Amazing Places

A New Discovery About Stonehenge Only Makes Things So Much Weirder

What's the meaning of Stonehenge? It's one of those mysteries that just won't leave you alone. Prehistoric cave paintings are one thing, but to have jammed several 20-ton rocks into the ground upright using the technology available 5,000 years ago? That's a pretty incredible feat. But one of the only scholars with permission to excavate in the area has a new theory that makes the whole thing much more mysterious. What if the stones that line up with the solstices were already pointing to that spot for millions of years?

The Heel Stone

Rewriting Prehistory

Meet Mike Pitts. He's been one of the world's leading experts on British archaeology in general, and Stonehenge in particular, since he became one of the few people with permission to excavate the site in 1979. He's discovered a lot about the place, and it seems like every new discovery or theory has carried with it a host of new questions. Now, his latest theory could explain a lot of those mysteries, but of course, it brings a few of its own as well.

There are two types of stones at Stonehenge: bluestones and sarsens. Much has been made of exactly where each type originated. In 2011, an analysis of the monument's bluestones definitively placed their source at an outcropping in Wales, some 160 miles (257 kilometers) away. Of course, those stones were only about five tons (4.5 metric tonnes) apiece. Compared to the 20- to 30-ton sarsens, they were practically the Mini Coopers of the henge world. Sarsens are a kind of silicified sandstone, and they're relatively abundant in the area surrounding Stonehenge. Still, most of them were probably dragged from Marlborough Downs, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) away.

Enter Mike Pitts and his, well, pits. Back in 1979, during the first excavation, he uncovered evidence of prehistoric pits dug directly beside some of the most crucial stones in the structure — specifically, the stones known today as the Heel Stone and stone 16. The Heel Stone is of particular interest for a couple of reasons. At 35 tons, it's the largest stone in the complex, it's set off from the central circular arena by about 250 feet (76 meters), and it's the stone you'd gaze at if you were trying to locate the point where the sun rises on the summer solstice and sets on the winter solstice. And the place you'd be standing? Right next to stone 16. When Pitts first discovered those pits, he thought they might have once contained other stones that had since been removed. But now he believes stone 16 and the Heel Stone were dug out of the ground right there.

An Ancient Guidepost

What's interesting is that the pits that those stones would have been dug out of also line up with the solstices. That means that if Pitt is right, a lot of questions that have long surrounded the monument could have answers. For example, why did ancient people choose that particular plot of land to drag their stones? Because it already held astronomical significance to them. Why were these two stones not carved or shaped in any way? Because they were already functioning as markers for the sun. Best of all, this would explain why there were other structures at Stonehenge long before the henge itself.

To be fair, it does raise another question — if the stones were already in line with the solstices, then why bother unearthing them and moving them slightly to the south in the first place? We might not ever have all the answers, but every day we get closer to finding out what the druids were doing, hundreds of years before the dawn of history.

Want an insider's opinion on the lives of the people who built Stonehenge? Read Mike Pitts' 1999 book "Hengeworld" and take a trip 5,000 years back in time. Or jump back visually with photographer James O. Davies' "A Year at Stonehenge," which also features an introduction by Pitts. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

New Secrets Revealed at Stonehenge

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Written by Reuben Westmaas May 17, 2018

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