Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument located in the English county of Wiltshire, about west of Amesbury and north of Salisbury. One of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world, Stonehenge is composed of earthworks surrounding a circular setting of large standing stones. Archaeologists had believed that the iconic stone monument was erected around 2500 BC, as described in the chronology below, although this has since been advanced to 2400-2200 BC; however this was not the first stone structure on the site (see phase 3:1 below). The surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC. The site and its surroundings were added to the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1986 in a co-listing with Avebury henge monument, and it is also a legally protected Scheduled Ancient Monument. Stonehenge itself is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage while the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust.
New archaeological evidence found by the Stonehenge Riverside Project indicates that Stonehenge served as a burial ground from its earliest beginnings. The dating of cremated remains found that burials took place as early as 3000 B.C, when the first ditches were being built around the monument. Burials continued at Stonehenge for at least another 500 years when the giant stones which mark the landmark were put up. According to Professor Mike Parker Pearson, head of Stonehenge Riverside Project:
Stonehenge was a place of burial from its beginning to its zenith in the mid third millennium B.C. The cremation burial dating to Stonehenge's sarsen stones phase is likely just one of many from this later period of the monument's use and demonstrates that it was still very much a domain of the dead.
The "henge" portion 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 holdover from antiquarian usage, and Stonehenge is not truly a henge site as its bank is inside its ditch. Despite being contemporary with true Neolithic henges and stone circles, Stonehenge is in many ways atypical. For example, its extant trilithons make it unique. Stonehenge is only distantly related to the other stone circles in the British Isles, such as the Ring of Brodgar.
Stonehenge itself evolved in several construction phases spanning at least some 1500 years. However there is evidence of large scale construction both before and afterwards on and around the monument that perhaps extends the landscapes time frame to 6500 years.
Dating and understanding the various phases of activity at Stonehenge is not a simple task; it is complicated by poorly kept early excavation records, surprisingly few accurate scientific dates and the disturbance of the natural chalk by periglacial effects and animal burrowing. The modern phasing most generally agreed by archaeologists is detailed below. Features mentioned in the text are numbered and shown on the plan, right, which illustrates the site as of 2004. The plan omits the trilithon lintels for clarity. Holes that no longer, or never, contained stones are shown as open circles and stones visible today are shown coloured.
The first monument consisted of a circular bank and ditch enclosure made of Late Cretaceous (Santonian Age) Seaford Chalk, (7 and 8) measuring around in diameter with a large entrance to the north east and a smaller one to the south (14). It stood in open grassland on a slightly sloping but not especially remarkable spot. The builders placed the bones of deer and oxen in the bottom of the ditch as well as some worked flint tools. The bones were considerably older than the antler picks used to dig the ditch and the people who buried them had looked after them for some time prior to burial. The ditch itself was continuous but had been dug in sections, like the ditches of the earlier causewayed enclosures in the area. The chalk dug from the ditch was piled up to form the bank. This first stage is dated to around 3100 BC after which the ditch began to silt up naturally and was not cleared out by the builders. Within the outer edge of the enclosed area was dug a circle of 56 pits, each around in diameter (13), known as the Aubrey holes after John Aubrey, the seventeenth century antiquarian who was thought to have first identified them. The pits may have contained standing timbers, creating a timber circle although there is no excavated evidence of them. A small outer bank beyond the ditch could also date to this period.
Archaeological excavation has indicated that around 2600 BC, timber was abandoned in favour of stone, and two concentric arrays of holes (the Q and R Holes) were dug in the centre of the site. These stone sockets are only partly known (hence on present evidence are sometimes described as forming ‘crescents’), however they could be the remains of a double ring. Again, there is little firm dating evidence for this phase. The holes held up to 80 standing stones (shown blue on the plan) 43 of which, the bluestones (dolerite, a holocrystine igneous rock), were thought for much of the 20th century to have been transported by humans from the Preseli Hills, away in modern day Pembrokeshire in Wales. A newer theory is that they were brought from glacial deposits much nearer the site, which had been carried down from the northern side of the Preselis to southern England by the Irish Sea Glacier. Other standing stones may well have been small sarsens, used later as lintels. The stones, which weighed about four tons, consisted mostly of spotted Ordovician dolerite but included examples of rhyolite, tuff and volcanic and calcareous ash. Each measures around in height, between 1 m and 1.5 m (3.3-4.9 ft) wide and around thick. What was to become known as the Altar Stone (1), is derived from either South Pembrokeshire or the Brecon Beacons and may have stood as a single large monolith.
The north eastern entrance was also widened at this time with the result that it precisely matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset of the period. This phase of the monument was abandoned unfinished however, the small standing stones were apparently removed and the Q and R holes purposefully backfilled. Even so, the monument appears to have eclipsed the site at Avebury in importance towards the end of this phase.
