Latest research claims that Stonehenge may already have been an important sacred site at least 500 years before the first Stone circle was erected.
The team that brought us New Henge, promoted with the sensational headline of the discovery of a neolithic henge, a sister monument to Stonehenge, the University of Birmingham and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection, now claim to have uncovered the “secret history” of Stonehenge as part of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project.
Birmingham archaeologists with colleagues from the University of Vienna’s Ludwig Boltzmann Institute used ground-penetrating radar and other geophysical investigative techniques to map the interior of the major prehistoric enclosure to the north of Stonehenge known as the 'Cursus'.
The project discovered two anomalies, one towards the enclosure’s eastern end, the other nearer its western end, which they are interpreting as two great pits with a celestial alignment that could have contained tall stones, wooden posts or fires. They claim that when viewed from the ‘Heel Stone’ at Stonehenge, the pits were aligned with the rising and setting of the sun on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.
The team considered the possibility that the pits within the Cursus could have defined a processional route used by agriculturists to celebrate the passage of the sun across the sky at the summer solstice. They also discovered a previously unknown gap in the middle of the northern side of the Cursus, which may have provided the main entrance and exit point for processions that took place within the enclosure.
The project team decided they could test the hypothesis as on midsummer’s day there are in fact three key alignments; not just sunrise and sunset, but also midday when the sun reaches its highest point in its annual cycle. For their theory to work they would need to find a key alignment at noon that would be due south from the Cursus and holding a relationship with Stonehenge. Computer calculations revealed that the midway point at noon aligned directly with the centre of Stonehenge, which is precisely due south.
The team suggest that the design of the Cursus has to have been conceived specifically to attain that mid-point alignment with the centre of Stonehenge, because the ‘due south’ noon alignment of the ‘procession’ route’s mid-point could not occur if the Cursus itself had different dimensions. If this is correct, they argue, then the Stonehenge Heel Stone location had to have been of ritual significance before the Cursus pits were dug.
However, the survey does not seem to have identified a feature at the mid point of the Cursus, presumably the 'noon' marker, the point of departure for a ritual procession to Stonehenge, or indeed indications of the route linking the two monuments in a north-south direction. There is also no consideration of why the west end of the Cursus is obscured from view of the sarsen monument
The Earliest Monument?
Excavations in 2007 by the Stonehenge Riverside Project dated the construction of the Cursus to between 3630 - 3375 BC, with the first phase of Stonehenge 3100 – 3000 BC. The interpretation of the findings of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project claims to turn that chronology on its head, implying that the Stonehenge site was already sacred long before construction work began on the Cursus. Unless the midday alignment is a pure coincidence, which they argue is unlikely, it would imply that the Stonehenge site’s sacred status is at least 500 years older than previously thought.
Yet an early date for activity on the Stonehenge site is nothing new. During their excavations at Stonehenge in 2008 Wainwright and Darvill discovered charcoal dating to 7,000 BC and in the Stonehenge visitor's centre carpark there are three large white discs marking the sites of where large posts once stood in the Mesolithic era, around 8,000 BC, some 5,000 years before construction of the accepted first phase of Stonehenge began. The four, or maybe five, large postholes, possibly forming a gentle arc or crescent shape, were found during work on an extension to the car park in the 1960s and are often considered by archaeologists to have been simple totem poles. The fifth hole may have been the site of a large tree, suggesting early monumentality of a natural feature. Three of these large pine posts seem to have been aligned on a rough east-west axis.
In the 1970s C A Newham regarded these Mesolithic postholes as the most positive astronomical discovery yet made at Stonehenge, arguing that the sighting lines from the Station Stones and Heelstone to the Mesolithic postholes aligned on sun and moon settings with an extreme accuracy made possible by their considerable distance. Newham did not consider these alignments to be reversible; in other words the postholes were viewed from Stonehenge, yet unrelated to the later sarsen monument. The Station Stones were part of the earliest features of Stonehenge and their alignments to the carpark postholes suggests that they are also of the same era, i.e. the Mesolithic. Significantly, the Heelstone and Station Stones are rough, unworked megaliths, whereas the stones of Stonehenge are mostly finely worked, indicating they are certainly from a different period of construction.
It must also be considered that the earliest astronomical alignments at Stonehenge were lunar not solar. Newham identified lunar alignments as the long sides of the rectangle created by the four Station Stones corresponding to the moon rise and moonset at the major standstill. The axis of the monument being altered at a later date to align with the solstice. Further, it is the mid winter solstice that is the significant alignment of the later sarsen monument, not mid summer. In the first place there is no known back marker to view the summer solstice sunrise. Secondly, the later solar phase of the monument was designed to be approached from the Avenue with the sarsen and lintel arrangement acting as an obscuration device, framing the winter solstice sunset, the death of the old sun, in the great Trilithon.
The full survey of the Stonehenge area will take a further two years to complete. Professor Vince Gaffney, the director the project, anticipates that dozens, if not hundreds, of previously unknown sites will be discovered as a result of the project which is expected to transform our understanding of the famous monument’s origins, history and meaning.
However, we must bear in mind that this is all pure speculation on the part of the project team and at the end of the day, without excavation we cannot be certain what the ground scans indicate. It certainly would not be the first time that the interpretation of ground-penetrating radar and geophysical surveys have lead us on a wild goose chase; there is strong speculation after all that New Henge, may have turned out to be a series of 20th century fence posts.
Birmingham Archaeologists Uncover Secrets Of Stonehenge - Birmingham Post Nov 26 2011
Secret History Of Stonehenge Revealed - The Independent Saturday 26 November 2011
CA Newham, The Astronomical Significance of Stonehenge, Moon Publications; 1st edition, 1972.
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