Stonehenge Stonehenge. Photo: John Nail / Pexels / Public Domain

Britain’s greatest megalithic structure is an enduring monument to the values of collectivism and immigration, writes Sean Ledwith

Suella Braverman probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about Stonehenge. If she did it might force her to rethink the callous approach to immigration that has become synonymous with her party. Standing in enigmatic isolation amid the three hundred square miles of Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge is the stunning product of about ninety generations of human labour, starting around 3000 BCE and spread over the next 1,500 years or so. As such, its construction does not represent a single event or idea but an evolving project that had different meanings to the different generations and types of societies that engaged with it. Trying to extract one underpinning notion from a multigenerational project would be simplistic and to underplay its remarkable capacity to resonate with subsequent eras.


Even in our time, the monument has been the backdrop to the playing out of contemporary aspirations and tensions. Twice a year, thousands still journey to Stonehenge to mark the summer and winter solstices in a manner that would have been partially recognisable to people thousands of years ago. One misconception of some of these modern pilgrims is that Druidic religion was a factor in the monument’s conception. That form of worship actually developed long after the heyday of Stonehenge.

More absurdly, images of the Queen were projected onto the stones as part of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations last year. The right has frequently sought to appropriate the monument as some form of enduring symbol of ‘Britishness’ like Shakespeare or Big Ben, even though the concept of nationalism would have been utterly alien to its builders.

Thatcher and other aliens

In 1985, Stonehenge was the site of the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ in which Thatcher’s militarised robocops inflicted a level of brutality on New Age travellers similar to that which they dealt out to the miners at Orgreave the same year and printworkers at Wapping the following year. Incredulity that our distant ancestors were capable of devising a monument of such enduring aesthetic power and incorporating an impressive level of astronomical accuracy has occasionally even generated nonsensical theories about extraterresterial involvement in the design of Stonehenge.

However archaeological excavations in this century, in particular, have provided significant insights into the mentalities and methods of the monument’s builders and brought us closer to a materialist understanding of Stonehenge that can dispense with Druids and flying saucers. Professor Mike Parker Pearson from the Stonehenge Riverside Project notes how the monument encapsulates new modes of thinking and behaving situated in the changing lifestyles of the earliest inhabitants of the British Isles:

When Stonehenge was built there was a growing island-wide culture – the same styles of houses, pottery and other material forms were used from Orkney to the south coast. This was very different to the regionalism of previous centuries. Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labour of thousands to move stones from as far away as west Wales, shaping them and erecting them. Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification.

Neolithic networks

Such is the iconic status of Stonehenge in the national psyche that is easy to forget that it is in fact only part of a network of earthworks and settlements adjacent to the River Avon and across Salisbury Plain. Within a thirty mile radius are the stone circle at Avebury, the hilltop gravesite of West Kennet Long Barrow, the hillfort of Silbury and evidence for the prototype ‘Woodhenge’ at Durrington Walls. The area clearly possessed spiritual significance for the multitude of peoples fanning out across South West England as the last Ice Age retreated about 10 000 years ago. Stonehenge may look like a lonely spectacle today but in long-gone eras the whole area would have been buzzing with ceremony and construction activity. In fact, recent surveys indicate that beneath the surface of the area are another fifteen, currently unresearched, Neolithic structures and hundreds of burial mounds. The peoples who congregated here over many generations undoubtedly regarded the location as an opportunity to exchange products, ideas and techniques.

Historical hub

The key to understanding Stonehenge is to see it as a hub for the waves of migration  that marked the early history of the British Isles, from the hunter-gatherers who crossed the land bridge that used to exist across the North Sea, to the first farmers emerging during the Neolithic era 6000 years ago and onto the Beaker People who brought metal-working technology about another 1500 years later. Each of these groups, and the many that existed between them, would have had their own distinctive appreciation of the site but the continuous development of the site across multiple generations points to the persistence of a remarkable shared appreciation of the labour of ancestral communities.