The Heelstone (5), a Tertiary sandstone, may also have been erected outside the north eastern entrance during this period although it cannot be securely dated and may have been installed at any time in phase 3. At first, a second stone, now no longer visible, joined it. Two, or possibly three, large portal stones were set up just inside the north eastern entrance of which only one, the fallen Slaughter Stone (4), long, now remains. Other features loosely dated to phase 3 include the four Station Stones (6), two of which stood atop mounds (2 and 3). The mounds are known as 'barrows' although they do not contain burials. The Avenue, (10), a parallel pair of ditches and banks leading to the River Avon was also added. Two ditches similar to Heelstone Ditch circling the Heelstone, which was by then reduced to a single monolith, were later dug around the Station Stones.
Within this circle stood five trilithons of dressed sarsen stone arranged in a horseshoe shape across with its open end facing north east. These huge stones, ten uprights and five lintels, weigh up to 50 tons each and were again linked using complex jointing. They are arranged symmetrically; the smallest pair of trilithons were around tall, the next pair a little higher and the largest, single trilithon in the south west corner would have been tall. Only one upright from the Great Trilithon still stands; is visible and a further is below ground.
The images of a 'dagger' and 14 'axe-heads' have been recorded carved on one of the sarsens, known as stone 53. Further axe-head carvings have been seen on the outer faces of stones known as numbers 3, 4, and 5. They are difficult to date but are morphologically similar to later Bronze Age weapons; recent laser scanning work on the carvings supports this interpretation. The pair of trilithons in north east are smallest, measuring around in height and the largest is the trilithon in the south west of the horseshoe is almost tall.
This ambitious phase is radiocarbon dated to between 2600 and 2400 BC. This is slightly before two sets of burials discovered to the west in Amesbury (the Amesbury Archer found in 2002, and the Boscombe Bowmen discovered in 2003) as well as the Stonehenge Archer whose body was discovered in the outer ditch of the monument in 1978.
At a similar time a large timber circle and another avenue were constructed overlooking the River Avon 2 miles away at Durrington Walls. Opposing the solar alignments at Stonehenge, the circle was orientated towards the rising sun on the midwinter solstice, whilst the Avenue led from the river to the circle on an alignment to the setting sun on the summer solstice. Evidence of huge fires on the banks of the Avon between the two avenues also suggests that both circles were linked, and perhaps formed a procession route used on the longest and shortest days of the year. Parker Pearson speculates that the wooden circle at Durrington Walls was the centre of a 'land of the living', whilst the stone circle represented a 'land of the dead'. The Avon would have served as a journey between the two.
There is little or no direct evidence for the construction techniques used by the Stonehenge builders. Over the years, various authors have suggested that supernatural or anachronistic methods were used, usually asserting that the stones were impossible to move otherwise. However, conventional techniques using Neolithic technology have been demonstrably effective at moving and placing stones this size. Proposed functions for the site include usage as an astronomical observatory, or as a religious site. Other theories have advanced supernatural or symbolic explanations for the construction.
More recently two major new theories have been proposed. Mike Parker Pearson, head of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, has suggested that Stonehenge was part of a ritual landscape and was joined to Durrington Walls by their corresponding avenues and the River Avon. The area around Durrington Walls henge was a land of the living, whilst Stonehenge was a domain of the dead. A journey along the Avon to reach Stonehenge was part of a ritual passage from life to death, to celebrate past ancestors and the recently deceased. On the other hand, Geoffery Wainwright, president of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and Timothy Darvill have suggested that Stonehenge was a place of healing – the primeval equivalent of Lourdes. They argue that this accounts for the high number of burials in the area and for the evidence of trauma deformity in some of the graves. However they do concede that the site was probably multifunctional and used for ancestor worship as well.
Some claim "Friar's Heel" is a corruption of "Freyja's He-ol" or "Freyja Sul", from the Nordic goddess Freyja and the Welsh word for way or Sunday, respectively, or the name may simply imply that the stone heels, or leans. The name is not unique; there was a monolith with the same name recorded in the 19th century by antiquarian Charles Warne at Long Bredy in Dorset
Stonehenge is also mentioned within Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth said that Merlin the wizard directed its removal from Ireland, where it had been constructed on Mount Killaraus by Giants, 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 place-name evidence to connect Ambrosius with nearby Amesbury.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the rocks of Stonehenge were healing rocks which Giants brought from Africa to Ireland for their healing properties. These rocks were called The Giant's Dance. Aurelius Ambrosias (5th century), wishing to erect a memorial to the nobles (3000) who had died in battle with the Saxons and were buried at Salisbury, chose (at Merlin's advice) Stonehenge to be their monument. So the King sent Merlin, Uther Pendragon (Arthur's father), and 15,000 knights to Ireland to retrieve the rocks. They slew 7,000 Irish. As the knights tried to move the rocks with ropes and force, they failed. Then Merlin, using "gear" and skill, easily dismantled the stones and sent them over to Britain, where Stonehenge was dedicated. Shortly after, Aurelius died and was buried within the Stonehenge monument, or "The Giants' Ring of Stonehenge".
