published on 14 December 2010
Stonehenge is a Neolithic / Bronze Age monument located on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, southern England. The first monument on the site, began around 3100 BC, was a circular ‘henge’ earthwork about 360 feet (110 metres) in diameter, a 'henge' in the archaeological sense being a circular or oval-shaped flat area enclosed by a boundary earthwork.
This structure probably contained a ring of 56 wooden posts (or possibly an early bluestone circle), the pits for which are named Aubrey Holes (after the 17th century local antiquarian John Aubrey). Later, around 3000BC (the beginning of Stonehenge Phase II), some kind of timber structure seems to have been built within the enclosure, and Stonehenge functioned as a cremation cemetery, the earliest and largest so far discovered in Britain. Phase III at Stonehenge, beginning around 2,550 BC, involved the refashioning of the simple earth and timber henge into a unique stone monument.
In the first stage, two concentric circles, (sometimes known as the ‘Double Bluestone Circle’), of 80 ‘bluestone’ (dolorite, rhyolite and tuff) pillars were erected at the centre of the monument, with a main entrance to the North East. These bluestones, weighing about 4 tons each, originate in the Preseli Hills, in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales, and were probably transported from there to Salisbury Plain over a route at least 185 miles long (see the chapter on Preseli). Apart from the bluestones, a 16.4 foot long greenish sandstone slab, now known as the Altar Stone, was brought to Stonehenge from somewhere between Kidwelly, near Milford Haven on the coast to the south of the Preseli Hills and Abergavenny, in southeast Wales.
It is thought that that the north eastern entrance to the enclosure was remodelled during Phase III so that it precisely aligned with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset of the period. Outside this entrance another feature, known as the Avenue, was added to the Stonehenge landscape. The Avenue (probably a ceremonial pathway) consists of a parallel pair of ditches and banks stretching for 1.5 miles from Stonehenge down to the River Avon. It had previosuly been thought that around 2,400 BC the bluestones were dug up and replaced by enormous sarsen blocks brought from a quarry around 24 miles to the north on the Marlborough Downs.
However, recent work lead by Mike Parker Pearson, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield has suggested redating the sarsen phase to 2640-2480 BC, which would obviously affect the chronology of the site significantly. Thirty of these huge sarsens, each around 13.5 feet high, 7 feet wide and weighing around 25 tons, were set up in a 98 foot diameter circle. On top of these were placed smaller sarsen lintels (horizontal stones) spanning the tops and held in place by ‘mortice and tenon’ joints. Within this sarsen circle a horse-shoe shaped setting of 15 more sarsens, making five trilithons (two large stones set upright to support a third on their top) was erected. Somewhere between 2280 and 1900 BC, the blue stones were re-erected and arranged at least three times, finally forming an inner circle and horseshoe between the sarsen circle and the trilithons, mirroring the two arrangements of sarsen stones. This arrangement is essentially the monument that we see the remains of today.
Between 2030 and 1520 BC a double ring of oblong pits, known as the Y and Z holes, were dug outside the outermost sarsen circle, possibly to take another setting of stones. However, there is no evidence that the holes ever held stones or wooden posts and they were eventually allowed to silt up naturally. The Y and Z holes seem to mark the end of significant activity at the site and after c1520 BC there was no further construction at Stonehenge, and the monument appears to have been abandoned.
But why was Stonehenge built and was was it used for? As mentioned above, the monument certainly functioned as a cremation cemetery early in its history, probably for the burial of elite members of clans or prominent local families. The presence of a number of burials around Stonehenge which exhibit signs of trauma or deformity have suggested to some researchers, among them Professor Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University, that the monument was a place of healing, akin to a prehistoric Lourdes. Other researchers, such as Professor Mike Parker Pearson, head of the Stonehenge Riverside Project at the University of Sheffield, believe that Stonehenge functioned as the domain of the dead in a ritual landscape that involved sacred processions to the nearby henge monument of Durrington Walls.
But it would be wrong to attempt to define a single use for Stonehenge. The function of the monument probably changed many times over its 1500 year history as different peoples came and went in the surrounding landscape, and the nature of society changed irrevocably from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.
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c. 8500 BCE - 7650 BCEThree large post holes and a tree hole close to Stonehenge show evidence of probable ritual activity on the site long before the appearance of the monument.
c. 3700 BCEConstruction of the causwayed enclosure (a type of large prehistoric earthwork) known as Robin Hood's Ball, 2.8 miles north-west of Stonehenge.
c. 3100 BCEStonehenge Phase I - earthen henge dug on the site.
c. 3000 BCEStonehenge Phase II - Digging of the Aubrey Holes, which probably contained wooden posts (or perhaps bluestones). Stonehenge functions as a cremation cemetery.
c. 2550 BCEPhase III at Stonehenge, the refashioning of the simple earth and timber henge into a unique stone monument.
c. 2030 BCE - c. 1520 BCEThe last phase of construction at Stonehenge, the digging of the Y and Z holes outside the outermost sarsen circle.