Stonehenge, the iconic British monument, had nothing to do with sun worshipping, although it was indeed built on solstice axis, new evidence suggests.

According to a unit of Wessex Archaeology researchers excavating the site on behalf of English Heritage, the dig along the ancient processional route to the monument has confirmed the theory that Stonehenge was built along an ice age landform that happened to be on the solstice axis. However, the delibarate building of the monument likewise is now seen as an attempt of the prehistoric people to depict the heavens on earth rather than erecting a monument to worship the sun or an observatory to watch the sky.

As reported in The Guardian, evidence shows that the processional Avenue was an earthwork route that extended 1.5 miles from the north-eastern entrance to Wiltshire’s standing stones to the River Avon at West Amesbury. Following the closure of the A344 road, which cut across the route, archaeologists have been able to excavate there for the first time. Just below the tarmac, they have found naturally occurring fissures that once lay between ridges against which prehistoric builders dug ditches to create the Avenue. The ridges were created by Ice Age meltwater that happen to point directly at the mid-winter sunset in one direction and the mid-summer sunrise in the other.

The findings back theories that emerged in 2008 following exploration of a narrow trench across the Avenue. “The part of the Avenue that was cut through by the road has obviously been destroyed forever, but we were hopeful that archaeology below the road would survive. And here we have it: the missing piece in the jigsaw. It is very exciting to find a piece of physical evidence that officially makes the connection which we were hoping for.”, says Dr Heather Sebire, English Heritage’s Stonehenge curator.

The excavations have also uncovered three holes where missing stones would have stood on the outer sarsen circle, evidence, it is believed, that the circle was indeed once complete. Surprisingly, even the most sophisticated surveys failed to spot them. Two members of staff noticed dry areas of grass, or parchmarks. Susan Greaney, an English Heritage historian, said: “The discovery … has certainly strengthened the case for it being a full circle”.

The Big Picture: Heavens on Earth

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, a leading expert on Stonehenge, said of the finds: “It’s hugely significant because it tells us a lot about why Stonehenge was located where it is and why they [prehistoric people] were so interested in the solstices. It’s not to do with worshipping the sun, some kind of calendar or astronomical observatory; it’s about how this place was special to prehistoric people […]. This natural landform happens to be on the solstice axis, which brings heaven and earth into one. So the reason that Stonehenge is all about the solstices, we think, is because they actually saw this in the land.”

The future

The A344 will be grassed over next year as part of English Heritage’s £27m transformation of the World Heritage Site, which receives more than 1m visitors annually. There will be a new visitor centre, 1.5 miles away out of sight, to allow Stonehenge to reconnect with the surrounding landscape.