Legend has it Stonehenge was created by the wizard Merlin with the help of giants. Meanwhile, scientists have been studying the monument for centuries. What do we know about who built Stonehenge, and why?
Giants and aliens
Stonehenge, located on Salisbury Plain, is the best-known prehistoric monument in Europe. It was built around 5,000 years ago by people who left no written record. As a result, it’s become one of our favourite mysteries: there are records of claims about its origin as early as the 12th century.
The Merlin Hypothesis, no longer as popular as it was in the 14th century, has been joined by a swag of other theories (some more plausible than others) about who built it, how and why. Given the incredible effort involved in creating Stonehenge – it’s been estimated building took more than 20 million hours – it seems certain Stonehenge was sacred.
More than 50,000 cremated bone fragments from at least 58 people have been found at Stonehenge so it certainly served as a cemetery. Because many of the skeletons buried nearby show signs of illness and injury, it’s also been suggested Stonehenge was considered a healing place.
Other theories argue Stonehenge was an ancient hunting and feasting site, or a long-distance communication system. Stonehenge has incredible acoustics, which give the impression of having been architecturally designed.
It’s also been suggested Stonehenge creates a passage through the underworld, given the way the moon is viewed on the horizon through a stone avenue at certain times. In 1964, an astronomer proposed that Stonehenge was an ancient observatory used to predict the movement of the sun and stars, including eclipses.
It won’t surprise you to know there have also been alien theories: to some, Stonehenge looks like an ideal landing pad for alien spaceships.
Build me a monument
One of the fascinating things about Stonehenge is research suggests the building process took place over multiple stages, possibly over as many as 1500 years. So maybe it meant different things to different people over that time.
A Stonehenge puzzle we believed we’ve solved is the question of where the stones came from. The biggest blocks of sandstone – weighing up to 30 tons – almost certainly come from about 32km north of Salisbury Plain. That’s an impressive distance to travel with such massive objects.
More extraordinary: we know the 42 smaller bluestones forming the inner circle came from the Preseli Hills in western Wales, a whopping 230km north of Stonehenge.
Researchers are confident they’ve even managed to identify the exact quarries where the stones came from. They’ve found evidence of quarrying at the sites from the right time period, including platforms at the base of rock outcrops. These platforms may have served as loading bays for the stones when they were lowered onto wooden sledges for transport. It’s also been proposed the stones we now know as Stonehenge were first built into a monument in Wales, before later being dismantled.
Over the years there have been many theories as to how the stones were brought to Salisbury Plain. One suggestion – now discredited – was the stones were brought by glacier movement, rather than by people. Other theories involve transport by boat, either on rivers or all the way around the coast.
But the latest research suggests the stones were probably dragged by people on wooden sleighs across ramps made of branches. A reenactment in 2016 using only rope, wood and stone tools showed that ten people were able to drag stones the size of the largest stones at Stonehenge about 1.6km per hour. Exhausting and slow, no doubt. But definitely possible.
Who built it?
Who dragged such enormous stones across the countryside? One of the challenges we’ve faced in understanding more about Stonehenge is the fact that the human remains buried beneath the stones were cremated. The cremation process means many of the standard dating techniques researchers use – for example studying the tooth enamel – don’t work.
But exciting research published last year did manage to analyse the chemistry of the bone fragments successfully. As a result of the foods these people ate in the decade or so before they died, the researchers could determine the ‘chemical signature’ of the bone fragments. Then they set about matching these signatures with the chemistry of the surrounding areas.
The results tell us that although some of the people buried at Stonehenge were almost certainly local, up to 40% came from a long way away. Where from? The area they most likely came from includes the region of Wales where the bluestones were quarried.
It’s possible these people were even cremated in Wales and their remains were brought with the bluestones themselves. But at this stage we can’t be sure of the relationship between these outsiders and the stones. There’s still plenty we don’t understand about Stonehenge and the mystery is likely to keep us entranced for many years to come.
Let’s hope the current battle around how to deal with traffic on the nearby A303 road is solved. Neither major traffic jams, nor the potential building of a tunnel in a world heritage site sound ideal.