As motorised traffic increased the setting of the monument began to be affected by the proximity of the two roads on either side of it — the A344 to Shrewton on the north side, and the A303 to Winterbourne Stoke to the south. Plans to upgrade the A303 and remove it from the view of the stones have been considered since it became a World Heritage Site, but the controversy surrounding expensive re-routings of a road have led to the scheme being cancelled on multiple occasions. On 06 December 2007 it was announced that the most recent plans had been cancelled.
Throughout recorded history Stonehenge and its surrounding monuments have attracted attention from antiquarians and archaeologists. John Aubrey was one of the first to examine the site with a scientific eye in 1666, and recorded in his plan of the monument the pits that now bear his name. William Stukeley continued Aubrey’s work in the early 18th century, but took an interest in the surrounding monuments as well, identifying (somewhat incorrectly) the Cursus and the Avenue. He also began the excavation of many of the barrows in the area, and it was his interpretation of the landscape that associated it with the Druids Stukeley was in fact so fascinated with Druids that he originally named Disc Barrows as Druids Barrows. The most accurate early plan of Stonehenge was that made by Bath architect John Wood in 1740. His original annotated survey has recently been computer redrawn and published. Importantly Wood’s plan was made before the collapse of the southwest Trilithon (which fell in 1797; restored 1958).
William Cunnington was the next to tackle the area in the early 19th century, excavating some 24 barrows before digging in and around the stones, discovering charred wood, animal bones, pottery and urns. He also identified the hole in which the Slaughter Stone once stood. At the same time Richard Colt Hoare began his activities, excavating some 379 barrows on Salisbury Plain before working with Cunnington and William Coxe on some 200 in the area around the Stones. To alert future diggers to their work they were careful to leave initialled metal tokens in each barrow they opened.
In 1877 Charles Darwin dabbled in archaeology at the stones, experimenting with the rate at which remains sink into the earth for his book The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.
William Gowland oversaw the first major restoration of the monument in 1901 – the straightening and concrete setting of sarsen stone number 56 which was in danger of falling. Unfortunately in straightening it he also moved it about half a metre from its original position. He also took the opportunity to further excavate the monument at the same time in what was the most scientific dig to date, revealing more about the erection of the stones than the previous 100 years of work. During the 1920 restoration William Hawley, who had excavated nearby Old Sarum, excavated the base of six stones being restored as well as the outer ditch. He also located a bottle of port in the slaughter stone socket left by Cunnington, helped to rediscover Aubrey's pits inside the bank and located the Y and Z Holes (concentric circular holes outside the Sarsen Circle). Richard Atkinson, Stuart Piggott and John F. S. Stone re-excavated much of Hawley's work in the 40s and 50s, and discovered the carved axes and daggers on the Sarsen Stones. Atkinson's work was instrumental in the understanding of the three major phases of the monument's construction.
In 1958 the stones were restored again, using concrete settings to re-erect three of the standing sarsens. The very last restoration was carried out in 1963 when stone 23 of the Sarsen Circle fell over and was once more re-erected, and the opportunity taken to concrete three more stones. Later archaeologists, including Christopher Chippindale of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge and Brian Edwards of the University of the West of England campaigned to give the public more knowledge of the various restorations and in 2004 English Heritage included pictures of the works in progress in its new book Stonehenge: A History in Photographs.
In 1966 and 1967, in advance of a new car park being built at the site, the area of land immediately northwest of the stones was excavated by Faith and Lance Vatcher. They discovered the Mesolithic postholes dating from between 7 and 8,000 BC, as well as a 10m length of a palisade ditch – a V cut ditch into which timber posts had been inserted that remained there until they rotted away. Subsequent aerial archaeology suggests that this ditch runs from the west to the north of Stonehenge, near the avenue.
Excavations were once again carried out in 1978 by Atkinson and John Evans during which they discovered the remains of the Stonehenge Archer from the outer ditch, and in 1979 rescue archaeology was needed alongside the Heel Stone after a cable-laying ditch was mistakenly dug on the roadside, revealing a new stone hole next to the Heel Stone.
In the early 1980’s Julian Richards led the Stonehenge Environs Project, a detailed study of the surrounding landscape. The project was able to successfully date such features as the Lesser Cursus, Coneybury henge and several other smaller features.
More recent excavations include Mike Parker Pearson's Stonehenge Riverside Project - an series of digs held between 2003 and 2008. This project mainly investigated other monuments in the landscape and their relationship with the stones - notably Durrington Walls where another ‘Avenue’ leading to the river Avon was discovered. In April 2008 Professor Tim Darvill of the University of Bournemouth and Professor Geoff Wainwright of the Society of Antiquaries began another dig inside the Stone circle to retrieve dateable fragments of the original bluestone pillars. They were able to date the erection of some bluestones to 2300BC , although this may not reflect the earliest erection of stones at Stonehenge. They also discovered organic material from 7000 B.C., which, along with the Mesolithic postholes, adds support for the site having been in use at least 4000 years before Stonehenge was started. In August and September 2008, as part of the Riverside Project Julian Richards and Mike Pitts excavated Aubrey Hole 7, removing the cremated remains from several Aubrey Holes that had been excavated by Hawley in the 1920s, and re-interred in 1935 .