Stonehenge is probably the most impressive megalithic monument. It had inspired people for millennia. Every society has had their own beliefs about it. First of all, to place Stonehenge in the context of British prehistory, here is the history of Britain up to the Bronze Age, when most of the construction of Stonehenge took place.
The Paleolithic Period 30,000 B. C. - 9000 B. C.
During the "Great Ice Age", which is thought to have lasted about a million years, there were many periods of tens of thousands of years when the ice-cap which covered Britain melted away, and the climate became as warm as it is today. In these interglacial periods Homo erectus or other human ancestors first came to Britain as hunters and food gatherers. They were merely large families or small clans, scattered widely over the southern half of Britain. During this period, the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, Britain still formed, as least at times, a part of the Continent, Each time the climate worsened and ice caps began to form in the hills, the animals and their human predators moved south.
For most of the period the only archaeological evidence we have consists of the implements made by chipping flint nodules or flakes to the required shapes. Homo sapien sapiens evolved about 100,000 years ago, and is known to have existed in Western Europe during the last 30,000 years, During the later cold spells of the Ice Age, their skills enabled them to clothe themselves with animal skins, and to hunt in the areas round the edges of the ice.
In Britain there are a few caves, like those in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, where family groups found conditions suitable for survival, In some of these the debris of food bones and broken implements later became sealed by a layer of stalagmite, which has preserved many objects that would otherwise have decayed; so implements of bone survive as well as of flint.
The Mesolithic Period 9000 - 5000 B. C.
A rise in the sea-level, brought about largely by the melting ice-cap, cut Britain off from the Continent about 9000 years ago. Ireland had been isolated earlier.
A steady improvement in the climate allowed the population to increase somewhat; but as long as people had to rely on hunting and gathering instead of agriculture, their numbers could never grow large.
The improvement of climate was accompanied by a slow spread of forest from the South, leading to changes in animal life. the cold-weather herds of the steppes disappeared, to be replaced by forest animals, and there was also an increase in the species of fish. This led to changes of diet and modifications of the old hunting methods.
Of the people themselves of this period we know very little. All we have are some flint and bone implements. Though many of the occupation sites are known, and have in varying degree been excavated, there are no structural remains.
The Neolithic Period 5000 - 2700 B. C.
Shortly before 3000 BC the first parties of farmer immigrants established themselves in the chalk Down country of southern Britain, From early beginnings in the Near East, the twin activities of grain cultivation and stock raring had spread slowly westwards. The visible monuments of this cultural advance are of three kinds- flint mine, such as Grime's Graves, Norfolk, causewayed camps, such as Windmill Hill, Wiltshire, and long barrows or long cairns, such as West Kennet, Wiltshire.
A more regular food supply led to a steady increase of population, which was further increased by the arrival of new settlers and improved farming techniques. During this period, Britain was occupied by many tribes of different cultural levels, probably speaking different languages.
The need for open land for agriculture meant that trees had to be felled, On the chalk Downs the woodland was comparatively light and dry, and clearing could be done partly by burning and partly be felling. Cutting down trees needed axes, and for these igneous rocks were at first used, Some centuries later, seams of fine flint deep in the chalk were mined.
Causewayed camps, marked by bank-and-ditch rings around hill-tops, have been recognized on a number of sites; the ditches have many causeways for crossing, which correspond with openings in the banks, In this way they can be clearly disguised from the hill-forest of the Iron Age. They may have been meeting-places for formal communal purpose and perhaps markets.
The most important monuments are undoubtedly the burial sites, These are called megalithic as the burial-chambers and approach passages are of large stone slabs. In certain areas, where suitable slabs were not available, drystone walling was used.
