How to Build Stonehenge

Lintel 158 (right) lay on the ground from 1797 to 1958 and has been damaged by visitors chipping off souvenirs. Lintel 154 (left) has never fallen and remains undamaged. © Mike Pitts

There are three big questions about Stonehenge – who built it? Why? How? This new book ‘How to Build Stonehenge’ focuses on answering the last question and combines age-old theories with practical experiments and the latest cutting-edge scientific research. The author, Mike Pitts, is an archaeologist, journalist and editor of the magazine ‘British Archaeology’.

The book begins with a tour of the site and the individual stones which make up Stonehenge today, before looking more closely at the two types of stone – sarsens and bluestones.

The centre of Stonehenge today, with stone numbers and key rock types © Mike Pitts


Sarsens are strange rocks, they do not form hills or cliffs but are found individually lying on or close to the surface. They look like erratics but most occur in places where there have never been  glaciers. They were brought here from the Marlborough Downs, just 30 km to the north.

Sarsens are composed of almost pure silica, which is sand cemented into a hard stone. Indeed, sarsens are so ‘rock hard’ that they repel hardened steel tools, making them almost impossible to work or shape. Nevertheless, the sarsen uprights at Stonehenge bear evidence of shaping, dressing and polishing, an extremely laborious and time-consuming process which would have been done using stone hammers.


The igneous bluestones at Stonehenge are much smaller than the sarsens, most weighing around 2 tons or less. They were brought here from the Preseli Hills in Wales, but that is a very general explanation. Advanced technology has now enabled geologists to identify 13 types of bluestone, such as dolerite and rhyolite, differentiated by varying colours and patterns. The bluestones at Stonehenge consist mainly of spotted or unspotted dolerite (also known as micro-gabbro). The same advances in technology have enabled scientists to match these stones to specific quarrying sites and natural stone outcrops in the Preseli Hills.                      

The route to Stonehenge – Sarsens

Bringing the sarsens 30 km from the Marlborough Downs to Stonehenge would have been a massive undertaking, given that some of the stones weigh up to 36 tons. Indeed Mike Pitts believes that, despite the much shorter distance, “moving the sarsens was a much greater challenge than the bluestones.”

So how was it done? Surprisingly perhaps, the answer may be found in modern-day Indonesia. Western anthropologists and expatriate plantation managers, for instance, witnessed and photographed local tribes moving enormous megaliths and using them to build massive tombs. Anthropologist Ursula Graham Bower (1914-1988) wrote: “Only manpower was used, but until one has seen what can be done by it, properly handled, one can have no real conception of its efficiency. Once one has seen it, Stonehenge and Avebury are comprehensible.”

More recently, archaeologist Ron Adams recorded tomb-construction events on Sumba, another Indonesian island, between 2001 and 2005. He describes “quarried slabs tied with ropes or vines to wooden sledges . . . pulled by hundreds of men along temporary wooden trackways.”

(It is interesting that the logs on the trackway were fixed in place by upright stakes and were not rollers, which the author – based on personal experience – considers to be impractical).

1915: A megalith on the island of Nias, Indonesia, is dragged along a slipway of fixed logs     Photo: Tropenmuseum, National Museum of World Cultures, Creative Commons

True, the distance covered in Indonesia was only 500 metres, but the same principle could apply to transporting sarsens 30 kilometres from the Marlborough Downs to Stonehenge. And if so, why not the bluestones over the 250 kilometres from Wales. As Mike Pitts says: “The hard part is getting the sledge started.”

The route to Stonehenge – Bluestones

Possible routes of bluestones by land and sea from the Preseli Hills to Stonehenge. © Mike Pitts

Many theories have been put forward to explain how prehistoric people could have moved so many massively heavy stones from Wales to Wiltshire. Mike Pitts considers the relative merits of land and water transport and describes a number of practical experiments to prove that either boats or rafts could have been used, hugging the coast and braving the challenges of getting around Land’s End and up the River Avon.

An overland route, on the other hand, would have involved crossing rough and undulating terrain, hills and rivers. Using the Indonesian example of high-framed sledges, rope and runners, Pitts suggests that the stones could have been moved more easily by “following old tracks on relatively level ground along intermittently peopled valleys” i.e. as far as possible avoiding mountains and steep climbs by hopping from one river valley to another – the Taf to the Tywi to the Usk to the Avon to the Wylye. (Based on techniques shown in other Indonesian photos, the book also makes the fascinating suggestion that the bluestones, weighing ‘only’ around 2 tons or less, could have been carried by a relatively small team!)

At that time, 5,000 years ago, people were growing food and rearing animals, and living in small communities, connected by tracks (ancient roads). The bluestones would have been hauled along from one place to another, following a regular route over a long period of time, probably many years. So the teams pulling the stones would have been familiar faces in the settlements and their arrival would have been a time of social contact, sharing news, maybe even feasting and dancing. Maybe there was a core team of people who travelled the whole route with local relay teams providing additional help – perhaps, for example, on steep sections. Pitts paints a lively picture but warns readers that “All of this could have happened and none of it might.”                 

Building Stonehenge

Stonehenge was constructed in several stages over a very long period of time, and was even altered at times for unknown reasons. Pitts describes the building process in detail and suggests that the uprights were erected not by teams of men with long ropes but by far fewer people using short ropes and wedges to steady the stone’s progress. The lintels would have been lifted into place by means of a raised scaffold, a system still used in Indonesia today.

What strikes us particularly today is the regular height of the lintels around the whole circle. In fact, the sarsen uprights are of different lengths and this stunning effect is achieved by hiding the lower parts of the stones at varying depths beneath the ground. The lintels do not balance loosely on the uprights like the capstones on dolmens. They are held firmly in place, fixed to the uprights by mortice and tenon joints and joined to the adjoining lintel by tongue and groove joints. Pitts explains: “When positioned, the lintels at Stonehenge have cups on their undersides and the uprights have studs on their tops. The studs have to fit into the cups.” He emphasises the amount of organisation and advance planning that this might have involved: “The surest way to achieve this is to carve them together to match each other”.

Stonehenge today

Lintel 158 (right) lay on the ground from 1797 to 1958 and has been damaged by visitors chipping off souvenirs. Lintel 154 (left) has never fallen and remains undamaged. © Mike Pitts

Stonehenge now stands safely behind fences and visitors are kept well away from the stone circle. In the past many stones were damaged by souvenir-hunters chipping away and removing splinters and larger chunks of stone. The lintel on the right of the photo above has been severely damaged because it had fallen to the ground and lain there for over 160 years, offering easy prey to tourists. The smooth and undamaged lintel on the left shows how the stones originally looked.

Today Stonehenge has 84 stones but, based on gaps and empty holes, archaeologists believe that there would originally have been around 170. Interestingly, a plan of the stones drawn by an early archaeologist, John Wood, in 1740 closely resembles the circle we see today. This means that by that time around half of the stones had already gone missing.

Mike Pitts puts forward a theory that much of Stonehenge had already been damaged and parts even demolished in Prehistory. He suggests that this might have been done by migrant tribes newly-arrived from Europe, who perhaps held different religious beliefs or wanted to subdue the local inhabitants with a display of power. He suggests that the likely culprits may have been the Beaker people, builders of the hunebeds.

This is a very readable and stimulating book, well-illustrated with 28 colour plates and 85 black and white illustrations. It also contains a Further Reading list of other books, many written and published since 2000.

Hardback ISBN: 978-0-500-02419-5 | Publisher: Thames & Hudson | Language: English

Text     Alun Harvey


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