Stonehenge lies close to Salisbury in the south of England. It is the most iconic prehistoric monument on earth. Everybody is familiar with it, everyone wants to go and see it at least once. This magnificent structure is visited by more than a million people every year. The site is constantly being studied and every year new discoveries are made. The story of Stonehenge, the most famous megalithic monument in the world, still has much to tell us.
In prehistoric times a large part of southern England was forest, but Stonehenge stands on a limestone plateau. This was a treeless landscape and perhaps that is why the place was chosen to serve as a site for rituals.
The oldest evidence of human activity at Stonehenge date from the Mesolithic Era between 8,500 and 7, 000 BC. Discolouration in the soil indicates totem poles or something similar.
Before Stonehenge was built (around 3,500 BC) there were a number of other monuments in the area, including an enclosed rectangular causeway hundreds of metres long which looks like a horse-racing track – but it wasn’t, as there were no horses here at that time! There were also a few burial monuments similar to hunebeds (English: long barrows) and some earthworks (elongated mounds made from piled-up earth). So this area must already have had a special significance at that time, which is probably why Stonehenge was built here.
How Stonehenge began
Stonehenge was not all built at once. Its size increased in a number of clearly visible stages. The first stage (about 3,000 BC) was a circular ditch with a raised bank on each side. This was about 100 metres in diameter and had two entrances. It is thought that several wooden structures stood within the circle. In addition, 56 holes have been found in which wooden poles or stones probably stood. Inside the circle 64 cremation sites have been found, containing in total the remains of 150 people. At the time it was the largest burial site in Great Britain.
The first stones at Stonehenge
The first stones were placed here around 2500 BC. Two types of stone were used, the so-called ‘sarsens’ and the ‘bluestones’. The ‘sarsens’ are the large sandstone blocks on the outside, the ‘bluestones’ are the smaller stones on the inner side. The sandstone was found locally, but not the volcanic blue stones, they came all the way from Wales. They were probably brought here by land and by boat – an incredible feat. The large sandstone blocks (the sarsens) were placed in two concentric circles on the outside, with the blue stones between them. A few hundred years later the blue stones were replaced in a different order.
In the so-called third phase, in the transition from the 3rd to the 2nd millennium BC, eighty blue stones were placed in two rows in a horseshoe shape. The next spectacular phase occurred in the 16th or 15th century BC, when the blue stones were replaced by thirty large pieces of locally-sourced sandstone. They were set up in a ring with buttresses made of the same sandstone. An inner circle was also created using some forty blue stones. Inside that was a horseshoe of double stones about 5 to 7 metres high with a capstone on top. At the focal point of the construction lay a flat ‘altar stone’, separated from the higher stones by a horseshoe of blue stones. Astronomers have discovered that this monument could be used to predict solar eclipses. Around the same time a wide road was laid leading from Stonehenge to the River Avon.
Not far from Stonehenge lies Woodhenge. This was built in 2300 BC but was not discovered until 1925. The monument is similar to the first phase of Stonehenge. Structures stood inside a circle made of wooden poles, probably with a wooden roof on top. As it was all made of wood, nothing now remains. Where the wooden poles once stood there are now concreate posts. Stonehenge and Woodhenge were probably linked to each other in some way. One theory is that Stonehenge was used for ancestor worship and astronomical purposes while Woodhenge was used to celebrate the future and life. Many remains of animal bones have been found in and around Woodhenge, which may suggest great feasts with plenty of food to eat.
The Bronze Age and the coming of the Beaker Culture
Sometime around 2500 BC the Beaker Culture (known in the Netherlands as the Bell Beaker Culture) arrived in England. These people crossed the sea from today’s Netherlands and Belgium. That was a time of great change in prehistoric Britain. New research has revealed that the majority of the original population disappeared. Why that happened is a mystery. Click here to see another article on this subject in the Hunebednieuwscafe. 2400 BC we find many graves, mainly burial mounds, left by this new culture. The area still remained a special place.
After that, Stonehenge was not used very much until it became important again in the Roman era. Many artefacts from that time have been found, but we do not know what significance the site had for the Romans. The monument continued to stand undisturbed in the landscape throughout the Middle Ages. It must have had some significance for people, because it was visible from such a great distance, but again we do not know what that significance was. After the 14th century much was written about Stonehenge and that has continued right up to the present day.
Stonehenge has always had a great significance for many people. Various rituals were performed here especially during the Summer Solstice on 21st June. On the longest day of the year thousands of people come to Stonehenge to gaze in wonder at the sunrise. That includes many present-day druids who come here to perform a variety of rituals.
A new Visitor Centre has been built next to Stonehenge, telling the fascinating story behind the site. From here easy paths let you explore the surrounding area and view all the monuments.
For more information about the Visitors’ Centre, see
Address: Amesbury, Salisbury SP4 7DE, England
Text Harrie Wolters
Translation Alun Harvey