Broadly the tombs fall into two main groups which were passage graves, with a passage from the entrance to a circular burial chamber, and gallery graves, with a long rectangular chamber, the whole of which was used for burials. Some of these have transepts or side-chambers, as in the Cotswold-Severn group. When complete, these structures were concealed below long mounds, although few are roughly circular, and contained by stone walling. The long ones were usually higher at the entrance end, and there was often a forecourt, where rites were performed when the tomb was opened for a burial, after which the entrance and forecourt were again masked by carefully built stone blocking.
In parts of southern and eastern England, long mounds of similar age are to be found, entirely lacking the internal stone structures. Excavation has revealed that similar turf and timber structures were often present.
The Bronze Age 2700 - 700 B. C.
The division of prehistoric cultures into Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age is a useful time-scale based on the technological skills employed in making important tools and weapons; no hard and fast line can be drawn. The first newcomer to Britain with a small metal knife-dagger began the Bronze Age, but the essentially Neolithic way of life, for most people, was not in the least changed, and it was only slowly that the new metal objects spread to all parts of the island.
The new immigrant group coming in from the Low Countries has been called the Beaker People, because of the drinking vessels found in of their tombs. They also brought with them the custom of individuals burials, under round barrows, much smaller than the large, collective long barrows.
The round barrow slowly became the normal tomb of the Bronze Age, although after a time cremation replaced burial. The commonest visible monuments of the Bronze Age are the many thousand of these round barrows, mainly in Dorset and Wiltshire. A few still stand at about their original height, but most have been reduced, often by later agricultural activity, and an unknown number have been completely destroyed ploughed flat in the last 2000 years.
In chalk country, houses of this period can be found only be excavation, and show a s a pattern of post-holes. In the West Country, especially on Dartmoor, such as in the Chagford area, where huts were built of stone, settlements of this date may still be seen. The boundaries of Bronze Age corn plot are sometimes visible as slightly raised banks, known as lynchets.
The Beaker People date from about 2300 B. C., and is typified by the pottery. The Wessex culture dates from about 1700 B. C., and is typified by rich burial mounds, and large amounts of artifacts in graves. The Deverel-Rimbury culture dates from about 1400 B. C., and is typified by pottery and settlement sites.
date BC period / culture metals used main artifacts Early Bronze Age 2700-2100 early beaker (Ire) copper + arsenic flat axes, halberds (UK:)copper + tin 2100-1900 late beaker same knives, Bush barrow, tanged spearheads 1900-1500 urn (Ire And UK:) copper + tin Middle Bronze Age 1500-1300 copper, tin palstaves, socketed spearheads 1300-1200 rapiers 1200-1000 early urnfield Late Bronze Age 1000-900 late urnfield socketed axes, palstaves 900-700 leaf-shaped swords ("Ewart")Around 700 B. C., the Celts invaded Britain and started the Iron Age. Agricultural lands became very valuable and thus it was a time of great warfare. It has been called the Age of Hillforts. The most obvious monuments dating from the Iron Age are earthwork hillforts such as Maiden Castle, and figures etched into the ground exposing the underlying chalk, such as the Cerne Giant and Uffington Horse. There is some evidence that the Cerne Giant was intended to represent Hercules, and thus might date from the Roman period, although obviously made by the local Celts. In 55 B. C. and 54 B. C., Julius Caesar invaded Britain but was unable to conquer it. In 43 A. D., Emperor Claudius approved the invasion of Britain. Aulus Plautius was assigned to be the commander of the expedition. The Romans successfully took over England, and started Roman Britain. Rome fell around 400 A. D., those in Britain were left to fend for themselves. They sustained waves of immigration from Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Thus started Anglo-Saxon England. William the Conqueror invaded Britain in 1066, and started Norman England.
The Bronze age is often called the Age of Megaliths because it was common for people at the time to erect stone monuments for religious purposes. A single standing stone all by itself is called a merhir. In Ireland, they had burial mounds containing stones. They stones still remain and often take the form of a large stone on top of three other stones. A monument of this type is called a dolman. Another type of stone monument is a stone with a hole in it. The most famous example is the Man-a-Tol in Cornwall. Newgrange is a famous Neolithic passage grave in Ireland dating from 3000 B. C. Carnac, in France, is a large number of stones lined up in parallel lines.
