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Research on Stonehenge

Stonehenge has been the subject of speculation and theory since the Middle Ages. Our understanding of it is still changing as excavations and modern scientific techniques yield more information. Yet there are many questions about the monument that we have still to answer. Many of these questions are set out in the 2005 Stonehenge World Heritage Site Research Framework, which is currently being reviewed to reflect fast-moving research. 

'A Roman Work and Temple’, a plate from Inigo Jones’ 'Stone-Heng Restored' (1725)

‘A Roman Work and Temple’, a plate from Inigo Jones’s ‘Stone-Heng Restored’ (1725). Jones was so convinced that Stonehenge was built by the Romans, because of its geometry and symmetry, that he added another central trilithon to his reconstruction.
© English Heritage (J050113)

Antiquarian Interest

The first known excavation at Stonehenge, in the centre of the monument, was undertaken in the 1620s by the Duke of Buckingham, prompted by a visit by King James I.[1] The king subsequently commissioned the architect Inigo Jones to conduct a survey and study of the monument. Jones argued that Stonehenge was built by the Romans.[2]

The antiquary John Aubrey surveyed Stonehenge in the late 17th century, and was the first to record the Aubrey Holes (hence their name).[3] His studies of stone circles in other parts of Britain led him to conclude that they were built by the native inhabitants, rather than Romans or Danes as others had proposed. As the Druids were the only prehistoric British priests mentioned in the classical texts, he attributed Stonehenge to the Druids.

Aubrey’s idea was expanded by the 18th-century antiquary William Stukeley, who surveyed Stonehenge and was the first to record the Avenue and the nearby Cursus. Among Stukeley’s theories about Stonehenge, he too thought it was a Druid monument.[4]

The first known aerial photograph of an archaeological site, taken during the summer of 1906 from a balloon

Taken during the summer of 1906 from a balloon, this is the first known aerial photograph of an archaeological site
© Society of Antiquaries of London

Early Excavations and Survey

In 1874 and 1877 Flinders Petrie surveyed Stonehenge in detail, and devised the numbering system for the stones that is still in use today.[5]

Concerns about the stability of the stones (especially after one of the sarsen stones and its lintel had fallen down) led to the straightening of a large leaning trilithon in 1901. Professor William Gowland directed excavations around the base of the stone, and based on the finds, he proposed a late Neolithic or early Bronze Age date for Stonehenge.[6]

A further programme of restoration and excavation, led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Hawley, was carried out between 1919 and 1926,[7] when most of the south-eastern half of the monument was excavated.[8]

Excavations being carried out at Stonehenge under the direction of Professor Atkinson in 1958

Excavations being carried out at Stonehenge under the direction of Professor Atkinson in 1958
© English Heritage (NMR P50792)

Mid-20th-century Excavations

Between 1950 and 1964 Professor Richard Atkinson, Stuart Piggott and JF Stone undertook a new campaign of excavations, partly to resolve some unanswered questions left by Hawley and partly in response to a large programme of stabilisation and re-erection works at the monument.[9] Atkinson proposed a three-stage chronology for Stonehenge.[10] No detailed archaeological report was completed but the excavations were published in 1995.[11]

Excavations in 1966–7 in advance of new visitor facilities led to the discovery of Mesolithic postholes,[12] the ‘Stonehenge Archer’ was discovered in 1978,[13] and a trench dug alongside the old A344 revealed a new stone hole, for a ‘partner’ to the Heel Stone.[14]

Recent Discoveries

In 2008, two excavations within the stone circle took place – one with the aim of investigating the early bluestone settings[15] and another to retrieve cremation burials from Aubrey Hole 7.[16] These targeted research excavations have set out to address specific research questions, as part of wider investigations into Stonehenge, its stones and its landscape.

The Aubrey Hole 7 excavations were part of the much larger Stonehenge Riverside Project (2005–9) which included excavations at several monuments in the Stonehenge landscape, including the Stonehenge Cursus, Durrington Walls, West Amesbury and the Avenue. The bluestone circuit excavations were part of the SPACES project (Strumble–Preseli Ancient Communities and Environmental Study) which has included fieldwork in the Preseli Hills and geological analysis of the bluestones.

Excavation in 2008 led to the discovery of evidence for Roman activity at Stonehenge

Excavation in 2008 by the SPACES project led to the discovery of evidence for Roman activity at Stonehenge, in the form of a large pit, seen here in the centre of the trench

Future Research Questions

There are many research questions about Stonehenge that we have yet to answer.[17] Those listed here are just a selection. A set of research questions for the wider World Heritage Site is set out in the Stonehenge WHS archaeological research framework.[18]

