Timothy Darvill, Geoffrey Wainwright at Stonehenge in England

For the first time in more than 40 years, scientists received permission to excavate the mysterious ancient monument of Stonehenge, revealing key new data and a new theory on the reason the ring of stones was built.

The iconic, Neolithic stone circle on Salisbury Plain in southern England has elicited many theories about its time-shrouded origins – was it a pagan religious temple, a cosmic observatory tuned to the positions of the stars or a monument to the ancestors of those who built it?

Two scientists – Timothy Darvill, professor of archaeology at Bournemouth University, and Geoffrey Wainwright, president of the Society of Antiquaries of London – received permission from English Heritage to excavate a small section of ground within the Stonehenge to, in part, determine the age of the monument.

“It’s been a dream come true,” Darvill told BBC News. “I’ve been dreaming of Stonehenge and working in it and around it for so long.”

In addition to establishing the age – 2300 B.C. – Darvill and Wainwright also connected a number of pieces to the puzzle of Stonehenge, leading them to believe the monument was a place of healing, where travelers from across Europe came to tap into the believed magical powers of the curious bluestones erected at the site.

“Stonehenge would attract not only people who were unwell, but people who were capable of (healing) them,” Darvill told the BBC.

Key to the scientists’ theory is the history of the bluestones – igneous rocks so called because they appear blue when wet or cut – which Smithsonian magazine reports were determined in the 1920s to come from the Preseli Mountains in southwest Wales, 140 miles from Stonehenge.

Stonehenge from above, showing a few smaller bluestones among the larger, “sarcen” stones

The bluestones were erected in circles inside and outside of the taller, capped stones called “sarcen stones” that are more commonly pictured as part of the monument.

Darvill and Wainwright discovered in their excavations, BBC News reports, three times as many chips and fragments of the bluestones as the sarcen stones, leading them to believe that visitors to the site were cutting into the bluestones, almost as visitors to the Berlin Wall seek to chip away pieces of the cement as souvenirs.

But why would the ancients haul these stones, some as long as ten feet and weighing four tons, 140 miles to Stonehenge, only to chip pieces away?

When Darvill and Wainwright visited the mountains from which the bluestones were mined, they discovered pools constructed from the stone, similar to the kinds of healing baths used in many ancient cultures. According to Smithsonian, this led them to speculate that the bluestones of the Preseli Mountains were thought to have healing powers, and that stones were taken to Stonehenge as a way of making the healing more accessible.

The scientists’ theory pieced together another clue from the surrounding area: an “abnormal number,” according to Darvill and Wainwright, of corpses found in tombs near Stonehenge that show severe injury and disease. Darvill and Wainwright told BBC News that nearly half the corpses are from people “not native to the Stonehenge area.” The pair speculates that these bodies are people who made pilgrimages to Stonehenge for healing but were buried when it wasn’t received.

Finally, the date of the monument – 2300 B.C. – determined by sending organic fragments from the excavation for carbon dating at Oxford University, coincided with the date of a famous nearby burial known as the “Amesbury Archer.”

Discovered only a few miles from Stonehenge, the Amesbury Archer has been determined to be a man between 35 and 45 years old who was buried with nearly 100 possessions, including arrowheads, knives and earrings, between 2400 and 2200 B.C.

The Amesbury Archer’s bones reveal he was an injured traveler who had crossed the English Channel from somewhere in Alpine Europe. His knee was injured and an abscessed tooth had eaten away at his jawbone.

Wessex Archaeology’s Jacquiline McKinley told Smithsonian that the Amesbury Archer would have been desperate for relief from his pain.

Darvill’s and Wainwright’s explanation for Stonehenge would provide a fitting explanation for the Archer’s strange presence as well.

“It’s quite extraordinary that the date of the Amesbury Archer is identical with our new date for the bluestones of Stonehenge,” Darvill told BBC News. “These two things happening within living memory of each other for sure is something very, very important.”

Still, other scientists and scholars remain unconvinced.

“The date of Stonehenge had been blowing in the wind,” Dr. Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology told BBC. “It helps us to be secure about the chronology of events. The theory that it was a centre of healing is certainly a plausible one, but I don’t think we can rule out the other main competing theory – that the temple was a meeting point between the land of the living and the dead.”

Wainwright confesses, as exciting as it has been to put together the pieces of the puzzle, he doesn’t expect the theory to be fully accepted.

“I think what most people like about Stonehenge is that nobody really knows why it was built, and I think that’s probably always going to be the case,” he told Smithsonian. “It’s a bloody great mystery.”

Darvill and Wainwright are preparing to publish an academic report of their excavation and will announce their findings to their peers in a lecture at London’s Society of Antiquaries, BBC reports. A television special is also scheduled to be broadcast as part of the BBC Timewatch series later this month.


Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.