What is Stonehenge? The answer may be simpler than you think.

LONDON – In 2003, Canadian gynecologist Anthony M. Birx came up with an anatomical interpretation of Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in England whose exact target is a mystery.

He wrote in his book: “Stonehenge can represent, symbolically, the opening by which Mother Earth gave birth to the plants and animals upon which the ancients so relied.” Article published in a medical journal. It could depict, he suggested, “the human vulva, with the birth canal at its centre.” The article is illustrated with diagrams of Stonehenge and the female reproductive organs.

The vulva hypothesis is one of a myriad of theories that have spread about Stonehenge, which were established around 4,500 years ago. While it was built around the same time as the Great Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of Giza, we know more about those Egyptian sites. Her incomplete knowledge of Stonehenge has turned her into a mystery that is now part of her identity.

Some believe it was an astronomical calculator, and an observatory that helped determine the seasons. Others see Stonehenge as a place of healing, a kind of prehistoric lord, which hosted legions of pilgrims. In the 1960s and 1970s, the site was believed to be full of magical and mystical powers, and became a hotspot for hippies and outdoor festivals. Today, it is a focal point for New Age counterculture and environmental activism.

Stonehenge also attracts a lot of theories of strange origins, driven by the belief that humans could not have created these structures themselves. According to these theories, Stonehenge was built by aliens, and is actually a landing pad for spacecraft.

As archaeologist and writer Jaquita Hawkes noted in 1967, “Every age has the Stonehenge it deserves—or desires.”

Hawkes’ words have been reproduced on a wall text inside a new exhibition in the British Museum,”Stonehenge world,” which runs through July 17. The show seeks to reduce ambiguity around the monument by focusing on recent discoveries and placing them in the context of life in Britain, Ireland and Northwest Europe before, during and after the construction of Stonehenge.

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“Stonehenge was an important place for people to go, to be together as a community,” said Neil Wilkin, the gallery’s lead curator. He described the site as a mix between town hall and cathedral, where people mingled for religious and social reasons.

“We want to step back from her, and look at the world she was in,” he added.

The exhibition begins by introducing visitors to a structure that predates Stonehenge: a stone circle built in the same spot some 500 years ago, which, according to archaeologists, was a cemetery. It was constructed using large columns of blue stone – each transported from Wales, more than 200 miles away – and used to bury cremated bodies. So far, the remains of 150 to 200 men, women and children have been found there.

A piece of blue stone likely used in the construction of that tomb is on display in the British Museum, as are some of the contents of the 5,000-year-old tombs, including the bone pins used to hold shrouds.

Five centuries later, Stonehenge as we know it was built using some of those existing bluestones, as well as the more than 80 towering “sarsen” stones, the monument’s vertical columns, horizontal lintels, or capstones. The sarsenes were pounded with round hammerstones, several examples of which have recently been discovered and are on display in the parade ground. Each Sarsen stone needed at least 1,000 people to move it over a distance of 15 miles. The process took generations, and many were killed and maimed as a result, according to the gallery’s wall text.

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Another recent discovery revealed that some of the pilgrims who helped build Stonehenge resided at Durrington Walls, a nearby settlement which, at its peak, contained about 1,000 temporary homes. The display case in the gallery – piled pig bones, flint pieces and pottery – bears witness to the hustle and bustle of that settlement.

People would come there, perhaps seasonally, to work in the later stages of Stonehenge, and they would “feed: roast the pig, have a barbecue,” said Jennifer Wexler, another curator.

Mike Parker Pearson, a professor at University College London who has made major discoveries related to Stonehenge, including the settlement of Dorington Walls, said Stonehenge was built at a time of severe population decline and dispersal. There were few, if any, villages, and the community was “trying to create a sense of unity and cooperation among its members,” he explained.

Constructed on the site of an ancient cemetery, Stonehenge served as a “monument,” he said, and “an expression of unity” that brought people together in pursuit of a common endeavour.

However, he said, “People don’t want it to be as simple as an explanation.”

Parker Pearson added, “A government minister once told me it was a great shame, what we were doing, because of course we were getting rid of the mystery” and “this is causing terrible things to visitor numbers.”

Much of the mystery comes down to the fact that writing did not exist in England until the Romans arrived 2,500 years later – so there is no written history of Stonehenge and the people who put it forward, Parker Pearson said.

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Wilkin, the curator of the exhibition, said that prehistoric inhabitants of England left no representations of human figures. They had a “semi-clandestine attitude towards their religion”, possibly with the goal of “excluding others from it”, so their spiritual practices are also undocumented.

Technology may soon help solve some mysteries.

Stable isotope analysis—meaning atoms with extra or missing neutrons—is used to study bones, tooth enamel, and food scraps in utensils and elsewhere to determine what a person ate at that time and how well they moved. Wilkin explained that tooth enamel contains a kind of chemical record of the climatic and geological conditions in which a person grew up, allowing archaeologists to determine how far people have traveled from their places of birth and to map migration and mobility. It also gives insight into their diets.

The study of ancient DNA also identifies genetic relationships between individuals. Two people buried with similar porcelain objects may now be identified as brother and sister, with those funeral goods gaining added importance as they begin to indicate family relationships.

“It would really change the knowledge of the people who built monuments like Stonehenge, and what we can say about them,” Wilkin said, adding that it could lead to a revision of the Stonehenge period’s naming from prehistoric times to “primary history” — or just plain history.

The new technology could “change how we interpret things in a really important way,” Wilkin said. “Exhibits like this in 10 or 20 years are going to be very, very different.”

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