views updated May 21 2018


Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, is a unique Neolithic monument that combines several episodes of construction with various monument classes. The final monument, as seen in the early twenty-first century, represents an extraordinary level of sophistication in design, material, construction, and function rarely found at other prehistoric sites in Europe. Stonehenge evolved slowly over a millennium or longer and was embellished and rebuilt according to changing styles, social aspirations, and beliefs in tandem with the local political landscape of Wiltshire. The various stages, which archaeology identifies in three main phases and at least eight constructional episodes, link closely with monument building and developments seen elsewhere in Britain and Europe (fig. 1).

Stonehenge began its development in the early third millennium b.c., a period of transition between the earlier Neolithic, with its monuments of collective long barrows and communal causewayed enclosures, and the later Neolithic world of henges, avenues, ceremonial enclosures, circles, and megalithic monuments. Across Britain and western Europe, this period signaled the closure of many of the megalithic tombs and seems to indicate changes in society, from small-scale, apparently egalitarian farming groups to more hierarchical and territorially aware societies. Burial especially reflected these changes, with the abandonment of collective rites and the emergence over the third millennium b.c. of individual burials furnished with personal ornaments, weapons, and tools. Landscape also showed changes, including more open landscapes cleared of trees, growing numbers of settlements, and an apparent preoccupation with the creation of ceremonial and monumental areas incorporating numerous sites within what is described as "sacred geography," or monuments arranged intentionally to take advantage of other sites and views, creating an arena for ceremonial activities.

Toward the end of the third millennium b.c., the later Neolithic and Bell Beaker periods evidenced increasing numbers of individual burials and ritual deposits and the growing use of megalithic stones and building of henges. Early metal objects, first of copper and then of bronze and gold, appeared in burials, and these items have close parallels with material developments in western Europe and across the British Isles. The quest for metals, with a related rise in interaction between groups, is reflected in rapidly changing fashions in metalwork, ornaments, and ritual practices. Wessex and its socalled Wessex culture lay at the junction between the metal-rich west of Britain and consumers in central eastern Britain and Europe. Through political, ritual, and economic control, these communities acquired materials and fine objects for use and burial in the tombs of elites on Salisbury Plain and the chalk lands of southern Britain.

The main building phases of Stonehenge reveal the growing importance of the Stonehenge area as a focus for burial and ritual. Earlier sites either were abandoned or, as in the case of Stonehenge, were massively embellished and rebuilt; many other very large and prominent monuments were located within easy sight of Stonehenge. Geographic Information Systems studies suggest the Stonehenge was visible to all its contemporary neighbors and thus strategically located at the center of a monumental landscape. The significance of its location may stem from Stonehenge's special function as an observatory for the study of lunar and solar movements. Without doubt, the later phases of Stonehenge's construction focused on the orientation of the structures, which aligned with observations of the solstices and equinoxes, especially the rising of the midsummer and midwinter sun. Few other prehistoric sites appear to have had comparable structures, although several were observatories, such as the passage graves at Maes Howe on Orkney, Newgrange (rising midwinter sun) and Knowth in County Meath, Ireland, and many of the stone circles across Britain and Ireland.

construction sequence and chronology

Stonehenge was constructed over some fifteen hundred years, with long periods between building episodes. The first stage, c. 2950–2900 b.c., included a small causewayed enclosure ditch with an inner and outer surrounding bank, which had three entrances (one aligned roughly northeast, close to the present one). At this time, the construction of the fifty-six Aubrey Holes probably took place; these manmade holes filled with rubble may have supported a line of timber posts. Deposits and bones were placed at the ends of the ditch, signifying ritual activity. At the same time, the Greater and Lesser Cursus monuments, termed "cursus" after their long, linear form, suggestive of a racetrack, were constructed to the north of the Stonehenge enclosure. Some 4 kilometers north, the causewayed enclosure of Robin Hood's Ball probably was still in use. The surrounding landscape was becoming increasingly clear of tree cover, as farming communities continued to expand across the area. Survey has identified many potential settlement sites.

