The ancient monolith Stonehenge continues to reveal new mysteries. Archaeologists have learned much by studying the alignment of its stones and its status as a pilgrimage site. Meanwhile, some popular theories have been debunked.
Stonehenge, which has astonished archaeologists for centuries, is still changing what we think we know about it. Recently, ancient graves dating back several thousand years were unearthed near the monument, as were several pieces of pottery and a small, earthen enclosure.
The discovery was made as archaeologists helped speculate a controversial road tunnel being built near Stonehenge, which was approved by the United Kingdom government in 2020. The monument itself has been studied for hundreds of years, eventually building up quite a mythology.
However, many beliefs about Stonehenge have since been disproven, suggesting—like the newly found artifacts around it—that it still has a few tricks up its sleeve. In his video series The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy, Dr. Bradley E. Schaefer, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Louisiana State University, explained several of them.
Dr. Schaefer said that neo-Druids, who have become a famous image synonymous with Stonehenge, began appearing there in the 1960s. However, even the original Druids didn’t build Stonehenge. In fact, they didn’t arrive at the Neolithic monument until far after its completion.
“The original Druids were something like the intelligentsia and spiritual leaders amongst the Celtic peoples of Western Europe,” Dr. Schaefer said. “They flourished in the middle Iron Age before their suppression by the Romans around 200 CE. But the Celtic peoples arrived in the British Isles around 500 BCE.”
This, he said, was nearly 2,000 years after Stonehenge was built and 1,100 years after it was abandoned. Due to this, it isn’t possible that the Druids had any involvement in the original construction, expansion, or use of the iconic stones.
From Sunrise to Sunset
The Druids aren’t the only busted myth surrounding Stonehenge.
“Popular accounts of Stonehenge astronomy often start with the midsummer sunrise as viewed over the Heel Stone,” Dr. Schaefer said. “That is, standing at the exact center of the circle, looking out straight down the Avenue on the summer solstice, we can see the sunrise over the Heel Stone. The overwhelmingly popular perception is that the basic Stonehenge alignment is toward the midsummer sunrise.”
For example, he said, hippies often staged free festival rock concerts on the summer solstice. Neo-druids continue to hold ceremonies there on June 21, commemorating the knowledge of the ancients. However, since an axis line points in two ways, this means that in the opposite direction, that same line points towards the midwinter sunset. So which is right?
“One reason to point to midwinter comes from the dating of the big feasts,” Dr. Schaefer said. “A site next to Stonehenge was a big annual feasting site; the pig bones from this site can tell us that these yearly feasts were close to midwinter.
“With the highlight of the year being around the winter solstice, it makes good sense to think that the Stonehenge axis was intended for use at the time of the winter solstice.”
As recent developments suggest, the mystery of Stonehenge is far from over.