History

Stonehenge: Myths and Conspiracies

Stonehenge has spurred many myths and conspiracy theories, some of them created by its restoration.

With the news earlier this week about the discovery of a "super-Stonehenge" circling one of the world's most famous monuments, attention has once again focused on the Wiltshire marvel. There are thousands of ancient stone circles across Europe, of which Stonehenge is by far the best known and most impressive.

While there are many genuine historical mysteries about Stonehenge - such as who built it and for what purpose - there are just as many fabricated ones trading in myth and conspiracy.

In his book "British Folklore" historian Marc Alexander notes that "Theoretical explanations for Stonehenge are plentiful and varied. Ley hunters - those who research imaginary lines claimed to connect important sites around the world such as the Great Pyramid - find great significance in its geographical relationship to other sites. UFOlogists gleefully point to the usual number of flying saucers reported over Wiltshire and draw obvious conclusions, and those who believe in ‘earth forces' see it as a gigantic ‘battery' for storing ‘terrestrial energy.'"

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Others claim that the stones are designed to be some sort of cosmic portal, perhaps to other dimensions or realities; as one speculative commenter noted, "It's said that Stonehenge is a sound resonator that when a sound is played at the right frequency and the right placement it's supposed to have an effect. Maybe a portal to another dimension or a (alien) base."

Stonehenge Conspiracies Ironically some of the most outlandish conspiracies about Stonehenge were created by attempts to preserve it. When most people see the monument they believe (or assume) that they're seeing more or less what has always been there. And indeed that's the story promoted in guidebooks: the idea that what today's visitors see is what has stood for thousands of years.

But that's not quite true; in fact most of Stonehenge has been moved at one point or another. It's not the result of a hoax, fraud, or deception, but instead merely early attempts to preserve and restore the site - for example reinforcing the stones with concrete.

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Over the millennia some stones have fallen into the soft earth, and it's not known whether they fell straight back or twisted slightly at an angle, and so on. At least a dozen of the stones were straightened and re-erected between 1900 and 1960, and early depictions of Stonehenge (such as artist John Constable's 1835 painting) look quite different than what is seen today. Those restoring the area made an effort to give a sense of what Stonehenge might have been like thousands of years ago, but in fact no one really knows what it originally looked like - or was supposed to look like.

For most visitors, of course, whether a given stone was originally 10 or 20 degrees off kilter to one side or another is irrelevant: Just being among the immense stones is awe-inspiring enough.

However for others such details may be crucially important. If the monument was designed to cast a shadow or serve as some sort of astronomical calendar corresponding with celestial bodies, for example, a difference of a few degrees could lead to vastly different interpretations about its role or significance.

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Many mystics and paranormal buffs have carefully analyzed the exact positions and angles of the Stonehenge rocks, hoping to glean some information left behind four millennia later that might reveal clues to its meaning. The layout of Stonehenge - as it is now, not as it was created - has been subjected to countless crank theories, ranging from numerology to astrology to calculating lunar eclipses.

Because the restoration work at Stonehenge is not widely known, it has generated conspiracy theories. Some have even suggested that the monument dates back less than a century, created to spur tourism profits or for other unknown - and possibly nefarious - reasons.

Mick West, a British researcher who writes for the Metabunk web site, has visited the site several times and investigated such conspiracy claims. "The idea that Stonehenge is a relatively modern construction is appealing to a certain type of conspiracy theorist who has fallen far down the rabbit hole," West told Discovery News. "Images appearing to show the construction of Stonehenge with cranes and concrete are an intellectual delight to them. No particular reason is needed for Stonehenge to be faked, because in their mind everything is faked, and this is simply pleasant circular confirmation that they were right all along."

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West notes that "By the 1800s Stonehenge had fallen into ruin. Several stones had fallen over and others were leaning perilously. Some large sarsen stones were so eroded by thousands of years of inclement British weather that they were in danger of falling to pieces. Numerous restoration projects were carried out between 1901 and 1963, and of course many photos and film clips of these restorations exist.

"It's easy to take these images out of context and present them as construction when they are actually just restoration. This concrete can be seen in several places today, and a modern visitor to Stonehenge (unaware of the restorations) might be forgiven for thinking they have discovered some evidence of forgery or hoax."

Stonehenge fell out of use around 1500 B.C., and has stood as a mute mystery ever since. However one by one several of the mysteries of Stonehenge have been solved. Last year, for example, a new analysis of some of the stones determined that many of them had been quarried in a place called Carn Goedog, several miles further away than previously believed.

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In her article "Secrets of Stonehenge" National Geographic writer Caroline Alexander reminds us that "There are no texts to explain Stonehenge. Secure in its wordless prehistory it can thus absorb a multitude of ‘meanings': temple to the sun - or the moon for that matter; astronomical calendar; city of the ancestral dead; center of healing; stone representations of the gods; symbol of status and power," as well as more paranormal and New Age explanations.

While the mechanics of Stonehenge will likely be determined through further research and discoveries, the purpose of the monument will likely forever remain a mystery.