Six Stonehenge Mysteries
by K.P. Robbins, Author of The Stonehenge Scrolls
Although archaeologists have greatly expanded our knowledge of Stonehenge–through such means as radiocarbon dating, examination of bone fragments and attempts at re-creating stone hauling—many Stonehenge mysteries still remain. Some questions simply cannot be answered by scientific analysis, especially those that relate to psyche and motivations of the Neolithic people who built Stonehenge.
I first visited Stonehenge over twenty years ago. In the years since, I’ve traveled to and studied other stone circles, cairns, dolmens and alignments throughout England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany. In the process, I’ve speculated about six Stonehenge mysteries which inspired my novel The Stonehenge Scrolls.
1. Who built Stonehenge?
That’s the number one mystery most want solved. I don’t subscribe to theories involving ancient astronauts from other planets. After all, modern homo sapiens, a category that includes both the Stonehenge builders and ourselves, have demonstrated ingenuity and problem solving ability over the millennia. Although the general Neolithic population would not have possessed the knowledge to survey the land or move the stones (any more than the general population today can repair a computer), a specially selected and trained group could have developed and refined their building techniques and passed down their knowledge for generations.
Having seen so many examples of Neolithic stone structures, I couldn’t help noticing their similarities.
Perhaps this was due to the limitations of available materials, but I think it’s more likely that a small group, like a guild, served as prehistoric engineers and general contractors throughout a rather wide geographic area.
Two trilithons are seen in the foreground; the one on the left is still intact, while only one upright stands in the tallest trilithon shown on the right. In the background, a ring of lintels connects the sarsens of the stone circle.
Photo Copyright 2010 Frank Robbins
2. Of the hundreds of Neolithic stone circles, why is Stonehenge the one that intrigues us?
It’s not merely its impressive size. True, most stone circles I’ve seen were constructed with much smaller stones, and the Stonehenge sarsens are impressive, with estimates of weight ranging from 26 to 44 tons and standing 13 feet above ground. But the diameter of Stonehenge is relatively small, compared to the circles of nearby Avebury or the Ring of Brodgar on Scotland’s Orkney Island, both of which feature even larger boulders. Unlike the rough, natural stones of Avebury and Brodgar, the Stonehenge sarsens are smoothed and shaped. And that amazing ring of lintels connecting the sarsens is unique to Stonehenge. Of all the stone circles, Stonehenge is definitely the most elegantly designed.
3. Is Stonehenge a monument to the summer solstice?
I don’t think so, even though news photographs appear every June of modern-day Druids and assorted revelers celebrating the summer solstice sunrise at Stonehenge. But to me, the Stonehenge design clearly identifies it as a winter solstice monument. As one enters the circle, one would have faced the center trilithon, the tallest, and the eye is drawn to this highest point. The winter solstice sun would have set between the uprights of the tallest trilithon, the exact opposite direction of the summer sunrise. Both Ireland’s Newgrange, which is oriented to the winter solstice sunrise, and Stonehenge celebrate the start of the solar new year, when days begin to lengthen.
Near the single surviving upright of the tallest trilithon, its fallen stones lie on the ground. Photo Copyright 2010 Frank Robbins
4. Why did the tallest trilithon fall?
One reason Stonehenge and other millennia-old monuments have survived is that the Neolithic builders had a tendency to over-engineer. The uprights we see at Stonehenge have about a third of their length concealed below ground. Archaeologists have determined that the tallest trilithon fell because one of its uprights was far too short, thus not allowing enough support underground. But surely the Stonehenge builders realized this, because the other uprights are of adequate size. What made them accept this obvious construction error? Trilithons tower over the ring of sarsens. The foreground shows the ditch surrounding Stonehenge, where the mysterious skeleton was excavated. Photo Copyright 2010 Frank Robbins
5. Who’s the skeleton found in the ditch at Stonehenge?
In the ditch surrounding Stonehenge, archaeologists uncovered the skeleton of an adult male dating from around 2000 BC. He was tall, approximately twenty-seven years old and shot with arrows in his back and sternum. The skeleton was moved to an exhibit at the Salisbury Museum south of Stonehenge. Was this killing evidence of a ritual execution? Or is there another explanation?
