Describe the main symbolic features of Stonehenge.
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One of the most famous monuments in the world, the origins of Stonehenge are murky at best. Archaeologists have determined that the stones were erected somewhere around 2500 B.C., with some experts claiming that the dates range from 3100 B.C to 2200 B.C. Cremated remains suggest that it probably began as a burial site (probably between 3000 B.C. to 2500 B.C.). Scientists believe the construction may have taken as long as 1500 years and that it may have been a much larger, complete structure at some point. It is speculated that a wooden base may have also existed at one time.
HOW the stones were positioned has long puzzled experts.
The bluestones (some of which are made of dolerite, an igneous rock), were thought for much of the 20th century to have been transported by humans from the Preseli Hills, 250 kilometres (160 mi) away in modern-day Pembrokeshire in Wales. Another theory that has recently gained support, is that they were brought much nearer to the site as glacial erratics by the Irish Sea Glacier.
Supernatural construction has been suggested (though few, if any, scientists believe this), and many people believe it would have been impossible to move such large stones during the time period. However,
... conventional techniques using Neolithic technology have been demonstrably effective at moving and placing stones of a similar size.
Needless to say, the builders of Stonehenge left no written records, and the construction techniques are purely speculative.
The most important symbolic feature of Stonehenge is its orientation. Stonehenge is comprised of a series of stones erected in circles and horseshoes (Blue stones, Standing stones, Aubrey holes) to aid the people who built it in determining the date of the winter solstice (and by its inverse, the summer solstice). The stones are oriented so that, on the date of the winter solstice, the sun will set on the horizon between stones 15 and 16, over the altar stone, and directly opposite the heel stone. This orientation (calendar if you will) allowed the builders of Stonehenge to calculate the half year, an important piece of knowledge for agricultural people who needed to know when to plant their crops.
Some archeologists believe that Stonehenge had several purposes in addition to marking the half year. One of these purposes is also symbolic--Stonehenge has an outer ring of holes (called Aubrey holes) which may have been used to predict eclipses.
In 1965, Harvard astronomer Gerald Hawkins claimed that Stonehenge served these people as a giant astronomical observatory. He explained that numerous stone alignments marked key positions of both the sun and the moon. Noting that the cycle of lunar eclipses occurs in a pattern of fifty-six years (nineteen plus nineteen plus eighteen), he believed that this pattern explained the purpose of the Aubrey Holes, which were used as a lunar eclipse predictor.
Archaeologists have been skeptical of these claims, questioning the precision of the alignments and the builders’ possession of the required knowledge to construct such an observatory...[However] control over cosmology and an ability to predict eclipses would have been of great value in reinforcing the power and prestige of the lords of Wessex.
This would have been powerful knowledge for a shaman or priest to possess. His or her command of this information could have served a symbolic function to make it appear that the religious leaders did not predict, but could cause, eclipses.
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