Britain is full of ancient monuments. People practically trip over them on their morning stroll to the haberdasher’s. Think medieval castles. Roman baths. Megalithic villages. Ancient earthworks. Giant hill figures. The landscape is littered with historic monuments and this article is a snapshot of perhaps the most famous: Stonehenge.
Stonehenge is a Neolithic monument, which means it dates back to the late Stone Age, where polished stone weapons and implements prevailed. It’s not the biggest henge out there, but Stonehenge is the most picturesque and architecturally sophisticated. It is the only surviving lintelled stone circle, which I don’t need to tell you means it has horizontal blocks.
Over thousands of years, the stones have fallen over, sunk into the ground (Darwin himself discovered why, more on this later) and been eroded or even removed by curious fingers. But this is what it the original Stonehenge could have looked like:
Now the natural questions to ask are:
- Who in their right mind built Stonehenge?
- How long ago was this?
- How did they do it before the invention of the wheel?
- What on Earth is a henge for anyway?
Stonehenge Was Built in Phases
Bizarrely, Stonehenge was not built in one hit. It was expanded and updated by three different populations spanning 1,000 years. That’s like modern-day architects slapping a shopping mall on the side of a medieval castle and no-one thinks to mention it’s a complete desecration of historic architecture. Anyway, the main conclusion we can draw from such a prolonged and exhausting construction is that nobody at the start of the project was still alive to complain about delays by the end.
Phase I: ~ 3000 BC (5,000 years ago)
Work at Stonehenge started around 3000 BC. Stonehenge, it’s thought, it even older than the Egyptian pyramids, and even your dad. Neolithic people used picks made from deer antlers and mandibles to create a ditch, a bank and 50+ large holes. This ancient earthwork constituted the henge part and is thought to have been used as a burial ground for the elite. Analysis of human remains at the site suggests the bodies were interred over a period of 200 years.
Phase II: ~ 2500 BC (4,500 years ago)
The nearest hardware store must have been busy, or closed, or not invented, because it was 500 years before thousands of workers returned with massive sarsen stones and smaller bluestones and dropped them into the holes. Now here’s the ridiculous part about that sentence. The sarsen stones weigh around 22,000 kg each. That’s about five male elephants, if you prefer your measurements in elephants. I wouldn’t know how to move a rock the size of one elephant, let alone five. Yet these people did; all the way from the Marlborough Downs, which is 32 km away.
Amazingly, they did it all without the use of the wheel. Engineers reckon they rolled the stones over logs, which performed like conveyor belts. Such an operation would have required an obscene amount of blood, sweat and tears. One recent theory suggests this undertaking marked a unification of Britain: a point where people from different regions across the land joined together, merging styles of building and pottery and other items.
Meanwhile, the 3,500 kg bluestones originated from the Preseli Hills in Wales some 225 km away. The idea that glaciers shifted the stones naturally has been largely dismissed, and most archaeologists think they were moved by human hands: first shipped via the sea and then rolled over land.
With great effort (namely thousands of people, extraordinary co-ordination, and lots and lots of griping) the stones were heaved into a horseshoe shape which appears to be aligned to greet the sunrise and sunset on the mid-summer solstice. That was no accident: the landscape surrounding Stonehenge contains the remnants of numerous man-made ditches, wooden structures and even bigger henges significant to thousands of generations dating back to 10500 BC. This was long considered a terrifically sacred area.
Now here’s a tasty nugget for the carpenter in you. The builders of Stonehenge used joining techniques usually only seen in woodworking. Protruding tenons slotted into mortice holes to fit the upright stones and horizontal lintels together. Meanwhile, the lintels were connected to each other using familiar tongue and groove joinery. So now you know.
Phase III: ~ 2000 BC (4,000 years ago)
The final build was completed another 500 years later, around 2000 BC. An unidentified megalomaniac decided to tinker around with the enormous rocks by having them vastly reorganised into the final arrangement we see today. “Worth every death,” he said.
Scientific Interest in Stonehenge
Over the centuries, numerous well known scientists have attempted to explain the purpose of Stonehenge. In 1720, the astronomer Edmond Halley (of Halley’s comet fame) engaged in man’s first attempt to scientifically date Stonehenge.
No, not like that. Somewhat more appropriately, he considered the position of the rising sun and calculated a build date of 460 BC. Unfortunately, he was off by thousands of years. But credit due for using scientific methods to date a monument. This idea was revolutionary in his day.
In 1771, another astronomer, John Smith, pondered the 30 upright sarsen stones. He noted that 30 is the nearest integer you arrive at when dividing 365 days of the year by 12 months. The inner circle, he felt, represented the lunar month. He saw Stonehenge as simply an elaborate calendar.
In the 1880s, the naturalist Charles Darwin completed the first scientifically recorded excavations of the site. He found the continual burrowing, digestion and excretion of soil by millions of earthworms had caused Stonehenge to sink into the ground by 200 inches every 1,000 years.
Today, university research is ongoing at the World Heritage site. Modern ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers and other 3D mapping technologies are being used to gain new insights into the nature of the stones, the cremation burials, and even turning up previously unknown henges in the surrounding underlying countryside. In fact, new technologies have produced so much data, they are yet to be fully analysed, so we can expect more revelations on the ancient history of Stonehenge to come.
And yet, without a time machine, we may never fully comprehend the hows-and-whys of Stonehenge. In the words of Ed Caeser of the Smithsonian Institute:
“Those vast stones, standing in concentric rings in the middle of a basin on Salisbury Plain, carefully placed by who-knows-who thousands of years ago, must mean something. But nobody can tell us what. Not exactly. The clues that remain will always prove insufficient to our curiosity. Each archaeological advance yields more questions, and more theories to be tested. Our ignorance shrinks by fractions. What we know is always dwarfed by what we can never know.”