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Revelers at a Celtic summer solstice celebration at Stonehenge.

Each year revelers like these travel to Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice.

Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic

Rachel Hartigan Shea

National Geographic

Published June 21, 2013

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo The eerie megaliths of Stonehenge have inspired speculation for centuries.

Druids—and sometimes aliens—have been suspected of planting the 4,500-year-old stones. Is Stonehenge an astronomical calendar or a place of healing or a marker for magical energy lines in the ground? For a long time, no one really knew, though some theories were more grounded in reality than others.

But now, we may be a little bit closer to understanding the monumental Neolithic site. Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson and his colleagues at the Stonehenge Riverside Project, whose research was funded in part by the National Geographic Society, spent seven years excavating Stonehenge and its surroundings. This month, Parker Pearson published the project's findings in a new book, Stonehenge—A New Understanding: Solving the Mysteries of the Greatest Stone Age Monument.

National Geographic writer Rachel Hartigan Shea spoke with Parker Pearson about what he and his colleagues discovered and how modern celebrants greeting the summer solstice at Stonehenge may have gotten the wrong day.

What got you first interested in researching Stonehenge?

Well, I have to say I didn't actually have any interest at all in Stonehenge. I was working with Ramilisonina, a Malagasy archaeologist. He comes from a megalith-building culture, so I thought he'd be interested to see Stonehenge. I took him to take a look, and he said, "What do you mean you don't know what it's for? It's obvious." Then he said, "Mike, have you learned nothing in all of our work together with standing stones in Madagascar?"

He explained to me it was surely built for the ancestors. In Madagascar, they build in stone for the ancestors because it is a permanent medium—permanent like the ancestors—whereas they live in wooden houses because those will perish just like human life will end. I laughed initially and said, "Well, I don't think that's necessarily really going to have anything to do with Britain 5,000 years ago."

But I realized that actually we did have timber circles very close to the stone circle of Stonehenge. That was quite a bombshell for me.

How were the excavations that you worked on at Stonehenge different from previous excavations there?

I think the important thing was not to dig just at Stonehenge but to actually investigate the wider landscape around it and to begin by looking at this area of the timber circles close by. It was there that we found that the place of wood had indeed to do with the living. (See Stonehenge pictures.)

When we came back to Stonehenge and dug there, we recovered some 60 cremation burials inside Stonehenge. What we now know is that Stonehenge was the largest cemetery of its day.

Ramilisonina's ideas about a place in stone for the dead and a place in wood for the living started as a theory but has actually become a fact as a result of our investigations.

The timber circles were located at a site called Durrington Walls. How was that the place of the living?

At Durrington Walls, we have two of these great timber circles—a bit like Stonehenge in wood—at the center of an enormous village. From where we've excavated, you're looking at a fairly dense settlement of houses.

We discovered that they'd been feasting there on a very large scale. We estimate that about four to five thousand people may have gathered there at the time they were building Stonehenge. (Take a Stonehenge quiz.)

We also know that there were seasonal influxes into the settlement at Durrington Walls. Through analysis of the age patterns on the teeth of pigs, we can see that there are particularly high points in the slaughtering patterns. The pigs had given birth in spring, and what we're seeing is a culling in the middle of the winter.

Here we are on the summer solstice, but this evidence suggests that people were gathering in large numbers at the winter solstice. We've been getting it wrong in modern times about when to gather at Stonehenge.

So Stonehenge was built to commemorate the dead?

Stonehenge wasn't built in order to do something, in the same way you might build a Greek temple to use it for worship. It seems much more likely that everything was in the act of building—that you'd construct it, then you'd go away. You'd come back 500 years later, you'd rebuild it in a new format, and then you'd go away.

I think we have to shake off this idea of various sorts of priests or shamans coming in every year over centuries to do their thing. This is a very different attitude to religious belief. It's much more about the moment. It's about what must have been these upwellings of religious—almost millennial—belief, and once the thing is done, then everyone disperses and goes back to their lives.

What do the summer and midwinter solstices have to do with where Stonehenge is located?

One of our discoveries in 2008 was on the avenue that leads out of Stonehenge. As you are moving along the avenue away from Stonehenge, you are looking toward where the sun rises on the midsummer solstice. If you turn 180 degrees and look back toward Stonehenge, that's where the sun sets on the midwinter solstice. Underneath the avenue, we discovered a natural landform, formed in a previous ice age, where there are grooves and ridges that by sheer coincidence are aligned on that solstitial axis.