  • Understanding previous excavations: The mid-20th-century excavations at Stonehenge, published in 1995,[19] pre-dated the widespread use of digital software. Recent revisions to the accepted chronology and stratigraphy have highlighted the need for a digital model or 3D map of all known archaeological features and contexts found in previous investigations.
  • Why was Stonehenge built here? Natural features known as periglacial stripes run parallel with the line of the Avenue, which we need to investigate further to understand whether they influenced its location. Geophysical surveys, which have discovered what may be earlier monuments in the landscape, and analysis of earthworks that may pre-date the earthwork enclosure, such as ‘North Barrow’, have the potential to shed light on why this location was chosen.[20]
  • What was the sequence of construction? A new sequence for Stonehenge has recently been put forward,[21] which has been adopted in the visitor centre and in the 2013 guidebook. Further radiocarbon dating of material from Stonehenge might add more information to the debate.
  • Was the sarsen circle ever complete? The south-west side of the sarsen circle lacks several stones and has some irregular uprights. Although recent geophysical survey failed to identify stone holes in this area, parchmarks revealed in dry weather in 2013 suggest that further survey work might answer questions about the archaeology in this area.[22]
  • Who built and used Stonehenge? Ongoing analysis of human cremations from Aubrey Hole 7 may help us understand who was buried at Stonehenge.[23] We now know a huge amount about the settlement at Durrington Walls two miles away, where the builders of Stonehenge may have lived; publication of this site, and the results of the Feeding Stonehenge project, will tell us much more about the people who may have built Stonehenge.
  • Where were the stones brought from? Ongoing geological analysis of the bluestones and their possible sources in south-west Wales should enable us to pinpoint their origin more accurately.[24] But questions remain about where the sarsens came from: the Stones of Stonehenge project, and future developments in geological analysis, may shed light on this.

An air of mystery and intrigue will always surround Stonehenge. Over the last ten years, however, our understanding has moved on dramatically – each new piece of evidence has brought answers and established further questions. The story of Stonehenge continues to evolve and change.

Footnotes

1. C Chippindale, Stonehenge Complete, 4th edn (London, 2012), p 47.
2. I Jones and J Webb, The Most Notable Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly Called Stone-Heng, on Salisbury Plain, Restored (London, 1655).
3. Aubrey noted cavities in the ground close to the inner edge of the bank, which he assumed were the holes for missing stones. Two hundred and fifty years later, the 56 pits were named after him.
4. W Stukeley, Stonehenge, a Temple Restor'd to the British Druids (London, 1740) (accessed 18 Nov 2013).
5. WM Flinders-Petrie, Stonehenge: Plans, Description and Theories (London, 1880).
6. W Gowland, ‘Recent excavations at Stonehenge’, Archaeologia 58 (1902), 37–118.
7. Stabilisation works were carried out on Stones 1, 2, 6, 7, 29 and 30.
8. Reported regularly by W Hawley in Antiquaries Journal 1–6 and 8 (1921–6 and 1928) (subscription required; accessed 22 Nov 2013).
9. Trilithon 57, 58 and 158 re-erected; stone 21 straightened, stone 22 re-erected and lintel 122 replaced on top; stone 23 re-erected; stones 4, 5, 27, 28, 60, and trilithon stones 53 and 54 straightened; stones 19, 41, 42, 43, 45, 69, 70 and 120 removed and replaced.
10. R Atkinson, Stonehenge (London, 1956).
11. R Cleal, K Walker and R Montague, Stonehenge in Its Landscape: Twentieth-century Excavations, English Heritage Archaeological Report 10 (English Heritage, 1995), pp 94–114 (buy this book).
12. G Vatcher and F de M Vatcher, ‘Excavation of three post-holes in Stonehenge car park’, Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine 68 (1973), pp 57–63.
13. JG Evans, ‘Stonehenge – the environment in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age and a Beaker-age burial’, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine 78 (1984), 7–30.
14. M Pitts, ‘On the road to Stonehenge: report on the investigations beside the A344 in 1968, 1979, and 1980’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 48 (1982), pp 75–132.
15. T Darvill and G Wainwright, ‘Stonehenge excavations 2008’, Antiquaries Journal 89 (2009), 1–19 (subscription required; accessed 22 Nov 2013).
16. M Parker Pearson, A Chamberlain, M Jay, P Marshall, J Pollard, C Richards, J Thomas, C Tilley and K Welham, ‘Who was buried at Stonehenge?’ Antiquity 83 (2009), 23–39 (subscription required; accessed 22 Nov 2013).
17. T Darvill, Stonehenge World Heritage Site: An Archaeological Research Framework (Bournemouth University/English Heritage, 2005).
18. Ibid.
19. Cleal, Walker and Montague, op cit.
20. Eg T Darvill, F Luth, K Rassman, F Andreas and K Winkelmann, ‘Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK: high resolution geophysical surveys in the surrounding landscape, 2011’, European Journal of Archaeology 16:1 (2013), 63–93 (subscription required; accessed 22 Nov 2013).
21. T Darvill, P Marshall, M Parker Pearson and G Wainwright, ‘Stonehenge remodelled’, Antiquity 86 (2012), 1021–40 (subscription required; accessed 22 Nov 2013).
22. S Banton, M Bowden, T Daw, D Grady and S Soutar, ‘Parchmarks at Stonehenge, July 2013’, Antiquity (forthcoming).
23. Parker Pearson et al, op cit.
24. For example R Bevins, N Pearce and R Ixer, ‘Stonehenge rhyolitic bluestone sources and the application of zircon chemistry as a new tool for provenancing rhyolitic lithics’, Journal of Archaeological Science 38 (2011), 605–22.

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