- Stonehenge is perhaps the best-known example of Neolithic ceremonial architecture in Europe. Constructed as a henge, or circle, of massive, megalithic stones in the center of the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, and dated to around 3100 to 1500 BC, this monument provides fragments of information about these earliest structured cultures. The Neolithic period is characterized by a gradual thawing of the Ice Age, which brought about newly temperate lands, more diverse animals, and greater possibilities of more sophisticated standards of living. The bow and arrow replaced the less accurate spear, dugout boats created more opportunities for fishing, and the stone tools from the previous Paleolithic era of Pre-historic times became more varied and functional, paving the way for the establishment of agriculture and then the domestication of animals. This more settled lifestyle allowed for an increasingly complex social structure that hinged upon communal rituals, and one major factor in the recognition of a Neolithic society is the evidence of more permanent settlements. By the end of the Neolithic era, communities enjoyed a more stable lifestyle. They stored foods, traveled and traded, and began to construct monumental ceremonial architecture in addition to their more simple wood and thatched dwellings. Since this ceremonial architecture was for the most part constructed of stone, many examples still exist today.Prehistoric ceremonial architecture was probably constructed for two main reasons, for funerary needs and for agricultural calculations. While the appearance of tomb architecture suggests structured religious beliefs, these monuments are also often fused in function with their more cosmological use in determining the changing of the seasons. The tomb mounds at Newgrange, in Ireland, date to around 3000 BC and epitomize both functions, with passage graves aligned to the summer solstice. Stonehenge does not overtly function as a funerary monument, but tomb monuments have been found nearby, thereby fueling speculation about its function or functions. Clearly, the site had long been important to Prehistoric peoples. Human habitation can be found in the area as early as 8000 BC, when Mesolithic postholes, with pine posts sunk upright into the ground, were excavated near the modern-day parking lot of Stonehenge. It is thought that at least three of the posts are aligned in an east-west arrangement. This use of timber postholes is not previously known in England, but examples from this time can be found in Scandinavia. The region of Wiltshire was heavily forested during this time, and evidence shows that Neolithic peoples began to clear land near the stone monuments to create farmland and pastures; the location of Stonehenge would certainly not have been remote to these Neolithic peoples, as one might assume from its current spare geography.Stonehenge is a circle of stones set up vertically to function as posts. Some are covered with a continuous row of lintels, and the entire arrangement is surrounded by a round banked ditch. The post-and-lintel structural system is the oldest in the world, and appears here very clearly despite the fact that some of the lintels have fallen and some posts have collapsed. The circle was probably laid out with a type of cord to measure the circumference of the circle from its center point. Cords woven from plant fibers were also probably used to haul and hoist the stones into place. What makes Stonehenge unique is not that it is the largest henge in Europe, but rather that evidence of its continued rebuilding over a thousand years suggests that it was extremely important, perhaps centrally located in a major regional center. In the earliest phase of construction, a massive ditch was built, dug down into the chalky subsoil to create a white outer circle for the monument. Bones of deer and oxen, as well as stone tools, have been found in the ditch. A broad path led from this outer circle to a single sarsen, or gray sandstone, which is set vertically into the ground. This huge stone, weighing 35 tons, was brought from a quarry located about 23 miles away. The logistics of the use of such huge stones, brought from far distances, remains a wonder to modern scholars. Clearly, the sarsen stone itself held symbolic meaning that did not allow for its replacement by a more conveniently located stone. This stone is traditionally called the heel stone and is an important point of reference for the seasonal changes demarcated at Stonehenge.During later phases of construction, the distinctive inner core of the stone complex began to take shape. Today it consists of a central horseshoe-shaped grouping of five pairs of sandstones, each topped with a lintel. These post-and-lintel pairs are called trilithons. The central trilithon is taller than the other four, standing about 24 feet tall. At the center of the trilithon grouping is one single stone, called the altar stone. Surrounding this group is a circle of megalithic sarsen stones, some weighing as much as 50 tons. All the stones are set vertically into the ground, each one standing approximately 20 feet tall. This circle was topped by a continuous lintel, some of which is intact today. All the stones are tapered slightly at their tops to give the appearance of stability. The lintels are held together by rocky projections cut into one rock, secured into a hole carved out of adjoining rock. Between these two megalithic rings was a smaller ring of blue-stones. This type of blue dolerite must have held some specific symbolic value, for they were brought from a quarry in modern-day Wales, located around 150 miles away. Many of the stones original to this circle were reused in later construction campaigns, when some of them were placed inside the horseshoe arrangement around the altar stone. Now, if one were to stand at the altar stone on the morning of the summer solstice, what appears is the sun rising directly over the heel stone, located out near the ditch. Therefore, it is clear that Stonehenge functioned, at least in part, as an ancient "sundial," which marked the changing of the seasons by measuring the movement of the sun within this circular arrangement. This knowledge would certainly be important to this primarily agricultural society, and ceremonial centers such as Stonehenge may have been used to celebrate planting and harvesting rituals.
Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. Allison Lee Palmer. 2008.
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