In Britain, stone circles were most popular. There are currently about 900 stone circles in Britain that date from the Neolithic or Bronze Age. Scholars estimate that about twice that many originally existed. Scholars classify stone circles into the following categories:
1. Circle-Henge - stone circle surrounded by a ditch, such as Mayburgh in Westmoreland
2. Center Stone - stone circle with a stone in the center, such as Boscawen Un in Cornwall
3. Multiple - rings of stones within rings of stones, such as Shovel Down in Devon
4. Pairs - two stone circles near each other, such as Burn Moor in Cumberland
5. Triples - three stone circles near each other, such as Drizzlecomb in Devon
6. Ovals - such as Achany in the highlands of Scotland
7. Recumbents - groups of circles associated with a burial, such as Cairnfauld in Grampion, Scotland
8. Circles - such as Ardblar in Powys, Wales
9. Clava Type - such as Aviemoe in the highlands of Scotland
10. Embanked - such as Grassington in Yorkshire
11. Four-Poster - stone circle with only four stones, such as the Druid’s Altar in Yorkshire
12. Horseshoe - such as Achavanich in Scotland
13. Kerb-Circle - low stones, long and narrow, laying down on the ground, such as Little Meg in Cumberland
Here is data on some of the stone circles in Britain.
name location diameter (meters) original number of stones Aberscross Highlands, Scotland 7.6 Achavanich Broubster, Scotland 42.7 Arbor Low 3 Derbyshire, England Ardblair Tayside, Scotland 14.8 6 Avebury Wiltshire, England 425 Banc Du Powys, Wales 18 Blakeley Raise Cumberland, England 16.7 11 Blakey Topping Yorkshire, England 16 Boskednan Cornwall, England 21.8 22 Brisworthy Devon, England 24.8 42 Broomrigg Plantation 3 Cumberland, England 16.8 Broomrigg Plantation 4 Cumberland, England 55 Bryn Gwyn Stones Anglesey, Wales 12 Casterton Westmorland, England 19 Castlerigg Cumberland, England 32.6 42 Cauldside Burn Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland 25 20 Cerrig Gaerau ESW Powys, Wales Cerrig Gaerau WSW Powys, Wales 21 Cnoc Ceann A'Gharaidh Outer Hebrides, Scotland 21.6 Craddock Moor Cornwall, England Croft Moraig Tayside, Scotland 12 12 Drannandow Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland 27.2 13 Druid's Circle Gwynedd, Wales 4 5 Druid's Seat Tayside, Scotland 8.5 12 Duddo Five Stones Northumberland, England 9.8 5 Duloe Cornwall, England 12 8 Elva Plain Cumberland, England 34.4 30 Fernacre Cornwall, England 46 70 Fernacre - North West Cornwall, England Fernworthy Devon, England 19.8 27 Ffridd Newydd - North Gwynedd, Wales 33 Ffridd Newydd - South Gwynedd, Wales 51 45 Fortingall - NE Circle Tayside, Scotland 8.2 Fowlis Wester East Tayside, Scotland 8.2 12 Fowlis Wester West Tayside, Scotland 6.7 Girdle Stanes Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland 39 45 Goodaver Cornwall, England 32.3 28 Gors Fawr Dyfed, Wales 22.3 Greenland Tayside, Scotland 8.5 9 Grey Yauds Cumberland, England 47.6 88 Guidebest Scotland 57.3 13 Haltadans Shetland, Scotland 11.3 22 Harestanes Borders, Scotland 3 5 Hoarstones Shropshire, England 23.3 Hough Tiree, Inner Hebrides, Scotland 40 12 Hurlers -North Cornwall, England 34.8 28 Hurlers - South Cornwall, England 26 Innesmill Grampian, Scotland 33.5 12 Lacra 1 Cumberland, England 16.2 6 Lacra 2 Cumberland, England 15 11 Lamlash Arran, Scotland 6.7 7 Learable Hill Highlands, Scotland 17 Leaze Cornwall, England 25 28 Llyn Eiddew Bach III Gwynedd, Wales 12.8 14 Loch Buie Mull, Inner Hebrides, Scotland 13.3 Loupin' Stanes - Central Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland 11.4 12 Loupin' Stanes - North West Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland 13.4 Machrie Moor 1 Arran, Scotland 14.6 12 Machrie Moor 2 Arran, Scotland 12.8 Machrie Moor 3 Arran, Scotland 16.3 9 Machrie Moor 4 Arran, Scotland 9 5 Merry Maidens Cornwall, England 23.8 19 Mosley Height Lancashire, England 12.8 18 Murthly Tayside, Scotland 9.9 8 Nant Tarw -ESE Powys, Wales 20.7 Nant Tarw -WNW Powys, Wales 19.2 Nine Stone Close Derbyshire, England 13.7 9 Nine Stones Cornwall, England 15.2 9 Nine Stones Devon, England 7.8 40 Parkneuk Tayside, Scotland 13.7 Porlock Somerset, England 24.4 45 Rhos Y Beddau Powys, Wales 12.8 Rollright Stones Oxfordshire, England 31.7 80 Scorhill Devon, England 26.8 65 Sherberton Devon, England 29.9 7 Shethin Grampian, Scotland 5.1 20 Simonburn Northumberland, England 8.9 11 Six Stones Powys, Wales 24.4 14 Stall Moor Devon, England Stannon Cornwall, England 43 Strontoiller Strathcylde, Scotland 19.8 35 Swinside Cumberland, England 28.6 60 Temple Wood North Strathcylde, Scotland 10.5 Trippet Stones Cornwall, England 32.9 28 White Moor Down Devon, England 20 18 Whitehall Wood Grampian, Scotland 8.2 Withypool Somerset, England 36.4 100 Ynys-Hir Powys, Wales 18Probably the second most famous stone circle is Avebury which is the largest stone circle in Britain. Avebury is in the Kennet district in Wiltshire, and has a diameter of 1,400 feet. Avebury is the best preserved superhenge in Britain, consisting of a huge earthwork that encloses the great circle of about 100 megaliths, and two further rings of about 30 stones each. Both of these rings contained other standing stones: the northern, three enormous megaliths on the sides of a square known as the Cove, two survive, and Avebury’s tallest megalith, the Obelisk, destroyed in the 18th century, in the southern. None of these three rings is perfectly circular. The largest is the least regular, as it follows the inner lip of the great ditch. Unfortunately, most of the stones at Avebury were deliberately torn down by the medieval church which condemned it as a pagan monument. The most famous stone circle, of course, is Stonehenge, which is the only stone circle that has stones on top of other stones. It was a remarkable feat of primitive engineering.
The megalithic ruin known as Stonehenge stands on the open downland of Salisbury Plain 2 miles west of the town of Amesbury, Wiltshire, in Southern England. Stonehenge consists of four concentric ranges of stones. The outermost range is a circle, 100 ft. in diameter, of large, linteled, sandstone blocks called sarsen stones. Within this circle is a circle of smaller blue stones consisting mainly of spotted dolerite, with four specimens each of rhyolite and of volcanic ash. The latter circle enclosed a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of five linteled pairs of large sarsen stones. Within this arrangement is a smaller horseshoe-shaped range of blue stones enclosing a slab of micaceous sandstone known as the Altar Stone. Near the entrance to the avenue lies the so-called Slaughter Stone, a sarsen stone that may originally have stood upright.
Grouped around the main structure are a number of barrows, some of which contain chips of a blue stone similar to that found in the concentric ranges. The blue stones are from the north flank of the Prescelly Mountains in Wales. The Altar Stone is believed to have come from the region near Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire.
