was they found the stone in
Foundry..? Stones are found in quarries.

No doubt these stone arrangements delineate some kind of village "square" or other gathering place, like an early forum. It's typically human to ascribe mystic or paranormal rationalizations to what we don't know enough about. I stay away from that, having a clearer grasp on reality.


Thank you grammar police! I'm super happy that you've saved the day!

It is obvious you knew what I was talking about, but too arrogant or pompous to just let it go as a minor mistake, as I used quarry in the next sentence.

Thanks for trying to be awesome, you fail.

petedskier
4 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2010
In a class I taught, I speculated that people living further north experienced greater changes in day length (and weather). Stonehenge was used as a marker for the longest day. Although we don't have any notable celebrations for the longest day, but I speculate that we have retained Christmas as a celebration around the shortest day of the year.

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

Tiny power plants hold promise for nuclear energy

Small underground nuclear power plants that could be cheaper to build than their behemoth counterparts may herald the future for an energy industry under intense scrutiny since the Fukushima disaster, the ...

Hand out money with my mobile? I think I'm ready

A service is soon to launch in the UK that will enable us to transfer money to other people using just their name and mobile number. Paym is being hailed as a revolution in banking because you can pay peopl ...