Stonehenge: An Archaeological Mystery (Part 1)

PHOTO: Telegraph

PHOTO: Telegraph

Last time in Unsolved Archaeology we covered the Nazca Lines. This time, we’re covering arguably one of the most enigmatic and mysterious of Earth’s monuments. Dating back over 5000 years, it’s been estimated that it took the builders of Stonehenge almost 1500 years to complete. It’s been the subject of fantasy novels, archaeological digs, druidic lore, and whole books have been written about it. The only thing every single person who’s studied the monument can agree on is this: it’s a wonder and a mystery that’s been baffling historians and archaeologists around the world for years.

When It Was Built:

Many archaeologists say it was built in stages during the Neolithic era of Britain. The builders used primitive tools to dig a massive circular ditch. Several hundred years later, the builders hoisted 80 African bluestones into place in a horseshoe formation. And, much later, somewhere around 2000 BC, the famous sarsen sandstone slabs were arranged in an outer crescent or ring, assembled into the iconic three-pieced structures. 50 of those stones are now visible on the site, but it may have contained many more. Radiocarbon dating suggests that building continued until roughly 1600 BC, with the African bluestones being re-positioned multiple times throughout the 1500 year-long building period.

Who Built It? 

Nobody can agree quite on how Stonehenge was built, or who built it. According to 12th century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, Stonehenge was built by Merlin. Yep, that’s right. Merlin, the self-same Merlin of the tale of King Arthur that we all know and love. According to Geoffrey, the story goes that hundreds British nobles were killed by the Saxons and buried on Salisbury Plain. The king at the time decided to erect a memorial to his fallen subjects. So, he sent his soldiers to retrieve a stone circle from Ireland known as the Giants’ Ring. The soldiers were unsuccessful, so Merlin used magic to move them across the sea and arrange them over the grave. The legend goes that the king and his brother, the legendary Uther, father of King Arthur, are buried beneath Stonehenge, too.

A lot of people actually believed this story for centuries! But, obviously, magic doesn’t exist, and besides, the monument’s creation predates all of the real-life historical figures who inspired the story of Merlin by several thousand years. Others have said that Stonehenge was built, in turns, by the Saxons, Romans, Danes, Greeks, or even the Egyptians. Because, you know, that makes sense.

One of the most popular theories for who the mysterious builders of Stonehenge were is the ancient druidic Celts who lived in early Britain before the Romans ever got there. This theory was originally posed by 17th century archaeologist John Aubrey, who said that the monument was the work of the druidic high priests. This theory was made highly popular by famous antiquarian William Stukeley. It’s a theory that’s still popular today. Every summer solstice, modern Druids gather to celebrate their beliefs at Stonehenge. It’s narrative that has been widely popularized in fiction, too. People just like the idea of Stonehenge being somehow connected to the mystic Druids of Britain’s past. It’s so intriguing!

Unfortunately for all of the theorists, this particular theory was debunked in the 20th century thanks to radiocarbon dating. Stonehenge stood for more than a thousand years before the Celts ever lived in the region. It’s likely not even the Druids knew who built the towering circle of megalithic stones that dominated the British horizon.

Historians these days are pretty sure that no one group of people built Stonehenge. Rather, it was probably worked on by several tribes. Archaeological evidence in the area supports this, since the tools and bones that have been unearthed in the area belong to distinctly different cultures who all lived on the site during different periods in Britain’s history.

It’s a Mystery!

The builders of Stonehenge left behind very little clues as to their identity, and no true account of its construction has ever been drawn up. It’s very likely that the builders faded out of all existence and memory shortly after they died, and the monument has been shrouded in myth and legend ever since.

As for what it was used for, well, that’s a whole other article. We’ll be covering all the different theories that have been drawn about why Stonehenge was built and what it was used for next time in Unsolved Archaeology.