The second phase of building took place over the next five hundred years, until 2400 b.c., and represented a complex series of timber settings

within and around the ditched enclosure. Subsequent building has obscured the plan, but the northeastern entrance comprised a series of post-built corridors that allowed observation of the sun and blocked access to the circle. The interior included a central structure—perhaps a building—and a southern entrance with a post corridor and barriers. Cremations were inserted into the Aubrey Holes and ditch, along with distinctive bone pins. During this phase a palisade was erected between Stonehenge and the Cursus monuments to the north, dividing the landscape into northern and southern sections. To the east, 3 kilometers distant, the immense Durrington Walls Henge and the small Woodhenge site beside it, incorporating large circular buildings, seem to have represented the major ceremonial focus during this period.

The third and major phase of building lasted from 2550–2450 to about 1600 b.c., with several intermittent bursts of construction and modification. The earth avenue was completed, leading northeastward from what was by then a single northeastern entrance. Sight lines focused on two stones in the entrance area (the surviving Heel Stone and another now lost) that aligned on the Slaughter Stone and provided a direct alignment to the center of the circle. Four station stones were set up against the inner ditch on small mounds, forming a quadrangular arrangement around the main circle.

The first stone phase (stage 3i) was initiated with the erection of bluestones in a crude circle (at least twenty-five stones) at the center of the henge, but lack of evidence and the subsequent removal of the stones leave the form of the possibly unfinished structure unclear. It was followed (stage 3ii), c. 2300 b.c., by the erection of some 30 huge (4 meters high) sarsen stones, capped and held together by a continuous ring of lintels, in a circle enclosing a horseshoe-shaped inner setting of 10 stones 7 meters high. These were "dressed," or shaped, in situ with stone mauls (hammers).

This arrangement was further modified with the insertion of bluestone within the sarsen circle (stage 3iii), but it was dismantled and rearranged by c. 2000 b.c. (stage 3iv), and more than twenty of the original stones probably were dressed and set in an oval around the inner sarsen horseshoe. Another ring of rougher bluestones was assembled between this and the outer sarsen circle, and an altar stone of Welsh sandstone was set at the center. Between 1900 and 1800 b.c. there was further rearrangement (stage 3v) of the bluestone, and stones in the northern section were removed. A final stage (stage 3vi) saw the excavation of two rings of pits around the main sarsen circle—the so-called Y and Z Holes, which may have been intended for additional settings. Material at the bases dates to c. 1600 b.c., and several contained deliberate deposits of antler. In parallel with these final phases of rebuilding, Stonehenge became the main focus of burial for the area, with about five hundred Bronze Age round barrows, some of which contain prestigious grave goods.

raw materials and debates

The raw materials that comprise Stonehenge were selected deliberately and transported over great distances, which suggests that the materials themselves were symbolically important. The sarsen stone that forms the main massive trilithons and circle derived from areas north and east of Salisbury Plain, some 20 to 30 kilometers distant. Sarsen is a very hard Tertiary sandstone, formed as a capping over the Wiltshire chalk and dispersed as shattered blocks over the Marlborough Downs and in the valleys. The shaping of this extremely hard material at Stonehenge represents a remarkable and very unusual exercise for British prehistory, when stones generally were selected in their natural form and utilized without further work. The bluestones have long been the focus of discussion, since they derive only from the Preseli Mountains of Southwest Wales, located 240 kilometers from Salisbury Plain. Collectively, the stones are various forms of dolerite and rhyolite, occurring in large outcrops. Many theories have been proposed, and in the 1950s Richard Atkinson demonstrated the ease by which these quite small stones could be transported by raft to the Stonehenge area. Later geological study suggested that glacial ice probably transported considerable quantities of bluestone in a southeasterly direction and deposited it in central southern Britain.

The debate continues, but the carefully selected shape and size of the bluestones at Stonehenge seem to indicate that it would have been difficult to find so many similar stones deposited by natural agencies in Wiltshire. One theory suggests that the original bluestones were taken wholesale from an existing circle and removed to Stonehenge, perhaps as tribute or a gift. Other materials also have been found at Stonehenge, including the green sandstone altar stone, which may derive from the Cosheston Beds in southern Wales. Other local sites, such as West Kennet Long Barrow, include stone selected some distance away, such as Calne (Wiltshire) limestone. The interesting and complex dispersal of exotic stone axes and flint from early in the Neolithic further supports the idea that exotic materials were highly prized and had special symbolic properties.