6. What’s the meaning of the axe carvings at Stonehenge?
Elaborate carvings on the stones of spirals, lozenges and other geometric shapes are found at other Neolithic sites, many much older than Stonehenge. The spirals of Ireland’s Newgrange may be the best known, but Loughcrew in Ireland also boasts mysterious carvings. A French guide referred to the carvings at the Neolithic tombs in Brittany as “the belle gravure.” But Stonehenge, for all its elegant design, remains unadorned with beautiful engravings, except for the mysterious carvings of axe heads on some of the uprights, shapes I have not encountered on any other Neolithic monument. Furthermore, these carvings are closer to ground level than to the tops of the stones, suggesting they were made after the stones were erected.
Lintels still connect these sarsens at what would have been the entrance to the circle. A fallen standing stone remains outside the circle.
Photo Copyright 2010 Frank Robbins
The Stonehenge Scrolls
My e-novel The Stonehenge Scrolls (www.TheStonehengeScrolls.com) provides a fictional explanation for all these mysteries. The book is based on the premise that eleven ancient scrolls unearthed near Dublin record the oral history of Stonehenge. In alternating chapters, a fictional archaeologist writes a blog asking if the scrolls could be true and speculating on the meaning of Stonehenge. The Stonehenge Scrolls is available on Amazon and from MuseItUp Publishing.
by K.P. Robbins
“How did the Stonehenge monuments come to be? Plenty of nonfiction titles discuss possibilities, but for a fictional perspective that is compelling and involving, you can’t beat the thrills and unusual perspectives of The Stonehenge Scrolls. A fine saga, The Stonehenge Scrolls is driven by drama and tight, involving writing and is a pick for any who enjoyed Auel’s ‘Earth’s Children’ series and similar historical novels.” — Midwest Book Review.
In this e-novel based on known archaeological discoveries, eleven ancient scrolls unearthed near Dublin record the oral history of Stonehenge. In alternating chapters, fictional archaeologist Maeve Haley writes a blog asking if the scrolls could be true and speculating on the meaning of Stonehenge.
Author K.P. Robbins has studied stone circles, dolmens and cairns in England, Scotland, Wales, Brittany and Ireland. “In my travels I met many people also fascinated with Neolithic stone monuments,” she says. “I hope The Stonehenge Scrolls not only appeals to them but also attracts new interest in Stonehenge.”
K.P. Robbins, author of The Stonehenge Scrolls.
Photo Copyright 2010 Frank Robbins
PS How They Rebuilt Stonehenge?
For decades the official Stonehenge guidebooks have been full of fascinating facts and figures and theories surrounding the world’s greatest prehistoric monument. What the glossy brochures do not mention, however, is the systematic rebuilding of the 4,000 year old stone circle throughout the 20th Century.
This is one of the dark secrets of history archaeologists don’t talk about: The day they had the builders in at Stonehenge to recreate the most famous ancient monument in Britain as they thought it ought to look.
This picture shows workers on the site in 1901 in a restoration which caused outrage at the time but which is rarely referred to in official guidebooks. For it means that Stonehenge, jewel in the crown of Britain’s heritage industry, is not all it seems. Much of what the ancient site’s millions of visitors see in fact dates back less than 50 years.
From 1901 to 1964, the majority of the stone circle was restored in a series of makeovers which have left it, in the words of one archaeologist, as ‘a product of the 20th century heritage industry’. But the information is markedly absent from the guidebooks, brochures and info-phones used by tourists at the site. Coming in the wake of the news that the nearby Avebury stone circle was almost totally rebuilt in the 1920s, the revelation about Stonehenge has caused embarrassment among archaelogists. English Heritage, the guardian of the monument, is to rewrite the official guide, which dismisses the Henge’s recent history in a few words. Dave Batchelor, English Heritage’s senior archaeologist said he would personally rewrite the official guide. ‘The detail was dropped in the Sixties’, he admitted. ‘But times have changed and we now believe this is an important piece of the Stonehenge story and must be told’.
Cambridge University archeological archivist and leading Stonehenge author Christopher Chippindale admitted: ‘Not much of what we see at Stonehenge hasn’t been touched in some way’. And historical research student Brian Edwards, who recently revealed that the nearby Avebury Monument had been totally rebuilt, has found rare pictures of Stonehenge being restored. He said: ‘It has been as if Stonehenge had been historically cleansed’. ‘For too long people have been kept in the dark over the Stonehenge restoration work. I am astonished by how few people know about it. It is wonderful the guide book is going to tell the full story in the future.’
