Stonehenge is significant to us today because of the vast amounts of information it has given, and has the potential to give us, about Neolithic and Bronze Age people and their ceremonial and mortuary practices.
The archaeology of the Stonehenge landscape shows that people in the 4th to 2nd millennia BC had wide regional and international contacts. Similar Neolithic monument complexes in other parts of Britain, ranging from mainland Orkney to the area around Dorchester, in Dorset, display the same types of ceremonial enclosures, burial monuments and stone settings and similar material culture (e.g. Grooved Ware pottery) – these areas were no doubt in contact with each other, exchanging ideas and beliefs. The location of another concentration of similar monuments at nearby Avebury is intriguing. Were these built by the same people, or perhaps a rival group?
The source of bluestones at Stonehenge demonstrates further links between the inhabitants of Wessex and south-west Wales. The arrival of Beaker pottery and the first metals show the spread of ideas from mainland Europe. The richness and variety of grave goods from the Wessex burials show that these links were strengthened and developed through the early Bronze Age.
The precise alignment of the Stonehenge avenue and the stone circle on the axis of midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, and similar alignments at other monuments in the World Heritage Site, shows that Neolithic people had a sophisticated understanding of astronomy and the seasons.
Stonehenge can help us understand how prehistoric society was organised. The fact that Neolithic people were able to mobilise, feed, clothe and supply a large labour force in order to transport, dress and raise the stones shows enormous organisation and engineering ability. The henge earthwork, the arrangement of stones in the entrance and the architecture of the stone circle, all suggest that both physical and visual access to the centre of the stone circle was controlled and limited, perhaps only to elite religious or secular leaders.
A pivotal place in the development of archaeology
Stonehenge has been the subject of intense study and speculation for hundreds of years and has had an enormous influence on the development of archaeology. The monument has perhaps been the focus of more theories as to its origin and purpose than any other. These have included, in chronological order, a coronation place for Danish kings, a Druidic temple, an astronomical computer for predicting eclipses and solar events, a place where ancestors were worshipped and a cult centre for healing.
Each new theory seems to reflect its time and circumstances and each helps us towards a greater understanding of the monument. Today, the interpretation of Stonehenge which has most general acceptance is that of a temple where appropriate ceremonies at certain times of year may have attempted to ensure good crops, fertility and the continued changing of the seasons. This does not exclude other possible activities such as ancestor worship or healing – there may have been multiple functions.
Stonehenge has often been at the forefront of the development of archaeology. The first landscape archaeology was undertaken by Stukeley here in the 18th century. Gowland’s excavations in 1901 were of the highest quality and set a standard which would not be surpassed until the late 20th century. The first aerial photograph of an archaeological site was of Stonehenge, taken from an Army balloon in 1906. Perhaps some of the earliest 'experimental' archaeology was undertaken by Gowland, who tested using hammerstones to work sarsen stones. A sample of charcoal from Aubrey Hole 32 was one of the first archaeological items to be radiocarbon-dated in 1950.
More recently, Stonehenge has seen extensive landscape projects and the application of new techniques, such as Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging), isotope analysis of human teeth, laser scanning and sophisticated geophysics. Together with re-analysis of nationally important museum and documentary archive collections, archaeologists continue to strive to understand more about Stonehenge and its landscape. The monument has not given up all its secrets yet.
An icon and an inspiration
Stonehenge is an instantly recognisable, powerful image of ancient achievement. It is one of the 'must-see' archaeological monuments in Britain, particularly for overseas visitors. It is important for teaching prehistory from primary school age to higher education. And Stonehenge has a social value as an icon of Britain and a source of pride in the achievements of our distant ancestors.
As an icon, and dramatic site, Stonehenge has been the subject of many creative works. These include paintings by John Constable and J M W Turner and modern replica sculptures such as 'Carhenge' in America. It has also inspired literature, appearing in books such as Thomas Hardy’s 'Tess of the D’Ubervilles', music and films, such as 'This is Spinal Tap'. For a time in the 1970s and 1980s, it even had its own alternative music festival.
In addition, many people still find spiritual inspiration at Stonehenge. The idea that Stonehenge was built and used by the Druids was taken up enthusiastically by late 18th- and 19th-century societies and groups. Although subsequently archaeologists have found no evidence that Iron Age or Druidic activities took place at Stonehenge, so regular are their meetings and presence at the Summer Solstice that their appearance has become part of the 20th and 21st century history of the site.
Today, the revival of Paganism and other spiritual beliefs means that Stonehenge continues to have a role as a sacred place of special religious and cultural significance in the minds and faiths of some people. Stonehenge certainly inspires a strong sense of awe and humility for many visitors who come to visit the prehistoric site.
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