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Stonehenge History

With the benefit of modern technology and techniques, most notably carbon dating, a surprisingly accurate picture can be put together about the history of the site. It may just look like a few standing stones, but it has a great story to tell and has been described as the greatest engineering achievement of pre-historic times. This includes a stone that, at 24 ft, is Britain’s tallest standing stone.

Not surprisingly, it was declared a World Heritage site in 1986. The site itself is not confined to the stone area for which it is renowned, but covers about 12 square miles and comprises a huge number of prehistoric monuments and hundreds of burial mounds. Relics can be seen in Salisbury, Devizes and in the London Museums.

It’s generally thought that there were three major periods of building. The first construction was of a 91 metre earth bank in about 3100BC. This was then followed between 2900BC and 2550BC by the timber phase. The stones didn’t start arriving until the third phase, this in 2550BC, and construction then lasted about 800 years. Upon excavating the car park area in 1966 and 1989, remains of what is believed to have been totem type posts made out of pine were discovered and these were dated back to the extraordinary time of 8500BC. The age of this is unbelievable, occurring not long after the ice age and when Britain was still connected to Europe. It was also before the invention of the wheel.

In the early days, as it was built out of the chalk ground, the bank would have been gleaming white and would have stood around 2 metres in height. This has now grassed over. Archaeological finds have discovered that the excavation was done with deer antlers for picks and cattle shoulder blades for shovels.

Scholars are divided over the reason for the site, but what is clear is that the stones are aligned with the midsummer sunrise and the midwinter sunset. This is a major attraction today to the 17,000 people who flock here for summer solstice. This leads to the conclusion that it was built to worship the sun and had astronomy as its origins. The other school of thought is that it’s a holy site, and from excavations it can be seen that it was a cemetery in its early days. There’s a site two miles away called Durrington Walls and it’s believed that at one time, the largest community in northern Europe lived there. This was their burial ground and evidence has found that marked avenues connected both sites to the nearby River Avon, with a large timber post occupying exactly the same position relative to the circle at Durrington as the ‘Heel Stone’ (the one by the road) is in Stonehenge. It’s thought that the final journey of those who passed away would have been down the avenues and river between the two sites, symbolising the journey between life and afterlife.

The stones themselves came in two types. The smaller ones were the bluestones and came from the Preseli mountains in west Wales, a journey of about 190 miles. They weighed about 4 tonnes each. The large stones are the ‘Sarcen Stones’. They came from Marlborough Downs, about 19 miles away, and a trip of about twelve days. They weigh up to 50 tonnes each. They’ve been rearranged three times and occupy the position between the Sarcens of the outer circle and inner horseshoe. About 80 bluestones were originally here. Of the 30 original Sarcens, 17 still stand, with the remainder thought to have been used for other monuments and building projects.

The lintel stones that lie flat on the top, were held in place by two type of joints, both seen today in joinery – the tongue and groove and the mortice and tenon. Ball shaped remains can be seen on top of certain stones confirming this.

Two methods of raising the lintel stones in place have been put forward. One method was to simply surround the standing stone with soil to the height of it and pull the lintel up to the top. Then simply dig the soil away. The other method was to lay the lintel flat on the floor. One end was than levered up and a piece of timber was put under the end. The other end was levered, and timber inserted under that end. This continued until the required height was achieved. To erect the standing stones, it’s thought that a hole was dug under one half of the lying stone until it was balancing on the edge and with a weight gradually moved along, one end gradually slid into the hole, allowing the workforce to pull it upright with ropes.

Work carried out in the 20th century, apart from the archaeological digs, has included the concreting of some leaning stones.

These days, the site is often a place of pilgrimage for pagans and neo Druids, with Druids of the past being mistakenly credited with its construction. Construction happened thousands of years before the Druids.

There has recently been talk of building a major road underneath the site so as to preserve the tranquillity above.

 

Stonehenge Visit

On visiting the site, you park and pay on one side of the A303, then walk through an underground walkway to the other side of the road and the stone circle is a matter of yards away. Just before you walk through, pick up a free audio monitor – it talks you through the history of the site.

There’s a shop and food bar , but the marketing emphasis is limited.  I was told that things are going to change though. Plans are in the pipeline for a multi million pound reconstruction of facilities that will include a detailed museum, which would be good, as the historical side seems neglected.

When visiting, unless part of an early morning trip, you must remain outside the roped area. It’s annoying that you can’t get nearer than 30 yards or so, but then you realise that most people have cameras and this allows everyone to get uncluttered shots. 

Next to the road, there’s a huge, single stone as well as various mounds dotted around. The single stone is the ‘Heel Stone’ and has a story behind it.

The top stones were secured in place with various joints, more commonly seen these days in woodwork, and you see evidence of this in the ball shapes on top of certain stones.

It’s fitting that the stones are simply surrounded by fields and a few sheep, just as they would have been all those years ago.