© 1998 (text only) Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

An exploration of how and why places become invested with SACREDNESS and how the SACRED is embodied or made manifest through ART and ARCHITECTURE


[for the following see also Stonehenge]

Stonehenge stands on the open downland of Salisbury Plain two miles (3 kilometres) west of the town of Amesbury, Wiltshire, in Southern England. It is not a single structure but consists of a series of earth, timber, and stone structures which were revised and re-modelled over a period of more than 2000 years.

The earliest portion of the complex, which dates to approximately 3100-2300 BCE., comprised a circular bank-and-ditch of about 330 feet (100 metres) in diameter. Just inside the earth bank is a circle of the 56 Aubrey holes (discovered by John Aubrey in the 17th century, and now invisible on the surface). Probably also dating to this time are the four Station Stones (only two of which survive) and, on the north-east side, an earthwork which runs from the break in the bank-and-ditch. The now-fallen Slaughter Stone, located at the break in the bank-and-ditch, may date from this period, as may also the Heel Stone, located further out along the Avenue.

Around 2100-2000 BCE, a circle about 108 feet (33 metres) in diameter comprised of originally of 30 neatly trimmed upright sandstone blocks (known today as sarsens), standing on average 13 feet (4 metres) above the ground, about 6.5 feet (2 metres) wide, and 3 feet (1 metre) thick, supporting a continuous ring of sarsen lintels (held in place by tongue-and-groove joints) was constructed in the centre of the original circular bank-and-ditch. A little later was added inside the circle of sarsens, in the shape of a horseshoe, ten upright sarsens arranged as five pairs with a single lintel.

Around 2000-1550 BCE, a horseshoe of smaller upright igneous stones without lintels (the bluestones) were brought from a site in Wales and placed inside the horseshoe of sarsens.

Finally, around 1550-1100 BCE, a circle of smaller upright bluestones was added between the outer sarsen circle and the outer horseshoe. Also added around this time are two concentric circle of holes - the so-called 'Y' and 'Z' holes.

[for the following see also Archaeoastronomy at Stonehenge]

Already in the 18th century the British antiquarian William Stukeley had noticed that the horseshoe of great trilithons and the horseshoe of 19 bluestones at Stonehenge opened up in the direction of the midsummer sunrise. It was quickly surmised that the monument must have been deliberately oriented and planned so that on midsummer's morning the sun rose directly over the Heel Stone and the first rays shone into the centre of the monument between the open arms of the horseshoe arrangement.

This discovery has had tremendous impact on how Stonehenge has been interpreted. For Stukeley in the 18th century and Sir Norman Lockyer in the first years of the 20th century, this alignment implied a ritualistic connection with sun worship and it was generally concluded that Stonehenge was constructed as a temple to the sun. More recently, though, the astronomer Gerald Hawkins has argued that Stonehenge is not merely aligned with solar and lunar astronomical events, but can be used to predict other events such as eclipses. In other words, Stonehenge was more than a temple, it was an astronomical calculator.

It was argued that the summer solstice alignment cannot be accidental. The sun rises in different directions in different geographical latitudes. For the alignment to be correct, it must have been calculated precisely for Stonehenge's latitude of 51° 11'. The alignment, therefore, must have been fundamental to the design and placement of Stonehenge. As if corroborating the claims made by Hawkins for Stonehenge, Alexander Thom, a professor of engineering and a mathematician, has shown that many other megalithic sites throughout Britain are also oriented towards the sun and the moon.

The alignment also made it clear that whoever built Stonehenge had precise astronomical knowledge of the path of the sun and, moreover, must have known before construction began precisely where the sun rose at dawn on midsummer's morning while standing on the future site of the monument. This point needs to be made because, as I suspect, with Stonehenge and many other such monuments, it was the site, a particular place within the landscape, that was important; only later were these sites marked in some more permanent manner by the digging of ditches and banks and (or instead) the erection of wood or stone structures.

For reasons we shall never know, this particular spot in the landscape was so important that not only were ditches and banks dug and, later, stone circles and horseshoe arrangements constructed to mark it, but that some of the stones were deliberately transported there with considerable effort from a great distance away.


  • Rodney Castleden, The Making of Stonehenge, London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

  • Gerald Hawkins, Stonehenge Decoded, London: Souvenir Press, 1966.

  • Fred Hoyle, On Stonehenge, San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1977.

  • Sir Norman Lockyer, Stonehenge and Other British Monuments Astronomically Considered, London: Macmillan, 1906.

SACRED PLACES is written and produced by Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, Professor, Department of Art History, Sweet Briar College, Virginia, 24595 USA


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