Stonehenge and Healing

There is an interesting article in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine about Stonehenge. The inner circle of the site was excavated (for the first time in 44 years) by two archaeologists who believe that Stonehenge was a place which held mystical healing powers – a prehistoric Lourdes where the infirm could come to be healed. This new interpretation of the site is very different from previous interpretations that posited Stonehenge was some type of astronomical observatory or a royal burial ground.

The two archaeologists spearheading this project are Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright. They believe that the key to interpreting the site as a place of healing is due to the inclusion of bluestones in the inner circle. These smaller bluestones (they are different than the large sarsen stones which form the famous trilithons for which Stonehenge is best known) are unique because they look blue when they are either wet or cut. For the past five years, these two archaeologists have studied why these bluestones may have contained mystical properties. It appears that most of their conclusion is based on a finding at Carn Menyn (where the bluestones for Stonehenge were quarried) of springs decorated with prehistoric art. This decoration of the springs is very significant, since springs and wells have long been associated with healing in areas like Southern Wales. Therefore, by because these springs are located at the same bluestones quarry, these archaeologists also find that the bluestones are also associated with healing. (I’m especially curious to find out what the prehistoric art was that these archaeologists found at the Carn Menyn springs. Could this prehistoric art depict healing in some fashion?)

Apparently, in the 13th century AD, cleric Geoffrey of Monmuth wrote in his history of Britain that Stonehenge’s medicinal purposes were effected when water was poured over the stones for the sick to bathe in. Could it be that Stonehenge served as a healing site all the way from the Neolithic period to the Middle Ages, and then this common knowledge of the site’s function was lost sometime after? If so, I wonder how this knowledge was lost.

It is also thought that perhaps some of the skeletons found in the area were sick travelers who came to be healed. One skeleton has been traced to have come as far away as the Swiss or German Alps – and his bones indicate that he suffered from an abscessed tooth (which destroyed part of his jawbone) and an infected kneecap. The first bluestones erected at Stonehenge date about the same time as this traveler’s bones, which further supports that he may have come to the site for healing.

Darvill and Wainwright have been working on this theory for some time. I found this blog post written a few years ago that also talks about their work. If anyone has the Smithsonian channel, there is a documentary called “Stonehenge Deciphered” which airs today (check for local listing times).

Although I’m not sure that I’m completely convinced by this theory (can any theory relating to the prehistoric era be concretely proven?), I think it’s a really interesting and appealing idea.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.