Stonehenge may have been built as a graveyard and venue for mass celebrations.
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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British researchers unveiled a new theory for the origins of Stonehenge, saying the ancient stone circle was originally a graveyard and venue for mass celebrations.
The findings would overturn the long-held belief that Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in southwestern England was created as a Stone Age astronomical calendar or observatory.
A team led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson of University College London said Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is both older and had a different function than previously thought.
"In many ways our findings are rewriting the established story of Stonehenge," Parker Pearson said.
The archaeologists carried out a decade of research which included excavations, laboratory work and the analysis of 63 sets of ancient human remains.
They said the original Stonehenge appeared to have been a graveyard for elite families built around 3000 BC, 500 years earlier than the site that is famous today.
The remains of many cremated bodies were marked by the bluestones of Stonehenge, Pearson said.
Further analysis of cattle teeth from 80,000 animal bones excavated from the site also suggest that around 2500 BC, Stonehenge was the site of vast communal feasts.
These would have been attended by up to one tenth of the British population at one time in what Parker Pearson said resembled "Glastonbury festival and a motorway building scheme at the same time."
It seemed that ancient people traveled to celebrate the winter and summer solstices but also to build the monument, he said.
"Stonehenge was a monument that brought ancient Britain together," he said.
"What we?ve found is that people came with their animals to feast at Stonehenge from all corners of Britain -- as far afield as Scotland."
He said it appeared to be the "only time in prehistory that the people of Britain were unified."
UNESCO describes Stonehenge as the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world.
But archaeologists have long argued about its importance to the people who built it, ranging from a place of astronomy to one of human sacrifice.
The researchers said their findings also gave a clue to why the monument stopped being used -- another mystery that has baffled archaeologists.
The earlier timeline they propose suggests that Stonehenge was built before the arrival of the "Beaker people" who brought with them a less centralized political culture.