Stonehenge

From Bwtm

Stonehenge mystery hinges on unusual stones. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-stonehenge4-2008may04,0,4585446.story

A new excavation at Stonehenge seeks to prove that it was not a shrine of the dead but a temple of healing utilizing unique bluestones from a site 250 miles away in Wales.

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AMESBURY, ENGLAND — The mysterious circle of stones that rises on Salisbury Plain near here has stood as an archaeological marvel for thousands of years, its origins and purpose shrouded in the mists of history.

But a just-completed excavation of Stonehenge, the first within the ancient circle in more than 40 years, could provide some of the first reliable explanations for one of the greatest wonders of the prehistoric world.

A team of British archaeologists hopes to prove its theory that nearly 4,000 years ago Stonehenge was regarded not as a place of sacrament for the dead, but as a temple with healing powers.

The dig is looking closely at the 82 bluestones -- a double circle of large rocks, some weighing as much as 4 tons, that were brought in during the second stage of Stonehenge, the first stone construction at the site that began about 2150 BC.

About 150 years later, these were rearranged and encircled by much larger sarsen stones that have become iconic of Stonehenge.

Yet it is the bluestones, somehow hauled to the Salisbury Plain from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, Wales, that researchers say hold the key to the mystery of Stonehenge.

Although the researchers found to their dismay that the area they examined had been tampered with in Roman times, they still hope the excavations will help show that the bluestones were once viewed as having therapeutic powers.

Stonehenge's legends have been many. Some have said the devil bought the stones from a woman in Ireland; another story suggests they were placed on the plain by the fabled wizard Merlin; others have claimed that aliens built the monument and left it as a place for worship, or that Druids built it as a temple for sacrificial ceremonies.

"You could put 10 archaeologists in a room and you'd get at least 11 theories," said Dr. Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology, a private firm involved in the excavation, which was approved by English Heritage, which manages Stonehenge.

"I think the one thing everybody would agree on is that Stonehenge is a temple, which is easy to lose sight of in the kind of to-ing and fro-ing of ideas."

But the recent realization that the site contained stones from mountains 250 miles away in Wales shed new light on Stonehenge's origins.

Tim Darvill, a professor at the University of Bournemouth, and Geoff Wainwright, president of the Society of Antiquaries of London, have spent the last six years researching Stonehenge and the rocky outcrop Carn Menyn, thought to be the site in the Preseli Hills from which the bluestones were taken.

Darvill and Wainwright, the co-directors of the dig, found the Welsh site to be a center for ceremony and burials, where the springs that flowed below the rocks were regarded by ancients as having medicinal powers.

They hope that by finding evidence to tie the stones from the Preseli Hills to those at Stonehenge, they will have an answer to the age-old question of the site's purpose.

The two men hope to establish a more precise timeline, to within 10 years, for the construction of Stonehenge by using radiocarbon dating to compare samples from the excavation with those taken from the site in Wales.

The scientists also hope to shed light on whether the stones were transported manually, as Darvill believes, or whether the former Irish Sea Glacier might have pushed the stones to Salisbury. But one fact is certain: Their presence at Stonehenge makes it unique among the stone circles of its era.

"Once they arrive here, this monument becomes very different from any other kind of monument in the British Isles. . . . And when they come here they elevate this monument into something rather special," Darvill said one recent afternoon, gesturing toward points of interest with a long hoe as a student volunteer sifted buckets of dirt through a large metal sieve.

"You can make the analogy with a medieval cathedral -- it's a bog-standard Paris church until they get those relics, and at that point it becomes a beautiful, marvelous building," he said. "It changes its purpose at about that time from a fairly standard henge to a temple of really European renown."

This theory, first proposed by Darvill in a book, "Stonehenge: The Biography of a Landscape," that he wrote nearly two years ago, is in its infancy when compared with the many other beliefs and cult theories about the monument that have been floated for hundreds of years. Even so, Fitzpatrick said, it is also one of the two most widely accepted current archaeological theories about the origins of Stonehenge.

The second dominant theory is being explored by Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, who recently uncovered evidence of a village in Durrington Walls, another henge monument a few miles from Stonehenge.

