Bronze Age: Stonehenge


Figure 1.--Stonehenge is a popular site for school field trips in Britain. A HBC reader recalls his school trip in 1962 which included a stop at Stonehenge. Notice the size of the stones. Click on the image for information about the school trip.

Because of the still primitive technology of most Bronze Age people, there are a limited mumber of monumental archeological sites outside the great river valleys. One of the best known such site is Stonehenge. This is a group of monumental stones errected on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. This is the best known of the megalithic monuments that have been found in Western Europe. The people who built these structures are known to be linked by trade and seem to have shared religious ideas. Stonehenge is but the final construction of centuries of ceremonial religious activity at the site. Activity at the site begun in the Neolithic Period, perhaps as early as 3500 BC. Little enough is known about the existing structure at Stonehenge. Nothing is known about the origins of the site and why the particular site was chosen. It is possible that the original hunter-gather people of Britain first found something of importance at the site, but they left no remains and this is pure speculation. As agriculture developed, the early farmers did leave their mark--embanked circular enclosures. Remains of these enclosures can be found at many sites in Britain. They are called "henge monuments," and are similar to Stonehenge, except that the ditches are located on the inside.

The Bronze Age

The Bronze Age is the last era of pre-history. Early humans began working with copper first because its low melting point and abundance made it the easiest metal to work with. Eventually it was discovered that by adding small quantities of tin (a more difficult metal to find and mine) or other metals that much harder tools and weapons could be fashioned. The important early river valley civilizations emerged during the bronze age and it is here that bronze was first developed. Bronze tools and weapons first appeared in Mesopotamia and Egypt (cloesly linked to Mesopotamia) about 2500 BC. Human exisited in other areas of course during the Bronze Age and bronze technology gradually spread around the world. A factor here was that metals were not abundant in the river valleys where the great civilizations rose. Thus metals like copper and tin had to be obrained through war or trade. Thus the Bronze Age reached the outlaying regions with metal resources. The Bronze Age reached Britain by 2500 BC. Britain of course had important tin mines. Because of the still primitive technology of most Bronze Age people, there are a limited mumber of monumental archeological sites outside the great river valleys. One of the best known such site is Stonehenge. Many important advances were made during the Bronze Age, including the use of draft animals, wheeled vehicles, and the potter's wheel. Bronze technology was adopted by both primitive agricultural socities as well as pastoralists which tended to be more war like. Some of these peoples used bronze weapons to press in on rich civilzations of the river vallies. One of the interesting historical processes is how barbarian groups could at times sucessfully confront the technologically more advanced and more populated civilizations. This is a process which continued into the modern world and was not finally ended until the invention of fire arms.

Monumental Sites

Because of the still primitive technology of most Bronze Age people, there are a limited mumber of monumental archeological sites outside the great river valleys. One of the best known such site is Stonehenge.

Megalith Sites

There are several Bronze age sites in the British Isles. Stonehenge is the most notable. One other important site is Loughcrew in Ireland.

Circles

Stonehenge is laid out in concentric circles. This pattern can be observed in Loughcrew and other related sites. Art work employong concentric circles or swirls can also be found. Some archeologists speculate that these were supernatural gateways. As might be the pillar and lentals at Stonhenge. Some anthorpoligists sees correlations with modern chaministic societies.

Stonehenge

This is a group of monumental stones errected on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. This is the best known of the megalithic monuments that have been found in Western Europe. Stonehenge is but the final construction of centuries of ceremonial religious activity at the site. Activity at the site begun in the Neolithic Period, perhaps as early as 3500 BC. Little enough is known about the existing structure at Stonehenge. Nothing is known about the origins of the site and why the particular site was chosen. It is possible that the original hunter-gather people of Britain first found something of importance at the site, but they left no remains and this is pure speculation. As agriculture developed, the early farmers did leave their mark--embanked circular enclosures. Remains of these enclosures can be found at many sites in Britain. They are called "henge monuments," and are similar to Stonehenge, except that the ditches are located on the inside. It is clear that over time Stonehenge became a site of particular reverence. It is not known why. Over time structures of increasing permanance and sophistication were erected on the site. The final contruction was the work of the agricultural Wesssex people of ancient Britain. The stones are surrounded by a ditch which is nearly 100 meters in diameter. The stomes are organized in four groups. Two groups form outer circles. One group is horshoe shaped. Another group is ovoid form within which is what some call the altar stone. This last construction is believed to have been built at about 1800-1400 BC.

