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STONEHENGE - An Interpretation



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Approach the Neolithic Henge

The orientation of Stonehenge towards the midsummer sunrise is not unusual and ritual stone circles were common in the British Isles - over 900 have been documented. However the trilithons at Stonehenge appear to be unique and no other stone circles had running lintels - a 'sky born ring of stone'. Stonehenge is known to be a replicate of an earlier henge made in timber.

A Middle Bronze Age worshipper would have approached Stonehenge from the River Avon along a straight, sacred avenue whose two meter high bank would have shielded ritual activities from outside observers, although there was one gap where the curious cold look in (unless severe penalties were in force ?). Paired stones were added to give emphasis to the Avenue. Did an ancient ceremony honor the human embodiment of the Sun God, or a 'deity house' (i.e. statue wherein the god lived) which was carried down the avenue in procession by priests, then to enter the stone henge where the most sacred ceremonies where performed ? Or was this avenue only a narrow road, a lane upon which priests and worshippers solemnly walked toward the Stonehenge ritual center? The second stage of the avenue may have tied the midsummer sunrise processional to the River Avon, water gods are common in Neolithic iconography. The avenue could also have served multiple purposes: a) bring visitors from far away locales to Stonehenge; b) commemorate the path upon which the Welsh bluestones were hauled from river transport to the stone henge site, 1,000 years previously; and c) draw the sacred power of the Avon River God up into the ritual stone circle.

Recent research has uncovered portions of the largest Neolithic village in ancient Britain. It was located within Durrington Walls, which is only two miles from Stonehenge. Durrington Walls is the world's largest henge. It is 1400' across and its ditch encloses a series of concentric timber rings of large timber posts. Archeologists believe the village at Durrington Walls housed the workers who built Stonehenge in the mid 3rd century BC. Other houses are clustered on both sides of 1/4 mile long stone avenue. This avenue is very similar to the one at Stonehenge which is aligned with the midsummer sunrise. The Durrington Avenue conencts the great wooden henge with the River Avon and is aligned with the midwinter sunrise. Built of wood, the huge henge at Durrinton was dedicated to life, the circles of wooden posts were destined to rot in a few centuries at most. Stonehenge, whose megalithic trilithons were made from some of the hardest rock formations in Britain, was dedicated to the afterlife and therefore was intended to last forever.

The literature on Stonehenge is vast. Much of the information in this essay is taken from one of our favorite references:

Midsummer Sunrise

The concept of ritual stone circles is ancient, and might qualify as a Jungian archetype. The sarsen circle at Stonehenge was completed ~2,000 BC, at the same time the liturgy for the Circle of Protection was written in Sumer on a clay tablet. The moon is rarely seen as a circle in contrast to the sun and therefore we can ask if Stonehenge was made in imitation of the sun, and therefore was itself a solar deity where cosmic forces could be concentrated and then projected outward, perhaps to enhance agricultural and hunting success.

Standing at the center of Stonehenge, one would look through the Heel Stones towards the northeast horizon where the sun rose above the horizon on a midsummer morning, c.3100 BC. Neolithic people would not have viewed this as an astronomical event, there was no science as we conceive of it in Neolithic/Bronze Age times. This midsummer sunrise was a mythic experience. In northern latitudes, the shortening of the day as winter approached was potentially terrifying. If sun god never returned from his nightly sojourn, the earth would be left to freeze in eternal darkness. Should winter never end, the earth would never experience another agricultural cycle and all people would starve and freeze to death. The longest day, the summer solstice, tells everyone that harvest time is not far off and that food can be stored, no one should starve during the coming winter.

Stonehenge Astronomy - early research.

Bluestones, Images of the Goddess

Adding the Welsh bluestones to Stonehenge, may have been conceived of as adhering another layer of powerful magic to an already powerful ritual site. Wales is relatively distant from Essex and contains its own regional rituals and sacred forces which the bluestones allowed to be added to those of the Salisbury Plain. When standing, the bluestones were as tall as the average male. Were they also abodes for deified ancestors ? The sarsen trilithons recall the entrances of megalithic tombs and thus could be viewed as symbolic tomb entrances, graves of great chieftain lineages that became portals to the underworld. The openings between trilithons are narrow and a person passing through is reminded of the difficulty of moving from one 'world' to the 'next'.

