What Was Stonehenge?

The Megalithic Stone structures, which exist not only in this country

but also throughout the Continent of Europe, are a special feature of

that period known as the Neolithic Age. As has already been shown,

Stonehenge represents a very late type, erected at a time when the

bronze culture had begun to overlap that of polished stone


These stone structures can be roughly divided into three class

1. Single upright stones, or menhirs (Celtic = high stone), which

may be commemorative of some great event or personage.

2. Dolmens (Celtic = table stone), in which a stone slab is set

table-wise on three or four uprights.

3. Cromlechs (Celtic = stone circle). Circles enclosing barrows or


Stonehenge is a highly specialised example of this last class. Round

these cromlechs popular myth and superstition have crystallised

themselves into tales of the devil and his works (as in the case of

Stonehenge), ogres, giants, dwarfs, Sabbath breakers, and infidels,

turned to stone. In nearly every case there is some story of the

supernatural, which cannot be accidental, but which must have its root

in past religious observance.

It is a recognised fact that the worship of stones is more widely

distributed than any other primitive cult. Its almost universal

distribution can be referred to the tendency of the half savage mind

to confuse persons and things, and from seeming likeness of the

inanimate to the animate, to endue the lifeless object with the virtue

and power of the living object. This mental outlook is better

understood in practice than in theory. A Melanesian native may come

across a large stone, lying upon the top of a number of smaller

stones. It suggests to him a sow with her litter of pigs, and he at

once makes an offering to it, in the hope that he will secure pigs. In

determining the function of Stonehenge, therefore, it will be useful

to compare it with similar existing stone circles. The largest of

these in this country is Avebury, not many miles distant from

Stonehenge. Unluckily, to-day it is so ruined that its former

greatness is hardly to be distinguished by the unskilled observer.

Formerly comprising some hundreds of unhewn Sarsen stones, barely a

score remain in position at the present day. In Avebury, as it was,

can be found the early typic model of which Stonehenge is the final

product. The use of the circle as a basic form is common to both. In

Avebury the Sarsen is a rough unhewn monolith; in Stonehenge it is

squared, dressed, and crowned with its lintel. All evidences of a slow

evolution from Neolithic to Bronze culture. But whereas the circle

alone is used at Avebury, Stonehenge has in addition the horseshoe

series of Trilithons and foreign uprights, and in this particular

differs from all other Cromlechs in this country. It is the climax of

the Megalithic monument, and its use very certainly must have been

connected with the religion of the race which set it up. It was, in

short, a religious structure, probably used for the observation of the

sun, and possibly connected with nature worship.

The fact that the sun rises over the Hele Stone on the Summer

Solstice, and that it can be observed in direct alignment with the

centre of the Great Trilithon, can hardly be due to accident. Chance

might bring two stones into such a position on the Solstice, but, in

this case, the entire monument is so arranged as to place the rising

sun in a due line with its axis on this particular day.

It will be well to consider the facts which must have been within the

knowledge of the builders of Stonehenge, and to trace as far as may be

their reasoning in the building of it.

To begin with, it is almost certain that at the time of building,

there existed some primitive form of priesthood, or body of wise

men. This is quite compatible with the culture of the period. The

existence of the Neolithic Long Barrows is sufficient evidence that

man had, by this time, arrived at that particular culture which grasps

the existence of a spirit.

Death only terminated the existence of the body, and not that of the

spirit. It was even able to return and enter another body, say that of

a new-born infant, an animal, or tree. And being after the manner of

human beings, spirits could understand human language and become

accessible to human petitions. Thus a spirit might even prove a

powerful friend or enemy. And the dwellings of these spirits would be

those great powers which meant so much to a primitive people; the sun,

moon, stars, rivers, forests, and clouds; from which arose the two

great classes of spirit, the ancestral and the spirit of nature.

From this general body was developed a regular hierarchy of good and

evil spirits, gradually ascending to the conception of one great

creative spirit, or superior deity.

To these early men, therefore, there was always the problem of

maintaining diplomatic relations with the unseen forces about them,

and for this purpose a primitive priesthood became necessary. The

chieftain would manage the temporal affairs of the tribe, those

spiritual would be relegated to a special body of wise men, or

intermediaries. These men would certainly, from the nature of their

calling, be not so much men of action as men of learning, the

recorders of history and tradition, students of the natural phenomena,

and of all those signs and portents which concerned the good of the

community. One of the earliest facts which impressed itself upon them

must have been the horizon. It was above that horizon that the sun

rose in the morning, and below that horizon that it sank to rest at

night; further, when the sun had set the moon and stars peeped up from

that line, and sank below it, all in due course. These were facts

easily apprehended. The common people even had grasped them, but the

wise men learned more. As the link between man and the spirits of the

stars, sun, and moon, they came to recognise that the sun did not rise

over the same spot on the horizon every day. In the summer it rose

roughly in the north-east and set in the north-west. In the winter, on

the other hand, it rose in the south-east and set in the south-west.

