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Parts of Stonehenge may have been there long before humans were around, archaeologist says

A new study proposes that Stonehenge may have been built where it was because two of the large stones, known as sarsens, were already at the site well before humans constructed the rest of it. Before, archaeologists believed all the stones were drug from miles away for an unknown reason.
A new study proposes that Stonehenge may have been built where it was because two of the large stones, known as sarsens, were already at the site well before humans constructed the rest of it. Before, archaeologists believed all the stones were drug from miles away for an unknown reason. NYT

Even some 5,000 years after construction began, the mysterious Stonehenge mostly remains just that: a mystery.

We still don’t know who built the monument. Whoever they were left no written records, though scientists now believe it was probably many groups over many centuries.

We don’t know exactly how these ancient people moved the enormous slabs of sandstone many miles from Marlborough Downs to Salisbury, England, or how they lugged others called bluestones from even farther. Some think they used logs and rolled them after ferrying them over waterways. Some think aliens helped out.

We aren’t sure why they did it. The area is surrounded by graves, so it may have been a burial monument. It might have been used as a religious site or a place of healing, particularly because the rocks produce a distinct clanging tone when struck. We also know it acts as a sort of celestial observatory that can predict the solstice, equinox and other events, for which many still gather at the site each year.

But now one archaeologist says he may have chipped away at one piece of the mystery: why the ancient builders dragged huge stones called sarsens from 20 miles away to that particular spot, rather than just building them closer to home.

Mike Pitts wrote in the journal British Archeology that two of the largest sandstone slabs - known as the heel stone and Stone 16 - appear to have already been at the site for thousands or even millions of years before humans ever stumbled upon them.

“The assumption used to be that all the sarsens at Stonehenge had come from the Marlborough Downs more than 20 miles away,” Pitts told the Times. He pointed to the fact that the heel stone in particular was not worked or shaped with any tools as the others were.

“If you are going to move something that large you would dress it before you move it, to get rid of some of the bulk. That suggests it has not been moved very far. It makes sense that the heel stone has always been more or less where it is now, half-buried,” he told the paper.

During excavations, Pitts wrote that he found pits near the two stones that suggested they may have simply been raised from where they lay or moved slightly at some point, rather than brought in from somewhere else. More curious: the pits just happened to lay right on the path of alignment for the solstice.

Pitts speculates that ancient people noticed this entirely coincidental alignment and built the surrounding monument up around it, lugging the other stones from other areas to build up the entire monument over centuries. Other huge stones have been found in the region as well, adding weight to the idea that the slabs could have been found naturally.

Pitts wrote that it’s possible other sites may be discovered that add more context as to why the area was chosen. But for now “the two largest natural sarsens on the plain aligned with the rising midsummer and the setting midwinter Sun” are what caught the first builders’ eyes, he says.

Hundreds of people gathered at Stonehenge on Tuesday, December 22, to mark the winter solstice. The cloudy weather didn’t stop people from gathering around the archaeological site and singing during the traditional celebration.

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