Newcomer’s Guide: Stonehenge

Stonehenge is perhaps the most iconic landmark in Britain and one of the great curiosities of the world. It has stood in the heart of the Salisbury Plain for about 5,000 years. Yet there is much about the monument that we still don’t know.

What’s in a name?

A henge is a circular earthwork or wooden monument from the Neolithic period. It usually contains a circular bank with a ditch inside it. These henges are most common in England, Scotland and Wales. They include Avebury, the Thornborough Henges, the Ring of Brodgar, and of course, Stonehenge. Ironically, the latter is classified as an atypical henge or “proto-henge”, as the ditch is outside the main bank for unknown reasons. 

Sunrise at Stonehenge. Photo: Nicholas E. Jones/Shutterstock

Who built it?

In 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth famously wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae, a pseudo-history of Britain that claimed that the stones came from Ireland and that the magician Merlin built the structure. According to Monmouth, the stones possessed healing properties.

Later, some suggested that Stonehenge was a Roman temple. A 17th-century architect named Inigo Jones found similarities between Stonehenge’s circular formation and those of Roman temples. He sketched convincing reconstructions and even added missing stones to his conceptualizations.

In the mid-1600s, a well-known antiquarian, John Aubrey, disputed this theory. He believed that native Britons such as the Druids built Stonehenge, not foreign influences. Later historians agreed with him. 

Before radiocarbon dating, many believed that Celtic priests constructed Stonehenge for rituals and human sacrifice. However, tests eventually revealed the tremendous longevity of the monument. Its age, from 3000 BC to 2500 BC, predates all those early peoples.

In recent years, archaeologists have learned more about Stonehenge’s possible builders. The discovery of human remains and subsequent DNA testing showed that they came from west Wales, which is also where the stones originated.

A wooden trackway

Even more than who built it, historians and archaeologists have obsessed over where the stones came from. Eventually, tests traced them to a quarry in the Preseli Hills in west Wales. How the masons cut and shaped the stones indicates that they were quarried, then carried hundreds of kilometres across the English countryside in an astonishing feat of primitive transport. The sarsen stones — the biggest ones — weigh up to 25 tons, while the bluestones weigh up to 4 tons.

The most widely accepted theory suggests that the stones were dragged along a wooden trackway. This would have required the cooperation of many, many people. Ships may also have carried some of them. 

Photo: Shutterstock

Six phases

Stonehenge went up in six phases. The first occurred from 3000-2935 BCE. During this phase, 56 small pits called Aubrey Holes possibly held timber posts. Some believe that the Aubrey Holes relate to Stonehenge’s alleged astronomical role in Neolithic society. Human remains at these holes further suggest that early in its existence, Stonehenge also served as a cemetery. 

During the second and third phases, the large sarsen stones went up. (The smaller bluestones are so-called because of their bluish tinge when wet or freshly broken.)

Builders also created an avenue from Stonehenge to the River Avon during this time. They also aligned the stones for the sunrises and sunsets at the solstices. On the summer solstice, for example, the sun rises from behind a significant structure called the Heel Stone and its first rays shine into the heart of Stonehenge.

During the fourth, fifth, and sixth stages — sometimes considered mere sub-stages — bluestones, in particular, were moved, and what Stonehenge looks like today began to take shape.

Historians estimate that 30 million man-hours went into building the monument. 

Why was Stonehenge built?

Stonehenge was certainly a spiritual site. Its relationship with the dead is undeniable. A new theory suggests that it may also have stood as a symbol of unity and solidarity. 

Its shape and orientation are not random but have astronomical significance. Stonehenge may have been an observatory or calculated eclipses. However, experts have tried to predict celestial events like eclipses with Stonehenge and failed. 

Woodhenge in Wiltshire. Photo: Shutterstock

Connection to other monuments

A mere three kilometres away from Stonehenge stands quite a different circular formation called Woodhenge. Woodhenge was once a monument made from timber posts. This likely has some spiritual connection to Stonehenge. It may be an area of transition between life and death before one’s arrival at the cemetery.