Stonehenge is one of Britain’s largest and mostrecognisable prehistoric monuments, celebrated throughout the world for its mystery, creation and tremendoussize. It issituated in Wiltshire and consists of a ring oflarge up-standing stones ormegaliths setwithin earthworks in the middle of a collection of other monumentsfrom the Neolithic and Bronze age eras including burial mounds, ditches,barrows and other earthworks. It is believed to have been constructed fromaround 3000 BC with the surrounding bank and ditch being dated to this periodand overall the site took over 1500 years to develop into something similar towhat we see today. Stonehengewas formed in several phases and this has meant dating the whole siteaccurately can be difficult as the various phases of activity, complicated bydisturbance of stones, moving and resetting over years,early excavation records and human disturbance over the years, allmean specific dating could be compromised.
The monument is now managed by EnglishHeritage and UNESCO and has been legally protected from the 1800’s. Althoughvisitors can go to the site the stones have suffered erosion, both from natureand people climbing and rubbing the stones as well as thousands walking throughthe site and so the main stone circle is roped off for most of the year withspecial appointments possible to enter the circle and open access during thesummer and winter solstice. The monument and those in the surrounding areawere added to UNESCO’s listof World Heritage Sites in 1986. What makes Stonehenge iconic and important is not just its use orconstruction, but the fact that people over a course of thousands of years visiteda site seemingly important, undertaking the gargantuan task of constructing,re-constructing, amending and forming such an area, showing us without the importanceof the site. Yet, all of this was done before written records, withoutinstruction and with skills which today would be impossible without the use ofhuge machines.
There is also the question of communication, during a time whenlanguage is not known about, and shows somehow people were communicating andworking as a community on mass, to form this area. Also, during a time ofhunting and gathering and introducing domesticated animals and farming, peoplewould have been needed as a priority at home in order to survive and yet peoplewere spared and sent to produce this monument also adding to the importance. This ongoing development has fuelled a growing story about the site, thesurrounding area and the people involved which has captured the minds of Britainand the world through the years fuelling interest in why this was ever created.
With ongoing public interest inevitably comes funding and analysis as we try tounderstand our ancestors and the reasons for the creation of this outstandinghuge monument. Early image The firststage consisted of forming a large round bank and ditch enclosure measuringapproximately 100 metres in diameter with animal bones and worked flint tools distributedthrough its base. Inside this ditch is a circle of 56 holes measuring around metrewide known as ‘Aubrey holes’ after John Aubrey, an antiquarian and philosopherfrom the seventeenth-century who first identified them. Their function is stilla mystery although they are thought to have contained burials or cremations.
In2013 a team of archaeologists, led by Mike Parker Pearson, excavated morethan 50,000 cremated bones from over 60 individuals found to be buried Stonehengemaking it one of the earliest known cemetery’s in Britain, however thereare several other functions also possible alongside this. Image Aubrey holes In around2600 BC, the henge developed to include stone, possibly to cement the sitespermanence as timbers used prior to this period rotted and would have needed regularreplacement over the centuries and so a mix of local stones and dolerite bluestones transportedfrom the Preseli Hills, around 150 miles away, in Pembrokeshire, Wales,was used. Local stone use was clearly for ease given the size but the selectionof the Welsh stone is not known but must have been for some significance, possiblyto reflect a place they lived or stayed or something within the stone theyfound beautiful and therefore saw as precious and so fortified the importanceof the site. The stones were large and weighed two tons, possibly moved bylifting them onto rows of poles to roll them across the landscape however it isnot known exactly how this was achieved. Duringthe next major phase, 30 dressed megaliths or sarsen stones were brought fromthe local area and were erected to form a circle around 33 metres wide, with lintelstones on top. Each stone weighed roughly 25 tons and is around 4 metres highand 2 metres wide.
Within this circle stood five trilithons or group ofthree stones dressed andarranged in a horseshoe shape withits open end facing north east. This phase has been radiocarbon dated tobetween 2600 and 2400 BC. During the Bronze Age, thebluestones were moved and re-erected several times eventually creating ahorseshoe-shaped setting which mirrored the shape of the central sarsenTrilithons. The lastknown construction at Stonehenge was around 1500 BC. Since then through excavation archaeologists havediscovered Iron Age, Roman and medieval artefactsin or around the site.
These do not show continuous usage of the site but do representcontinuing visitation through history.Looking again at why this site is so iconic, the achievementof building such a structure in a period with no JCB’s or modern forms oftransport given the monumental scale of the stone, again adds to the drama andmystery of the site and the people who developed it, which can capture theimagination and leave people wondering about its conception.