Building of Stonehenge Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Building the megalithic monument Stonehenge required a level of sophistication and social organization in the late Stone Age and early Bronze Age cultures of Britain comparable to any of the contemporary civilizations of the Near East.

Summary of Event

Stonehenge is the most important prehistoric monument in Europe, a circular stone structure built on Salisbury Plain in southern England. Although it is only one of thousands of megalithic, or large stone, structures erected in western Europe, its unique features have made it the most famous, generating centuries of speculation about who built it.

In his History of the Kings of Britain (1136 c.e.), Geoffrey of Monmouth attributed Stonehenge to Merlin the Magician, claiming that it held the tombs of Aurelius, Constantine, and Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur. Royal architect Inigo Jones, commissioned by King James I in 1620 to study the matter, concluded that it was Roman. According to antiquarians John Aubrey (1666) and William Stukeley (1740), Druid priests were its source, an idea still cherished by latter-day Druid cultists. In the late twentieth century, theorists suggested that colonists from the lost continent of Atlantis or possibly extraterrestrial beings were responsible for constructing Stonehenge.

Until the 1970’s, most archaeologists preferred to see Stonehenge as the result of Near Eastern influence. It was believed that civilization first arose in the Near East, later spreading advanced knowledge and skills outward to less capable peoples in a ripple effect. In 1965, Stonehenge authority R. J. C. Atkinson attributed the monument to Mycenaean Greeks, dismissing the local Britons of the period as “howling barbarians.”

This diffusion theory was undermined by recalibrated radiocarbon dates, which showed that some European megalithic constructions existed as early as 4500 b.c.e. These dates helped classify such structures as the earliest stone architecture in the world. Rather than considering the megaliths to be imports, scholars turned their attention to understanding the in situ cultural evolution of late Stone Age farming peoples.

Farming was introduced to Britain in the Neolithic period, with wheat being grown in Wessex by 4000 b.c.e. Villages were small, organized socially as egalitarian tribes. This social organization is reflected in their burial practices, in which bones of people of all ages and sexes were placed in stone chambers, some with stone passageways. Excavated dirt from a surrounding ditch was placed over these megalithic structures, thus producing the long barrow.

Groups of barrows are associated with a larger British structure, the Causewayed Camp. These barrow enclosures were created by digging ditches with adjacent banks to the interior. Natural breaks, or causeways, in the perimeter of ditches probably served as entrances. The use of these ditches included excarnation, exposing bodies to remove flesh before interring the bones in the barrows. These structures required considerable labor to build and are believed to have served the living as well as the dead. Robin Hood’s Ball, located 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the later site of Stonehenge, enclosed 2.5 acres (1 hectare) of land. It probably symbolized tribal identity and possession of the land and might have served as a community center.

A new feature appeared around 3200 b.c.e.—the henge. Similar to causewayed camps, the bank (or built structure) typically was constructed outside the ditch, with one or two entrances. Thirteen such structures include standing stones—the earliest British stone circles.

Scholars believe that after 3100 b.c.e., work began on Stonehenge by enclosing a circle 320 feet (98 meters) in diameter with a 6-foot (2-meter) bank. Stonehenge is an unusual henge in that its ditch lies outside its bank, echoing the older causewayed camp. Flanked by two stones, Stonehenge’s entrance is oriented to the northeast, the direction of the summer solstice sunrise. This axis is also marked by a 16-foot-high (79-meter-high), 35-ton (32-metric-ton) Heel Stone, located 96 feet (30 meters) beyond the entrance. Just inside the bank lies a circle 284 feet (88 meters) in diameter of fifty-six Aubrey Holes. Named for antiquarian John Aubrey, these holes are evenly spaced some 16 feet (79 meters) apart, are from 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 meters) deep, and were filled with chalk soon after being dug. Excavations revealed that some holes contained human cremations from a later date. In this form, Stonehenge was used for several centuries and then abandoned.

There is evidence that tribal societies were evolving into status-conscious chiefdoms around 2700 b.c.e. Communal long barrow graves were replaced by round barrows that covered a single rich grave. Copper daggers and gold earrings have been recovered from such sites, along with fine Beaker pottery, characterized by a distinctive drinking cup without handles.

Many theories have been advanced about the building of Stonehenge.

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Once believed to have reflected an actual invasion of Beaker people, such barrows and grave goods now seem to reflect an emerging leadership elite who were engaging in a wider trade in flint, copper, tin, and prestige items while continuing their rich Neolithic farming traditions. New henges began to appear, three of which are located within two miles of Stonehenge itself. At Avebury to the north, ninety-eight stones are enclosed by a ditch 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) in circumference. The prodigious labor required to construct these sites reflects the growing wealth and power of a royal elite entering the Bronze Age.

New work began at Stonehenge itself around 2100 b.c.e. By building two parallel chalk banks with exterior ditches more than one-third of a mile (one-half of a kilometer) long, the new builders created an avenue leading up to the northeast entrance. Eighty bluestones, each measuring 6 feet (2 meters) in height and imported from the Preseli Mountains in Wales, were set up in two incomplete concentric circles. Researchers believe that this may have been the time when four station stones were set up on the Aubrey Circle, imposing on it a rough rectangle. In 1978, a Beaker burial was discovered in the ditch, continuing the association of enclosures with death and ritual.

