Stonehenge is one of Great Britain’s oldest mysteries. Although the theories abound, from a calendar, a burial site, the world’s first football posts, even an alien landing pad, no one really knows what the purpose of this ancient structure, or who built it. We do, however, have some information.
What is Stonehenge?
Stonehenge is an prehistoric circle of standing stones. Carbon dating has shown that the stones now there were erected between 2400-2200 BC, however there may have been stones standing there as far back as 3000 BC. This makes the site over three thousand years old. Although it is still unclear just what the purpose of the stones are, an excavation in 2008 discovered various cremated remains, indicating that this was at one point a burial site.
The name Stonehenge comes from the 10th Century ‘Henge-cliff’, meaning an overhanging precipice of rock. Because some of the stones are held up by the others, the are also overhanging, and thus the name Stonehenge. Stonehenge also caused the creation of a type of archaeological site named henges, which are defined as an earthen bank with an inclosed ditch, usually with some kind of structure included. It is very unlike any other henges however, because its stones are held together with Mortise and Tenon joints while most circles are just laid on top of each other. It is also significantly larger, and is slightly different in design to other henges.
The stones were placed over many different stages of construction, and the Bluestones came from as far away as 250 miles away south wales, moved to Salisbury by either humans or glacial movement.
The History of Stonehenge
As previously mentioned, the stones of Stonehenge date back to 2400 BC, but the site itself is much older, with evidence of manmade structures dating to 8000 BC.
8000 BC -Underneath the tourist car park for Stonehenge, archaeologists have found evidence of four, maybe five (one may have be natural) postholes. These holes held what were believed to be pine posts, around 0.75 meters in diameter. No one knows what these posts were for, although their alignment(east-west) may have held religious significance. As the posts rotted in place, and were erected such a long time ago, it is impossible to know quite what their purpose was. No similar sites have been found in England, although some have been found in Scandinavia.
There was also several barrows (Long grave mounds) found on Salisbury Plain from around this time, which were filled with headless skeletons. The heads were later discovered in a dig on a nearby hill that was used for sacred rituals.
3100 BC – This is when there is the first evidence for a monument on the Stonehenge site, although it was not the familiar standing stones we all know and love. No, this was a bank and ditch structure made from chalk. It was circular (110 meters in diameter) and had two entrances – a large one on the north-eastern side and a smaller one on the south-western. The ditch was continuous, but had been dug in sections by builders using antler picks as tools. It was the chalk taken from the ditch that had been used to form the bank. Interestingly, there were flint tools and bones older than those used to build the ditch found on the center of the enclosed area.
Around the outer edge of the enclosed area, 56 chalk pits were found, some with cremated bones in. These pits were named the Aubrey holes after the John Aubrey, a 17th century historian who is credited with first discovering them. They are believed to have contained timber posts for a wooden circle similar to Stonehenge, or maybe even stone.
3000 BC – Very little evidence remains of the structure built at this time in Stonehenge, as it is believed it was made out of timble. Post-holes have been found, smaller in diameter than the Aubrey holes, at both the northeast entrance and running parallel at the southern entrance. The ditch was silting up at this point, and the bank had been purposely made smaller. Also at this time, the Aubrey holes were used to house cremated remains, particularly the eastern half. At least 25 holes were used this way, giving rise to the speculation that Stonehenge was adapted for a cemetery.
2600 BC – This is where it all starts getting interesting. It was about this time where the ancient builders stopped using easily decomposable timber and started to use stone, leaving a much more lasting imprint on the site. There is over 20 different types of stone present, but the main uprights are mostly made of Ordovician Dolerite from Wales. There was originally around 80 stones, with only 43 remaining, each around 2 meters tall, 1.2 meters wide, and 0.8 meters thick. The altar stone is most likely from the brecon beacons, and stood as a central monolith originally.
The northeastern entrance was widened and had the Heelstone and a second, no longer visible, stone erected outside of it, while the Slaughter Stone was erected inside with another stone which is now invisible. Stonehenge Avenue, a 2 mile long pair of parallel ditches leading to the river Avon, was also built at this time.
2400 BC – This is when the monument took shape as we know it. 30 enormous sarsen stones were brought to the site and erected as a 33 metre circle of standing stones, with a ring of lintel stones resting on top. Each standing stone was around 4.1 metres high, 2.1 metres wide, 1.1 meters thick, and weighed around 25 tons. The lintel stones are each around 3.2 metres long, 1 metre wide and 0.8 metres thick.
Within this circle stood another sarsen circle in a horseshoe shape 13.7 metres across with its open end facing north east. These huge stones, ten uprights and five lintels, weigh up to 50 tons each.. The smallest double pair were around 6 metres tall, the next double a little higher, and the largest pair in the south west corner would have been 7.3 metres tall.
As mention earlier there is no shortage of theories concerning who, how ,or why Stonehenge was built. We may come up with reasonable answers for how Stonehenge was built, but the who and why may be lost to time. Maybe it’s this mystery that fascinates everyone when confronted with the site of Stonehenge. Besides, it fun to imagine mysterious Druids performing arcane rituals and maybe an alien or two.