surrounding landscape and sites

The landscape surrounding Stonehenge is a dry, rolling chalk plateau, with the broad Avon Valley and its floodplain to the east. The valley areas were attractive to early settlement, but perhaps because of its bleakness and lack of water, the area immediately surrounding Stonehenge was little settled. The special ritual status afforded the location also may have deterred settlement over much of prehistory. Initially (4000–3000 b.c.), the landscape at the beginning of the Neolithic was heavily wooded, and clearances made by early farmers were the main open spaces. By the transition from the earlier to the later Neolithic, c. 2900 b.c., it seems that well over half the landscape was open, and monuments such as the Cursus were widely visible. Over the next millennium, increasing clearance reduced tree cover to belts of woodland around the edge of the Avon Valley and sparse scrub, allowing Stonehenge and the surrounding monuments to be visible one from another and to gain prominence in a largely manmade landscape.

Late Mesolithic activity has been identified in the parking area of Stonehenge, where four large postholes were located. They may have demarcated an early shrine, but a relationship to activity more than four thousand years later seems remote. The two-ditched causewayed enclosure of Robin Hood's Ball represents the earliest major site in the Stonehenge landscape in the early fourth millennium b.c., alongside some ten or more long barrows in the immediate area. Such a concentration is typical of these ceremonial foci and is repeated around other causewayed enclosures. Other sites developed over the late fourth and third millennia b.c., including an enclosure on Normanton Down, which may have been a mortuary site. Contemporary with the building of the enclosure in Stonehenge phase I is the Coneybury Henge located to the southeast. It was small and oval-shaped and contained settings of some seven hundred wooden posts arranged around the inner edge and in radiating lines around a central point. Its ditches contained grooved-ware pottery, and, significantly, among the animal bone deposits was a white-tailed sea eagle, a rare bird never found inland, so its placement would appear to be intentional and ritual.

To the west of Stonehenge lies another very small henge, only about 7 meters in diameter—the Fargo Plantation, which surrounded inhumation and cremation burials. Such concerns also were reflected at Woodhenge, located 3 kilometers northeast of Stonehenge, where the central focus is on the burial of a child with Bell Beaker grave goods, who might have been killed in a ritual sacrifice. The site formed the ditched enclosure of a large structure—probably a circular building supported on six concentric rings of posts. Immediately north lies Durrington Walls, the second largest of all the henges of Britain, with a maximum diameter of 525 meters and covering some 12 hectares within an immense ditch and bank. Only a small linear area of this site had been investigated before road building took place, but this study revealed two more large, wooden, circular buildings. A great quantity of grooved-ware pottery was found together with animal remains and fine flint, suggesting offerings had been placed in the ditch and at the base of the timber posts. The henge sites all seem to have been occupied until the end of the third millennium. The Early Bronze Age saw an increasing emphasis on burial landscapes and the construction of monuments.

Over the course of only half a millennium, the five hundred or so round barrows were constructed in groups at prominent places in the Stonehenge landscape. Dramatic locales, such as the King Barrow Ridge, were chosen for linear cemeteries of as many as twenty large, round barrows. Another example, Winterbourne Stoke, west of Stonehenge, was the site of an earlier long barrow. To the south of Stonehenge, the Normanton Down cemetery, with more than twenty-five barrows, included very rich burials, such as Bush Barrow. Excavations at many sites in the nineteenth century emptied the tombs and destroyed much of the evidence; nevertheless, much artifactual information was gathered. This information formed the basis of studies by Stuart Piggott and others that helped define the Wessex culture of the Early Bronze Age, which lasted from c. 1900 to 1550 b.c. Corpses were inhumed in burial pits accompanied by collared urns, a variety of small vessels used for offerings and incense, and personal ornaments, which sometimes were made of valuable amber, shale, copper, gold, and jet. Many of the finest objects were fashioned from exotic materials, some of which have electrostatic properties (materials that can take an electrical charge and spark, such as amber and coal shale). Bronze weapons and tools, including daggers and axes, were buried with the dead and provide a means of relative dating and sequencing. The goldwork of the Wessex tombs is especially distinctive, with linear geometric patterns incised into sheets of hammered gold. Particularly rich burials are known from Bush Barrow and Upton Lovell as well as farther afield.

