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 Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site Research Framework, which was published in 2016.
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. 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.
The antiquary John Aubrey surveyed Stonehenge in the late 17th century, and was the first to record the Aubrey Holes (hence their name). 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.
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.
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.
A further programme of restoration and excavation, led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Hawley, was carried out between 1919 and 1926, when most of the south-eastern half of the monument was excavated.
Mid 20th-Century Excavations
Between 1950 and 1964 Richard Atkinson, Stuart Piggott and JFS 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. Atkinson proposed a three-stage chronology for Stonehenge. No detailed archaeological report was completed but the excavations were published in 1995.
Excavations in 1966–7 in advance of new visitor facilities led to the discovery of Mesolithic postholes, the ‘Stonehenge Archer’ was discovered in 1978, and a trench dug alongside the old A344 revealed a new stone hole, for a ‘partner’ to the Heel Stone.
In 2008, two excavations within the stone circle took place – one with the aim of investigating the early bluestone settings and another to retrieve cremation burials from Aubrey Hole 7. These targeted research excavations were both part of wider investigations into Stonehenge, its stones and its landscape.
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. 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 cremations from Aubrey Hole 7 have now been analysed, revealing that cremations of men, women and children were deposited at Stonehenge over five centuries between 3000 and 2500 BC. Analysis of the animal bones and pottery excavated at Durrington Walls during the Stonehenge Riverside Project has given new insights into the diet, cooking practices, religious beliefs and movements of the people who built Stonehenge.
Other discoveries at Stonehenge in recent years have included many more Bronze Age carvings on the stones, and new information about the way the stones were shaped and worked, through analysis of the 2011 laser scan of the monument. Parchmarks spotted in the grass during a hot spell in the summer of 2013 have led to renewed discussions about the completion of the sarsen stone circle. Excavations took place at Stonehenge in 2013 when the old A344 road bed was removed, revealing traces of the avenue ditches and a small part of the Heel Stone ditch.
Most recently, using a novel geochemical approach, researchers have pinpointed the exact origin of the giant sarsen stones as West Woods, 15 miles (25km) north of Stonehenge on the edge of Wiltshire’s Marlborough Downs.
Future Research Questions
There are many research questions about Stonehenge that we have yet to answer. 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.
- Understanding previous excavations: The mid-20th-century excavations at Stonehenge, published in 1995, 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.
- What was the sequence of construction? The revised sequence for Stonehenge was published in 2012, and a simplified version of this schema has been adopted in the visitor centre exhibition and current guidebook. New dates from the cremations at Stonehenge have added to our understanding of the use of the monument in this first phase. 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.
- Who built and used Stonehenge? We now know a huge amount about the settlement at Durrington Walls two miles away, where the builders of Stonehenge may have lived. Full publication of this site, including the 2016 excavations there, will tell us much more about the people who may have built Stonehenge.
- How were the stones extracted and transported to Stonehenge? Ongoing survey work at West Woods on the Marlborough Downs, and excavations at stone extraction locations in south-west Wales, should give us a better indication of the date when the stones were moved and of how the stones were extracted, and will help to pinpoint possible routes to Stonehenge.
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.
1. C Chippindale, Stonehenge Complete, 4th edn (London, 2012), 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 14 Feb 2018).
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), 94–114.
12. G Vatcher and F de M Vatcher, ‘Excavation of three post-holes in Stonehenge car park’, Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine 68 (1973), 57–63.
13. JG Evans, ‘Stonehenge – the environment in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age and a Beaker-age burial’, Wiltshire Archaeological and 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), 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 14 Feb 2018).
17. C Willis, P Marshall, J McKinley, M Pitts, J Pollard, C Richards, J Richards, J Thomas, T Waldron, K Welham and M Parker Pearson, ‘The dead of Stonehenge’, Antiquity 90 (2016), 337–56 (subscription required; accessed 14 Feb 2018).
18. OE Craig, LM Shillito, U Albarella, S Viner-Daniels, B Chan, R Cleal, R Ixer, M Jay, P Marshall, E Simmons, E Wright and M Parker Pearson, ‘Feeding Stonehenge: cuisine and consumption at the Late Neolithic site of Durrington Walls’, Antiquity 89 (2015), 1096–109 (subscription required; accessed 10 Jan 2017).
19. M Abbott and H Anderson-Whymark, Stonehenge Laser Scan: Archaeological Analysis, English Heritage Research Department Report 32–2012 (Swindon, 2012).
20. S Banton, M Bowden, T Daw, D Grady and S Soutar, ‘Parchmarks at Stonehenge, July 2013’, Antiquity 88 (2014), 733–9 (subscription required; accessed 10 Jan 2017).
21. DJ Nash et al, ‘Origins of the sarsen megaliths at Stonehenge’, Science Advances 6:31 (2020) (accessed 30 July 2020).
22. Cleal et al, op cit.
23. Eg T Darvill, F Lüth, 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 3 March 2015).
24. T Darvill, P Marshall, M Parker Pearson and G Wainwright, ‘Stonehenge remodelled’, Antiquity 86 (2012), 1021–40 (subscription required; accessed 22 Nov 2013).
25. Wills et al, op cit.
26. Banton et al, op cit.
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