Stonehenge is not so ancient that it was built by Neanderthals. Nor, despite the persistent urban legend, aliens. “That’s selling ourselves short, right?” jokes Dirk Van Tuerenhout, curator of anthropology for the Houston Museum of Natural Science. “People did this, and science backs that up.”
Although it can’t quite answer the million-dollar question of exactly why Neolithic Britons chose to erect this enigmatic monument—whose annual visitors number roughly 1.5 million—the museum’s traveling exhibition “Stonehenge: Ancient Mysteries and Modern Discoveries” yields a remarkable amount of information about these bygone inhabitants of the Salisbury plain.
Done in several phases, the construction of Stonehenge is believed to have begun around 3,000 B.C. The iconic ring came about some 500 years later, around the same time the Egyptian pyramids were built—and about 2,300 years before the Great Wall of China.
Fully half of the 300 artifacts on display at HMNS have never traveled outside Europe. Interactive maps, scale models, and artists’ renderings of work crews and farming settlements construct a fascinating and convincing portrait of life in prehistoric England, as do the various tools—antler picks, jade axes, bulky stone hammers known as mauls—that have been unearthed from the chalky English soil.
Sarsen, the massive sandstones at the center of Stonehenge, are native to south-central England. The smaller rocks dotting the landscape, known as bluestones, were transported from Wales—a distance of some 150 miles. Each bluestone was around nine feet high and weighed between one and three tons. Archaeologists estimate it took multiple teams of up to 50 people six months to transport one bluestone to the site. At HMNS, mannequins are shown hewing the stones and fastening them with rope to a conveyance made out of logs.
A film playing nearby features a deerskin-clad woman addressing the camera, laying out what researchers believe to be a possible motive for why these ancient people wanted to lug SUV-sized rocks hundreds of miles for years and even generations at a time. Judging by their faces, the rest of her people don’t seem as enthusiastic as she is.
“It is now the tenth time, the tenth cold season I have traveled so great a distance with my people, that we’ve come here to work on the giant stone round,” she says. “But it did not go as planned. In truth, the progress we have made is little … In these difficult times, we must unite as one people and work together on this special spot where the gods were born.”
► Stonehenge: Ancient Mysteries and Modern Discoveries: Thru Mar 22. $30. Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Dr. 713-639-4629. hmns.org