As the Bronze Age developed, the focus on Stonehenge waned, and by the middle of the second millennium b.c. both the monument and its surrounding cemeteries were abandoned. Cremation cemeteries took the place of barrow cemeteries, and fields and settlements replaced earthwork monuments. These changes have not been fully explained, but it seems that the availability of metal tools and weapons through increased interaction across wide areas of Britain and Europe, together with growing populations and more productive agriculture, reduced the significance of ritual in megalithic sites and their calendar observations.

other henges and standing stone monuments

Stonehenge is a comparatively small henge site and, with its curious inner bank and outer ditch, one of a small, rare group within the eight different henge forms that have been identified. Most henges have outer banks and inner ditches, crossed by one to four causewayed entrances. With the largest henges spanning 500 meters in diameter, Stonehenge measures only 110 meters; clearly, its size is not a significant factor. Stonehenge's ceremonial complex of sites is repeated as a distinctive "module" elsewhere in Neolithic Britain. At Avebury, Dorchester, Cranborne Chase, the Thames area, and the Fenland, similar associations of successive enclosures, barrows, monuments, and henges have been documented. In the uplands, tor (high granite outcrop) enclosures seem to represent comparable ceremonial foci, and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, pit enclosures, palisade sites, and cursus and other structures similarly cluster around concentrations of early burials and megalithic tombs. Research shows that the distribution of these complexes is related closely to the parent rock and draws on local traditions. Eastern Britain tended toward monuments built of ditches and pits, earth, wood, and gravel, whereas the rockier north and west invariably made use of local stone, with fewer attempts to excavate deep ditches. Common to all areas was construction of manmade landscapes of ritual significance, focused on a series of ceremonial sites.

The use of megalithic stones in monument building was adopted from the beginning of tomb building in the west and north of Britain, soon after 3900–3800 b.c. Megalithic cemeteries, such as Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in County Sligo, Ireland, employed large boulders and stones in early passage graves. The use of large stones in other types of ceremonial monuments is difficult to date, as the complex succession of Stonehenge demonstrates, but it seems likely that standing stones became common as ceremonial markers and components of structures during the first half of the third millennium b.c. For example, the stone circles at Avebury in Wiltshire, Stanton Drew in Somerset, Arbor Low in Derbyshire, the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, Callanais on Lewis, or the Grange circle in Limerick, Ireland, seem to have been constructed in the second half of the third millennium b.c., in the Late Neolithic, with additions in the Bronze Age. Beaker burials inserted at the base of some standing stones show that these structures were erected before the end of the third millennium b.c. Many of the stone circles of the west of Britain, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland—such as Machrie Moor on Arran (an island off the west coast of Scotland)—and the recumbent stone circles of northeastern Scotland—such as Easter Aquhorthies—date from the earlier Bronze age, contemporary with the final stages of Stonehenge. Although local practices clearly continued in remote areas, the use and construction of stone-built circles, rows, alignments, and individual menhirs seem to have faded in the mid-second millennium b.c.

The range of megalithic structures across the British Isles is varied and often regional in distribution. In Scotland complexes of stone rows, often in elaborate fanlike arrangements, as at Lybster in Caithness, appear to have had observational functions. Similarly, the concentrations of stone rows in southwestern England and Wales represent alignments on major focal points, such as barrows and ceremonial sites. The equivalent structures in the lowlands and in eastern Britain are represented by earth avenues and post alignments, both of which are found at Stonehenge and many other sites that have been identified through aerial photography.

The interpretation of Stonehenge and thus, by association, many of the other stone-and-earth ceremonial complexes across Britain suggests that these monuments were focused on mortuary, death, ancestral, and funerary concerns. Barrows, deposits, stone and timber structures, and ritual activity indicate dimensions of a spiritual and symbolic world-view. Analysis has indicated that the use of stone was itself symbolic of the dead, whereas the living were represented by wood and earth.

See alsoThe Origins and Growth of European Prehistory (vol. 1, part 1); Ritual and Ideology (vol. 1, part 1); The Megalithic World (vol. 1, part 4); Avebury (vol. 1, part 4).


Chippindale, Christopher. Stonehenge Complete. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983.

Cleal, Rosamund M. J., K. E. Walker, and R. Montague. Stonehenge in Its Landscape: Twentieth-Century Excavations. London: English Heritage, 1995.

Cunliffe, Barry, and Colin Renfrew. Science and Stonehenge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Malone, Caroline. Neolithic Britain and Ireland. Stroud, U.K.: Tempus, 2001.

Piggott, Stuart. "The Early Bronze Age in Wessex." Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 4 (1935): 52–106.

