50 years ago, Stonehenge’s purpose mystified scientists. It still does

Excerpt from the November 11, 1972 issue of Science News

A photo of Stonehenge at sunset

Astronomical observatory? Holy site? Center for healing? Researchers have proposed many uses for Stonehenge, which was built about 5,000 years ago in southern England. But its purpose remains murky.

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Stonehenge: A calendar or just a crematorium Science News, November 11, 1972

The monument consisted of a circle of immense, finely tooled stone archways surrounded by a range of 56 equally spaced [holes].… The precisely proportioned placement of the stones and holes has led archaeologists to presume that the monument had some great astrological significance.… As an alternate explanation, the researchers say perhaps there were 56 families, clans or social units who built Stonehenge and who were entitled to dig one of the [holes] and use it to inter cremated remains.


Stonehenge’s purpose remains murky, but the monument’s origin is becoming clearer thanks to science. For at least the first 500 years of its existence, Stonehenge was a cemetery (SN: 5/29/08). A chemical analysis of remains at the site suggests that some of the people interred there came from Wales, more than 200 kilometers west of where Stonehenge stands in southern England (SN: 8/2/18). The monument’s first building blocks also may have come from Wales, repurposed from a stone circle there, but that hypothesis is debated (SN: 2/11/21).

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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