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Stonehenge is a Neolithic and Bronze Age monument located near Amesbury in Wiltshire, England, about 8 miles (13 km) northwest of Salisbury. It is composed of earthworks surrounding a circular setting of large standing stones, known as megaliths. There is some debate about the age of the stone circle, but most archaeologists think that it was mainly constructed between 2500 BC and 2000 BC. The older circular earth bank and ditch which constitute the earliest phase of the monument have been dated to about 3100 BC.

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Prehistory
3 Theories about Stonehenge
4 Recent history
5 Myths and legends
6 Quotations about Stonehenge
7 Replicas
8 Reference
9 See also
10 External Links


It should be noted that by the beginning of the 20th century many of the bluestones were leaning precariously, probably due to the increase in curious visitors clambering on them during the nineteenth century. Additionally two of the trilithons had fallen over during the modern era. Three phases of conservation work were undertaken which righted those stones which were teetering or had since fallen, and carefully replaced them in their original positions. If nothing else, this means that Stonehenge is not quite as timeless as its tourist publicity would suggest and that as with most historic monuments, conservation work has been undertaken.

Stonehenge is derived from the Old English words Stanhen gist meaning the 'hanging stones' and has given its name to a class of monuments known as henges. Archaeologists define henges as earthworks consisting of a circular banked enclosure with an internal ditch. As often happens in archaeological terminology this is a hangover from antiquarian usage and Stonehenge cannot in fact be truly classified as a henge site as its bank is inside its ditch. Despite being contemporary with true Neolithic henges, Stonehenge is in many ways atypical. It is also only distantly related to the other stone circles in the British Isles such as the Ring of Brodgar as for example its extant trilithons make it unique.

The site and its surroundings were added to the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1986 and it is also a Scheduled Ancient Monument.


The Stonehenge complex was built in several construction phases spanning 2,000 years although there is evidence for activity for long afterwards on the site. The burial of a decapitated Saxon man has been excavated at the monument and dated to the seventh century AD. The phasing most generally agreed by archaeologists is detailed below.

Stonehenge I

The first monument consisted of a circular bank and ditch enclosure measuring around 115m (320 feet) in diameter and with a single entrance to the north east. This stage is dated to around 3100 BC. Within the outer edge of the enclosed area was a circle of 56 pits, known as Aubrey holes after John Aubrey, the seventeenth century antiquarian who first identified them. Twenty five of the Aubrey Holes are known to have contained cremation burials dating to the two centuries after the monument's inception. Thirty further cremations were placed in the enclosure's ditch and at other points within the monument. Late Neolithic Grooved ware pottery has been found in connection with these providing dating evidence. A single, unworked monolith called the 'Heel Stone' stood outside the entrance.

Stonehenge II

Evidence of the second phase is no longer visible. It appears from the number of postholes dating to this period that some form of timber structure was built within the enclosure during the early third millennium BC. Further timbers were placed at the entrance. This phase of the monument may be comparable with the nearby site of Durrington Walls.

Stonehenge IIIa

Archaeological excavation has indicated that around 2600 BC, two concentric crescents made from holes (called the Q and R Holes) were dug in the centre of the site. The holes held 80 standing bluestones brought from the Preseli Hills, 250km away in modern day Pembrokeshire in Wales. The stones were finely worked pillars mostly of spotted dolerite but including examples of rhyolite, volcanic tufa and myolite and weighing around 4 tons. What was to become known as the Altar Stone was also brought from Wales and may have stood as a single large monolith.

The entrance was also widened at this time making it precisely match the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset of the period. The monument was abandoned unfinished, the bluestones were apparently removed and the Q and R holes were purposefully backfilled. This was probably to make way for Stonehenge IIIb. The monument appears to have eclipsed the site at Avebury in importance towards the end of this phase and the Amesbury Archer, found in 2002 three miles to the south, would have seen the site in this state. Stonehenge IIIa has been attributed to the Beaker people.

Stonehenge IIIb

The next phase of activity at the tail end of the third millennium BC saw 74 enormous Sarsen stones brought from a quarry around 20 miles north to the site on the Marlborough Downs. The stones were dressed and fashioned with mortice and tenon joints before 30 were erected as a 30m diameter circle of standing stones with a 'lintel' of 29 stones resting on top. Each weighed around 25 tons and had clearly been worked with the final effect in mind. The orthostats widen slightly towards the top in order that their perspective remains constant as they rise up from the ground whilst the lintel stones curve slightly to continue the circular appearance of the earlier monument.