Moreover, these variations would be found to be regular and recurring.

The sun would appear to move every day after the Solstice towards the

east, and from the east towards the south, back again towards the

east, and once more northwards. A staff set in the ground would

determine the range of the sun's apparent journey and its extreme

limits or turning points. This would fix the Summer Solstice in the

north-east, and the winter Solstice in the south-east. Even such

simple learning as this was probably beyond the capacity of the

tribesman, whose daily duties took him afield early and late. But it

was to his interest that all such observations should be entrusted to

individuals who could keep definite count, and know exactly at what

part of the horizon the sun might be expected to appear. In this way

the solar year might be mapped out and divided into Solstices and

Equinoxes. Nor was this a mere arbitrary arrangement. The good of the

community depended upon it. The agriculturalist depended upon the sun

for his crops. It was essential that he should know the correct time

to plough, to sow, and to reap. Without the aid of the wise men he

had no means of knowing what day it was, or how much longer he could

count upon the sun for his primitive agriculture. The wise man, on

his side, realised the importance of his knowledge, and doubtless used

it to his own advantage, thus winning support and respect from his

simple followers.

Temples, or stone circles corresponding to temples, might face either

to the north-east or south-east, for the Summer or Winter Solstice,

marking the end of the sun's journey, or they might be directed

towards the east, when the sun would appear in the appointed spot

twice in the year; once in his journey southward, and once on his

return; in other words, at the two Equinoxes. Stonehenge is so

arranged as to mark the sun at its Summer Solstice.

But, interesting as these speculations of the Sun Temple theory may

be, the facts recorded by Sir Norman Lockyer in 1901 are even more so,

as by independent calculations he has arrived at the same date for

Stonehenge as the archæologist. Briefly his task was to calculate the

extent of the change in the obliquity of the ecliptic since the

building of Stonehenge. The whole process involves a certain knowledge

of astronomical operations and calculations, and the reader is

referred to Sir Norman Lockyer's book for the actual steps taken to

arrive at his conclusion. But on astronomical grounds pure and simple

he was able to fix the date of Stonehenge as lying between 1900-1500


It is at all events interesting that his results should tally with

those of Mr. Gowland who, working on entirely different lines, came to

practically the same conclusion.

Having proceeded thus far it is well, however, not to insist too

strongly on the Sun Temple theory, on the lines already sketched

out. It should be always remembered that the Hele Stone is an

unworked stone, which stands without the circle, and does not form a

symmetrical integer in the structure. Being unwrought it may have been

erected at an earlier date, and might belong to an earlier culture.

It is possible that Stonehenge may have been a later addition to the

Hele Stone. Many of the arguments relating to the wise men and the

observation of sunrise are matters of analogy rather than direct

proof, and though coincidences are ever suggestive and fascinating,

they cannot always be entirely accepted as proof. While it is quite

possible that the Hele Stone was erected to mark the Solstice and to

afford a definite means of determining the year, this may not justify

the theory that the entire structure was an astronomical observatory

and dedicated entirely to sun worship, with elaborate ramifications,

and observation mounds for celestial phenomena. Weighing, therefore,

the archæologist's and astronomer's evidence, it is fairly safe to

conclude that Stonehenge can be dated at about B.C. 1700, and that its

use was religious; probably a temple, in which the sun may have been

adored in some way. As yet, however, the actual nature of that worship

is a matter for speculation. It is of the utmost importance in dealing

with a question like this, to observe the greatest caution and to

maintain a strictly detached position. The astronomer, archæologist,

geologist, and anthropologist have each their share in the solution of

the problem, but each also has the bias due to his own special

science. The mineralogist solves the problem of the Foreign Stones by

suggesting a glacial drift without reference to the geologist, who

will tell him that the local gravels contain no pebbles which belong

to those classes of stones known as Foreign Stones. The astronomer, in

his quest for alignments, will convert barrows into observation

mounds, without reference to their uses and contents, and without

allowing for the ignorance of the period, while the anthropologist

often allows his imagination to carry him beyond the limits of actual

fact. Time, and constant careful investigation, will pierce some of

the mists which must always shroud the origin of Stonehenge, but the

true solution will be for the field archæologist, rather than to the

weaver of theories or the student in his library.

The circular form, the horseshoe form, the unhewn Hele Stone, all

bespeak religious origin. These are actual, visual facts, as is the

sunrise on the Solstice. Around these arises a clamour of conflicting

claims, each possibly containing much of real importance, each

probably expressing some clue to guide the future worker on his way,

but none containing that element of finality which is once and for all

time to quell the storm of controversy which has ever raged about this

ancient monument of the plain.