"The mysterious monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath, as much unconnected with the events of past ages as it is with the uses of the present, carries you back beyond all historical record into the obscurity of a totally unknown period."
Set in the middle of Salisbury plain, Stonehenge is the most famous of England’s megalithic monuments. It is the subject of more myths, legends and misconceptions than any other ancient monument in the world. Even scientists cannot agree as to the exact dates of its various stages of building and the purposes for which it was built. But they do agree the monument was built in several stages over a period of thousands of years, starting in the Neolithic period and moving into the beginning of the Bronze Age.
The squared and dressed stones of the monument as we see it today were not part of the original construction, only the last in its several stages of development. Stonehenge started as a simple ditch and bank construction—two concentric circular mounds separated by a ditch—built sometime around BC 2800, and approximately 300 feet in diameter. Around the mounds 65 pits were dug—named after John Aubrey who discovered them in the 17th century. Their purpose is unknown. A causeway or avenue, nearly 2 miles long, with a pair of upright stones to form a ceremonial entrance, lead to the northeast side of the mound. Beyond it was placed the Heel Stone.
About BC 2100 new construction began at Stonehenge when two stone circles made up of 82 bluestones, weighing up to four tons each, were added inside the circular dirt mounds. For reasons unknown, the circles were never completed. The bluestones—so called because of their colouring when wetted and cut—came from the Preseli Hills in Wales, their only location in Britain. During this time the Causeway leading to Stonehenge was widened. The Altar Stone was added—a pale green sandstone with minute traces of garnet, the same sort of stone found at Milford Haven in Wales.
In the next stage of building, 30 upright sarsen (sandstone) stones, originally from the Downs area about 20 miles away, were added. They supported a continuous circle of horizontal lintels with mortise and tenon joints (called trilithons because of the one stone laid across two others). This outer circle was followed by the addition of five trilithons set in a horseshoe shape inside the larger circle. Approximately 22 feet high, they weighed around 45 tons. The original bluestone circle was moved between these two new structures. Bluestones in a horseshoe shape were set just inside the trilithon horseshoe. The Altar Stone lies inside of the whole construction. A so-called Slaughter Stone is near the entrance to the causeway. Scattered around Stonehenge are a number of barrows and smaller henges.
Stonehenge began its long road to decay as early as 1500BC. Roman historians make no reference to Stonehenge even though their roads were nearby. The Domesday Book also does not record it. Henry of Huntingdon in the early 1100’s was the first to mention Stonehenge in English literature. He wrote, ‘stones of an amazing size are set up in the manner of doorways. . . .’ . Charles II had famous architect Inigo Jones visit Stonehenge and draw it. The drawing was published in 1665 in Stone-heng Restored. One of the most famous representations of Stonehenge is a watercolour by John Constable, painted in 1835. There was some restoration work done on Stonehenge in 1901, and English Heritage, in the 1950’s, stabilized some stones.
Stonehenge was built for a purpose, but for what purpose? Astro-archaeologists have made many attempts to solve the mystery and have developed a number of theories: it was built as an astronomical observatory of the phases of the moon or as a religious site to worship the sun, moon, and stars, or a combination of both. Both mid-winter and mid-summer rituals probably took place here as early as the bank and ditch phase. It was quite possibly a temple of some sorts. It existed long before the time of the Druids, the Iron Age Celtic peoples of the 3rd century BC. To add to the mystery, when Stonehenge was first built, the midsummer sun rose slightly further north and would not have touch the top of Heel Stone. However, today the sun does rises over the Heel Stone, and its rays hit the stone’s tiny mica chips, setting it sparkling.
Various wild theories abounded on how the stones were transported such long distances. Thomas Warton, in 1802, speculated on such
“Thou noblest monument of Albion’s isle,
Whether by Merlin’s aid, from Scythia’s shore
To Amber’s fatal plain, Pendragon bore. . . .
Much less romantic and more realistic is the probable explanation. The bluestones from the Preseli Hills are thought to have come via water along the River Cleddau to Milford Haven and thence along the coastline of Wales to the River Avon. Overland the stones would be transported by human labour using ropes and tree trunks on which the stones were placed for rolling.
The mysteries of Stonehenge may never be solved. However this World Heritage Site was constructed, and for whatever reason, it was used, there is no doubt it continues to be a monument of great importance, stirring our interest and imagination.
Stonehenge is two miles west of Amesbury at the junction of A303 and A344/360.
Stonehenge is under the care of English Heritage. The surrounding landscape belongs to the National Trust.
Open mid March-end May, 9.30am- 6pm daily.
June-end Aug, 9am- 7pm daily.
Sep-mid Oct, 9.30am-6pm daily; rest of Oct, 9.30am-5pm daily.
Nov-mid March, 9.30am-4pm daily.
Closed 24-26 Dec and 1 Jan.
Photos courtesy Steves Ancient Sites
This article first appeared in Heritage/Realm magazine.
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