Within this circle stood five trilithons of dressed sarsen stone arranged in a horseshoe shape. The huge stones, ten uprights and five lintels, weigh up to 50 tons each and were again linked using complex jointings. The images of a dagger and axeheads have been seen carved on the sarsens. Finally two huge portal stones were set at the entrance of which only one, the fallen Slaughter Stone 16 ft (4.9 m) long, now remains. This ambitious phase is thought to be the work of the early Bronze Age Wessex culture with radiocarbon dates of 2440-2100 BC.

Stonehenge IIIc

Later in the Bronze Age, the bluestones appear to have been re-erected for the first time although the precise details of this period are still unclear.

Stonehenge IIId

This phase saw the further rearrangement of the bluestones as they were placed in circles between the two settings of sarsens and also in an oval shape in the very centre. Some archaeologists argue that some of the bluestones in this period were part of a second group brought from Wales. The Altar Stone may have been set within the oval. Although this would seem the most impressive phase of work, Stonehenge IIId was rather shabbily built compared to its immediate predecessors, the newly re-installed bluestones were not at all well-founded and began to fall over. This period dates to 2280 -1930 BC. Also during Stonehenge IIId, a 500m long Avenue was constructed, leading north east from the entrance and consisting of a pair of two parallel banks with a ditch between

Stonehenge IIIe

Soon afterwards, part of the northern section of the Phase 3d Bluestone circle was removed, creating a horseshoe-shaped setting termed the Bluestone Horseshoe. This mirrored the shape of the central sarsen Trilithons. and is dated to 2270-1930 BC.

Stonehenge IIIf

Two further rings of pits were dug outside the stone circle, called the Y and Z Holes. These were never filled with stones however, and monument building at Stonehenge appears to have been abandoned around 1500BC.

Stonehenge IV

Around 1100BC, the Avenue was extended more than two miles to reach the River Avon although it is uncertain exactly which people effected this late addition.

Theories about Stonehenge

Stonehenge was first described by Nennius in the 9th century, who wrote that it was built as a memorial to the 400 nobles who were treacherously slain nearby by Hengist in 472. Many later historians were influenced by supernatural folktales in their explanations

In 1615, Inigo Jones argued that it was a Roman temple, dedicated to Cnelus, a pagan god, and built following the Tuscan order. Later commentators maintained that it was erected by the Danes. Indeed up until the late nineteenth century the site was commonly attributed to Saxon or other, relatively later societies.

The first serious effort to understand the monument was made around 1740 by William Stukeley. As was his wont, Stukeley attributed the site to the Druids which was incorrect but his most important contribution was in taking measured drawings of the site which permitted greater analysis of its form and significance. From this work he was able to demonstrate that the henge and its stones were orientated in such a way as to have some sort of astronomical or calendrical significance.

By the turn of the nineteenth century John Lubbock was able to attribute the site to the Bronze Age based on the bronze objects found in the nearby barrows.

The monument is aligned north east - south west and it has been often suggested that particular significance was placed by its builders on the solstice and equinox points so that for example, on midsummer's morning, the sun rose directly over the heel stone, and the sun's first rays went directly into the centre of the monument between the horseshoe arrangement. It is unlikely that such an alignment can have been merely accidental. The sun rises in different directions in different geographical latitudes. For the alignment to be correct, it must have been calculated precisely for Stonehenge's latitude of 51 11'. This alignment, therefore, must have been fundamental to the design and placement of at least some of Stonehenge's phases. Alexander Thom was of the opinion that the site was laid out with the necessary precision using his megalithic yard.

As a result, some have claimed that Stonehenge represents an "ancient observatory," although the extent of its use for that purpose is in dispute. Some have theorized that it represents a big vagina (Article from The Observer), a computer or even an alien landing site.

From their incongruously finely worked appearance, it has been suggested that the bluestones had been transferred from an as yet unlocated earlier monument in Pembrokeshire and were brought to Salisbury Plain. Possibly this was to cement an alliance or display superiority over a conquered enemy although this can only be speculation. Recent analysis of contemporary burials found nearby known as the Boscombe Bowmen however, has indicated that at least some of the individuals associated with Stonehenge III did indeed come from modern day Wales. Oval shaped settings of bluestones similar to those at Stonehenge IIId are also known at the sites of Bedd Arthur in the Preseli Hills and at Skomer Island off the south west coast of Pembrokeshire.

Many archaeologists believe Stonehenge was an attempt to render in permanent stone, the more common timber structures that dotted Salisbury Plain at the time such as those that stood at Durrington Walls.

Much speculation has also surrounded the engineering feats required to build Stonehenge. Assuming that the bluestones were brought from Wales by hand and not transported by glaciers as Aubrey Burl has claimed, various methods of moving them relying only on timber and rope have been suggested. During 2001, in an exercise in experimental archaeology, an attempt was made to transport a large stone along a land and sea route from Wales to Stonehenge. Volunteers pulled it on a wooden sledge over land but once transferred to a replica prehistoric boat, the stone sank in rough seas in the Bristol Channel.

