Stonehenge: get to know England’s most mysterious monument

Stonehenge: get to know England’s most mysterious monument

Stonehenge is a prehistoric
marvel. This stone circle rises
out of Salisbury Plain, its
rugged stones complemented
by a swish visitor center that
explores its incredible
construction. But Stonehenge
isn’t just a 4000-year-old
monument: it’s a swirl of
ancient myths and modern
controversy, a symbol of
England from long before
England even existed, and
one of the world’s great
mysteries.
Here, we explore its features, history
and how to get the most out of a
visit.
What is Stonehenge?
Set in Wiltshire, Southwest England,
Stonehenge was built in stages
between around 3000 and 2000
BCE, and tweaks to its layout
continued until 1500 BCE. Its
massive stones were transported
from as far away as Wales, and
formed a place of ritual for many
centuries.
Did you know this about
Stonehenge?
People have long pondered its
origins. Myths associate it with
giants and human sacrifice. It’s
been sold at auction, hosted New
Age parties and might one day have
a highway rumbling beneath it. And
it’s visited by more than a million
visitors a year, who come to gaze at
its weathered, evocative stones, and
learn about the ancient people that
went to mind-boggling lengths to
raise it and numerous nearby
monuments.
Special features of Stonehenge
The stone circles
Stonehenge is made up of granite
“bluestones” and larger sarsen (a
kind of sandstone) blocks. Each
sarsen stone is around 4m tall and
2m wide, weighing 25–30 metric
tons, while even the smaller
bluestone pillars weigh several tons.
They form two circles, and a
number of the standing stones are
topped with long lintel stones,
forming arches called trilithons.
Between the two circles is a
horseshoe of stones, and at the
center is the great Altar Stone.
Several of the standing stones and
lintels are missing, but enough
remains to give a clear sense of
what once stood.
The ritual landscape
This central area was only one part
of a wider ritual landscape. At
sunrise on the longest day of the
year, the sun shines past the mighty
Heel Stone, which sits outside the
main circles, into the heart of
Stonehenge. A pathway, which
would have been walked by
prehistoric pilgrims, runs past the
Heel Stone, while burial mounds
and the remains of other circles
have been uncovered in the
surrounding area.
Aerial shot of Stonehenge, a
Aerial photograph showing people
visiting Stonehenge ©
dronemybusiness / Shutterstock
What does Stonehenge mean?
That depends who you ask. The
famously wrong 12th-century
historian Geoffrey of Monmouth
said it was built in Ireland by
African giants, before being whisked
across to Wiltshire by Merlin as a
resting place for Arthurian royalty.
It has also been identified as a
Roman temple and associated with
the druids, who were priests and
advisers in Celtic Britain – one
18th-century engraving portrayed it
as a site where people were
sacrificed to the gods.
We now know that Celts didn’t
arrive in England until around 300
BCE. Stonehenge is in fact the work
of earlier hunter-gatherers and the
Beaker People, who were named
after the broken pots they left
behind. Like the Celts, they were an
oral culture who left no written
records, but Stonehenge’s shape
gives a major clue to its purpose.
Two paths, lined up with the sun’s
rays on the summer and winter
solstices, were probably used for
processions on those dates. Animal
remains found near the site suggest
several thousand people might have
come for the winter festivities, from
as far away as the Scottish
Highlands. Human remains indicate
that cremations took place here too.
Stonehenge might have been used
for ancestor worship and as a
symbolic “land of the dead”, as a
cosmic calendar, as a symbol of
peace built by newly unified tribes,
or as a place of healing.
A giant stone stands alone,
The Heel Stone; proof of a wider
ritual landscape now lost © Leonid
Andronov / Getty Images
How was Stonehenge built?
Stonehenge’s construction was epic.
Up to 80 bluestones were
transported 240km from the Preseli
Hills in Wales either by sea or –
incredibly, given they each weigh as
much as a small car – by land. The
wheel had not yet arrived in Britain,
so they were probably either pulled
on sledges greased with animal fat
or rolled over tree trunks. They may
have been particularly prized for
their acoustic properties.
The larger sarsen stones traveled
30km from the Marlborough Downs.
They feature carved plugs and
indentations, indicating that some
of the arches slotted together.
During the henge’s 1500-year
heyday, stones were added and
removed on several occasions.
Modern meanings
For much of its history, Stonehenge
has meant whatever people have
wanted it to mean. It passed from
owner to owner as an antique
curiosity until it was bequeathed to
the nation in 1928. More recently,
there’s been a clash between those
who see it as a museum piece, to be
gazed on but not touched, and
those who believe it should be a
living site, with free access.
Modern pagans made it the
centerpiece of their revivalist
“druidic” rituals in the twentieth
century. For New Age travelers in
the 1970s and 80s, it was a place to
celebrate the equinox, and feel a
connection to ancient freedoms –
until the police broke up their 1985
festival by force. Access was
tightened up in subsequent years,
with ticketing introduced and a
fence erected.
People dressed in New Age
Revelers gather for the summer
solstice at Stonehenge during
sunrise © Paul Mansfield
Photography / Getty Images
Ley-line enthusiasts, meanwhile,
suggest that Stonehenge is the
center of a network of connections,
making it a place of spiritual power,
while Erich von Däniken claimed in
his bestselling book Chariots of the
Gods? that it was built by aliens
who also constructed the pyramids.
The theories will keep coming –
especially if new finds continue.
Scans have suggested that at least
17 more monuments lie waiting to
be unearthed, and archaeologist
Dan Snow has described what we
can see now as “just a beginning”.
Any new digs may be hampered by
a plan to reroute the A303 highway
under the site. That would improve
journey times to the popular
holiday destinations of Devon and
Cornwall, and keep cars away from
the circle itself – but might destroy
thousands of years of still-buried
history.
Planning your trip
– Stonehenge is generally open
9am–8pm during the summer,
9:30am–7pm in April, May and
September, and 9:30am–5pm in the
winter months, although in 2020
access is limited due to COVID-19.
Check for the latest details.
– Tickets are from £19.50/£11.70
adult/child, and access is timed –
book well in advance to secure your
spot. English Heritage and National
Trust members get in free, but still
need to book.
– There are direct trains from
London Waterloo (90 minutes),
Cardiff (two hours) and Exeter
(two hours) to Salisbury. Buses
connect the station with
Stonehenge. You can drive from
London in around two hours.
Visitors approach the large Visitor
The Visitor Center gives added
context to your visit © Peter
Titmuss / Shutterstock
– Most visitors spend two or
three hours exploring the circle and
the Visitor Center. The circle itself is
a substantial sight, but to get a real
sense of its wonder it’s worth taking
in the surrounding countryside and
the exhibition. You’ll be viewing the
stones from around 10m away – to
get closer, book a Stone Circle
Experience, which is highly
recommended and gets you inside
the circle. The experiences are held
in the early morning and evening,
and need to be booked long in
advance.
– A very different experience can be
had at the solstices, when access is
generally free. Winter (21
December) can be wet and chilly
and summer (2o June) gets bigger
crowds.
– Fascinated by Stonehenge, but
can’t visit? You can get an
interactive tour online. Avebury
Stone Circle is another stunner, and
you can explore it for free – it’s 30
minutes’ drive away from
Stonehenge.

28 Comments

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  2. Profile photo ofItz Kvng Twitch

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