Stonehenge Treasures Reveal Worshippers' Sophistication
Oct. 12, 2012
-- It might look like just an ordinary picture of Stonehenge, but this is how the creators of the prehistoric monument wanted the site to be viewed, according to research using the latest 3D laser scanning technology. The groundbreaking analysis determined that the prehistoric monument was built to show off the solstices. In this view Stonehenge would look best when approaching from the Avenue, its ancient processional way to the north east.
Commissioned by the English Heritage, the laser-scan survey revealed in unprecedented detail the efforts made by prehistoric people at Stonehenge. "The result of the project were beyond all expectations. The investigation identified traces of stone working on virtually every stone," Marcus Abbott, head of geomatics and visualization at ArcHeritage, Hugo Anderson-Whymark, an Oxford-based expert on ancient worked stone, and colleagues wrote in the English Heritage report.
The laser-equipped researchers investigated the entire site. The laser scanner collected data with a resolution of 1 mm across the entire stone circle, and of just 0.5 mm for four stone surfaces of special interest. More than 700 surface features came to light.
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The laser highlighted prehistoric carvings from 4,500 years ago as well as damage made by modern visitors. Along with modern graffiti, this image shows scores of little axe heads and a possible dagger added when the slabs were already 1,000 years old.
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Overall, the laser scanning revealed 71 new Bronze Age axe heads, which bring the number of this type of carvings known at Stonehenge to 115.
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But the most interesting findings came from analysis of the stone surfaces. The study showed that the techniques and amounts of labor used varied from stone to stone. According to the researchers, these variations provide almost definitive proof that it was the intent of Stonehenge's builders to align the monument with the two solstices along a north-east/south-west axis. Indeed, the extremely straight and neat outline of the Great Trilithon, compared with all the other trilithons, shows that Stonehenge creators made deliberate efforts to shape it more carefully due to its special position on the solstice axis, just as they did for other stones that flank this axis.
The laser scanning showed that sides of the stones that flanked the solstice axis were most carefully worked to form very straight and narrow rectangular slots. To make them glisten in the sunlight, some stones had their crusts removed. These stones include two of the north-east facing sarsens in the outer circle, the Great Trilithon in the inner sarsen horseshoe, and an isolated upright stone in the south-west segment of the outer circle. By contrast, the stones in the south-western segment of the circle did not have their crusts removed.
The specially smoothed slabs created a dazzling light effect when the sun rays hit the stones. They would glisten in the dawn light on the longest day of the year and at sunset on the shortest This drawing shows Stonehenge in about 2300 B.C., after the construction of the sarsen outer circle and trilithons. Note the solstice axis.
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Hundreds of treasures from the golden age of Stonehenge have gone on permanent display in England, revealing the story of the people who lived amidst the area when the monument was one of the great religious focal points of western Europe.
Housed in a large, specially-designed high security and humidity-controlled exhibition facility inside the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, 15 miles north of the megalithic stone circle, the objects make England’s largest collection of early Bronze-Age gold.
“Stonehenge is an iconic monument, but this is the first time that such a wide range of high status objects from the spectacular burials of the people who used it, has ever been put on permanent display,” David Dawson, director of the Wiltshire Museum.
Most of the 500 Neolithic objects on show were unearthed within a half mile radius of Stonehenge, including 30 gold pieces which were excavated in 1808 from a burial mound known as Bush Barrow.
Found by William Cunnington, Britain’s first professional archaeologist, the objects became known as the crown jewels of the “King of Stonehenge.”
Overlooking Stonehenge itself, the burial indeed contained the skeleton of a chieftain who lived almost 4,000 years ago. He was buried in regal splendor with the objects that showed his power and authority.
Among the treasures on display are a magnificent bronze dagger with a gold covered haft, a golden sheath for a dagger, a ceremonial axe, gold beads, necklaces, earrings, pendants and other gold jewellery, a unique jet disc (used to fasten a luxury garment), rare traces of ancient textiles and two of the finest prehistoric flint arrow head ever found.
“Many of the items may well have been worn by Bronze Age priests and chieftains as they worshiped inside Stonehenge,” Dawson said.
“Axes and daggers on display are identical to images of weapons carved into the giant stones of Stonehenge itself,” he added.
The exhibition’s centerpiece is the beautifully decorated gold lozenge found on the chest of the “King of Stonehenge.”
Although the purpose of the gold lozenge remains a mystery — interpretations have ranged from an elaborate button to an astronomical instrument — its precise decorations, made of impressed lines, reveals a detailed knowledge of mathematics and geometry.
“All this was done with the naked eye as there were no magnifying glasses or microscopes,” Dawson told London’s Times.
The museum hopes that the $1.2 million exhibition will help attract more tourists to Devizes, generating jobs in the local community.
“Devizes is mid-way between two of the world’s most important ancient monuments — the great prehistoric stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury. Visiting the Wiltshire Museum completes the experience of seeing these two iconic sites,” Dawson said.
Image: Some of the objects on display. Credit: Wiltshire Museum