Sunday, 17 June 2012

Stonehenge reveals its secrets

It's the most popular site to watch the sun rise on the summer solstice. Yet the latest research suggests that the ancient people who erected the massive stones, after hauling them 240km, were more interested in midwinter or even their healing properties, writes Robert Matthews
This week, crowds will gather at sites from New York to Norway to take part in one of the most ancient of all rituals: watching the sun rise on the summer solstice - the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.
The largest gathering will be at the most celebrated of these sites - Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, England. Each year, many thousands of people try to get close to the enigmatic stone circles in the (usually vain) hope of witnessing the rising of the solstice sun.
Yet new research suggests that this modern-day ritual has been misconceived, occurring at the wrong place at the wrong time - and with everyone looking in the wrong direction.
This is among a whole slew of insights emerging about Stonehenge following recent studies by archaeologists. Taken together, they point to a whole new conception of Stonehenge's origins, purpose and evolution.
What hasn't changed are the estimates of the astonishing antiquity of these sites. Dating of artefacts found around Stonehenge show that its construction began about 5,000 years ago.
To put that into context, when building began at the site, the Great Pyramids of Egypt were still 500 years in the future.
Most archaeologists agree that the first structures at the Wiltshire site took the form of a circular ditch with a bank - a "henge" - that had 56 pits, known as Aubrey Holes, arranged within it.
But while there is broad agreement on dates, archaeologists are now questioning the standard image of Stonehenge at these times. They believe that from the outset, the site featured "bluestones" made from a volcanic rock known as spotted dolerite.
And therein lies the first astonishing fact about Stonehenge. The source of these bluestones has been traced to an outcrop more than 240 kilometres away in the hills of Pembrokeshire, Wales. Exactly how scores of bluestones, some weighing more than four tonnes, were transported so far by Neolithic labourers has long been a mystery.
One theory is that nature did most of the heavy lifting during the last Ice Age, a glacier scooping up the rocks in Wales, and dumping them in central England when it melted about 10,000 years ago.
Recent research, however, has cast doubt on this. Analysis by researchers at the University of Wales has shown the bluestones were broken from their host outcrop and exposed to the air after the glaciers had vanished.
The idea that the stones were transported by human ingenuity has been revived following an experiment conducted in 2010 by Dr Andrew Young at the University of Exeter.
While working at a similar stone circle in Aberdeen, Scotland, archaeologists had found dozens of carved stone balls. Wondering if these might have acted as "ball bearings", Dr Young constructed a track capable of holding them in position as objects were rolled over them. Experiments showed that the technique allowed just half a dozen people to pull even the largest bluestones relatively easily.
But to what purpose - what was Stonehenge for? One of the most persistent theories is that it was some kind of giant astronomical observatory. More than 250 years ago, the English antiquarian William Stukeley pointed out that Stonehenge and the outlying "Heel Stone" - near which the sun will rise on Thursday - were orientated roughly towards the point of sunrise on the longest day of the year.
The National:
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Stonehenge Tour Guide

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