Stonehenge has stood on Salisbury Plain in southern England for perhaps 5000 years and has been an object of wonder and mystery for almost as long.
A burial monument, it’s at the centre of a vast network of gravesites and similarly sacred loci. It’s also a site of astronomical significance, aligned with the rising sun of the summer solstice, the sunset of the winter solstice and the opposing sunrise, and was possibly used as a kind of Neolithic observatory, the position of its towering standing stones helping primitive stargazers map the skies. Or perhaps it was a kind of hospital, as yet another theory suggests, the numerous burial mounds around it the final resting place of those who ancient medicine could not help.
In truth, nobody knows; the culture that raised Stonehenge left no written records, and construction seems to have taken place in three different stages over the years. Piecing together the monument’s exact origins and purposes has been a painstaking project. Even the popular notion that the Druids, the venerated religious class of ancient Celtic society, built it is demonstrably false: Stonehenge’s early construction predates the Celts’ arrival in the British Isles by 2000 years. But a new documentary shows that investigations into the sacred site are ongoing, and still as fascinating as ever.
Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed doesn’t merely reiterate the Stonehenge litany, retracing old theories and legends about the site, but digs deep into current research being undertaken, in particular the work of archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson, a professor at the UCL Institute of Archaeology who has extensively studied Neolithic Britain in general and Stonehenge in particular for 20 years. With host Dr Alice Roberts as our guide, we are invited to join Parker Pearson and his colleagues as they test one of the more prevalent theories of Stonehenge’s origins.
It all comes back to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the medieval cleric and historian who wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that Merlin – yes, that Merlin – undertook a mission to steal an ancient stone circle called the Giants’ Dance from Ireland and relocate it in Britain – Salisbury Plain, specifically.
Now, that could be dismissed as mere folklore and Geoffrey was not averse to simply making things up out of whole cloth for the entertainment of his readers, but there is some truth in it. Thanks to the work of geologist H.H. Thomas, we’ve known since 1923 that the smaller bluestones comprising Stonehenge’s inner circle were originally quarried in the Preseli Hills in Wales, some 150 miles from their current location. At the time Geoffrey of Monmouth was writing, that part of the country was Irish territory.
How they were transported, given the available technology of the time, and more importantly why they were hauled so far, and to what purpose, remains a mystery, although The Lost Circle Revealed offers up some intriguing possibilities. The main thrust, however, is Parker Pearson’s quest to find the exact spot from which the stones were cut, as well as the location where they originally stood before being moved to Salisbury Plain. Finding irrefutable evidence would put at least one of the ancient site’s many enigmas to rest.
For fans of history and lovers of legends, this is engrossing stuff, and Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed gallops along like a more plausible version of a Dan Brown novel, with Parker Pearson and his team following up lead after lead and testing theory after theory to close in on the original quarry site. Along the way, we are offered tantalising glimpses of the Britain that existed before recorded history and the people who lived there, a people capable of complex feats of engineering and whose culture, although still largely unknown, was clearly far more sophisticated than previously believed.
Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed is now streaming at SBS On Demand.