What Lies Beneath Stonehenge?

A new Smithsonian Channel show reveals groundbreaking research that may explain what really went on there

(Photo by Henrik Knudsen, with thanks to English Heritage)
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“Nobody had ever seen these pits before,” he continued. “But they link the area of Stonehenge with the Cursus directly. Either these things have been put inside the Cursus to mark these points, or the Cursus has been wrapped around them.”

What was so interesting about the Cursus pits was that they told a story about the landscape. The “sunrise” pit was visible from Stonehenge, but the “sunset” pit was not—it was nestled behind a ridge, and could have been seen only if there had been fire and smoke coming from it. (At some point the pits will have to be excavated for evidence of such activity.) These discoveries fed into a larger understanding of Stonehenge as “diachronic”—operating in light and dark, sunrise and sunset, day and night.

“The point I think we’re coming to,” said Gaffney, “is that increasingly we can see the area around Stonehenge as providing extensive evidence for complex liturgical movement—which we can now understand, largely because we know where things are.”

Parker Pearson, for his part, takes a cautious view of the new research. “Until you dig holes, you just don’t know what you’ve got,” he told me in his office at University College London. “What date it is, how significant it is. [There are] extraordinary new features coming up, and we’re thinking well, what are they?”

To be sure, he said the data from the Hidden Landscapes Project “backs up the pattern we’ve already been seeing for some years. We have an excessive number of solstice-aligned monuments in that landscape. Nowhere in the rest of Europe comes even close.” He added, “This is fantastic stuff that’s been done, and it’s raised a whole series of new questions,” he said. “It’s going to take years.”


The clouds shifted in front of the sun, dappling the landscape with shadow. Gaffney and I were walking the Avenue, 300 yards or so from Stonehenge, and in the distance a string of barrows gleamed like opals. Although he acknowledged the fallibility of all archaeological projection (“In the end,” he said, “we are all wrong”), his work has led him to a new interpretation of how Stonehenge was used.

Gaffney’s idea was not to focus on Stonehenge itself, but on “processionality” within the whole landscape. He imagined people moving around the area like Roman Catholics processing through the Stations of the Cross. He recalled an Easter Friday ritual he saw in Croatia, in which a “bloke with a cross” led fellow barefoot celebrants on a miles-long trip. In Gaffney’s view, the building of the great stone circle was a “monumentalizing” of a similar, if heathen, procession.

As we walked downhill through the fields, Gaffney stopped from time to time to point out the hillocks in which “the illustrious dead” were buried. He also noted how the Avenue was not a straight line between the Avon and Stonehenge, but rather a series of tacks that brought the visitor to the Stonehenge site in a “theatrical” way, along the line of sunrise on the summer solstice.

He thrust himself into the mind of a Bronze Age visitor to the site. “You will have seen nothing like it,” he said. “It would have been massively impressive.” Soon we descended into a valley called Stonehenge Bottom, only a hundred yards or so from the great stones. “They’re disappearing....Watch, just watch!” he said.

Within a few yards, the monument became invisible. When you picture Stonehenge in your mind’s eye, you imagine the concentric rings of vast stones standing in a desolate open landscape, visible for miles around. But now, here we were, a hundred yards away, and the thing had gone.

We stood in a field, watched by some lethargic cows, and savored the strangeness of the moment. Then, as we stepped uphill, Stonehenge re-emerged on the horizon. It happened fast. The lintels, then the great sarsens, then the smaller bluestones were suddenly before us.

Gaffney’s voice lifted. He spoke about Jerusalem Syndrome: the feeling of intense emotion experienced by pilgrims on their first sighting of the Holy City. In the prehistoric world, there was no conception of God as he was understood by the later Abrahamic faiths. But, said Gaffney, as Stonehenge reappeared before us, “whatever the ancient version of Jerusalem Syndrome is, that’s what you’re feeling now.”

About Ed Caesar

Ed Caesar is a British author and feature writer who contributes to the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, Outside, the Sunday Times Magazine of London and British GQ. Caesar was named Writer of the Year in 2013 by the U.K.'s Professional Publishers Association.

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