Monday 30 May 2016

Stonehenge - a House of the Holy?

Houses of the Holy: Architecture and Meaning in the Structure of Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK,
Timothy Darvill (2016)

Time and Mind, 9:2, 89-121, DOI:10.1080/1751696X.2016.1171496 

ABSTRACT: Stonehenge in central southern England is internationally known. Recent re-evaluations of its date and construction sequence provides an opportunity to review the meaning and purpose of key structural components. Here it is argued that the central stone structures did not have a single purpose but rather embody a series of symbolic representations. During the early third millennium this included a square-in-circle motif representing a sacred house or ‘big house’ edged by the five Sarsen Trilithons. During the late third millennium BC, as house styles changed, some of the stones were re-arranged to form a central oval setting that perpetuated the idea of a sacred dwelling. The Sarsen Circle may have embodied a time-reckoning system based on the lunar month. From about 2500 BC, more than 80 bluestones were brought to the site from sources in the Preseli Hills of west Wales about 220km distant. Initially arranged as a Double Circle they were variously rearranged at least four times over the following centuries. The diverse lithology of the bluestones reflects the landscape from which the stones derived so that the monument embodied a microcosm of the distant land. Associations with water and healing suggest one reason why Stonehenge became such a powerful place in prehistoric times.

The paper is interesting and provoking and an excellent addition to the canon of Stonehenge research.
It is wide ranging and discusses many different ideas and sets them within the historical context.

It is probably just because I have spent many hours studying the exact layout of the sarsens that I am uneasy with one of the central themes of the paper. 

The central theme that concerns me is that the sarsens represent a ‘square-in-circle’ structure,  To quote: "specific similarities between the Sarsen Trilithon Horseshoe and the form of late Neolithic houses....the central square-shaped elements, the hearth and living floor, are usually set within a circular or near circular outer frame forming an integral part of the structure in which the difference in shape is absorbed by the thickness of the wall itself. Looked at as a kind of house, the Great Trilithon at Stonehenge could be seen as the equivalent of a dresser with a clear bipartite left and right division." This identification of the houseyness of Stonehenge then underpins his thesis of it being a house of the Holy.

There are many examples of neolithic ‘square-in-circle’ structures given and the accompanying plan of Stonehenge supports the comparison. The position of the stones at Stonehenge has been measured and recorded many times and so it is understandable that the source for Darvill's plan of the central Sarsen arrangement is just given as "various".

But to my mind the plan doesn't compare well with many of the other published plans of Stonehenge.

Darvill plan left, English Heritage plan right, click to enlarge.

His plan makes the ‘square-in-circle’ more obvious than other plans do, but I worry if it is accurate.


  1. Since 1981 I have been inside the centre of Stonehenge many times too, checking features of the monument. Timothy Darvill has tried squaring a lithic arrangement that has the shape of a 'horseshoe'. His plan is wrong. Those of Cleal et al and the official plans are right. My proposals about the monument are being published this summer.

  2. How wonderful to share the excitement that fresh (well informed) thinking has on the subject.

  3. Tim Darvill’s plan comes from the all features plan in your blog 4th Feb 2013 which was from Stonehenge Remodelled Antiquity 86 2012, the earliest I can trace the inaccurate features on these plans is back to Tim Darvill Stonehenge The Biography of a Landscape 2006.
    In 2013 I commented on the inaccuracies in alignments of the posthole settings relating to the other features but as you and Terence are pointing out there are further problems. Stone 57 position is changed squaring off the trilithons and in the all features plan some of the Sarsen circle seems strangely represented, it is not a reliable plan at all and unfortunately has been reproduced in other publications.
    I don’t believe the plan has been deliberately changed to fit the Square in Circle House theory, but it is difficult to understand how these errors get reprinted without anyone noticing them.
    Ironically the curved nature of the Trilithon Horseshoe fits the house theory well, although the houses are basically square the structure of corners of the Durrinton houses are curved.

    1. Peter, thanks for tracing it back to Darvill 2006. I have now found it in Darvill, T., 2005. Stonehenge World Heritage Site: an archaeological research framework. Available on line (it is on page 101) So it is an old plan he has used. The square in the circle idea is that there are four central posts and a circular wall so it does rather need the four trilithons to be in a square(ish). But he obviously hasn't created the plan for this paper to manufacture support for the idea.


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