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What Is Stonehenge ?

An Explanation Of Stonehenge For The Every Day Visitor


There is often a marked difference in opinion on whether a visit to Stonehenge is worthwhile.

Detractors say its just a pile of stones in a barren field in the middle of nowhere and nothing special. Others find a visit to Stonehenge a highlight and an 'experience' to be remembered for their lifetime.

There is no doubting that a significant number of people approach Stonehenge, stop, shrug their shoulders and move on wondering what all the fuss is about. We would suggest that if you just turn up 'cold' at Stonehenge waiting to be entertained you too may become one of these people, you really need to go to Stonehenge full of anticipation about what you are going to see and experience.

So, this page aims to give you some basic information about the Stonehenge structure. We have another page, the mysteries of Stonehenge, that is a natural follow on to this page and covers the theories of what Stonehenge was used for.

We think if you read both of these pages prior to your visit to Stonehenge the knowledge will greatly enhance your enjoyment and provide some level of excited anticipation of what you will see on your visit.

The Neolithic People

Stonehenge was built by the Neolithic people about 4.5 thousand years ago. Pick up a handful of books about Stonehenge and they will probably have differing dates and lengths of time for the same event. Respected archaeologists revise dates on a fairly regular basis. Every year some respected expert seems to put forward a new theory about Stonehenge that proposes we adjust our existing assumptions.

Just treat dates as broadly indicative.

The Neolithic people were the first people to practice agriculture in the British Isles, around 4,000 BC. This meant that groups were able to have permanent settlements for the first time. For the first time people acted as a community and at certain times of year there was scope to indulge in activities that went beyond the fundamental task of feeding yourself.

People began to construct on a communal basis structures that were not needed for their day to day struggle to feed themselves. These structures could not be built by an individual, and there was only very limited times during the year when a community could afford to divert resources into such non essential investments in time.

Bear in mind also that the wheel nor metals had not been 'invented' and digging a hole would typically be done with deer antlers.

The first such structures of significance built by the Neolithic people were the burial mounds that you see dotting the landscape all around Stonehenge. The early mounds were substantial structures and in some cases well over a hundred people were buried inside the chambers of the structure.

The Henges

Henges began to be built by the Neolithic people after around 3,000 BC. Henges were built all over the British Isles, today there are around 1,000 henges known off and new ones being uncovered on a regular basis.

There are similar but not exactly the same structures found in other ancient civilisations elsewhere in the world, a thought to ponder.

Henges were of different sizes, structures and materials. A common feature of henges is a roughly circular ditch with the earth that was dug out piled into a bank all around the outside of the ditch. At Stonehenge this ditch was about 6 feet deep and the bank about 6 feet high.

Other henges like Avebury had dramatically larger ditches, about 20 feet in the case of Avebury. The ditches were not defensive, more a device so that people could not see inside to the sacred area where the ceremonies took place.

So at Stonehenge the first phase in its development was just the circular ditch and bank enclosing the area where ceremonies took place. We cover what these ceremonies were in our Stonehenge mysteries page. The 6 foot high bank ensured privacy, the only opening was at the main entrance where there is a gap in the ditch.

A ceremonial route led up to the henges entrance. When you are at Stonehenge standing by the Heel Stone on the raised walkway and look away from the henge. You can just make out the parallel lines of the ditch that marks the edges of this ceremonial route.

The Stones At Stonehenge

Stonehenge was not built overnight. This was a project that was built over decades by the Neolithic people. The organisation of stones were radically changed, from an initial simple circle surrounded by a ditch with wooden posts to the complicated arrangement seen now.

The bluestones Stonehenge In Front Of Sarson Stones

The bluestones Stonehenge In Foregound

The bluestones, the first stones to arrive at Stonehenge are thought to have been rearranged at least four times within a period about 400 years between 2,400 and 2,000 BC.

The bluestones come from the Preseli Hills in north Pembrokeshire in Wales, one of the mysteries is how they got to Stonehenge, a journey of around 200 miles.

