The real history behind Stonehenge and the summer solstice celebrations

By Louise Quick
21 June 19

Thousands gather peacefully at Stonehenge for the summer solstice every year. Why then was the annual celebration marred with conflict and arrests only decades ago?

More than 10,000 revellers reportedly gathered at Stonehenge to peacefully celebrate the summer solstice and welcome in the longest day last night.

A quick online search reveals idyllic photos of sunrises and sing-alongs. It’s hard to imagine then that 30 years ago the spiritual gathering was a chaos of riots, where hundreds were arrested and hundreds more were turned away by an 800-strong police force.  

The Stonehenge Free Festival

Britain’s famous prehistoric monument has a history spanning 4,500 years. As such, in the name of preservation, it’s no longer possible for regular visitors to walk among the stones during the site’s normal opening hours.

However, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the public could freely access Stonehenge and crowds gathered around the summer solstice every year for what became known as the Stonehenge Free Festival.  

This was brought to an abrupt end when safety concerns – for the history as much as for the people – led to a High Court Injunction preventing anyone from assembling there from 1984.

As it turned out, the authorities meant business. Revellers heading to Stonehenge in June 1985 were met with road blocks, a four-mile exclusion zone, and thousands of police. But the festival-goers weren’t going to give up easily.

The Battle of the Beanfield

One conflict, known as the Battle of Beanfield, allegedly 1,300 officers clashed with a group of 600 travellers. Called the Peace Convoy, around 500 members were arrested.

Clashes with the police became an annual tradition in the years that followed, as people attempted to celebrate summer solstice at Stonehenge – a celebration believed to have been carried out for thousands of years.

The Druid King Arthur Pendragon even took his case to the European Court of Human rights. Until finally, from 1999, the first people were legally allowed to gather at Stonehenge for the summer solstice once more.

People gathered for the Stonehenge Free Festival in the 1970s and 80s. [Credit: Salix alba at en.wikipedia]

Why celebrate summer solstice at Stonehenge?

The headline act for the thousands who gather overnight at Stonehenge is the sunrise, which welcomes in the longest day or midsummer. It’s said that on this morning the monument’s stones are perfectly aligned so that the sun peeks out above the Heel Stone. From there, its first rays shine directly into the centre of Stonehenge.

Not only a picture-perfect moment, this is believed to be a spiritual ceremony. Many believe that Stonehenge was built to align with the movements of the sun and particularly the midsummer and midwinter sunrise. As such, crowds have gathered on the Neolithic site to celebrate the summer solstice, possibly for thousands of years.

But, what is Stonehenge?

The funny thing is that while Stonehenge is sacred to many – whether that’s as a spiritual monument or a historical site – ultimately it’s still a complete mystery!

Stonehenge doesn’t stand alone. It’s actually part of a much larger World Heritage Site, dotted with hundreds of historic burial mounds and other prehistoric monuments, such as the Stonehenge Avenue, the Cursus, Woodhenge, and Durrington Walls.

All these sights are incredibly valuable to historians trying to uncover and understand the ceremonial practices of Neolithic and Bronze Age people. Nonetheless two huge mysteries still surround Stonehenge: why and how was it built?

The mysteries of Stonehenge

What is Stonehenge, or any ‘henge’, for? Popular theories include a coronation site for Danish kings, a Druid temple, an astronomical computer designed to predict the planets, a place on ancestral worship, and a healing centre.

However, perhaps the biggest question surrounding Stonehenge is simply, how it was built? With its earliest incarnation dating back to 3,000 BC, the monument features mighty stones held up to nine metres above two others, like a lintel, and secured with interlocking joints.

Its architecture is profoundly sophisticated, considering this was a time when ancient humans were only just using metal tools for the first time.

Moreover, the fact that many of the stones come from more than 150 miles away in the Preseli Hills of Wales and weigh up to 25 tons each, begs the question, how did its creators even get the stones there in the first place?

Perhaps they were transported by sea, by land, thanks to glaciers or, if we believe 14th century manuscripts, with a little magic from the wizard Merlin.

One thing we do know is that, despite the unanswered questions, Stonehenge remains one of the most recognisable, popular, and sometimes contentious historic sites in the world.  

What do you think? What was the real purpose for Stonehenge being built? We’d love to know what you so drop your thoughts in the comment box or tweet us at @historybombs

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