The running lintels of the great sarsen circle made a continuous ring of stone, suggesting a dedication to sky gods. The sun and moon are acknowledged at the northeast entrance. The offerings in the Aubrey Holes suggest a dedication to earth or chthonic deities. Here we have the outlines of a mythology wherein an earth mother (or underworld goddess) is visited annually and impregnated by a summer sun god. This goddess may also be visited on occasion by a lunar deity with a complicated ritual yet to be deciphered. There is an incised stone image at Stonehenge that bears a strong resemblance to carved stone images of the goddess in Neolithic France. At first glance, this almost featureless stone carving is inscrutable. However, the square, iconographic image of the goddess is known in megalithic France and accepted as such by archaeologists. We are looking at an incomplete goddess with a large skirt, or two goddess images, one smaller than the other. The abstract depiction is a universal, deities are not human and in many cultures could only be depicted when abstracted to their essential form or energy. The concept is 'abstraction' which refers to the distillation and refinement of a mythic essence. (The terms 'simplification' or 'reduction' are inappropriate.) The stone circle at Stonehenge replicates (but not exactly) the earlier wooden round house, often believed to be communal.

The Altar Stone, the Goddess and Renewal

But wait, there is more... A visitor to Stonehenge in 2000 BC walking through the northeast entrance would face the large Altar Stone standing in front of the Great Trilithon. Immediately to the right of the Altar Stone, on the face of stone 57, was the image of the goddess described above and on the trilithon to the left were carved images of a dagger and axe. In megalithic tombs of France, goddess images were associated with hafted axes, which calls to mind the Goddess of Minoan Crete who was sometimes shown with a double axe. The axe would be used to sacrifice those animals chosen by the goddess to provide life force ('blood') in important ceremonies. These images are central to the religion documented throughout Old Europe, where it seems a goddess was the pre-eminent deity. Neolithic Britain is thus situated with the culture and religion of continental Old Europe by way of its central mythology. The Altar Stone as goddess presided over her sanctuary at Stonehenge and the spirits of the dead as well. She awaited her annual fertility rite, her impregnation by the sky or sun god at dawn for just one week in midsummer. If that sexual renewal did not occur, the goddess is barren and cannot transmit her fecundity to her people and 'the world'. The harvest would fail, farm animals would die or be barren, and there would be no seed for next year's planting, no calves, lambs, or piglets. This metaphor is not an intellectual or philosophical abstraction, it is 'real' and terribly immediate. The ritual which some historians believe was acted out by human worshippers of the goddess was hardly erotic by design, but deadly serious as the world's fecundity and survival depended upon this nourishing of the goddess. The paradigm is best understood by exploring the ancient horse ritual in ancient India and preChristian Celtic Ireland.

Cremation and Burial

There are several groups of cremation burials at Stonehenge, most are in the bank, ditch or Aubrey Holes and for many the ritual significance eludes us. The northeast and south entrances to the stone henge were guarded by an adult and child burial, and there is a third such burial on the east south-east. The Aubrey Hole nearest the center of the northeast entrance contained an offering of deer antlers. Antlers shed annually and symbolize death and rebirth, the yearly cycle of regeneration. The Aubrey Hole at the south entrance received the same offering and a chalk ball (?sun symbol). Shepperton Henge, which is contemporary with Stonehenge, had one entrance guarded by similar burials, and deer antlers were strewn in the ditch. The earliest cremation burial (burnt bones, teeth) was found in an Aubrey Hole and is newly dated to 3030-2880 B.C. A cluster of nine child cremations near Aubrey Hole 14 may represent a sacrifice to the moon goddess. Then again, they might be the tragic deaths from a disease epidemic buried within the sacred stone circle so as to ensure that their souls could find peace and rebirth in this world or the next.