It has been conjectured that timber A frames were erected to raise the stones and that teams of people hauled them upright using ropes. The topmost stones may have been raised up incrementally on timber platforms and slid into place. The carpentry-type joints used on the stones imply a people well-skilled in woodworking and they could easily have had the knowledge to erect the monument using such methods.

The engraved weapons on the sarsens are unique in megalithic art in the British Isles where more abstract designs were favoured. Similarly the horseshoe arrangements of stones are unusual in a culture that otherwise arranged stones in circles. Such motifs are however common to the peoples of Brittany at the time and it has been suggested that at least two stages of Stonehenge were built under continental influence. This would go some way towards explaining the monument's atypical design, but overall, Stonehenge is still inexplicably unusual in the context of any prehistoric European culture.

Estimates of the manpower needed to build the various phases of Stonehenge put the total effort involved at millions of man hours. Stonehenge I probably needed around 11,000 manhours, Stonehenge II around 360,000 and the various parts of Stonehenge III may have involved up to 1.75 million manhours. The working of the stones is estimated to have required around 20 million manhours using the primitive tools available at the time. Certainly the will to produce such a site must have been strong and it is considered that advanced social organisation would have been necessary to build and maintain it.

Recent history

Stonehenge remains a place of pilgrimage for neo-druidss and those following pagan or neo-pagan beliefs, and was the site of a free music festival held between 1972 and 1984, and loosly organised by the Politantric Circle. However, in 1985 the festival was banned by the British government. A consequence of this was the violent confrontation between the police and new age travellers that became known as the Battle of the Beanfield.

In more recent years, the setting of the henge on Salisbury Plain has been affected by the proximity of the A303 road between Amesbury and Winterbourne Stoke, and the A344. In the past a number of projects, including cut-and-cover tunnels have been proposed for the site, and English Heritage and the National Trust have long campaigned to have the roads moved away from the site, though against the destructive cut-and-cover tunneling method. In early 2003 the Department for Transport announced a number of major road widening projects, including the A303. On June 5 the Highways Agency published draft plans for 13 km (8 miles) of road changes at Stonehenge, including a 2.1 km bored tunnel taking the A303 under its current route. On September 4 2003 the Highways Agency announced a public inquiry, opening on September 17 which will look at whether the plans are adequate for the site, and the conclusions will be published in August or September 2004. Many organisations, including the National Trust and local archaeological societies are calling for a longer 4.5 km tunnel, which will protect more of the surrounding archeology and countryside. Plans for the site include a new heritage centre, which should be open in 2006. By 2008 the new road schemes should be completed, and the old roads closed.

Myths and legends

The Heel Stone was once known as the Friar's Heel. A folk tale, which cannot be dated earlier than the seventeenth century, relates the origin of the name of this stone.

The Devil bought the stones from a woman in Ireland, wrapped them up, and brought them to Salisbury plain. One of the stones fell into the Avon, the rest were carried to the plain. The Devil then cried out, "No-one will ever find out how these stones came here." A friar replied, "That's what you think!," whereupon the devil threw one of the stones at him and struck him on the heel. The stone stuck in the ground, and is still there.

Some claim "Friar's Heel" is a corruption of "Freya's He-ol" or "Freya Sul", from the Germanic goddess Freya and (allegedly) the Welsh words for "way" and "sun day" respectively.

Stonehenge is associated with Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth said that Merlin directed its removal from Ireland, where it had been constructed on Mount Killaraus by Giantss who brought the stones from Africa. After it had been rebuilt near Amesbury, Geoffrey further narrates how first Ambrosius Aurelianus, then Uther Pendragon, and finally Constantine III, were buried inside the ring of stones. In many places in his Historia Regum Britanniae Geoffrey mixes British legend and his own imagination; it is intriguing that he connects Ambrosius Aurelianus with this prehistoric monument, seeing how there is placename evidence to connect Ambrosius with nearby Amesbury.

Quotations about Stonehenge


There is a full-size replica of Stonehenge as it would have been before decay at Maryhill in Washington State, built by Sam Hill as a war memorial. It's even aligned to the midsummer sun-rise, but to the true position of the sun at the virtual horizon, rather than the apparent position of the sun at the actual landscape horizon.

Another memorable replica of Stonehenge features in the movie This is Spinal Tap.

A car-henge has been constructed exclusively of cars near Alliance, Nebraska by the artist Jim Reynolds in 2000. A fullsize Strawhenge has been constructed in Kemnath, Bavaria, Germany in 2003 from 350 bales of straw. There is another replica, called Stonehenge II, on FM 1340 west of Hunt, Texas, USA. The grid reference is 3004.428'N,9921.530'W.


See also

External Links