Stonehenge is surrounded by a circular ditch, 340 ft., in diameter and 5 ft deep, within which is a bank and a ring of 56 pits called the Aubrey holes. At the northeast end a break in the ditch affords access to a ditch-bordered avenue that extends in a generally northeastward direction to the East Avon River. The avenue is 75 ft wide and nearly 2 miles long.
8000 B. C. - Totem Poles
Hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic period erected three huge pine posts in the great pine forest that covered the site at the time. The 1960's car park is built over these - the large round discs you can see in the car park are the modern markers for these 10,000 year old holes.
Stonehenge I (3100 - 2700 B. C.)
The earliest portion of the complex, which dates to approximately 3100-2300 B. C., comprised a circular bank-and-ditch of about 330 feet in diameter. Just inside the earth bank were a circle of the 56 "Aubrey holes", now invisible on the surface. The holes may have originally held wooden posts.
Stonehenge II (2700 - 2500 B. C.)
A large number of wooden posts were on the site during this time. These may have guided people through narrow paths to the ceremonial center, adding a mystique to the entry. There was a large number of posts but they may not have been all up at the same time. It is possible to make out the outline of perhaps a round structure in the center of the circle, and there does appear to be a passageway leading out from the southern entrance.
Stonehenge IIIa (2500 - 2400 B. C.)
The first stones brought to the site are the bluestones, imported all the way from Wales. Probably dating to this time also the four "Station Stones", only two of which survive, and on the north-east side, an earthwork Avenue which runs from the break in the bank-and-ditch was added. The now-fallen "Slaughter Stone", located at the break in the bank-and-ditch may date from this period, as may also the "Heel Stone", located further out along the Avenue.
This double horseshoe of bluestones arranged in pairs is an enigmatic period of Stonehenge. It was short-lived, even though it must have taken a phenomenal amount of work to raise.
Stonehenge IIIb (2400 - 2200 B. C.)
The blue stones were taken down, and the massive sarsen stones were raised. This is the only stone circle with stones raised on top of other stones. There was an outer circle of linteled sarsen stones enclosing a horseshoe of linteled sarsen stones. Also, during this time, there was a man buried on the ditch which had since mostly silted up.
Stonehenge IIIc (2200 - 1800 B. C.)
The bluestones were returned to the site. They were placed in a circle within the sarsen circle, and then a horseshoe within the sarsen horseshoe. Stonehenge takes its familiar appearance. After this stage, two concentric circles of pits were dug outside the sarsen circle, the Y and Z holes, thirty of each lining up with the sarsens. They are imprecisely marked out, and stones were never placed in these holes, though we can imagine that another two rings of stones outside the sarsens was planned. Whatever the plans, this stage was never implemented.
1100 B. C. - The Avenue is lengthened for another 1 1/2 miles out to the river Avon at Amesbury.
43 A. D. - 410 A. D.
Stonehenge was desecrated by the Romans, who tore down a number of the upright stones.
650 - 690 A. D. - A man was executed and buried at Stonehenge.
1130 - Henry of Huntingdon wrote "Stanenges, where stones of wonderful size have been erected after the manner of doorway, so that doorway appears to have been raised upon doorway; and no one can conceive how such great stones have been raised aloft, or why they were built there".
1663 - John Aubrey did the first known systematic inspection of the site. He attributed the construction to the Druids who used the site as a temple.
1740 - Dr. William Stuckly, also a proponent of the Druid theory, investigated and measured the site, and was the first to suggest that it was astronomically aligned.
January 1797 - Two uprights and a lintel west of the Altar Stone fell down.
1900 - Two other stones, an upright and its lintel fell down.
1901 - Stonehenge is fenced off and an entrance fee charged to visit the site.
1923 - The remains of the man executed in the 7th Century were discovered.