But what of the other burials? Certainly internment within Stonehenge carried enormous prestige in the community, but how and why were individuals chosen to be buried within the stone circle and therefore laid to rest closest to the deities that mediated rebirth? The second recently dated burial (adult male) is in the Stonehenge ditch and dates to 2930-2870 B.C. The most recent cremation (25 year old woman) comes from the ditch's northern side and dates to 2570-2340 B.C., around the time that the first arrangements of sarsen stones appeared at Stonehenge. There is an identified foundation burial at Stonehenge, a young archer was so honored about 2130 BC. At the center of Stonehenge is a single human burial must be significant but it's precise meaning may never be known. The new radiocarbon dates for human cremation burials indicate that Stonehenge was used as a cemetery from just after 3000 B.C. until after the large stones went up around 2500 B.C. The cremation burials may represent successive generations of an elite lineage of tribal rulers.

Feast, then Bury the King

Archeologists now postulate that people from a large region over the Salisbury Plain traveled to Durrington Walls for massive feasting in midwinter. Animal bones and pottery in quantities found nowhere else have been found at Durrington Walls. Pig teeth indicate that they were killed when about 9 months old, a circumstance that points to midwinter. When the feasting ended, people took their dead down Durrington Avenue to a cliff overlooking the River Avon. Ashes, human bones and perhaps entire bodies were thrown into the river. The current would then take them to Stonehenge. The people then walked Stonehenge Avenue and retrieved a few bodies from the river. Likely only the ruler, his family and perhaps powerful members of the ruling elite would be honored by cremation and burial at Stonehenge. Durrington Walls may have built in wood because, both symbolically and practically, it was deliberately intended to gradually rot away. Stone was chosen for Stonehenge because it was a lasting monument to the ancestors.

Stonehenge is thought to contain 250 cremations. The final form of Stonehenge may incorporate the mythic lineage of at least 40 generations. Let us not forget that to Neolithic peoples, indeed all people prior to the European Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution (a few exceptional intellectuals aside), mythic lineage would be literal history.

Stonehenge in Decline

Two hundred years before the golden age of Mycenae, Stonehenge was in decline. A ragged ring of offering pits were added around the outside of the monument c.1500 BC. Two hundred years after the Trojan War, the sacred avenue was extended to the River Avon, c.1100 BC but Britain, as all of Europe, underwent social, political and ecological trauma. Bronze Age Britain had reached a population size equal to that of medieval times as reported in the Doomsday Book, but a combination of extreme events reduced the people of Britain by half between 1300 BC and 1100 BC. The volcanic eruption of Mount Hekla in Iceland produced between 10 and 20 years of much colder climate, cloudy skies and failed harvests throughout the northern hemisphere. Smaller chiefdoms fought each other more frequently and plague and environmental change produced a colder climate. One result of this negative synergy would be frequent failures of the harvest and greatly increase death rates from starvation, war and disease. A harsh new context had evolved within which to be born, live, love and die. Severe soil erosion is documented in Wessex at this time and one can imagine rituals at Stonehenge designed to ask the god's intervention to restore soil fertility, cure disease and bring peace to the land.

Some time after 1,000 BC, many of the stones in Stonehenge toppled over, not on one catastrophic day but occasionally year after year. Three fallen stone events have been witnessed in modern times since 1797. If this rate of collapse is extended back to 1,000 BC, then weather alone might suffice to explain the present degraded state of Stonehenge. Several of the tallest and heaviest stones were not seated deeply. Storms with strong gales and early spring freeze-thaw have powerful effects, and a great stone crashing into another produces additional damage.

However weather cannot tell the entire story. There is a long documented history in Wessex and elsewhere in Britain of the use of megalithic monument stones for building works, when a later culture has no ritual relationship to the older megalithic monument which was viewed only as a curiosity from a time long past. The great stone circle at Avebury is well known to have suffered this indignity through the ages. There is evidence that a forgotten Altar Stone at Stonehenge was carried away, perhaps early in the 19th century; and circumstantial historical information abounds that farmers carried away several avenue stones, two now stand in the main street of Berwick St. James. Stumps of several bluestones have been discovered in their sockets. A total of 29 bluestones have been removed from Stonehenge along with 31 sarsen stones and 22 of the sarsen lintels.

