The world-famous circle of standing stones on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire is the most important surviving prehistoric construction in the country.

Once attributed (wrongly) to Druids or Romans, it was first studied by archaeologists in the 17th century.

Theories about how Stonehenge was built – and why – have multiplied ever since.

Each generation discovers something new about Stonehenge, and the fascination it exerts keeps it in the premier league of UK tourist attractions.

Stonehenge: the Biography

The word “henge” is the ancestor of the modern verb “to hang”, which derives from the word for a hinge. The name Stonehenge therefore means “hanging stones”, although henge is now used by archaeologists to mean any banked, ditched enclosure.

The ground on which Stonehenge stands on Salisbury Plain was once dense pine and hazel woodland. As it was cleared for farming and raising livestock, it eventually became open chalk downland.

What remains today is about half of the original monument. Some of the stones have sunk into the ground, fallen down (and some re-erected) over the years, while others have long since been carted away for buildings, or to repair nearby farm tracks. There are traces of carved graffiti on some of the uprights, mostly previous visitors’ names.

A man called Cecil Chubb, a local asylum owner and livestock breeder, bought Stonehenge from the Antrobus family in 1915 for £6,600 (they had owned it since 1824), and donated it to the State three years later. Since then the site has seen much archaeological investigation, renovation work and a prolonged debate about visitor access.

The construction and development of Stonehenge took place over three phases:

Phase one began around 3000BC

A circular ditch within two banks was built, using animal bones and antlers (which have been recovered and are now in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum) to excavate the chalk and clear away small stones.

This ditch apparently first surrounded an arrangement of timber posts, and there were two entrances – one to the north-east and one to the south. The antiquarian John Aubrey discovered the 56 holes (which were later named after him) around the inner edge of the bank in the 1640s.

These holes originally held wooden posts, but were later used to inter the bones from human cremations. Carbon-dating of the animal remains has established the rough date of this first phase.

Phase two was between about 2600 and 2200BC

This transformed the wooden monument into a stone construction.

A series of stones known as bluestones, comprising a number of different types of rock, each weighing about four tons, were transported 150 miles to the site from the Preseli hills in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales. This mammoth task would have involved hauling them down to the sea, floating them on rafts into the Bristol Channel, up the river Avon and then overland to Salisbury Plain. Because they were not modified, it is thought they could have come from a pre-existing site in Wales.

Four small blocks of sarsen sandstone, known as the Station Stones, were positioned to form four corners of a perfect long rectangle, each one just inside the inner edge of the bank.

The main entrance to the monument, where the now-fallen Slaughter Stone (probably one of three) is situated, was widened to about 35ft, and a broad, five-mile avenue flanked by parallel ditches was constructed to serve as an approach to the site. This was the phase at which the 35-ton Heel Stone, now perched just inside the fence by the A344, was put in place a short distance from the entrance. Like the Slaughter Stone, it would once have had a partner.

Evidence has been found of the remains of human cremations being placed in the Aubrey holes during this phase, indicating that it was now partly used as a funeral site, making it the first cremation cemetery in the British Isles.

The third phase began around 2200-2000BC

The bluestones were dug up and rearranged, and the much bigger sandstone megaliths, or sarsen stones (weighing up to 25 tons each), were brought to the site to form the outer circle, the remains of which are still visible today. These were probably transported on wooden sledges running along wooden rails, being dragged along by around 200 people at a time, from the Marlborough Downs, 20 miles to the north.

Stone balls (hammerstones or “mauls”) were used to tailor the stones to a roughly uniform size, and then the crosspieces (or lintels) were laid on top. The whole construction was kept in place using joints more familiar from woodworking – tongue and groove to link the lintels end to end, and ball and socket joints to fix the lintels to the uprights. The lintels were additionally tooled to conform to the circular shape of the outer ring.

Within this circle were five colossal trilithons (three-piece arrangements of stones, consisting of two uprights and a lintel) in a horseshoe formation, the uprights weighing up to 50 tons.

Between 2270 and 1930BC, the bluestones were rearranged within the sarsen circle, partly in the form of one concentric inner ring just inside it, and secondly in an oval shape within the trilithon horseshoe. After this, an arc section of the oval was removed to make the bluestones into a second horseshoe. The Altar Stone (which is a greenish Welsh sandstone containing shiny flecks of mica, the only example of its kind at the site) was placed within the trilithon horseshoe, possibly originally as a pillar – or possibly flat, as we now see it.

The final phase of development

Two concentric rings of holes were dug around the outer sarsen ring, as though more stones were going to be installed. Reconfiguring of the site was finally abandoned in about 1600BC. How long it remained in use for ritualistic purposes after that remains a mystery.

The arrangement of the stones is designed to be aligned with the rising of the sun at the summer solstice, and its setting at the winter solstice.

To a person standing in the centre of the enclosure, the sun rises on June 21 over the Heel Stone, and then its rays penetrate the open arms of the trilithon horseshoe.

On its crosswise axis, the site also marks the most southerly rising and northerly setting of the moon.

Who built Stonehenge?

Given its dates, we can establish that Stonehenge was not built by Druids, whose culture did not begin to flourish until about 300BC. Nor did the Druids apparently commandeer the site for their own ritualistic purposes, which largely took place in wild forest groves.

The monument’s age also pre-dates any possibility of Egyptian, Mycenean or eastern Mediterranean influence. It was entirely conceived and built by Britain’s own indigenous people.

On-site research in the 1950s and 1960s by Alexander Thom and Gerald Hawkins established the significance of the various astronomical alignments – establishing the theory that Stonehenge was an observatory as well as a ritual site.

It was likely to have been used as a way of calculating the precise points in the ritual calendar, but probably didn’t serve any agricultural purpose. This is because the growing season would have started before the June solstice, while harvesting would have been completed long before the December solstice.

Since Stonehenge’s design resembles Neolithic ceremonial sites, it is thought that it was more likely to have been a temple for rituals concerning the living, rather than burials. Its ceremonies are likely to have been about renewal, both by the gods and by humans (in the form of sacrifices, rites and celebrations).

Although modern-day ceremonies tend to focus on the summer solstice, it is far more likely that in Neolithic times, the principal ritual event took place in midwinter. This was the point from which the days began lengthening again, signalling a gradual return of fertility to the earth and the advent of milder weather.

The earliest written reference to Stonehenge is in Henry of Huntingdon’s History Of The English People (1130). The author describes a mysterious place then called “Stanenges, where stones of wonderful size have been erected after the manner of doorways … no-one can conceive how such great stones have been so raised aloft, or why they were built there”.

In 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth recounts in his part-mythical History Of The Kings Of Britain that the monument had been built by the legendary wizard Merlin, using stones transported from Ireland, to commemorate a great battle between the Saxons and the ancient Britons.

John Aubrey is credited with discovering the holes positioned inside the inner circumference of the bank and ditch in 1648. It was only when all 56 of these holes were fully uncovered in the 1920s that they were named in his honour.

The 18th-century archaeologist William Stukeley suggested that Stonehenge and nearby Avebury were ancient Druidic sites (the Druids were the only prehistoric people of whom anything was known).

Stukeley’s deductions were perfectly logical at the time, given the extent of knowledge available to him. It is just that they turned out to be wrong.

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