In 2003, Canadian gynecologist Anthony Perks offered an anatomical explanation for Stonehenge, England’s prehistoric monument whose precise destination is a mystery.
“Stonehenge could represent, symbolically, the opening through which Mother Earth gave birth to the plants and animals upon which ancient peoples so depended,” he wrote in an essay published in a medical journal. It could represent, he suggested, “the human vulva, with the birth canal at its center”. The essay was illustrated with sketches of Stonehenge and female genitalia.
The vulva hypothesis is one of myriad theories that have proliferated around Stonehenge, which was built around 4,500 years ago. Although it was built around the same time as the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of Giza, we know a lot more about these Egyptian sites. An incomplete knowledge of Stonehenge has made it an enigma that is now part of its identity.
Some think that it is an astronomical calculator, an observatory allowing to delimit the seasons. Others see Stonehenge as a place of healing, a kind of prehistoric Lourdes, which welcomed hordes of pilgrims. In the 1960s and 1970s, the site was believed to be imbued with magical and mystical powers, and it became a hotspot for hippies and outdoor festivals. Today it is a focal point of New Age counterculture and environmental activism.
Stonehenge also attracts many theories of extraterrestrial origin, driven by the belief that humans could not have raised these structures on their own. According to these theories, Stonehenge was built by aliens, and it is actually a landing strip for spacecraft.
As archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes observed in 1967, “Every age has the Stonehenge it deserves – or desires.”
Hawkes’ words are reproduced on a wall text inside a new exhibition at the British Museum, The World of Stonehenge, which runs until July. The show strives to reduce the mystery around the monument by focusing on recent discoveries and placing them in the context of life in Britain, Ireland and North West Europe before, during and after the construction of Stonehenge.
“Stonehenge was an important place where people went to be together as a community,” said Neil Wilkin, the exhibit’s senior curator. He described the site as a mix between a town hall and a cathedral, where people mingled for both religious and social reasons.
“We want to go back and look at the world he existed in,” he added.
The exhibit begins by introducing visitors to a structure that predated Stonehenge: a stone circle built in the same location some 500 years earlier, which archaeologists believe was a cemetery. It was built with large bluestone pillars – each transported from Wales, over 200 miles away – and used to bury cremated bodies. So far, the remains of 150 to 200 men, women and children have been found there.
A piece of bluestone most likely used in the construction of this cemetery is on display in the British Museum, as are some of the contents of the 5,000-year-old tombs, including bone pins used to secure the shrouds.
Five centuries later, Stonehenge as we know it was built using some of these existing bluestones, along with more than 80 towering “sarsen” stones, the monument’s vertical pillars and horizontal lintels or crowning stones. The sarsen stones were shaped by circular hammers, several examples of which have recently been discovered and are displayed in a display case. Each sarsen stone required at least 1,000 people to transport a distance of 15 miles. The process took generations, and many were killed and maimed as a result, according to the exhibit wall text.
Another recent discovery has revealed that some of the Pilgrims who helped build Stonehenge stayed at Durrington Walls, a nearby settlement which at its height contained around 1,000 temporary homes. A display case – filled with pig bones and pieces of flint and pottery – testifies to the bustle of this colony.
People would go there, perhaps seasonally, to work on the final stages of Stonehenge, and they “had a great time: roasting pigs, having barbecues,” said Jennifer Wexler, another exhibit curator.
Stonehenge was built at a time of drastic population decline and dispersal, said Mike Parker Pearson, a professor at University College London who has made major Stonehenge-related discoveries, including the Durrington Walls settlement. There were few villages, if any, and the society “tried to create a sense of unity and collaboration among its members”, he explained.
Built on the site of an ancient cemetery, Stonehenge was a “monument of remembrance”, he said, and an “expression of unity” that brought people together in pursuit of a common effort.
Yet, he says, “people don’t want it to be that simple of an explanation.”
“A government minister once told me that it was a great shame what we were doing, because of course we were reducing the mystery”, and “it does terrible things for the number of visitors”, added Parker Pearson. .
Much of this mystery stems from the fact that writing did not exist in England until the arrival of the Romans 2,500 years later – so there is no written history of Stonehenge and the people who created it, said Parker Pearson.
Nor did people in prehistoric England leave any representations of human figures, said Wilkin, the curator. They had “an almost secret attitude towards their religion”, perhaps with the intention “to exclude others from it”, so their spiritual practices are also undocumented.
Technology may soon help solve some of the mysteries.
Analysis of stable isotopes – that is, atoms that have extra or missing neutrons – is used to study bones, tooth enamel and food residue on jars and elsewhere to determine what person at the time ate and how well they moved. Tooth enamel contains a sort of chemical record of the climatic and geological conditions in which a person grew up, allowing archaeologists to determine how far people traveled from their birthplace and to map migration and mobility, explained Wilkins. It also gives insight into their diet.
The study of aDNA, or ancient DNA, also highlights the genetic relationships between individuals. Two people buried with similar-looking ceramic objects could now be identified as brother and sister, with these grave goods taking on added significance as they begin to denote family relationships.
“It’s going to really change the knowledge of people who built monuments like Stonehenge and what we can say about them,” Wilkin said, adding that it could lead to revising the label of the Stonehenge period from prehistoric to “protohistory” – or just simple history.
The new technology could “change the way we interpret objects in a very big way,” Wilkin said. “Exhibitions like this in 10 or 20 years will be very, very different.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times