During the Neolithic Period (5000 – 1000 BCE), along the Atlantic coast of Europe and in the British Isles, local peoples built and maintained great stone circles and megaliths. This activity started about 5000 BCE and continued on to about 2500 BCE. These megaliths, built by Neolithic peoples, had multiple uses. The purposes that archeologists believed that Stonehenge was used for included: worshipping the Ancestors, watching the heavens, and marking the cycles of the sun and other astronomical occurrences.
One of the last monuments to be built during this period, Stonehenge was constructed in three distinct phases over a 1,500 year period, starting in 3000 BCE. The process of building this monument included digging large ditches as well as erecting the more famous stones. In the case of Stonehenge, three different cultures added their particular refinements to this monument.
The first group to shape Stonehenge into what we know today was the Windmill Hill People. Thought to be semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers, these people also grew crops. What archeologists noted about these people was their propensity to orient their burials and monuments in the east-west axis. These directions were important to them, perhaps because of the rising and setting of the sun.
In the 1960’s, when builders were excavating a parking lot near the Stonehenge site, they found four post holes that was believed to hold large pine logs. (These holes are said to be about 10,000 years old.) Ancient peoples traveling the Salisbury Plain would see these posts from miles around. Set east to west, these post holes were considered to be the first evidence of the area’s great importance.
Starting about 3100 BCE, the Windmill Hill People took the existing post holes and expanded the site. Using various tools such as deer antlers and digging stones, they dug a ditch and formed a bank, with an opening in the northeast. Call the Great Cursus, this ditch was white from the chalk underneath the grass. Outside this ditch, these people dug fifty-six pits named Aubrey Holes (after their discoverer James Aubrey). In these holes, archeologists have found cremated remains of people.
One theory is that the Windmill Hill People were commemorating their Dead and their Ancestors. When archeologists studied the remains, they realized that the Dead were mostly adult males. People were being selected for burial there instead of it being used by everyone. When Stonehenge was first built, their society was an aristocratic male one.
Many people have assumed that the Aubrey Holes had an astronomical use. Following the phases of the moon was important to peoples in ancient times. One theory is that these holes marked lunar eclipses. Another theory is that the Windmill Hill People were marking particular phases of the moon. Other archeologists have noticed that the Aubrey Holes were aligned north-east and south-west. These holes then lined up with the sun at the solstices and equinoxes. This has led to another working theory that the Aubrey holes are a calendar of equinoxes, solstices, lunar eclipses, and solar events. The underlying assumption to this theory is that many early peoples followed lunar-solar cycles for practical and religious reasons.
Archeologist Clive Ruggles, who has studied the astronomy of the site believes that it was probably not an ancient observatory. He did note that the mid-summer and mid-winter solstices do line up. For him, this indicates their importance to Neolithic peoples. Ruggles believes that the people who first built Stonehenge wanted to keep in harmony with the Cosmos.
From the beginning of Stonehenge, numerous ancient peoples have added their particular visions to the site. Each succeeding generation built on the previous one’s efforts. We modern people will never know what the original purpose to Stonehenge was, but we can stand in awe of these early peoples who built it. Whatever Stonehenge was originally intended to be, it became a monument to the vision and tenacity of the Ancestors of Europe.
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NOVA, “Astronomy at Stonehenge,” 30 September, 2010. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/astronomy-stonehenge-au.html
“Secrets of Stonehenge,” 12 December, 2012. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/secrets-stonehenge.html
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