Stonehenge was built as a monument to unify the peoples of Britain, researchers have concluded after 10 years of archaeological investigations.
Dismissing all previous theories, scientists working on the Stonehenge Riverside Project (SRP) believe the enigmatic stone circle was built as a grand act of union after a long period of conflict between east and west Britain.
Coming from southern England and from west Wales, the stones may have been used to represent the ancestors of some of Britain's earliest farming communities.
According study leader Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, Britain's Neolithic people became increasingly unified during the monument's main construction around 3000 B.C. to 2500 B.C.
"There was a growing island-wide culture — the same styles of houses, pottery and other material forms were used from Orkney to the south coast," Parker Pearson said.
"Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labour 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.
According to the researcher, who has detailed the new theory in the book Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery, the place in the county of Wiltshire where the iconic stones were erected was not chosen by chance.
On the contrary, it already had special significance for prehistoric Britons.
Parker Pearson and colleagues noticed that Stonehenge's solstice-aligned avenue sits upon a series of natural landforms which mark out the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset.
"When we stumbled across this extraordinary natural arrangement of the sun’s path being marked in the land, we realized that prehistoric people selected this place to build Stonehenge because of its pre-ordained significance," Parker Pearson said.
Basically, they would have seen the spot as nothing less than the "center of the world."
"This might explain why there are eight monuments in the Stonehenge area with solstitial alignments, a number unmatched anywhere else,” Parker Pearson said.
According to the researchers, the winter solstice was the more significant time of the year when Stonehenge was built 5,000-4,500 years ago.
"We can tell from ageing of the pig teeth that higher quantities of pork were eaten during midwinter at the nearby settlement of Durrington Walls, and most of the monuments in the Stonehenge area are aligned on sunrise and sunset at midwinter rather than midsummer," said Pearson.
The prehistoric monument has long baffled archaeologists, who have argued for decades over its original purpose, with two main theories taking shape in recent years: one was that it was a healing space, the other that it was a place of the dead.
Other theories suggested the great stone circle was used as a prehistoric observatory, a sun temple, and a temple of the ancient druids.
"The Stonehenge Riverside Project’s researchers have rejected all these possibilities after the largest programme of archaeological research ever mounted on this iconic monument," the researchers said in a statement.
Photo: Stonehenge. Credit: Garethwiscombee/Wikimedia Commons.