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Stonehenge

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Library of Congress / Library of Congress

Stonehenge c. 1900

Library of Congress / Library of Congress

Summary:

A prehistoric stone circle on Salisbury Plain famous for having lintels atop massive stones to form a continuous circle.

What is Stonehenge?:

Stonehenge is a prehistoric arrangement of massive standing stones on Salisbury Plain in Britain. There are two main types of stone, the Sarsen and Bluestones, which form an outer and inner ring; the latter have also been placed in a central horse-shoe arrangement. While there are bigger stone circles in the world, Stonehenge is unique because the Sarsen stones had lintels connecting each other, forming a complete, joined up ring. Stonehenge wasn't built in one phase, but was created over a period of 1500 years. Over the centuries some of the stones were lost to builders, decay and tourists who chipped pieces off.
Despite the best efforts of archaeologists, who have pinpointed when the structures of Stonehenge were built, a lack of sources means we aren't fully sure why they were created. The site was built with a ritual purpose – it's built in alignment with the Midsummer sunrise - but we don’t know what rituals or why. There is also great debate over how. One thing modern experts have established is that Stonehenge had nothing to do with 'druids', a common myth about the site.

Construction: Phase 1:

The first phase of construction occurred during the Neolithic period, around 3100 BCE, and was carried out by the Windmill Hill culture. They built a henge, a circular bank of earth with a ditch, although even at this stage the site was unusual as the ditch was outside the bank, rather than inside. Instead, fifty-six holes – the Aubrey holes, named after the man who rediscovered them – were dug, each a metre wide and deep; some contain cremated remains. The site's entrance is aligned with the midsummer sunrise and we believe the Aubrey holes had a ritual purpose: they are not post holes.
Over the next few centuries wooden structures were added, including a circle of timbers making a wooden henge. We don’t know for sure what these structures were, whether they were buildings or some sort of markers.

Construction: Phase 2:

The most dramatic and controversial phase occurred between 2600/2500 BCE, carried out by the Beaker People. 80 ‘blue stones’, named because they look blue when wet, were arranged upright in a circle and used to rebuild the wooden henge. These stones are of a type from the Preseli Mountains in South Wales, and the traditional interpretation is that they were quarried in Wales, 240 miles away, and dragged and floated to the site. If true, it was a massive achievement. However, Aubrey Burl argues that the stones were actually glacial deposits left on Salisbury Plain, and that the Beakers didn’t move them as far*.

Construction: Phase 3:

After a period of abandonment, new work began in the early Bronze age, around 2300 BCE by the Wessex Peoples. Sarsen stones were quarried from the Marlborough Downs 19 miles away and erected as a new stone circle, each connected to two others by lintels forming a continuous ring, exhibiting relatively sophisticated wood/stone working techniques. Each stone (or 'megalith') weighed over 25 tonnes and was dragged to the location, probably by teams of over 600 people, although we don’t know how the stones were raised into position. Five trilithons (two standing stones with a lintel), were erected inside the circle.
The bluestones were dug and rearranged several times, eventually ending up in 1500 BCE as an inner ring and a horse-shoe shape within that, focusing on one stone now (like many on the site) now fallen called the Altar stone.. More work may well have been planned as a series of empty holes, the X and Y holes, have been found in a circle outside the outer ring.

Where did the name Stonehenge come from?:

We believe Stonehenge was first named as such in the Anglo-Saxon period. Henge, now an archaeological term, originally meant 'hanging' (and gibbet) in Anglo-Saxon, and the name literally means 'hanging stones'.

Stonehenge in the Modern Era:

The growing ability of people to travel over the last century has rapidly increased visitor numbers to Stonehenge, with 800,000 believed to visit annually, some for modern religious reasons, others just to see the iconic structure. This has led to increased attempts to protect the site, with an ongoing discussion which, at one point, included plans to reroute a road through a tunnel under the site. Stonehenge is far from a dead monument, now owned by the British nation and managed by English Heritage for the government.

* Aubrey Burl, Stonehenge: How Did The Stones Get There, History Today March 2001, Pages 19 – 25.

Note: Archaeological work done in the 2000s has suggested that Stonehenge was both a burial site and place of worship in a far larger ritual 'landscape of the dead'. It remains to be seen if this new theory is accepted, but it has compelling elements.

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