Right next to this landform are pits dug to hold posts that were put up 10,000 years ago, much older than Stonehenge. Another archaeological team has discovered down by the river next to Stonehenge a huge settlement area for hunters and gatherers, which seems to have been occupied on and off for something like 4,000 years before Stonehenge itself was ever built.

We think that long before Stonehenge this location was already a special place. These hunters and gatherers may have been the people who first recognized this special feature in the land where the earth and the heavens were basically in harmony.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Rachel Hartigan Shea on Twitter.

5 comments
Richard Keatch
Richard Keatch

The hundreds of recumbent stone circles built around 3000BC in North East Scotland by the ancestors of the Picts reveal the true purpose of Stonehenge. It was a calendrical device used to identify the days of worship of the pantheon of stellar deities. The secret is knowing firstly the identity of  those stellar gods venerated in prehistory. The bright stars and constellations were identified as deities....for instance Spica (in Virgo) was  the mother goddess, Deneb in Cygnus the goose deity, Altair in Aquila the eagle god,  there was a salmon god represented by Pisces and a male warrior god represented by Orion (Betelgeuse alignment), then there was an important deity represented by Vega in Lyra and finally the Great god represented by Capricorn identified as a Cat headed god...the guardian of the winter Sun and home for the souls of the dead (in pre-Christian times and venerated in secret by groups, such as the Templars after the arrival of the Christian church)) then you need to understand that these deities had festival days dedicated to them (like our holy days) when they appeared precisely due South in the night sky at the time known as Civil Twilight (Sun 6 degrees below the horizon) either at dawn or dusk (just dark enough to see the brightest stars). These days were conveniently identified by the position of the Sun on the horizon at sunrise and sunset on these days (this was the way our calendar worked before the adoption of the date based Julian/ Gregorian calendar) The alignment of the Sun on the horizon with the stones was made from two viewing positions one on the eastern side of the circle for sunset alignments and the other on the western edge of the circle for sunrise alignments in the case of the Recumbent stone circles in Scotland (Not the Centre of the circle). When Stonehenge was redesigned  from the original simple Aubrey circle with the erection of the horseshoe of massive trilithons a similar method was used with two viewing positions but using the gaps between the stones for the  solar alignments. When the Sarsen ring was later added the viewing positions changed again...this time to the gaps between the trilithons and alignments made with the gaps between the Sarsen stones and the Sun on the horizon. You can verify these alignments with an astronomical  program ( such as Sky Map Pro II) which allows you to dial the required date and  location to see what our ancestors could see with their own eyes as the ancient alignments no longer occur  today due to precession of the equinoxes. Technology moved on for our ancestors and they developed portable sun alignment calendrical devices; thousands of which are displayed in museums mistakenly identified as simple decorative brooches..its funny that we can't see what is under our noses and that we are too intelligent? to understand our primitive ancestors

George Donaldson
George Donaldson

There is an obvious answer to the Stonehenge controversy: it would have been an abattoir.. Henges would have been cattle pens originally, those with standing stones would have been defensive cattle corrals: the standing stones being body shields for those protecting their live stock from those trying to steal it.. Stonehenge would have started of as such a place to protect the domestic cattle that had been introduced after the natural venison and beef supply had been exhausted.. When the cattle ranges were extended into the valleys of Avebury, the sarcens would have been transported to build an abattoir to process the introduced domestic cattle.. Blue-Stonehenge would have been where cattle were fasted for two days before being washed down and walked along the avenue to the abattoir.  

Danny Ellis
Danny Ellis

Nice theory that "a place in stone for the dead and a place in wood for the living" may have been a common building practice among our ancestors. I like this. I suppose it's my love of wood in my life, & of the feelings which visits to stone circles provoke within me (I do tend to envision footsteps everywhere of my ancestors).

Also, the idea that"everything was in the act of building—that you'd construct it, then you'd go away"; "Once the thing is done, then everyone disperses and goes back to their lives", seems pretty sweet to me! (Sweet as in cool, rad, fly, bad a** or whatever you fancy.)

Joe Springer
Joe Springer

"Ramilisonina's ideas about a place in stone for the dead and a place in wood for the living started as a theory but has actually become a fact as a result of our investigations."


As Maria stated, this is incorrect.  The ideas began as a hypothesis and has become a working theory.

Maria Kuppen
Maria Kuppen

"started as a theory but has actually become a fact" 

I know this is not the core of the article but... this doesn´t happen in science. Things don´t start as theories any more than they become facts. Please don´t perpetuate this misconception.

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