Richards, Julian. The English Heritage Book of Stonehenge. London: Batsford, 1991.

——. The Stonehenge Environs Project. London: Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, 1990.

Souden, David. Stonehenge: Mysteries of the Stones and Landscape. London: Collins and Brown, 1987.

Woodward, Ann. British Barrows: A Matter of Life and Death. Stroud, U.K.: Tempus, 2000.

Caroline Malone


views updated May 11 2018


"The more we dig, the more the mystery seems to deepen," said William Hawley (18511941), the official archaeologist of Stonehenge following World War I (191418). He was reporting to the press about his underfunded historical project that seemed to be languishing. Hawley wasn't able to make much progress in understanding Stonehenge by the time he wearily gave up the task around 1925. Since then, many others have tried, and much information has been gained. Still, old legends and theories about Stonehenge seem to carry as much validity as information based on careful tests performed with the best in modern equipment. As Hawley observed, each new discovery seems to broaden the sublime aura of Stonehenge.

Located on Salisbury Plain in England, Stonehenge is a site of concentric rings of stone, an avenue, and paths leading to nearby burial sites. The stone circles are situated on a henge, an area enclosed by a bank and ditch; the surrounding circular ditch is 340 feet in diameter and five feet deep. There are four stone alignmentstwo are circles and two others are horseshoe-shaped patterns. The outer circle is about 100 feet in diameter and originally consisted of 30 upright stones (17 still stand), weighing an average of 25 tons and linked on top by a ring of stones. The stones, composed of Sarsen, a kind of sandstone, average about 26 feet in height. Pairs of standing stones are topped by a series of lintelsa term that describes an object that rests across two pillars, similar to the top part of a doorway. Such pairs of standing stones with a third horizontal lintel joining them at the top are called trilithons. All the stones were smoothed and shaped. The lintels are locked in place by sculpted, dovetail joints, and the edges were smoothed to maintain a gentle curving appearance.

A second ring consists of bluestones, a smaller-sized stone. Within that circle are five linteled pairs of Sarsen stones in a horseshoe shape. Another horseshoe, consisting of blue-stones, is at the center. An avenue outlined with parallel banks and ditches 40 feet apart leads into the henge. A single standing stone, called the Heel Stone, is positioned in the center of the avenue just outside the outer circular ditch.

Several of the upright stones were toppled during the Roman occupation of Britain between 55 b.c.e. and 410 c.e. Two upright stones and a lintel fell in 1797, and two more in 1900. The five stones that fell since 1797 were put back in place in 1958 to restore the look Stonehenge had between 400 and 1797.

Several theories have emerged about when Stonehenge was erected and the purposes it served. Stonehenge begins being mentioned in recorded history during the twelfth century, most notably by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 11001154) in his History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey's history freely mixes documented events with folklore and contains many chronological inaccuracies. Still, his fanciful story of how Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain remained popular for centuries. Geoffrey credited Stonehenge to Merlin, a wizard most often associated with the legendary King Arthur. In Geoffrey's account, Merlin was asked by Ambrosius Aurelianus, brother of Uther Pendragon and uncle of King Arthur, to erect a monument to commemorate the site where several hundred British nobles were murdered by Saxons. Merlin used magic to transport the stones from Ireland, where they had been erected in the form of Stonehenge after having been brought from Africa by giants. The formation of stones was called the Giants Dance.

Later theories emerged to overshadow Geoffrey's tale. Stonehenge was credited as the work of the Mycenae, a civilization that thrived in the Aegean Sea area of the eastern Mediterranean region before the rise of Greece in the first millennium b.c.e. The Mycenae connection fit together with a theory that prevailed into the twentieth century that ancient megaliths throughout western Europe were designed and erected by members of eastern Mediterranean cultures, from which modern languages, histories, and other forms of culture emerged. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, advanced techniques for dating ancient objects showed that Stonehenge actually preceded the rise of Mycenean cuture.

The most popular modern theory connects Stonehenge with Celtic culture that thrived in Britain before the Romans came. A priestly caste among the Celts called the Druids were believed to have supervised construction of Stonehenge and other stone circles in the region. Druids were keepers of lore and leaders of ceremonial rites among Celts. They have been associated with magic powers, human sacrifice, and various mystical rites, but many of those attributes were bestowed on them by non-Celtic historians and are, therefore, suspect. As Christianity spread through Great Britain by the fourth century, Celtic culture and the Druids were eventually overwhelmed.

