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Lasers Set Stones Alight

An article by Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick
Wessex Archaeology

Stonehenge is the most famous prehistoric temple in the world.

Nearly 4,000 years ago, Bronze Age people carved pictures of metal axes on some of the great stones. This was not graffiti art. It was a statement to the gods; an act of worship.

As the centuries passed, the once freshly cut surface of the rock weathered. Slowly the shallow carvings became invisible. New technology has rediscovered this ancient art. In the Bronze Age metal was the new technology. Then, the axes were literally cutting edge.

Lost and Found

Generations of scholars have puzzled over Stonehenge since the Renaissance; making surveys, and speculating on why the temple was built and where the great stones came from.

It was only in 1953 that the first carvings were recognised by archaeologists. Carvings, mainly of axes, were recognised on three of the great stones. One carving is of a dagger.

The shape of that dagger reminded archaeologists of weapons in far away Mycenae in southern Greece. They speculated that this was a sign that Stonehenge was built by people from a higher civilisation, for surely the achievement was beyond the barbarian peoples of Britain?

But the advent of radiocarbon dating showed decisively that Stonehenge was much older than Mycenae. Indeed, the idea of making carvings in stone springs from a long tradition.

Altering the Earth

Altering the earth by adorning the living rock started in the Stone Age, long before the metal axes were carved at Stonehenge. Beautifully decorated stones have been found built into some of the great Stone Age chambered tombs or burial mounds of Scotland and Ireland.

In the Stone and Bronze Ages carvings are found over much of Europe, often on flat exposures of rock and covering hundreds of metres. People went to make carvings at these special places for many hundreds of years.

Simple rings with cup-like depressions in the middle are well known and are often thought to represent the sun or the moon. Other common images in the Bronze Age were people, animals, boats, and wagons.

In the south of England where Stonehenge stands, large exposures of rock are rare.

An exhibition of the dead?

A clue is given to the meaning of the Stonehenge axes is given by carvings from another important area of Britain, the Kilmartin valley in Scotland.

There are many rock carvings on the open rock here, but carvings of axes are only found in stone burial cists, or graves. The cists were then covered by cairns or large mounds of stone. The axes are of the same sort as those at Stonehenge, and like them they do not have handles. But at Kilmartin the only people who could see the axes were the dead.

One of the rare finds of carved axes in Wessex was excavated in Dorset in the 19th century. A stone decorated with axes and daggers was found in a barrow, a burial mound made of earth.

Just as at Kilmartin, the carvings had been consigned to the gods of the underworld.


The places that rock art are found tells archaeologists something of what it was for. It is found in natural, special, places, in burials, and on one of the great temples of prehistoric Europe. These are all places where people spoke to and worshipped their gods.

The shape of the Stonehenge axes shows that they date to early in the Bronze Age. Metal objects were still new and rare at this time. Sometimes axes like them were buried in the ground as offerings to the gods. Occasionally there were placed in graves, and their importance is shown clearly by a burial close to Stonehenge.

Bush Barrow is one of the many burial mounds built near to Stonehenge. The barrow surmounted the richest burial of its time. The journey to the next life was made with exquisitely crafted goldwork, a metal dagger decorated with gold. And an axe of the type carved at Stonehenge, buried wrapped in cloth.

The carving of the axes at Stonehenge shows that these were important objects. Only the metal axe heads are shown. There are no handles. Did the carving of the axes on the stones symbolise that such axes had already been offered to the gods? Or was altering this powerful monument by inscribing it with a sign of magical metal an act of worship in itself?

Archaeologists do not know the answer to these questions. What they can say is that only a few stones at Stonehenge are known to have carvings.

These were found exactly 50 years ago. Today, laser technology has found more carvings that are invisible to the naked eye but only a small sample of the stones with carvings was studied.

What else awaits illumination by laser?

© 2005 Wessex Archaeology / Archaeoptics Ltd

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