Between 2000 and 1550 b.c.e., Stonehenge became truly unique. The bluestones were removed, and large sarsen (foreign) sandstone blocks were brought from Marlborough Downs some 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the north. Thirty upright blocks, weighing 25 tons (22 metric tons) each, were arranged 3.5 feet (1.1 meters) apart to form a circle 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter. These blocks were then topped by lintels, in essence creating a flat circular sidewalk elevated 16 feet (79 meters) above the ground. Inside this sarsen circle is a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of five structures, known as trilithons, with the open end of the horseshoe oriented on the northeast axis. Each trilithon was made of two upright blocks topped by a lintel; these structures include the largest stones in the monument. Bluestones were again added to the design. Sixty individual bluestones were positioned to form a circle 75 feet (23 meters) in diameter just within the sarsen circle. Nineteen bluestones placed within the trilithons formed a bluestone horseshoe.

The workmanship of these structures sets Stonehenge apart from other megalithic structures. The interior sides of all the sarsens reveal that workers pounded them smooth with stone hammers. Each lintel had two depressions on the bottom that allowed them to fit over projections on the adjacent uprights. Tongue-in-groove joints were used between the lintels that met each other over the uprights in the sarsen circle. Beveling, curvature, and the use of perspective are evident, providing a glimpse of the skills of master craftspeople who seem to have adapted the art of fine woodworking on a massive scale to shape stone. Evidence of such attention to detail, along with the innovative design of the sarsen circle, occurs in no other megalithic monument on the earth.

Later alterations of Stonehenge have been attributed to the Wessex culture of southern Britain’s early Bronze Age. Dozens of their round barrows dot the surrounding ridges. In 1808, Sir Richard Colt Hoare excavated one such barrow in the Normanton group located just south of Stonehenge. Called Bush Barrow, it contained the skeleton of a tall male; with him were two bronze daggers and a bronze axe. A stone mace and a beautifully incised golden pectoral (breast ornament) found near him may have been the symbols of authority of one of the actual builders and lords of Stonehenge, a monument central to his reign.

In 1965, Harvard astronomer Gerald Hawkins claimed that Stonehenge served these people as a giant astronomical observatory. He explained that numerous stone alignments marked key positions of both the sun and the moon. Noting that the cycle of lunar eclipses occurs in a pattern of fifty-six years (nineteen plus nineteen plus eighteen), he believed that this pattern explained the purpose of the Aubrey Holes, which were used as a lunar eclipse predictor.

Archaeologists have been skeptical of these claims, questioning the precision of the alignments and the builders’ possession of the required knowledge to construct such an observatory. Missing and displaced stones at the site, as well as alterations in the ground plan over the centuries, combine to make an analysis of such precision difficult. Harvard researcher Alexander Marshack has made the claim that 25,000-year-old bones found in European sites have been engraved with precise day-to-day markings of the exact positions and phase of the moon. If Marshack is correct, ancient knowledge of astronomy that could validate Hawkins’s claims for Stonehenge may have been available in Europe for a very long time. Within the vast scope of human history, the science of astronomy has only recently been divorced from astrology; control over cosmology and an ability to predict eclipses would have been of great value in reinforcing the power and prestige of the lords of Wessex.

Significance

Although archaeologist may never determine how Stonehenge was used—whether for religious rituals, in association with burials, or as an astronomical guide—its existence, the workmanship and design that went into its construction, show that the cultures in ancient Britain were as sophisticated and advanced as those in the Near East.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burl, Aubrey. Great Stone Circles: Fables, Fictions, Facts. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Archaeologist Burl analyzes the various stories concerning about twelve megalithic monuments, including Stonehenge, often using scientific evidence to debunk myths. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chippindale, Christopher. Stonehenge Complete. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994. A comprehensive overview of all facets of the topic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cleal, Rosamund M. J., K. E. Walker, R. Montague, et al. Stonehenge in Its Landscape: Twentieth Century Excavations. London: English Heritage, 1995. An archaeological report on the excavations of Stonehenge in the twentieth century. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cunliffe, Barry, and Colin Renfrew, eds. Science and Stonehenge. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A collection of papers from a conference on Stonehenge organized by the Royal Society and the British Academy in cooperation with the English Heritage and held March, 1996. Bibliographical references and index
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Alex M. Stonehenge and Timber Circles. Charleston, S.C.: Tempus, 2000. An examination of Britain at the time of timber circles, including Stonehenge and Woodhenge. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">North, John David. Stonehenge: A New Interpretation of Prehistoric Man and the Cosmos. New York: Free Press, 1996. North, a historian of science with an extensive background in astronomy, argues that Stonehenge was used as an astronomical observatory. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Souden, David. Stonehenge Revealed. New York: Facts on File, 1997. An analysis of Stonehenge that contains many maps and charts and about two hundred color photographs, taken from all directions. Index.

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