Under the supervision of Druids, the theory goes, Stonehenge was a sacred ceremonial site. The famous Slaughter Stone at Stonehenge, which shows traces of red after a rain, was believed to have been an altar where Druids performed human sacrifices. It was subsequently discovered that the redness derives from iron minerals in the Slaughter Stone.

William Stukeley (16871765) perpetuated the Druid link to Stonehenge in the 1740s with his book, Stonehenge: A Temple Restor'd to the British Druids (1740). Stukeley identified the avenue leading into Stonehenge as a procession route. Back during the 1720s, he had discovered parallel lines of banks and ditches near Stonehenge. He called the phenomenon a cursus, a Latin word for racetrack, since he thought the lines were joined at the ends to form an oval.

Stukeley contributed to a growing trend in Great Britain to recognize ancient Britons, especially Druids, as "bards" (poets) living in communion with nature. Stukeley himself "went Druid" and joined an order that practiced secret Druidic rites, and he assumed the name of Chyndonax after a fabled French Druid priest.

Sir J. Norman Lockyer (18361920), who was once director of the Solar Physics Observatory in London and the founder of the journal Nature, published The Dawn of Astronomy in 1894. The book argued that ancient temples in Egypt were aligned for stellar observations and as calendarsto determine the summer solstice, for instance. His findings were controversial, but they helped spur further studies of the astronomical interests of ancient societies. Lockyer came to the same conclusion about ancient Britons as he had of Egyptians after studying Stonehenge and nearby pre-historic, megalithic structures. Lockyer believed that Stonehenge served as a calendar. It was known that Celts had divided their year into eight parts. According to Lockyer, Stonehenge and other megalithic sites were used to determine key points of the year, such as the coming of warm weather for planting. Lockyer viewed Druids, the keepers of Celtic lore and knowledge, as astronomer priests responsible for devising the megalithic calendars.

The astronomical orientation of Stonehenge, meanwhile, was largely ignored by archaeologists. However, it received a tremendous boost during the 1960s and 1970s when Boston University astronomer Gerald Hawkins studied the site and used a computer to compare historical solar and lunar alignments with vantage points in Stonehenge. He published his findings in 1963 in Nature, then in an expanded version in a book, Stonehenge Decoded (1965), which offered the most convincing scientific evidence yet that Stonehenge served as an astronomical observatory, specifically as a calendar.

When one stands in the middle of Stonehenge and looks through the entrance of the avenue on the morning of the summer solstice, for example, the Sun will rise above the Heel Stone, which is set on the avenue. If one stands in the entrance and looks into the circle at dusk of that day, the Sun will set between a trilithon. According to Hawkins, the use of Stonehenge as a calendar probably evolved from painstaking trial and error experiments with wooden poles to a permanent form with the standing stones. Hawkins's work was greeted with great interest and much skepticism. Nevertheless, along with other studies around the same time, it helped spur a trend for greater scientific research into Stonehenge and confirmed a new discipline, archaeoastronomy, the study of the use of astronomy among ancient societies.

Credit for Stonehenge to the Celts continued until the 1950s, when radiocarbon testing determined that Stonehenge dated from about 3000 b.c.e. and that work was begun on the site even before the Celts migrated into Britain from the European continent. Subsequent studies have revealed that Stonehenge was built in waves of construction spanning several centuries. Smaller stones were brought to the site around 2600 b.c.e. and the largest stones arrived around 2100 b.c.e. The last work on the site dates from around 1800 b.c.e.

Though information has come forth about when Stonehenge was erected, the identity of its builders remains unknownand where the stones came from and how they were moved into place, are yet other matters to be investigated. The Sarcens likely came from Marlborough Downs, a quarry site about 18 miles northeast of Stonehenge. How the stones could be moved from by a prehistoric people without the aid of the wheel or a pulley system is not known. The most common theory of how prehistoric people moved megaliths has them creating a track of logs on which the large stones were rolled along.

Another megalith transport theory involves the use of a type of sleigh running on a track greased with animal fat. Such an experiment with a sleigh carrying a 40-ton slab of stone was successful near Stonehenge in 1995. A dedicated team of more than 100 workers managed to push and pull the slab along the 18-mile journey from Marlborough Downs.

