Britain is full of ancient monuments. We practically trip over them on our morning stroll to the haberdashers. Medieval castles, Roman baths, Megalithic villages, giant hill figures: the landscape is littered with historic monuments, the most famous of which is Stonehenge.
Stonehenge is Neolithic, which means it dates back to the late Stone Age, where polished stone weapons and implements were all the rage. It’s not the biggest henge in Britain, but Stonehenge is arguably the most picturesque and architecturally sophisticated. It’s also the only surviving lintelled stone circle, which I don’t need to tell you means it has horizontal blocks.
Over 5,000 years, the stones have either eroded, fallen over, sunk into the ground (Charles Darwin related this to earthworms – more on this shortly), and/or been removed by presumably burly individuals, perhaps seeking an elaborate garden feature.
What we see at the site today are the scrappy remains. So here’s what it the original Stonehenge probably looked like:
The natural questions to ask are:
- Who in their right mind built Stonehenge?
- When did they build it?
- How was this even possible before the invention of the wheel?
- What exactly does a henge do, anyway?
Stonehenge Was Built in Phases
Stonehenge was not built in one whack. In fact, it was expanded and updated by three different populations spanning 1,000 years.
That’s not unlike modern-day architects slapping a shopping mall on the side of a medieval castle and no-one thinks to point out it’s a desecration of history. Regardless, the main conclusion we can draw from such a prolonged construction is that nobody at the start of the project was still alive to complain about delays at the end.
Phase I: Around 3000 BC (5,000 years ago)
Work at Stonehenge started around 3000 BC. That makes it older than the Egyptian pyramids, and even your dad.
Initially, Neolithic people used picks made from deer antlers and mandibles to create a ditch, a bank and 50+ large holes. The resulting earthwork is thought to have been a burial ground for the elite.
It stayed that way for at least a couple of centuries: analysis of human remains at the site suggests the bodies were interred over a period of 200 years.
Phase II: Around 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 historic 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, which I presume you do.
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.
What really takes the biscuit is that they did it all without the use of the wheel.
Engineers believe they rolled the stones over logs, which performed like conveyor belts. Still, 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. It was a rather special time indeed.
Meanwhile, the “smaller” 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 on logs.
With immense 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 certainly 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. In other words, 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 tongue and groove joinery.
Phase III: Around 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
In more recent 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.
Halley 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 to the rock-romancer for using scientific methods. Such an idea was revolutionary in his day.
In 1771 another astronomer, John Smith, pondered the 30 upright sarsen stones and noticed 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, making the purpose of Stonehenge to be a terrifically elaborate calendar.
In the 1880s, Charles Darwin completed the first scientifically recorded excavations of the site. He discovered that the continual burrowing, digestion and excretion of soil by millions of earthworms had caused Stonehenge to sink into the ground… by some 200 inches every 1,000 years.
Today, research is ongoing at the Stonehenge site. Gound-penetrating radar, magnetometers, and other 3D mapping technologies are generating new data on the nature of the stones, the burials, and even turning up previously unknown henges in the surrounding underlying countryside.
In fact, like many areas of geological and environmental research, new technologies have produced so much data, they’re yet to be fully analysed. We can expect more revelations on the history of Stonehenge to come.
And yet, without a time machine, we may never fully comprehend who built Stonehenge and why. In the words of Ed Caeser writing for the Smithsonian:
“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.”