1953 - On some of the fallen stones, shallow carvings were found depicting bronze axheads of a type used in Britain during 1600 - 1400 B. C.
1958 - The five stones that fell in 1797 and 1900 were raised, giving the monument the approximate appearance it had during the Roman occupation.
1977: Visitor numbers reach 800,000 per year.
July 1978: Department of the Environment restricts public access to Stonehenge, to limit erosion by visitors, then running at 2,000 per hour during the summer season.
1982: Visitor figures down to 500,000 per year.
1983: Visitor figures begin to rise again, reaching 600,000 per year.
November 1986: Stonehenge is designated a World Heritage Site.
1991: Paying visitors now number 700,000 per year.
June 1996: English Heritage and Intel launch the virtual reality model of Stonehenge on the Internet.
For comparison, construction ofthe Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza began in 2467 B. C. and it was completed about 20 years later, around 2450 B. C.
The construction of Stonehenge was a staggering engineering feat of engineering, considering the primitive technology available, requiring enormous time and vast amounts of hard manual labor. In its first phase, Stonehenge was a large earthwork; a bank and ditch arrangement called a henge, constructed approximately 5,000 years ago. It is believed that the ditch was dug with tools made from the antlers of red deer and, possibly, wood. The underlying chalk was loosened with picks and shoveled with the shoulderblades of cattle. It was then loaded into baskets and carried away. Modern experiments have shown that these tools were more than equal to the great task of earth digging and moving.
About 2,000 B. C., the first stone circle, which is now the inner circle, comprised of small bluestones, was set up, but abandoned before completion. The stones used in that first circle are believed to be from the Prescelly Mountains, located roughly 240 miles away, at the southwestern tip of Wales. The bluestones weigh up to 4 tons each and about 80 stones were used, in all. Given the distance they had to travel, this would have been a tremendous transportation problem.
It is generally believed that the stones were dragged by roller and sledge from the inland mountains to the headwaters of Milford Haven. There they were loaded onto rafts, barges or boats and sailed along the south coast of Wales, then up the Rivers Avon and Frome to a point near present-day Frome in Somerset. From this point, the stones were hauled overland, again, to a place near Warminster in Wiltshire, approximately 6 miles away. From there, it's back into the pool for a slow float down the River Wylye to Salisbury, then up the Salisbury Avon to West Amesbury, leaving only a short 2 mile drag from West Amesbury to the Stonehenge site.
The giant sarsen stones, which form the outer circle, weigh as much as 50 tons each. To transport them from the Marlborough Downs, roughly 20 miles to the north, is a problem of even greater magnitude than that of moving the bluestones. Most of the way, the going is relatively easy, but at the steepest part of the route, at Redhorn Hill, modern work studies estimate that at least 600 men would have been needed just to get each stone past this obstacle.
Once on site, a sarsen stone was prepared to accommodate stone lintels along its top surface. It was then dragged until the end was over the opening of the hole. Great levers were inserted under the stone and it was raised until gravity made it slide into the hole. At this point, the stone stood on about a 30° angle from the ground. Ropes were attached to the top and teams of men pulled from the other side to raise it into the full upright position. It was secured by filling the hole at its base with small, round packing stones. At this point, the lintels were lowered into place and secured vertically by mortice and tenon joints and horizontally by tongue and groove joints.
Each group of people to have visited the site had their own theory as to who built Stonehenge. In medieval Europe, theories ranged from giants to Merlin to the Devil. Some people thought it was built by the Romans. From the 17th Century to the 19th Century, it was widely believed it was built by Druids, who were the priests of the Celts who dominated the region from around 700 B. C. until the Roman invasion in 43 A. D. In reality, Stonehenge was begun by the people of the late Neolithic period, around 3000 B. C., and carried forward by people from a new economy which was arising at this time. These new people, called Beaker People, because of their use of pottery drinking vessels, began to use metal implements and to live in a more communal fashion than their ancestors. They were immigrants from the continent.