Stonehenge and the Promise of Spring

In the April 14th issue of the New Yorker, Laura Miller details her recent experience at the Stonehenge winter solstice celebrations. The article also describes how scientists have come to understand “why Stonehenge is where it is,” and the findings read like a page out of Lord of the Rings.

Scientists have found “ridges in the chalk beneath the turf covering the final leg of Stonehenge Avenue, close to the stone circle.” These ridges point directly to the stones, yet if you follow the ridges away from the circle, you hit the nearby River Anon.

Miller writes: “This spot, archaeologists believe, was a ceremonial disembarkation point. Stone Age visitors, perhaps bearing the ashes of their most honored dead, would have stepped off their boats and walked up the avenue to the stones.”

I love this image: Stone Age mourners floating down the River Anon in boats, and disembarking on a bank not far from Stonehenge.

But her article really goes Lord of the Rings when Miller asks, “But where did these people come from?”

On a site upriver, two miles away, archaeologists discovered that the settlement known as Durrington Walls had once contained about a thousand houses and four to five thousand people–“a significant percentage of Britain’s population at the time.”

Digging also revealed that Durrington Walls “operated seasonally, almost like a winter resort,” where disparate isolated groups came together once a year to feast and build the monument amidst an atmosphere of celebration: “The erection of Stonehenge appears to have taken place in an atmosphere of festivity, during the longest and coldest nights of the year, with the promise of spring heralded by the stones themselves.”

Stonehenge: A Stone Age winter resort (image via The Guardian)

I’ve probably read this last line ten or more times by now. I just love the evocation of festivity on the river, and the promise of warmth to come.