Henge

From Academic Kids

A henge is a circular or sub-circular prehistoric enclosure defined by a raised circular bank, and a circular ditch usually running inside the bank. Henges have one or more entrances leading into the enclosed open space. They are unique to the British Isles.

They are classified as Class I henges which have a single entrance created from a gap in the bank; Class II henges, which have two entrances, opposite each other; and Class III henges which have four entrances, facing each other in pairs. Sub groups exist for these when two or three internal ditches are present rather than one. Henges are usually associated with the Late Neolithic, especially the grooved ware culture, the Peterborough culture and the beaker people. Sites such as Stonehenge also provide evidence of activity from the later Bronze Age Wessex culture.

Henges often contain evidence of a variety of internal features including timber or stone circles, pits or burials. They should not be confused with the stone circles which are sometimes present within them. Similarly shaped, but larger enclosures are known as Henge enclosures whilst smaller ones with other types of enclosing features are known as Hengiform monuments.

The word henge is a backformation from Stonehenge, the famous monument in Wiltshire. Stonehenge is not a true henge at all as its ditch runs outside its bank, although there is a small extant external bank as well. This is a modern distinction however, we do not know if ditch placement would have been a significant feature or not to the people who built the monuments. The term to was first coined in 1932 by Thomas Kendrick who later became the Keeper of British Antiquities at the British Museum.

Some of the finest and best-known henges include:

Burials have been recorded at only a few henges, mostly as a result of secondary reuse. At Avebury a at least two very disturbed inhumations were found in the central area. At King Arthur's Round Table, Cumbria, a cremation trench lay within the monument, while at Woodhenge a central burial of a child was interpreted by its excavators as a dedicatory offering. Phosphate surveys at Maxey henge suggested that burials may also have been present within this monument.

Stone circles are also found within a few henges, with at least six cases identified in England. At Arbor Low in Derbyshire, the stones do not seem to have been set up to judge from the fact that no stoneholes have been found. Elsewhere, often only the stone holes remain.

Theories about henges

Henges may have been used for rituals, or astronomical observation rather than being areas of day-to-day activity. The fact that their ditches are located inside their banks indicates that they would not have been used in a defensive function and that the barrier the earthworks provide is more likely to have been symbolic rather than functional. It has been conjectured that whatever took place inside the enclosures was intended to be separate from the outside world and perhaps only known to select individuals or groups.

The alignment of henges is a contentious issue. Popular belief is that their entrances point towards certain heavenly bodies. In fact, henge orientation is highly variable and may have been more determined by local topology rather than any desire for symbolic orientation. A slight tendency for Class I henges having an entrance set in the north or north-east quarter has been identified following statistical analysis whilst Class II henges generally have their axes aligned approximately south east to north west or north east to south west.

It has been suggested that the stone and timber structures sometimes built inside henges were used as solar declinometers, used 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 themselves. They therefore 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 would indicate the position of the rising or setting sun during the equinoxes and solstices whilst 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. Henges are present from the extreme north to the extreme south of Britain however and so their latitude could not have been of great importance.

Carhenge is either a modern parody or artistic tribute to the famous Stonehenge structure.

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