The origin of Stonehenge has long been debated by scholars, but a new theory about the prehistoric British monument literally turns most conventional thinking upside down. Rather than digging through the structure’s foundations, scholars should instead be looking upward, according to British historian and art critic Julian Spalding, who is arguing that Stonehenge was actually “an ancient Mecca on stilts.”
“We’ve been looking at Stonehenge the wrong way: from the earth, which is very much a 20th-century viewpoint,” Spalding told the Guardian in an interview on Sunday. “In early times, no spiritual ceremonies would have been performed on the ground. The pharaoh of Egypt and the emperor of China were always carried -- as the pope used to be. The feet of holy people were not allowed to touch the ground.”
The historian is instead suggesting that the giant stone monoliths could have supported an elevated altar where worshippers would have gathered for sacred ceremonies. “All the great raised altars of the past suggest that the people who built Stonehenge would never have performed celestial ceremonies on the lowly earth,” he said.
While the new theory has been met with some skepticism, some experts have tried to keep an open mind. "There could be something in it. There is a possibility, of course. Anything new and worthwhile about Stonehenge is well worth looking into, but with care and consideration," archaeologist Aubrey Burl told the Guardian.
Spalding’s theory is a major departure from much of the traditional thinking about the origin of the structure, which is England’s most famous prehistoric monument. It has long speculated that the monument was used by ancient worshippers to celebrate the solstice due to the structure’s alignment with the sunset during the winter solstice and sunrise during the summer solstice. Nearby archaeological evidence shows that pigs may have been slaughtered during December and January, possibly for a religious feast, according to Live Science.
A more recent theory based on radiocarbon dating suggests that the site was primarily used as a cemetery for a prehistoric dynasty, according to National Geographic. A study of human remains around the monument found that people were buried at the site from about 3000 B.C., which predates the estimated erection of the stones by about 500 years.
Regardless of the true nature of the monument, the mystery has done its part to spur tourism to the site. Visitor numbers to Stonehenge have increased by 8.4 percent to more than 1.34 million visits, according to figures released Monday by the UK’s Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. The monument is a Unesco World Heritage site and is considered to be one of the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circles in the world.