Stonehenge – Forever a mystery
There is nothing quite like Stonehenge anywhere in the world and for 5000 years it has drawn visitors to it. We shall never know what drew people here over the centuries or why hundreds of people struggled over thousands of years to build this monument, but visitors from all over the world come to marvel at this amazing feat of engineering.
Before Stonehenge was built thousands of years ago, the whole of Salisbury Plain was a forest of towering pines and hazel woodland. Over centuries the landscape changed to open chalk downland. What you see today is about half of the original monument, some of the stones have fallen down, others have been carried away to be used for building or to repair farm tracks and over centuries visitors have added their damage too. It was quite normal to hire a hammer from the blacksmith in Amesbury and come to Stonehenge to chip bits off. As you can imagine this practice is no longer permitted!
Stonehenge was built in three phases. The first stage was a circle of timbers surrounded by a ditch and bank. The ditch would have been dug by hand using animal bones, deer antlers which were used as pick-axes to loosen the underlying chalk and then the shoulder blades of oxen or cattle were used as shovels to clear away the stones. Excavations of the ditch have recovered antlers that were left behind deliberately and it was by testing their age through radio carbon dating we now know that the first henge was built over 50 centuries ago, that is about 3,100 BC. That's where the mystery begins. We haven't just found old bones, around the edge of the bank we also found 56 holes now known as Aubrey Holes, named after the 17th century antiquarian, John Aubrey, who found them in about 1666. We know that these holes were dug to hold wooden posts, just as holes were dug later to hold the stone pillars that you see today. So this was the first stage built about 5,050 years ago, wooden post circle surrounded by a deep ditch and bank.
Then about 4,500 years ago – 2,500 BC and about 2,400 years before the Romans set foot in Britain, it was rebuilt. This time in stone, bluestones were used which are the smaller stones that you can see in the pictures. These came from the Prescelli Mountains in Pembroke, South Wales 245 miles (380kms), dragged down to the sea, floated on huge rafts, brought up the River Avon, finally overland to where they are today. It was an amazing feat when you consider that each stone weighs about five tons. It required unbelievable dedication from ancient man to bring these stones all the way from South Wales.
Before the second phase of Stonehenge was complete work stopped and there was a period of abandonment. Then began a new bigger, even better Stonehenge, the one that we know today- this was approximately 4,300 years ago, about 2,300 BC, the third and final stage of what we see now.
The bluestones were dug up and rearranged and this time even bigger stones were brought in from the Marlborough Downs, 20 miles (32 kms). These giant sandstones or Sarsen stones, as they are now called were hammered to size using balls of stone known as ‘mauls'. Even today you can see the drag marks. Each pair of stones was heaved upright and linked on the top by the lintels. To get the lintels to stay in place, the first wood working techniques were used. They made joints in stone, linking the lintels in a circular manner using a tongue and groove joint, and subsequently the upright and lintel with a ball and socket joint or mortice and tenon. This was all cleverly designed on the alignment of the rising of the mid summer sun.
How did they get these stones to stand upright? The truth is nobody really knows. It required sheer muscle power and hundreds of men to move one of these megaliths, the heaviest of them weighing probably about 45 tons.
There are some wonderful myths and legends and you can hear them on the audio tour at Stonehenge in nine different languages, English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Russian and Japanese.
Stonehenge was formerly owned by a local man, Sir Cecil Chubb, and he gave it to the nation in 1918 and it is now managed by English Heritage on behalf of the Government. In 1986, it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site and you can learn more about this on the World Heritage Site section. It is without doubt one of the finest prehistoric monuments in existence and an even more remarkable mystery.
The area is not special just because of the stones or the archaeologically rich landscape it sits in, but because of the plants that grow there. There is rare sedge grass and even the yellow and grey patches on the stones are tiny, slow growing plants called lichens.
It's thought that the name Stonehenge originates from the Anglo-Saxon period – the old English word ‘henge' meaning hanging or gibbet. So what we have is literally ‘the hanging stones', derived probably from the lintels of the trilithons which appear to be suspended above their massive uprights. Today the word ‘henge' has a specific archaeological meaning: a circular enclosure surrounding settings of stones and timber uprights, or pits.
Three kilometres to the north-east of Stonehenge, Woodhenge is another henge monument. Dated to around 2,300BC, originally it comprised six concentric rings of wooden post. It was probably covered with a roof, or perhaps the wooden posts were joined in the Stonehenge fashion. Now, although there is no evidence for animal or human sacrifice at Stonehenge, some believe that the presence of the grave of a young child, found at Woodhenge, would seem to indicate a ritual sacrifice, possibly a dedicatory burial.
Another feature which is worth mentioning, which was built before the stone settings, is the Cursus – which lies to the north. It consists of two straight banks and ditches 90-130 metres apart running 2.8 kilometres in length, from east to west. When it was called the Cursus in the eighteenth century, it was thought to be some sort of racetrack. Some people also think that it has a processional ritual use. However, its true function remains a mystery.
English Heritage is charged with caring for Stonehenge and is committed to its conservation and good management and preservation for future generations. In the landscape around it, the National Trust – who own nearly 1500 acres – are equally concerned for the well-being of this area. And if you have the time, an exploration of the surrounding countryside, with its henges, and cursus and barrows and all the other monuments, is well worthwhile. This is a vast prehistoric scene, with Stonehenge as the ultimate expression of the power which held society together at that time.
Stonehenge: a visual history
1. Around 3000 BC, the first Stonehenge consisted of a ditch and bank enclosing a ring of 56 pits. These were later named Aubrey Holes after the 17th century antiquarian John Aubrey who discovered them.
2. In approximately 2500 BC, the 4 tonne bluestone megalisths were brought from the Preseli mountains in Wales.
3. Around 2300 BC, 30 sarsens (sandstone uprights), each weighing over 25 tonnes, were positioned in a circle and capped with morticed stone lintels.
4. Seven centuries later two mysterious rings of pits were dug around the Stones.
5. Over time, the landscape around Stonehenge underwent substantial change and development. In the Neolithic period long barrows and huge earthworks such as the Cursus and Durrington Walls were created.
In the Bronze Age hundreds of round barrows were built for the burial of chieftains or leaders, often with grave goods to support them on their journey into the next world.
The Avenue, a ceremonial approach to the Stones aligned on the midsummer sunrise, was also built around this period.