To erect the slab, the group dug a hole. The slab was pushed over the hole until it fell in. Then, a team pushed while another pulled by rope to make the slab stand upright. The hole was filled after the process was repeated with a second slab. The lintel stone that forms the top of the trilithon was pushed up a ramp and then maneuvered into place on top of the two pillars. Engineers at the test site believed that levers may have been used to raise the lintel stone, and timber put underneath; the process was repeated until the lintel stone rested on timber at the necessary height to push it in place to complete the trilithon.

Whether such methods were actually used during the construction is not known. Still, human sweat and ingenuity were shown as a legitimate alternative to Merlin's magic and other theories about how Stonehenge was erected.

Delving Deeper

Bahn, Paul G., ed. 100 Great Archaeological Discoveries. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1995.

De Camp, L. Sprague. The Ancient Engineers. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993.

Harpur, James, and Jennifer Westwood. The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1997.

Hodges, Henry. Technology in the Ancient World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.


views updated May 18 2018


Ancient prehistoric monument of standing stones located in Wiltshire, England. The name derives from the Old English hengen ("hung up"), referring to the horizontal lintel stones. Over the centuries, legend ascribed Stonehenge to Druidic, Roman, and Danish construction, but it is now generally accepted that it dates from Neolithic times and stands as the culmination of the period of megalith construction, remnants of which can be found across the British Isles. It was probably last in use about 1400 B.C.E. Megalithic (large stone) monuments exist in many locations in Europe.

A major step in understanding the use and significance of Stonehenge occurred in the 1960s when it was discovered that the alignment of the stones seems to facilitate the prediction of a variety of astronomical events, such as the summer solstice, and were thus probably related to late Neolithic worship ceremonies.

The Stonehenge site is composed of three distinct elementsan outer circle of local sarsen stones and two inner circles of blue stones from the Prescelly Mountains of Wales, 200 kilometers (125 miles) away. The first and third circles are capped with stone lintels, and the whole construction is encircled by a ditch, inside the bank of which are 56 pits known as the "Aubrey Holes" and a cemetery associated with them.

Isolated outside the stone circles is the Heel stone, over which the sun rises on Midsummer Day (June 24). It is clear that Stonehenge had special astronomical significance, since, in addition to the marking of the summer solstice by the Heel stone, the center of the great circle indicated the orbits of sun and moon, and holes were positioned for posts to mark these orbits. The whole construction indicates remarkable astronomical and mathematical knowledge on the part of the ancient builders. Like the pyramids of ancient Egypt, Stonehenge and similar monuments also involved considerable engineering skill in mining and transporting the huge stones.

Prior to modern archaeological investigations, Stonehenge was surrounded by confusing legends of origin and use. Radio-carbon dating has now established a date of around 2000 B.C.E. for the first monument, the second a few centuries later, and the third about the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. It is possible that the Druids inherited an oral tradition of the significance of Stonehenge and used it for sacred rituals involving sun worship.

Folklore credits such sites with magical power, and they have been associated with witchcraft rites. In France young girls would slide down such ancient stones with bare buttocks in the belief that it would make them fertile.

Early Christian missionaries attempted to absorb or neutralize such occult traditions by building churches inside prehistoric mounds. In medieval times, at the great stone monument at Avebury in southern Britain, there was a ceremony in which a single stone was dislodged and ritually attacked to symbolize the victory of the Christian Church over the Devil. Most sites, including Stonehenge, have also suffered vandalism over the centuries.

Modern Stonehenge

In the 1980s Stonehenge became the center of another strange ritual every midsummer. Thousands of hippies, living a nomadic life in battered automobiles (often unlicensed), reminiscent of the American dust bowl days, descended on the fields surrounding Stonehenge and set up makeshift camps, intending to gain access to Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice. But the site has been fenced off with barbed wire and the solstice ceremony restricted to a modern revival Druid organization and no more than six hundred ticket-holding visitors. To prevent the hippies from overrunning the site, farmers annually barricaded paths and byways with trailers and machinery, while hundreds of police stood by in riot gear.

For many years there was a ritual battle between hippies and police. Rocks, bottles, and other objects were thrown, while police with helmets and batons forced back the intruders and arrested many of them. After the summer solstice, the hippies were obliged to retreat to their battered vehicles.

Stonehenge remains one of England's most visited tourist sites in spite of the fence, which prevents visitors from walking among the stones.


