StonehengeOn the British Isles more than nine hundred stone rings exist. Most people preferto call them rings rather than circles for the reason that only two percent of them are truecircles. The other ninety eight percent of these structures are constructed in an ellipticalshape.
Stonehenge in itself is roughly circular. Most of these rings cannot be datedexactly, but it is known that they are from the Neolithic period. In southern England the Neolithic period begins around the time of the firstfarming communities in 4000 B. C.
to the time of the development of bronze technologyaround 2000 B. C. , by that time the construction of major monuments was mostly over. Because of the scarcity of the archaeological record at the stone rings, any attempts toexplain the functions of the structures are guesses. Most attempts tend to reflect thecultural relatedness of their times. Most people believe that these rings were constructedby a group of people called Druids.
This idea of Stonehenge being constructed by Druids has become deeply implantedin the uneducated minds of popular culture from tie seventeenth century to the present. Itis common knowledge that the druids had nothing to do with these rings. The Druidsflourished after about 300 B. C. , more than 1500 years after the last stone rings wereconstructed.
Even more, there is no evidence that suggests that the Druids even usedthese stone rings for ritual purposes. Any Druidic connection with the stone rings ispurely hypothetical. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, prehistorians attributedStonehenge and other stone rings to Egyptian and Mycenean travelers who were thoughtto have infused Europe and Bronze age culture. With the development of carbon 14dating methods, the infusion-diffusion of British Neolithic history was abandoned and themegalithic monuments of Britain were shown to predate those in most other countries. While the carbon 14 method provided approximate dates for the stone rings it was no useexplaining their function.
Research by scholars outside the discipline of archaeology suggested a use different to that of rituals. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Oxford University engineer Alexander Thom and theastronomer Gerald Hawkins pioneered the new field of archaeoastronomy-the study of theastronomies of ancient civilizations. Conducting precise surveys at various stone rings andother megalithic structures, Thom and Hawkins discovered many significant astronomicalalignments among the stones. This evidence suggested that the stone rings were used asastronomical observatories.
Moreover, the archaeoastronomers revealed the extraordinarymathematical sophistication and engineering abilities that the native British developedbefore either Egyptian or Mesopotamian cultures. While the findings of Thom and Hawkins were fascinating, even revolutionary,more recent studies by Aubrey Burl and Benjamin Ray have tempered some of the earlierclaims. Stonehenge, the most visited and well known of the British stone rings, is acomposite structure built during three distinct periods. In Period I (radiocarbon-dated to3100 B. C.
), Stonehenge was a circular ditch with an internal bank. The circle, 320 feet indiameter, had a single entrance, 56 mysterious holes around its perimeter (with remains inthem of human cremations), and a wooden sanctuary in the middle. The circle wasaligned with the midsummer sunrise, the midwinter sunset and the most southernly risingand northernly setting of the moon. Period II (2150 B.
C. ) saw the replacement of the wooden sanctuary with twobluestones, the widening of the entrance, the construction of an entrance avenuemarked by two parallel ditches aligned to the midsummer sunrise, and the erection, outsidethe circle, of a thirty-five ton Heelstone. The eighty bluestones, some weighing as muchas four tons, were transported from the Prescelly mountains in Wales, 240 miles away. During Period III (2075 B.
C. ), the bluestones were taken down and the enormousSaracen stones-which still stand today-were erected. These stones, averaging eighteenfeet in height and weighing twenty five tons, were transported from near the Aveburystone rings twenty miles north. Sometime between 1500 and 1100 BC, approximately sixty of the bluestones werereset immediately inside of the Saracen circle, and another nineteen were placed in ahorseshoe pattern, also inside the circle.
It has been estimated that three phases ofconstruction took thirty million hours of labor. It was unlikely that Stonehenge wasfunctioning much after 1100 BC. Current thinking regarding the use of Stonehengesuggests the primacy of ritual function rather astronomical observation. Astronomical observations would indeed have been performed.
Rather than beingfor the sake of accumulating data regarding the movement of celestial bodies, as is the solepurpose of modern