Pearson believes that Stonehenge's true significance is in its relationship to a sister temple found at Durrington Walls. He believes that the two temples served as centers for religious observance -- Durrington Walls as a site of feasts for the living, Stonehenge as a series of statues of the dead.

"There is certainly a debate going on amongst archaeologists in the UK at the moment," Fitzpatrick said. "We're all kind of waiting to see how it pans out; we're waiting to see if the new excavations provide dating, which will help us resolve some of these questions."

Now that researchers have come to believe the bluestones come from Wales, the question is why. If the bluestones were ordinary rocks in the view of prehistoric people, surely they would not have labored to move them so far.

One clue may lie in the ancient burial mounds that surround the site: Are they commemorations of the dead or evidence of attempts to heal the living?

"There's people in the landscape buried here who have come here perhaps like pilgrims, in order to benefit from the things here," Darvill said. "You can imagine a big temple like this is going to have shamans, it's going to have witch doctors, it's going to have all the sorts of people who in prehistoric terms would look after those who were ill."

Many of the remains uncovered during previous excavations show signs of ailments and, in some cases, primitive surgery.

"One, for example, has a trepanation taken out of the top of the skull, a circular piece of bone taken out to relieve pressure on the brain," Darvill said.

"You've got to be feeling pretty unwell to let somebody get a flint blade and cut the top of your head off."

Although the Romans may have destroyed some of the evidence that the two scientists were hoping to find, they refuse to be deterred. Their research "ties in with some big questions about the interpretation of Stonehenge," Darvill said.

"Once these bluestones were moved here, people believed the place was important, it was sacred, they could become pilgrims, they could come here." But for what?

For Darvill and Wainwright, inching closer to an answer is all they can ask for.

Other sites

Ireland's Mysterious Newgrange Tomb. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/06/060630-ireland-video.html

Ancient Irish Tomb Big Draw at Winter Solstice. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/061207-winter-solstice.html

News

Sister monument to Stonehenge may have been found. http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5i55z9vq47vnFMeo1MGW-6uT2ZoegD9H4922O0

links

Stones of Wonder is a Web guidebook to prehistoric monuments in Scotland (dating to the Neolithic or the Bronze Age) which have orientations to the sun, moon or stars. It gives the background to the archaeology of the sites, to archaeoastronomy and to the previous work which has been done. The main part of the guidebook is a listing of the monuments which can be visited, and the best time of year to see them and observe for yourself the sunrises, sunsets, moon rises and moon sets. The work is based on original surveys, of which full details are given. http://www.stonesofwonder.com/

Standing with Stones :: an exploration into the wealth of prehistoric sites throughout Great Britain and Ireland on a scale never before attempted on film. http://www.standingwithstones.com/

If the Stones Could Speak. Searching for the Meaning of Stonehenge. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/06/stonehenge/alexander-text

photos http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/06/stonehenge/geiger-photography

Stonehenge, one of the greatest mysteries left to us by the ancient world, is a Neolithic monument constructed on England's Salisbury Plain during the third millennium B.C. Though much of Stonehenge's purpose during its centuries of activity can only be guessed at, one thing is certain—it was used as a cemetery. Stonehenge was built in three major stages: an earthwork formed of a circular ditch and bank; timber settings with postholes dug into the area surrounded by the circular bank; and eventually, the stones so familiar to us today. The exact date for the beginning of each stage is uncertain, but it's most likely that the earthwork was established around 3000 B.C., the timber settings a hundred to a few hundred years later, and the first stone settings by 2500 B.C. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/geopedia/Stonehenge

Avebury is the site of a large henge and several stone circles in the English county of Wiltshire surrounding the village of Avebury. It is one of the finest and largest Neolithic monuments in Europe dating to around 5,000 years ago. It is older than the megalithic stages of Stonehenge, which is located about 32 kilometres (20 mi) to the south, although the two monuments are broadly contemporary overall. It lies approximately midway between the towns of Marlborough and Calne, just off the main A4 road on the northbound A4361 towards Wroughton. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avebury http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0QtwqL994g&eurl=http://boingboing.net/

Archaeologists: England's Stonehenge Was a Burial Ground. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/29/AR2008052901973.html?hpid=topnews

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/episode/stonehenge-decoded-3372/Overview