Burl, Aubrey. The Stone Circles of the British Isles. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976.

Chippendale, Christopher. Stonehenge Complete. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Hawkins, Gerald. Stonehenge Decoded. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965. Reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 1966.

Hitching, Francis. Earth Magic. London: Cassell, 1976.

Mitchell, J. Astro-Archaeology. London: Thames & Hudson, 1977.

Newham, C. A. The Astronomical Significance of Stonehenge. UK: John Blackburn, 1972.

Thom, Alexander. Megalithic Sites in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.


views updated May 17 2018


Stonehenge is a prehistoric circular monument on Salisbury Plain in southern England. It has been associated with ancient Celtic* religious rituals and with the Arthurian legends* of early Britain.

Constructed of ditches, earthen mounds, and immense blocks of stone, Stonehenge is now a protected archaeological site. Scientists have not unraveled the mysteries of its origins and purpose, but they do know that it was created in stages. Stonehenge probably began with a wooden structure sometime around 3000 b.c., and the standing stones were set in place between 2100 and 1500 b.c. Construction ended long before the time of the Celtic priests called Druids, but these religious leaders may have used Stonehenge and other ancient monuments in their rituals.

ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern

archaeological referring to the study of past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins

For many centuries, Stonehenge has awed and puzzled visitors. Geoffrey of Monmouth, an English historian writing in the 1100s, accounted for the monument by calling it the work of Merlin, the wizard associated with King Arthur. According to legend, Merlin used magical powers to take apart a ring of standing stones in Ireland, ship them to England, and reassemble them on

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

Salisbury Plain. Over time the story grew more elaborate, until one version in the 1700s said that Merlin had harnessed the Devil to carry the stones to England in a single night. Other tales associated with Stonehenge explain that the stones were owned by a race of giants from Africa and had special healing powers.

See also Celtic Mythology; Druids; Merlin.


views updated May 09 2018

Stonehenge (Wilts.) is the best-known archaeological site in the British Isles. It is spectacular—over 70 worked standing stones set in an incomplete circle, an inner horseshoe shape and various outliers, with capping stones used as lintels to link the standing stones at a height of up to 22 feet above ground—but what survives is but the ruin of the final phase of a structure, including earthen banks, set in a complex of other ritual and burial monuments and field systems dating from c.4000 to c.1500 bc. By what means and why Stonehenge was built has fascinated antiquarians at least from John Aubrey (1666); in 1740 William Stukeley firmly attributed the monument to the (Iron Age) druids—an anachronistic association which has persisted with modern ‘druids’ and New Age travellers visiting Stonehenge to observe the midsummer sunrise. The monument was orientated to mark sunrise at the midsummer solstice (and sunset at the midwinter solstice), but whether it has further astronomical significance is debatable. The stones of which it is constructed include ‘bluestones’ probably from Wales—memory of the transport of which may underlie Geoffrey of Monmouth's story that the magician Merlin moved a stone circle from Ireland to Salisbury.

Charlotte M. Lythe


views updated May 18 2018

Stonehenge a megalithic monument on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. Completed in several constructional phases from c.2950 bc, it is composed of a circle of sarsen stones surrounded by a bank and ditch and enclosing a circle of smaller bluestones. Within this inner circle is a horseshoe arrangement of five trilithons with the axis aligned on the midsummer sunrise, an orientation that was probably for ritual purposes.

Stonehenge is popularly associated with the Druids, although this connection is now generally rejected by scholars; the monument has also been attributed to the Phoenicians, Romans, Vikings, and visitors from other worlds. Geoffrey of Monmouth says that the main stones were brought from Ireland by the magic of Merlin.

The second element of the name may have meant something ‘hanging or supported in the air’. A spurious form Stanhengest is found in some (a.1500) Latin chronicles, with a story associating Stonehenge with a massacre of British nobles by the Saxon leader Hengist (see also night of the long knives).


views updated May 21 2018

Stonehenge Circular group of prehistoric standing stones within a circular earthwork on Salisbury Plain, s England, 13km (8mi) n of Salisbury. The largest and most precisely constructed megalith in Europe, Stonehenge dates from the early 3rd millennium bc, although the main stones were erected c.2000–1500 bc. The large standing bluestones were brought from sw Wales in c.2100 bc. The significance of the structure is unknown.