STONEHENGE: CONSTRUCTION SEQUENCE AND CHRONOLOGY

Monday, December 1, 2008


Stonehenge was constructed over some fifteen hundred years, with long periods between building episodes. The first stage, c. 2950–2900 B.C., included a small causewayed enclosure ditch with an inner and outer surrounding bank, which had three entrances (one aligned roughly northeast, close to the present one). At this time, the construction of the fifty-six Aubrey Holes probably took place; these manmade holes filled with rubble may have supported a line of timber posts. Deposits and bones were placed at the ends of the ditch, signifying ritual activity. At the same time, the Greater and Lesser Cursus monuments, termed “cursus” after their long, linear form, suggestive of a racetrack, were constructed to the north of the Stonehenge enclosure. Some 4 kilometers north, the causewayed enclosure of Robin Hood’s Ball probably was still in use. The surrounding landscape was becoming increasingly clear of tree cover, as farming communities continued to expand across the area. Survey has identified many potential settlement sites.


The second phase of building took place over the next five hundred years, until 2400 B.C., and represented a complex series of timber settings within and around the ditched enclosure. Subsequent building has obscured the plan, but the northeastern entrance comprised a series of postbuilt corridors that allowed observation of the sun and blocked access to the circle. The interior included a central structure—perhaps a building—and a southern entrance with a post corridor and barriers. Cremations were inserted into the Aubrey Holes and ditch, along with distinctive bone pins. During this phase a palisade was erected between Stonehenge and the Cursus monuments to the north, dividing the landscape into northern and southern sections. To the east, 3 kilometers distant, the immense Durrington Walls Henge and the small Woodhenge site beside it, incorporating large circular buildings, seem to have represented the major ceremonial focus during this period.


The third and major phase of building lasted from 2550–2450 to about 1600 B.C., with several intermittent bursts of construction and modification. The earth avenue was completed, leading northeastward from what was by then a single northeastern entrance. Sight lines focused on two stones in the entrance area (the surviving Heel Stone and another now lost) that aligned on the Slaughter Stone and provided a direct alignment to the center of the circle.


Four station stones were set up against the inner ditch on small mounds, forming a quadrangular arrangement around the main circle. The first stone phase (stage 3i) was initiated with the erection of bluestones in a crude circle (at least twenty-five stones) at the center of the henge, but lack of evidence and the subsequent removal of the stones leave the form of the possibly unfinished structure unclear. It was followed (stage 3ii), c. 2300 B.C., by the erection of some 30 huge (4 meters high) sarsen stones, capped and held together by a continuous ring of lintels, in a circle enclosing a horseshoe-shaped inner setting of 10 stones 7 meters high. These were “dressed,” or shaped, in situ with stone mauls (hammers).


This arrangement was further modified with the insertion of bluestone within the sarsen circle (stage 3iii), but it was dismantled and rearranged by c. 2000 B.C. (stage 3iv), and more than twenty of the original stones probably were dressed and set in an oval around the inner sarsen horseshoe. Another ring of rougher bluestones was assembled between this and the outer sarsen circle, and an altar stone of Welsh sandstone was set at the center. Between 1900 and 1800 B.C. there was further rearrangement (stage 3v) of the bluestone, and stones in the northern section were removed. A final stage (stage 3vi) saw the excavation of two rings of pits around the main sarsen circle—the so-called Y and Z Holes, which may have been intended for additional settings. Material at the bases dates to c. 1600 B.C., and several contained deliberate deposits of antler. In parallel with these final phases of rebuilding, Stonehenge became the main focus of burial for the area, with about five hundred Bronze Age round barrows, some of which contain prestigious grave goods.

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