Understanding Stonehenge: Two Explanations

A symbol of unity or healing? The debate continues. Click to enlarge this image. Getty Images
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Was the prehistoric monument built to unite a land or as a destination to heal the sick? Recent research supports both ideas.

After centuries of puzzling over the meaning of Stonehenge, laser-equipped researchers have concluded that the prehistoric monument was built to show off the solstices.

Apart from revealing 71 new images of Bronze Age axeheads, which bring the number of this type of carvings known at Stonehenge to 115, the English Heritage groundbreaking analysis showed that the stones were shaped and crafted differently in various parts of the stone circle.

In particular, the stones first seen when approaching the monument from the north-east were completely "pick dressed." Stonehenge workers removed their brown and grey surface crust to show a bright, grey-white surface that would glisten at sunset on the shortest day of the year and in the dawn light on the longest day.

PHOTOS: Stonehenge Made to Glisten

According to the researchers, this provides an 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.

Located in the county of Wiltshire, at the center of England's densest complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, Stonehenge has been the subject of myth, legend and -- more recently -- scientific research for more than eight centuries.

The mysterious circle of large standing stones has been interpreted in the most disparate ways -- as a temple for sun worship, a temple of the ancient druids, a healing center, a burial site and a huge calendar.

The new laser findings appear to be compatible with two main theories taking shape in recent years to explain the monument's purpose.

According to archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson, head of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, the iconic monument was built as a grand act of union after a long period of conflict between east and west Britain.

Another theory, posed by archaeologists Geoff Wainwright and Timothy Darvill, says Stonehenge was a destination to which the sick traveled from around Europe to be healed by its magical powers.

"The scanning work at Stonehenge is really important and has opened our eyes to many new aspects of Neolithic technology," Darvill, professor of archaeology in the School of Applied Sciences at Bournemouth University, England, told Discovery News.

Darvill and Wainwright made one of the most significant findings in 2005, when they located the quarry where the bluestones, which form Stonehenge's inner circle, were cut around 2500 B.C.

The archaeologists discovered a "small crag-edged promontory with a stone bank across its neck" at one of the highest points of Carn Menyn, a mountain in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire, in southwest Wales.

ANALYSIS: Stonehenge Reveals New Clues of Ancient Worship

The site, which measures less than half a hectare, is characterized by numerous prone pillar stones with clear signs of working. Darrvill described it as "a veritable Aladdin's Cave of made-to-measure pillars for aspiring circle builders."

The bluestones weighed about four tons and were between six and nine feet in height and would have been transported 240 miles to the famous site at Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

According to Darvill, the color and the presence of distinctive white spots made the Preseli Hills stones very pleasing aesthetically.

"Importantly, the methods of working the bluestones seems to be the same as for the central Trilithons and serves to support the idea I put forward some time ago that these two components of the monument were contemporary and somehow linked," Darvill said.

According to the archaeologist, the huge stones were taken on such a journey from their Welsh location because they were believed to harbor great powers.

In 2008, Darvill and Wainwright excavated a small patch of earth at Stonehenge. The dig unearthed about 100 pieces of organic material from the original bluestone sockets and provided the most accurate dating for their erection, pinpointing the bluestone construction to 2300 B.C. It also produced a large number of bluestone chippings, as if people flaked them off to create little amulet bits.

ANALYSIS: Stonehenge Built as Symbol of Unity

The presence of a large number of human remains in tombs near Stonehenge showing physical injury and disease and analysis of teeth reveal that around half of the corpses were not native to the Stonehenge area and suggested Stonehenge served as a center for healing, said the archaeologists.

Attracted by the powers of the bluestones, the sick and injured would have come to the site from far away.

"The new work indirectly supports the healing hypothesis as it shows the importance of the stones from Wales," Darvill said.

"It also shows that most of them have had bits chipped off them and some have been reduced to stumps by removals exactly as we suggested was the case," he added.

But according to Mike Parker Pearson, the enigmatic stone circle had nothing to do with sickness and diseases. On the contrary, it was built as a grand act of union after a long period of conflict between east and west Britain.

"Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labor of thousands to move stones from as far away as west Wales, shaping them and erecting them. Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification," Parker Pearson said.

Because of Stonehenge's solstice-aligned avenue, prehistoric people would have seen the spot as nothing less than the "center of the world."

According to Parker Pearson, the discovery of the winter sunset axis at Stonehenge by the laser scan project supports his previous findings.

"Our study of seasonal culling of animals eaten at feasts at Durrington Walls, from the time when the sarsens were put up around 2500 B.C., shows that they were killed at two times of the year, most in the midwinter period and the rest in the summer," Parker Pearson said.

The midwinter solstice was the most important time for these ceremonial gatherings, presumably the beginning and end of their year.

"We have isotope evidence for people bringing their animals from all over Britain, tying in with the theme of unification. You could call it the Neolithic version of Christmas and New Year," Parker Pearson said.