Druids, Gold and the Celtic Rebellion against Rome

It is often assumed that Celtic druids certainly knew Stonehenge - how could they not ? - but had little professional connection to this imposing ruin of a bygone age. There are, however, historical considerations that say otherwise. I disagree with Castleden that the druids would have been compelled to adopt Stonehenge as a major ritual/ceremonial site because of its impressive size and circular shape. Sacred groves were the primary ritual sites for druid worship and they had to contain ancient, gigantic oak trees and other plants of ritual significance as well. The groves of giant oak trees were the 'temple', that is one of the few facts about druid worship that rests upon solid evidence. Sacred trees and plants played a central role in druid cult and mysteries. The forest is paramount, and a large stone circle open to the sky is not relevant. In the absence of an alphabet and written records, I find it hard to believe the druids inherited the rituals of Neolithic Britain and somehow kept them 'alive'. Ancient and oral traditions do not survive the death of their elders and priests. Neolithic Britain with ritual centered upon large megalithic monuments cannot easily be connected to what we know of Celtic religion in Iron Age Britain and Gaul.

Castleden raises the interesting possibility that it was not necessary that the druids used Stonehenge, it was only necessary that the Roman rulers of Britannia believed they did. Intent upon crushing druid power, not for the reason Castleden states (political opposition to Rome) but to destroy druid control of the Irish gold trade moving through central Britain, the Romans may have ordered the destruction of Stonehenge to demonstrate their ability to destroy what was believed to be an important druid temple. The factual accuracy of that association is not necessary to debate because 'shock and awe' in ancient and modern warfare has often been used for nothing more than strategic reasons. Stonehenge may been wrecked during the rebellion of Queen Boudicca in 61AD when she led a very large Celtic army comprised of a tribal coalition of the 'very willing' and nearly defeated the Roman army in Britain. The Romans were forced to call upon Paulinus's crack legions. Paulinus did turn the tide of battle and his legions were unusually brutal as the fought their way into Wales and destroyed the sacred druid groves in Anglesey.

The Romans Damage Stonehenge, the Great Stone Circle Lives On ...

'Perception is reality' is a timeless truism as is its application as a tactic in politics and war. There is important evidence that the Romans attributed great significance to Stonehenge and therefore labeled it a strategic target to be ruined and wrecked. The evidence is subtle but unmistakable and involves a fine grained analysis of the material filling the X and Z holes. At the bottom of these holes, the filling is bluestone chips from the dressing of these important stones, above which is almost pure soil. But from the middle layers to the top of these holes, the filling is a density of blue stone chips, that can only derive from a deliberate destruction of some bluestones. Furthermore fragments of Roman pottery are numerous in the top layers of these holes. Castleden concludes that these top layer deposits in the X and Y Holes derive from the Roman army breaking many of the blue stones when they ravaged Stonehenge, and then throwing pottery fragments into the holes to complete the fill.

The Romans need not have been certain about the importance of Stonehenge to the druids, they only needed to have thought of that the possibility and decided that the likely significance of Stonehenge to the druids and the local Celtic population in rebellion was important enough to deal with in a dramatic fashion. The damage recorded is not great - only a few great stones were over overturned, the quantity of blue stone chips in the holes could derive from only three blue stones. However the Romans may have taken down the Great Trilithon and Altar Stone. This damage to Stonehenge could have been inflicted on a single day but no doubt it made the point. The Roman army could go where it wished, enter a presumed, sacred sanctuary of the enemy and cause visible damage. A long term project to take down the entire monument was not necessary. If I am correct, the druids watching from a distance smiled wryly and then hurried off to hide their Irish gold, further assist Boudicca's large coalition army of several Celtic tribes and prepare to defend their most precious sanctuary in Anglesey. Tragedy would befall the Celtic rebellion but the Roman's never did capture the Irish gold trade. For that objective, a military invasion of Ireland would have been necessary and Rome knew that was extending their army and resources much too far. Perhaps, King Arthur passed through Stonehenge during one of his many campaigns centuries later, stopped and spoke of many worlds with his druid one cloudy afternoon. But that is a tale we leave for another day. It is little wonder that antiquarian fantasies that developed from the 17th century onwards placed druid ritual at Stonehenge.

While in once sense Stonehenge became frozen in time, it never died. Stonehenge still speaks with a mythic song that is only partially deciphered, still entrances us and sings to our soul.

BB. revised 12.05.08

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