The remarkable circular megalithic (‘Big Stone’) structures of which Stonehenge is the most prominent example are a phenomena that is unique to the Atlantic coastal areas of Northwest Europe, including Britain. The spiritual roots of the site can be traced right back into the Mesolithic era between 8000 and 7000 BCE. At this time, most of southern England would have been covered by dense forests and woodland and it is conceivable that the open landscape of Salisbury Plain might have been perceived by hunter-gatherers of the era as a place of refuge. The evidence of totem-pole like posts at the location from this date is the earliest evidence of human activity there. Stonehenge ‘proper’ begins about 3000 BCE with the construction of a circular ditch marked by an earthwork outer and inner bank. Cremations have been discovered from this period, making the site Britain’s most significant prehistoric cemetery.

Circle of commonality

The Stonehenge Riverside Project has identified the Preseli Mountains in Wales as the source for the next phase of the complex, built around 2500 BCE and based on the transportation of bluestones from a hill known locally as Waun Mawn. The most famous feature of the site is the later circular arrangement of sarsen megaliths, some weighing up to fifty tons and seven feet high, with their imposing horizontal lintels that have been traced to a quarry twenty miles to the north. Within the outer ring of thirty Sarsens is the inner ring of five trilithons, the distinctive horseshoe-shape monuments at the heart of the site.

Even after been transported across huge distances, the stones would still need to have been shaped and dressed according to the precise requirements of positioning, a task that would have taken hundreds of thousands of hours. Such a gargantuan project must have involved a strong sense of commonality and shared purpose among the builders, based on a belief that ‘the act of building was perhaps as important as the building itself, in the words of Professor Neil Wilkin. The circular arrangement of Stonehenge has an enigmatic power that no viewer can fail to sense and which has generated vast amounts of often ridiculous speculation. Perhaps the most straightforward theory is that the shape, of course, represents collectivism and unity, undoubtedly qualities that the peoples of the Neolithic era depended on for survival.

King of Stonehenge?

Apart from this obvious evidence of a collective and anti-individualistic mentality on the part of the builders, another striking feature is the absence of any significant signs of violence in the process of construction. Although skeletons have been discovered in proximity to the site, none of them display signs of weapons-related trauma. Contrary to all the evidence of an egalitarian mindset been at work for thousands of years on Salisbury Plain, conservative-minded archaeologists have often claimed that an achievement on this scale must have been inspired by some form of hierarchical leadership and that the site should be seen as symbolic of the emergence of Britain’s first ruling class.

 In 2002, a 4,000 year old grave was discovered not far from the site of the circle. The skeleton contained within was dated to about 2500 BCE and was noticeably accompanied by items indicating affluence such as copper knives, arrow heads and hair ornaments. The tabloids predictably dubbed this intriguing figure as the ‘King of Stonehenge’.

Monument to multiculturalism

The more interesting aspect of the body, however, was revealed by isotope testing of his teeth enamel which indicated the man must have grown up somewhere in the Alps. The skeleton of a younger man was also discovered in the vicinity and testing demonstrated the two individuals were related, possibly father and son. There is no substantial reason, however, to assert that the ornamentation buried alongside the figure should be interpreted as an indicator of elite status.

The equally plausible explanation is the honour clearly accorded to the man in death reflects an appreciation of his metal-working ability, which was brought to Britain as part of a migratory wave associated with the Early Bronze Age. Professor Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology notes the body, also known as the Amesbury Archer, points to the multicultural dimension of Stonehenge as again its most valuable legacy:

He would have been a very important person in the Stonehenge area and it is fascinating to think that someone from abroad – probably modern-day Switzerland – could have played an important part in the construction of the site.

The way the giant stones of Stonehenge are intricately and skilfully linked on Salisbury Plain can therefore be interpreted as a symbolic manifestation of the manifold spiritual and trading connections that existed across time and space in the still predominantly egalitarian societies of prehistoric Northwest Europe. Ironically, if the Amesbury Archer had tried to cross the Channel today Suella Braverman would probably want to stick him on a deportation flight to Rwanda!

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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