As Solstice Nears, a New Update on Old Stonehenge Mystery

Visit Britain

Both summer and winter solstices are popular times to visit Stonehenge. And, just as the Mayan calendar has some wondering if the world will end on this year’s winter solstice, December 21, some people think Stonehenge foretells the end of the world on the same day. But the vast majority of visitors see Stonehenge as a curiosity, or maybe a very old clock, not as a predictor of the future.

Is Stonehenge on your must-see list? If so, you're in good company. The number of annual visitors (half of whom come from overseas) has nearly doubled over the past 30 years, to about 1.1 million.

A few months ago, as thousands of celebrants met under rainy skies to mark the summer solstice during all-night festivities at the 5,000-year-old prehistoric monument, another new theory on Stonehenge came to light.

Four main theories — and a new one

How was Stonehenge built? Who built it and why? How did they move the stones there, turn them upright and position 45 tons of dead weight atop other stones? Both a World Heritage and an English Heritage site, Stonehenge, along with and nearby Avebury, is cited as being of "outstanding universal value," "without parallel" and providing "an exceptional insight into the funerary and ceremonial practices in Britain in the Neolithic and Bronze Age." While volumes have been written about Stonehenge, interpretations around the mystery this prehistoric monument presents to the modern world keep coming.

You may run across those who believe that Stonehenge is a UFO runway for intergalactic aliens. However, the four main theories are that it is a place for the dead, a place of healing, a place for sun or moon worship, or a prehistoric astronomical observatory. One thing is certain: It was a cemetery, likely for royalty.

Pulling together

After 10 years of intense research and extensive digs, archeologists from five major UK universities announced the result of their archaeological research study. It's the basis for the latest theory surrounding Stonehenge: that it was built as a monument to unify the people of what is now Britain after a long period of conflict between the island's regions.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project discovered evidence of an additional henge, Bluestonehenge, a mile away. Researchers unearthed stones and dateable fragments suggesting that construction began as early as 3,000 B.C. and continued for more than a millennium.

The team was able to pinpoint the original source of the stones: Preseli Hills in Wales, 150 miles away. Professor Mike Parker Pearson, the archaeological team leader, 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."

Getting to Stonehenge

Stonehenge is 90 miles west of London, near Salisbury in Wiltshire. Visitors are encouraged to arrive by public transportation or via tour bus. Salisbury's train station is nine miles away and connected by buses. Under the English Heritage master plan, the A344 motorway that runs past Stonehenge will be closed, a new visitor center will be built, and access will be changed to be more sympathetic to the landscape. Work began July 2012. See the website for tickets, and seasonal hours.

Access to the inner circle is by appointment only, early in the morning or late in the evening, and tickets sell out months in advance. Only 26 people are allowed to access the center of the stone circle for one hour before and after normal opening times, five days a week.

by Laurie Jo Miller Farr

Top: Stonehenge is a busy place during winter and summer solstices. Access to the inner stones is by appointment only. (Photo by Martin Brent/Visit Britain)

Right: Avebury, not far from Stonehenge, is another ancient site some believe to be sacred. (Photo by Britain on View/Visit Britain)

What to Read Next