Henge

Stonehenge

A henge is neolithic earthwork featuring a ring bank and ditch, with the ditch inside the bank. Earthworks are artificial changes in land level, typically made from piles of artificially placed or sculpted rocks and soil. Earthworks can themselves be archaeological features, or they can show features beneath the surface

Due to the poor defensive utility of an enclosure with an external bank and an internal ditch, henges are not considered to have served a defensive purpose (cf. circular rampart). The three types are as follows, with the figure in brackets being the approximate diameter of the central flat area. England’s famed Stonehenge is an atypical henge in that the ditch is outside the main earthwork bank.

There is typically little if any evidence of occupation in a henge, although they may contain ritual structures such as stone circles, timber circles and coves. Henges sometimes featured stone or timber circles.  The word henge is a backformation from Stonehenge, the famous monument in Wiltshire. The term was first coined in 1932 by Thomas Kendrick, who later became the Keeper of British Antiquities at the British Museum.

Henges are usually associated with the Late Neolithic (3000–2500 BCE) or Early Bronze Age (2000–1500 BCE), and especially with the pottery of those periods. Burials have been recorded at a number of excavated henges, both pre-dating the henge and as a result of secondary reuse. Concentrations of henges occur over much of Britain. Orkney and Wessex have both been suggested as the original provenance of the monument type. Unlike earlier enclosure monuments, henges were not usually built on hilltops but on low-lying ground, often close to waterways and good agricultural land.

Julian Cope, in ‘The Megalithic European,’ proposes that the henge evolved from an earlier form of earthwork called a causewayed enclosure (one to four concentric ditches with an internal bank). Archaeologist Alasdair Whittle also views the development of the henge as a regional variation within a European tradition that included a variety of ditched enclosures. He notes that henges and the grooved ware pottery often found at them are two examples of the British Neolithic not found on the Continent. Archaeologist Caroline Malone posited that henges developed from a broader tradition of enclosure to become ‘a phenomenon of the British Isles, a native tradition with sophisticated architecture and calendrical functions.’

Henges may have been used for rituals or astronomical observation rather than day-to-day activity. The alignment of henges is a contentious issue. Popular belief is that their entrances point towards certain heavenly bodies. But henge orientation is highly variable and may have been more determined by local topography than by desire for symbolic orientation.

It has been suggested that the stone and timber structures sometimes built inside henges were used as solar declinometers to measure the position of the rising or setting sun. These structures by no means appear in all henges and often considerably post-date the henges. Thus they are not necessarily connected with the henge’s original function. It has been conjectured that they could have been used to synchronize a calendar to the solar cycle for purposes of planting crops or timing religious rituals.

Some henges have poles, stones or entrances that indicate the position of the rising or setting sun during the equinoxes and solstices, while others appear to frame certain constellations. Additionally, many are placed so that nearby hills either mark or do not interfere with such observations. Finally, some henges appear to be placed at particular latitudes. For example, a number are placed at a latitude of 55 degrees north, where the same two markers can indicate the rising and setting sun for both the spring and autumn equinoxes. But as henges are present from the extreme north to the extreme south of Britain, their latitude could not have been of great importance.

Formalization is commonly attributed to henges; indications of the builders’ concerns in controlling the arrival at, entrance to, and movement within the enclosures. This was achieved through placing flanking stones or avenues at entrances of some henges, or by dividing up the internal space using timber circles. While some were the first monuments to be built in their areas, others were added to already important landscapes, especially the larger examples.

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