A million visitors a year are awe-struck as they look back in time into another age and marvel at the primitive technology and muscle-power which must have been employed transporting the huge monoliths and raising them on Salisbury Plain. They gasp as they are told about this strangely spiritual site…. mankind’s first computer, its standing stones and precise lintels, lining up magically and mysteriously with the heavens above and the solstice suns.
But now, as if to head off a potential great archaeological controversy – and following interest displayed by historical researcher Brian Edwards and a local newspaper, the brochures will be re-written, to include the ‘forgotten years’. The years when teams of navvies sat aboard the greatest cranes in the British Empire to hoist stones upright; drag leaning trilithons into position, replace fallen lintels which once sat atop the huge sarsens. As Mr Edwards – the erstwhile enfant terrible of British archaeology following revelations that nearby Avebury was a total 20s and 30s rebuild by marmalade millionaire Alexander Keiller – says: ‘What we have been looking at is a 20th Century landscape, which is reminiscent of what Stonehenge MIGHT have been like thousands of years ago. It has been created by the heritage industry and is NOT the creation of prehistoric people. What we saw at the Millennium is less than 50 years old.’
In archaeological terms the re-writing of the guidebooks is dynamite. English Heritage run Stonehenge on behalf of the nation, and an English Heritage insider revealed: ‘Dark forces were at work in the 70s, when a decision was taken to drop the information about the restorations Now that is about to change.’
The Restoration and Rebuild
The first restoration of Stonehenge was launched 100 years ago this year.
And, in 1901, as the builders went to work, The Times letters column was full of bucolic missives of complaint. But the first stage of ‘restoration’ thundered ahead regardless and the style guru of the day, John Ruskin, released the maxim which was to outlive him…. ‘Restoration is a lie,’ he stormed. Nevertheless the Stonehenge makeover was to gather momentum and more work was carried out in 1919, 1920, 1958, 1959 and 1964. Christopher Chippindale, curator at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Anthropology, and author of Stonehenge Complete, admits: ‘Nearly all the stones have been moved in some way and are standing in concrete.’
A stone was straightened and set in concrete in 1901, six further stones in 1919 and 1920, three more in 1959 and four in 1964. There was also the excavation of the Altar stone and re-erection of the Trilithon in 1958.
The guide book ‘Stonehenge and Neighbouring Monuments’ , and the audio tour of the Henge omit any comprehensive mention of the rebuilding in the 20th Century. Only on page 18 is there a slight reference…‘A number of the leaning and fallen stones have been straightened and re-erected.’ But even that official guide book does contain clues to the large scale restoration, which was not deemed worth a full entry.
Romancing the stones: The tumble-down stones
as painted by John Constable in 1835 (top), and
the very different landscape that greets today’s
Stonehenge visitor (bottom).
Why does John Constable’s 1835 painting of the Henge on pages 18 and 19 look so vastly different from the latter-day pristine photograph across pages 28 and 29? REASON: A lot of restoration work had taken place in between the two images being recorded. And, during long hot summers it would be possible – if one could get near to the stones – to see the turf peeling back to reveal the concrete boots into which the majority of the stones are now set. A dead give-away, but difficult to spot now as proximity to the Henge is limited.
Raising an upright of the
trilithon in 1958
Our pictures clearly show the rebuilding in progress. Some were discovered by Mr Chippendale and were used in a revised edition of his book. Many of those have since been lost. Others were found by Mr Edwards who unearthed guide books from the time when Stonehenge was not ashamed of its past and featured photographs and stories of the restorations.
‘The news is sensational,’ said Mr Edwards, a decorate student at the University of the West of England. ‘Once I realised how much work had been carried out, I was amazed to discover that practically no-one outside of the henge know of its reconstruction in the last 100 years. I have always thought that if people are bothering to make a trip to Stonehenge, from home or abroad, then the least they should expect is a true story.’
Part of this article was written by Roger Taverner and originally featured in ‘The Western Daily Press’ 8/1/2001. Pictures appear courtesy of The Wiltshire Archeological Society and Christopher Chippindale.
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