Do you think the people that built Stonehenge had any idea that their arrangement of standing stones would endure to confound humanity thousands of years into the future? Regardless, it has. From how the stones were transported, how the henge was built, and who the builders were, Stonehenge has remained a constant source of mystery for professional archaeologists, historians, and purveyors of spurious claims alike, not to mention the general public who tend to think it’s just pretty cool. A paper recently published in the journal Antiquity by Richard Bevins of the Museum of Wales and Rob Ixer of the University of Leicester attempts to demystify one of Stonehenge’s many unknowns.
According to the paper, the stones used to erect the structure were carried on a vast highway snaked throughout Britain as a chain of roads and river transport. The highway acting as a pilgrimage route to the in-progress construction of Stonehenge where the traveling henge builders would be met with feast and celebration, suggesting that the construction of Stonehenge may have had as much cultural and religious significance as the completed structure itself.
The previous theory of where the bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried and how transported was proposed by Dr Herbert Henry Thomas in 1923 who proposed that the stones were carried on boats along the Welsh coast from Mynydd Preseli to Bristol, and then overland to Salisbury where Stonehenge was built. According to the new theory, that explanation doesn’t hold up:
Our main conclusion is that the provenances for the bluestones as presented by Thomas are not based on reliable evidence, but appear to have been influenced predominantly by a set of samples collected during a single field excursion to the Mynydd Preseli in 1906, 14 years before his investigation of Stonehenge.
Based on new research and imaging of the stones, the theory proposes that the bluestones, the sarsen stones and the main altar stone all came from different quarries: the bluestones from the Preseli mountains, the sarsen stones from Marlborough downs, and the altar stone ‘very probably’ from the Senni Beds, between Llanelli to Herefordshire. According to the researchers, the stones were transported overland on rollers by animals and people until they reached the Severn river, where they were forded across or rafted to Avon.
Stonehenge was built in stages, over a very long period of time—from the first earthen version of the henge, not quite worthy of the “stone-prefix” to the completion was about 1,500 years, with a millennia long period of inactivity before the first stones actually arrived. Within the context of the new theory of transport, a theory of purpose that was proposed earlier this year paints a new picture of Stonehenge that challenges our assumption of Neolithic culture.
According to English Heritage, Stonehenge may have acted as a pilgrimage destination for the Neolithic people of Britain, where pilgrim builders would be met with feasts as they helped with construction, as a way to solidify community and demonstrate unity to outsiders. If this is the case, than it would explain the utility of an overland route of transportation: an impressive parade animals and large rocks meant to entice people to come and join the fun. According to Susan Greaney, a historian at English Heritage:
In contemporary Western culture, we are always striving to make things as easy and quick as possible, but we believe that for the builders of Stonehenge this may not have been the case.
Drawing a large number of people from far and wide to take part in the process of building was potentially a powerful tool in demonstrating the strength of the community to outsiders.
Being able to welcome and reward these people who had traveled far, perhaps as a kind of pilgrimage, with ceremonial feasts, could be a further expression of the power and position of the community.
Imagine yourself as one of those Neolithic people. You wake up. It’s a beautiful day, but there’s all sorts of commotion going on. Rushing to see what all the fuss is about you see a massive caravan of large creatures and people in religious garb. They’re hauling massive stones down the road. It’s all very intriguing. You call out to the caravan “Hey, where’re you going?”
The leader of the caravan pulls back a hood and issues a response “To confuse the future! You in?”