New research on Stonehenge: Exciting, but not as exciting as they’d have you believe

Stonehenge is one of the most enduringly fascinating relics of prehistory. The air of mystery that surrounds its origin and purpose is irresistible. Countless theories as to who built it and why have proliferated over the years, with varying degrees of plausibility. But the fact is, although we can make some educated guesses, we don’t really know what Stonehenge is all about.

What do we know?
It is thought that the oldest parts of Stonehenge date from 3100-2300 BCE. We’ve known for quite some time that the construction of the monument must have some kind of astronomical or calendrical significance, because the “heel stone” is oriented precisely toward the midsummer sunrise. We also know that it was built in phases over a very long period of time, and included materials from as far away as Wales.

Recently a team of British archaeologists and historians at University College London (UCL) announced their conclusions. After ten years of intensive research on Stonehenge, the team, led by archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson, deduced that an earlier monument built on the same site around 3000 BCE was a graveyard for elite families. Some of the bluestones of Stonehenge were used as markers in this graveyard. Later, around 2500 BCE, construction began on the monument we know today.

Parker Pearson emphasized the remarkable process of Stonehenge’s construction over its actual use. The monument was built in seasonal spurts when people gathered from all over Britain for the solstice festivals. Around 4,000 people (a tenth of Britain’s population at the time) gathered for the massive feasts, some coming from as far afield as the Scottish Highlands. This provides evidence of the first unified British culture – the only one in prehistory.

Two centuries after its completion, Stonehenge declined. Parker Pearson attributes this to the emergence of the “Beaker people,” so named because of their pottery, in Britain. He believes that their more individualistic culture with its emphasis on material goods (including the first metal goods in Britain) overtook the communal culture that established the Stonehenge festivals. Parker Pearson believes these discoveries are revolutionary.

“In many ways our findings are rewriting the established story of Stonehenge,” he said in a UCL press release.

What is that established story?
The mystery of Stonehenge has given rise to various theories – from druids to aliens. The precise astronomical orientation of the stones has led some people to suggest that it was used as an observatory to calculate phenomena, like eclipses. Another, by no means mutually exclusive, theory holds that it was a temple, perhaps for sun worship. As you may have noticed, the new UCL research doesn’t exactly debunk these existing ideas.

Certainly Parker Pearson’s results are exciting and intriguing. But his enthusiastic remarks to the press need to be qualified. The research must be seen within the context of other prehistoric research. Because no writings and so few artefacts survive from these times, we are forced to make sweeping generalizations about whole civilizations based on very little evidence. For instance, the Mycenaean Greeks are often thought of as part of a warlike culture simply because their surviving paintings usually depict warfare or hunting scenes.

All conclusions are tentative and precarious, and it is fairly easy for new findings or more sophisticated analysis to radically overturn established knowledge. Also, progress in the sciences is much more gradual than popular mythology would have us believe, and no research is ever quite as radical as it is made out to be.

In other words, while the UCL team’s analysis is impressive, it’s just archaeology working the way it’s supposed to. It doesn’t completely discredit everything that came before and it doesn’t preclude the emergence of new research that overturns established knowledge yet again. Stonehenge has not revealed all its secrets yet – not by a long shot.