The architecture of religious buildings has always played an important role in the human society. Since ancient times, people tended to build religious sites of various scale and complexity. One of the most famous buildings of this type is Stonehenge, a circle of stones located in England and constructed at approximately 3000 BC to 2000 BC (Pearson et al., 2007). Stonehenge is both a tribute to extraordinary technical skills of the people who lived at that period and an illustration of their complex and multidimensional cultural life. This paper will describe Stonehenge and analyze its history, functions, and impact on the development of the Western civilization.
Stonehenge is located in the south of England, in Wiltshire, on the chalk plateau that is called Salisbury Plain. This site is characterized by a significant number of ancient monuments, relics, and burials. People began to inhabit this area in the Neolithic period, and soon it became the focal territory for building various structures (Malone & Bernard, 2002). Despite the presence of other important monuments, like Avebury stone circles, Stonehenge is the most famous and significant structure in the region.
Initially, Stonehenge comprised 162 stones, but nowadays, there are only “five great stones capped by three massive lintels,” “seventeen uprights with lintels,” and “six of the smaller Bluestones” left (Malone & Bernard, 2002, p. 8). They are standing on quite flat ground in the middle of the plain. The stones are large (their height is about 5 meters) and heavy (the approximate weight of the larger sarsen stones is 25 tons, and the weight of the smaller bluestones does not exceed 5 tons) (Hill, 2008). The surface texture of the stones is different – the sides that are facing inwards are slightly smoother that those directed outwards. In general, the surface of the stones does not bear any marks, but some of the stones have small carvings of axe-heads and daggers. These carvings are quite numerous (about several hundred), but they are present only on four stones (Hill, 2008).
Therefore, one of the unexplained mysteries related to Stonehenge is how people with no modern technologies managed to transport and lift such stones. There is no direct evidence regarding what technologies and methods were used during its erection, but most scholars and historians believe that shear legs might have been useful (Malone & Bernard, 2002). Another mystery is related to the way of transporting stones, as the people of that time did not invent the wheel yet. Scholars suggest that they might have used rolling logs. However, the distance they had to cover was long, around 40 kilometers; thus, specialists still debate regarding the appropriate means of transportation (Hill, 2008). Besides, Stonehenge was built in several stages; consequently, some elements were erected earlier than the others. In addition, the stones were rearranged several times in the process of construction (Malone & Bernard, 2002). For many centuries, Stonehenge had been used as an important burial site, and archeologists found many bones and artifacts beneath the monument and around it (Pearson et al., 2007).
Stonehenge is most likely a religious structure, but according to different theories, it could have been an observatory or even both (Darvill, 2007). The aforementioned functions are considered to be the leading ones, but specialists often argue that it might have had some additional purposes. Besides, there are plenty controversial theories related to the structure that are not accepted by scientific circles, such as Stonehenge functioning as an alien landing zone. Recent studies showed that “the stone circle drew ailing pilgrims from around Europe for what they believed to be its healing properties” (Satter, 2008). This Stonehenge function is supposed to have started around the time of its construction and lasted through the Middle Ages. As the civilization that built Stonehenge left no written records, its purposes and builders have always been a subject of not only scholarly research but also folklore. In the Middle Ages, people believed Stonehenge had been built by Merlin the magician with the help of giants. At that period Stonehenge, began to appear on many images in manuscripts and other work. It was also often mentioned in legends and tales as a place that no evil could enter. According to other theories, Stonehenge was a crucial religious place for druids, but nowadays, it is obvious that it was built much earlier. However, it is still possible that later this structure became a significant part of the druid religious ideology (Darvill, 2007).
It would be a mistake to treat Stonehenge as a single structure as it should be considered part of a large religious landscape located at Salisbury Plain. All other monuments of the similar time period are likely to have certain logical relations to Stonehenge. It is possible that all these monuments were somehow unified during certain rituals, which could be funeral processions (metaphoric religious paths from life to death), religious celebrations devoted to gods, or other rites. Stonehenge is the center of the complex that includes Woodhenge, Avebury, Arminghall, and other sites (Hill, 2008). This argument is supported by the fact that around Stonehenge and other monuments there is a large number of barrows that serve connections between these sites.
Since the First World War, Stonehenge gradually became an important attraction in England. After the railroad was constructed, the flow of visitors significantly increased, and the authorities tried to conduct some primitive renovation – the stones were supported by wooden logs, and some were pushed to upright position. In 1964, all the stones remaining at the site of Stonehenge were lifted to the original positions and the site got its modern looks (Hill, 2008). In addition, many improvements touched the landscape as it changed significantly since Stonehenge had been built. Nowadays, the process of renovation still continues. The Stonehenge Project, the most important current activity associated with this monument, is devoted to the development and construction of an underground tunnel to remove the busy highway located close to Stonehenge.
Stonehenge plays a significant role in the modern culture. It became one of the major tourist sites in Great Britain, and UNESCO declared it the World Heritage site. This organization defined the significance of Stonehenge for the civilization in the following way, “Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world… Together with inter-related monuments and their associated landscapes, they help us to understand Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial and mortuary practices” (“Official UNESCO Brief Description,” 2009). Moreover, the place became an important symbol of human genius and is considered to be one of the greatest architectural sites in the world.
In conclusion, Stonehenge is a monument in England that has been crucial for the European society during many historical periods. It is a complex structure that impresses with its grandeur and the extraordinary technical skills of its creators. It had a significant impact on the development of the European culture and folklore. Currently, it has also become a popular tourist attraction. Besides, in many aspects, ranging from its erection to its functions, Stonehenge remains a mystery that the modern scientists try to solve.