The People

The people who built these structures are known to be linked by trade and seem to have shared religious ideas. Malta was the principal center of an expansive maritime center within the Mediterranean and into the North Atlantic. Very limited traces, but there are tombs whichave yielded some artifcts and megalithic constructions extending from southrn Sweden to North Africa. Great archeological debate as to how to interpret these sites and the degree to which they were interelated. One historian believes that the original inspiration was rock cut tombs from the Aegean [McNeill, p. 98.] Variations developed over time as the culture spread west within the Mediterranean and north along the Atantic coast. Spreading east within the Mediterrean was more difficult because advanced civilizations already existed to the east. Variations can be attributed to a range of factors, including the available building materials, climatic conditions, technological capabilities and waelth, probably measured largely in agricultural and along the coast fishing productivity. Malta seems to have been a major trading center for echanging goods from the eastern and western Mediterranean and thus could have easily been a source of religious/ceremonial ideas. Important temple ruins add credence to this idea of Malta as an important relgious center. [Zammit] While there are inland sites like Stonehenge, the proliferation of costal sites suggest that cultural diffusion was maritime which suggests that it was accompanied by peaceful trade rather than war and conquest.

Purpose

The purposes of these henges is unknown. Atcheologists speculate that they may be religious/ceremonial sites, political centers, or perhaps markets. No one really knows as there are no written records. (Writing did not reach Britain until the coming of the Romans.) Considerable speculation has occurred reharding the origins and purposes of Stonehenge. Some have called in a kind of Druid temple, but Stonghenge clearly predates the Celts. There can be little doubt that Stonhenge was a ceremonial and religious center of great importance. Stonehenge appears to be a monument in stone depicting the world view of the builders. Archeologists debate the nature of the ceremonies, but it seems clear that the primary purpose was to celebrate the Winter soltice. Round burial barrows have been found all around Stonehenge, perhaps a reflection of the importance of the site.

Invaders

War-like peoples speaking Undo-European languages armed with Bronze Age weapons reached the western-most points in europe and conquered the more peaceable megalith builders along the far Atlantic coast. Stonehenge itself may have been built under the direction of the conquerers who set themselves up as artistocrats and reduced the megalith builder people to serfs. The traces of mlb disappear at about the time Stonehenge was built and burial sites appear all around Stonehenge. One source say that stone henge was "built to the specifications of the conquerors". [McNeill, p. 103.] I'm not sure that is the case, but working in stone does seem to be a departure from earlier work in timber.

The Dawn of the West

Stonehenge has normally been seen as a rare glimse into the murky fog of pre-history. Stonehenge may in fact be the result of a great revolution. About the time of Stonehenge, warrior barbarians equipped with Bronze-Age weapons conquerd the eelatively peaceable villagers of the Brirish isles. They also brought Indo-European languages. A historian explains the fundamental change that took place. "In a profound sence, too, the warrior ethos of the Bronze Age warlike, valuing individual prowess more highly than any other civilized people (saving only the Japanese) found it fitting to do; and tese attitudes, stemming ultimately from the style of life befitting warrior-hersdsmn of the wesrern steppe, have remained a basic part of the Euopean inheritance down to the present day." [McNeill, p. ?.]

Source

McNeill, William H. The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991), 828p.

Zammit, Themistocles. Prehistoric Malta: Tarxjea Temple (London: Oxford University Press, 1931).







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Created: 3:57 AM 1/4/2006
Last updated: 10:25 PM 1/5/2006