Eternally fascinating, profoundly mysterious and frequently misunderstood, the circular stone ruins of Stonehenge in Britain have challenged explanation for centuries. This most famo prehistoric site on earth offers us a rare opportunity to reach out and touch the distant past. But what exactly are we touching? The mysteries of Stonehenge are many: Who built it? Why was it built? And what technology was employed in its creation? The explanations have varied over the ages, and many of them tell us more about the era in which the answers were concocted tha the periods during which Stonehenge was built. Over the centuries, some Britons have believed Stonehenge was a sacred site of burial fora race of vanished kings. Others claimed it was a temple dedicated to the worship of pagan earth deities. Still others supposed it was built by Merlin the Magician. In recent decades, some have argued that it is an artifact of an advanced extraterrestria civilization. Today many scientists subscribe to an explanation almost as marvelous: this fabled ruin, they say, served the ancients as a complex astronomical calendar. The most famous misconception lives on and dates back to i6th century British antiquarians, who believed Stonehenge was a temple sacred to the Druids, the priests of the Celtic civilization that flourished in Western Europe at the time of the Roman Empire. The Druids were pagans: they believed in natural gods and practiced sympathetic magic and soothsaying. Generations of Britons fell in love with Stonehenge’s so-called Druid heritage: Romantic poets extolled the ruins; Victorian imperialists touted them as a sign of British endurance and stolidity; 196os hippies grooved on them and donned neopagan robes to hold annual midsummer rites at the site. The annual gathering of Druid wannabes here on the summer solstice began to take on the aspects of a rock festival, culminating in a semifarcical “Battle of the Beanfield” in 1985, when a convoy of “New Age Travelers” battled British bobbies determined to keep them from over-running the site. Today authorities have severely restricted access to the ruins, to the relief of paleontologists. In reality, there is no connection between the Druids and this site, for Stonehenge is far older and far more mysterious than the pagan sorcerers who fought the Roman Empire.
Today, paleontologists believe the site was developed in three stages, beginning around 3100 B.C.—long before Druids walked the earth. The structure, located in the English countryside about eight miles northwest of Salisbury, is one of a series of stone circles that dot the landscape of northwestern Europe. They have been dated to the Neolithic era, the late Stone Age period, which lasted from 4500 to 1500 B.C. The ruin’s earliest section consists of a circular bank-and-ditch enclosure about 36o ft. in diameter, surrounding a ring of 56 “Aubrey holes,” named for the antiquarian John Aubrey, who was first to discover them in 1666. There are no real ruins of the second stage of the site, Stonehenge 2, but postholes reveal that a large timbered structure once stood here; human remains, evidence of cremations, indicate it was used as a funeral site. Stonehenge 3 is the ruin we see today, featuring 3o enormous stones arranged in a vast circle. Many of them consist of two large standing stones supporting a horizontal pediment stone. Scientists call these structures megaliths, and they marvel at one of the great mysteries of Stonehenge: how builders with no knowledge of the wheel managed to convey the huge, 13.5-ft.-high stones that form them from a quarry located 24 miles to the north. A smaller, older horseshoe of blue-tinged stones inside the main circle has been traced to an even more remote site in Wales, 155 miles away. Stone Age peoples were sun worshippers, and Stonehenge is aligned to the life-giving star. On a midsummer morning, at dawn on the summer solstice, the sun rises close to the Heel Stone, a marker just outside the circle. Midwinter sunset occurs at the same point. Stonehenge, it seems, was a Stone Age cosmic calendar—or so argued astronomer Gerald Hawkins in his influential 1963 book, Stonehenge Decoded. Hawkins found many other astronomical relationships at the site and claimed that Stonehenge was aligned to predict solar eclipses. Many of Hawkins’ conjectures have since been questioned, but few scientists doubt that his central conclusion is correct: Stonehenge, like today’s most modern telescopes, is our distant ancestors’ attempt to see through the veil of the sky—and understand the heavens above.
BIRD’S-EYE VIEW The aerial photograph at bottom left clearly shows many of the 56 “Aubrey holes” near the earthen bunker that encircles the ruins