The bluestones, originally 60 of them, weigh about 6 tons.

Apart from the bluestones there is a much larger sandstone from Wales at Stonehenge. Known as the Altar Stone, this stone probably came from near to Milford Haven on the coast to the south of the Preseli Hills. This is in the centre of Stonehenge lying flat and you cannot see it unless you take a special access visit to Stonehenge.

The large stones at Stonehenge are the Sarsen Stones. The Sarsen Stones came from the Marlborough Downs, twenty miles north of Stonehenge near Avebury henge. The Sarsen Stones are absolutely huge! The size of some of the bigger ones is 8ft wide by 5ft thick and 25ft long, and the weight varies from 20 - 30 Tons.

The Sarsen stones are arranged in a great circle with the largest Sarsens (the Trilithons) within that circle in a horseshoe shape. The horseshoe shaped Trilithons have their open end facing the entrance to the henge. The Alter Stone is within the horseshoe.

The mysteries of how these stones were transported and erected are dealt with in our our Stonehenge mysteries page.

Heel Stone & Stone Alignments

The entrance to Stonehenge is broadly at the north east point of the henge. Here just outside the henge is the Heel Stone, pictured right.

Heel Stone Stonehenge

Heel Stone Stonehenge

The summer solstice sun rises over the Heel Stone, seen from the centre of Stonehenge at the Alter Stone. Today this is a major event and crowds of up to 35,000 come to Stonehenge to experience the summer solstice.

At the midwinter solstice the setting sun sinks between the two uprights of the largest trilithon and behind the altar stone symbolising the death of the year and the birth of a new year ahead. Many academics argue this event is far more important than the summer solstice.

There are many other stellar correlation's as well as the sun and moon alignments at Stonehenge. The numbers of stones in some of the stone sets correspond to the numbers of days between a full moon, and the number of years in a lunar cycle and can be used to track the lunar cycle.

Ley Lines

A number of ley lines crisscross in the centre of Stonehenge. Ley lines are a natural magnetic phenomena that cross the countryside. Ancient monuments often are sited at the intersection of such ley lines.

Even in Saxon times, non pagan churches were built on a ley line. If you see a church aligned say north-south instead of the traditional east-west, the odds are that a ley line runs straight down the aisle.

During your visit to Stonehenge you may be lucky to see someone with dowsing forks tracking the ley lines.

Aubrey Holes

The Aubrey holes are a ring of 56 pits at Stonehenge named after the seventeenth century antiquarian, John Aubrey. They are located just inside the ditch that circles the stones. All have been filled in and are painted white.

Aubrey Hole Stonehenge

Aubrey Hole Stonehenge

The one pictured right is sited by point 3 on the audio tour.

A lot of conflicting theories abound for their use.

Some argue who subscribe to the astronomical importance of Stonehenge that they were used to measure the lunar cycle, which is around 18 solar years. There are broadly 29 days between full moons and 27 days for the moon to complete a cycle orbiting the Earth. (29+27=56)

Fragments of human remains have also been found in these holes as have traces of the bluestones which maybe suggest that these stones may have at one stage stood in the holes.

Station Stones

Originally there were four station stones, resembling the four corners of a rectangle in layout. These stones were well outside the ring of Sarsen Stones.

Only two survive today though you can see the hollows just inside the ditch where the other two stood.

Like most things Stonehenge, no firm consensus exists on what their purpose was.

Slaughter Stone

The Slaughter Stone is a sarsen stone lying flat with stained red markings caused by rain acting on iron. It is located just inside the entrance of the henge between the Heel Stone and the Stone Circle.

No evidence of human sacrifice has been uncovered at Stonehenge so its name is perhaps misleading. Nobody knows what its use was, if any.

So What Was Stonehenge Used For ?

The above paragraphs walk you through what is physically at Stonehenge.

Our Stonehenge mysteries page looks into the theories of what Stonehenge was used for and looks at intriguing mysteries of how the stones were moved to Stonehenge and erected.

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