The Mystery of Stonehenge

As close as mortals are allowed to get

The first extant description of Stonehenge appears in Henry Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum written around 1154 AD. Huntingdon wrote that “no one has been able to discover by what mechanism such vast masses of stone were levitated, nor for what purpose they were designed”. Stonehenge has become a cultural shorthand for mystery, and these two mysteries of how and why it came to exist continue to puzzle everyone who visits the site.

As it turns out, modern archaeologists have some good ideas about the mechanics of how the monument was built. The large sarsen stones were probably rolled (very carefully) on log platforms about twenty miles by teams of hundreds of people, shaped with tools made of stone and antlers, and erected with the help of giant levers and counterweights. It probably took a very long time and a lot of teamwork. The real ‘how’ mystery is more about organizing labor. How did you get thousands of people to cooperate on a project, when they probably lived in very small communities, and there is no evidence of any kind of central authority to coordinate construction?

The most interesting question has always been ‘why’. Or, to elaborate, why did a relatively small, primitive group of neolithic nomads decide to take a break from their short, bleak lives to move and arrange hundreds of tons of rock in a very particular shape? Another visitor to Stonehenge asked me if I thought it had something to do with religion, and I responded “I hope so”.

Credible theories about the purpose of Stonehenge purport that it might have been a kind of astronomical clock, a burial site (not so much a theory as a fact, since ample evidence of human remains exist there), a healing site, a monument to the unification of tribes, or several of these things combined. Less credible theories have involved Merlin, witchcraft, or aliens. All of the more credible theories raise as many questions as they answer, and all of the less credible theories have have had loud supporters.

I would propose a third mystery of Stonehenge: why do we care so much? Obviously the site is extremely important to archaeologists and anthropologists seeking to understand the culture of people who otherwise have left us relatively little. But that fails to explain why busloads of tourists (such as myself) drive hours every day to a cold and windy hill in the middle of nowhere, to see stacked rocks. The stacked rocks are of a prestigious age and size, but there are man made stacks of rocks at least one thousand years older in Scotland. And equally old (but far larger) stacks of rocks can be found in Egypt.

The view with your back to Stonehenge. There is not much here.

I would guess that the reason we like Stonehenge so much is because of the mystery. The older buildings in the UK are less impressive simply for the fact that we know exactly what they’re for. Most of them are simple tombs or dwellings, and probably didn’t require large scale organized effort to build. The Pyramids are a little mysterious, but the Egyptians had a habit of writing things down, and leaving useful clues in safe, dry places. We have no such luck when it comes to Stonehenge.

Mystery is an eternally popular genre. The builders of Stonehenge were probably trying to answer their own mysteries about life and death through whatever lost religion they practiced there. Maybe they found satisfying answers. I doubt we will ever find satisfying answers to our questions about them.

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