As you can see from Texas A&M’s anthropology aggregating site (which is one of my favorite places on the net), at least a dozen stories have appeared in the past week about new archaeological finds near Stonehenge. Using ground penetrating radar and other non-invasive technology, archaeologists have discovered another henge — which was wooden, approximately 3,000 feet from Stonehenge.
I have read most of the “woodhenge” articles posted on A&M’s site, and find it incredible that ninety percent of the area surrounding one of the most famous megalithic sites in the world has remained largely unexplored. No wonder there are so many different theories and arguments about who built Stonehenge, why it was constructed, and how it was used. If archaeologists have not even explored the immediately surrounding area, our lack of knowledge — and the proliferation of wild speculation — becomes more understandable.
Although Stonehenge was built over a considerable period of time and in phases, there is some consensus that it was largely in place by 2,500 BCE. Who built it and why remain open research questions. One thing is clear: Stonehenge is invested with heavy symbolism and may have variously served cosmological, ceremonial, and ritual purposes. Whether these combined purposes amounted to a form of organized religion is another question altogether. Contrary to popular belief, Stonehenge almost certainly was not associated with pagan Druids, who came much later and adopted the site.
What distinguishes Stonehenge from most other megalithic structures (aside from its distinctive architecture) is that it is not connected to any identifiable city-state or empire. In most (if not all) other places where we find megalithic structures, they are associated with readily identifiable societies that are centralized, populous, agrarian, and stratified. We know, for instance, that ziggurats were built by Sumerians and Babylonians, pyramids were built by Egyptians, temples were built by Mayans and Aztecs, etc.
Not so with Stonehenge, which adds immeasurably to its mystery. Although there is evidence of medium-size settlements in the larger area surrounding Stonehenge during the time periods when it was constructed, these societies — which look more like autonomous villages that were usually stockaded for defense — seem quite unlike those societies that constructed other famous megalithic monuments. Someone needs to organize, feed, and house the workers that build structures such as these, and in England the people responsible for the construction of Stonehenge remain unknown.
It has been suggested, however, that the medium-size settlements in the vicinity of Stonehenge were connected by chieftains and something like a royal family, perhaps related by blood and marriage. This suggestion arises from the fact that Stonehenge and its surrounds served as a burial ground or “barrows” that apparently was limited to elites. Over time, Stonehenge may have attracted other peoples for different reasons.
Whatever proves to be the case, which may be a long time coming or something that we never fully understand, this kind of anomaly complicates any scenario which posits that religion evolved in unilineal fashion in accord with underlying economic factors or social organization.