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What Is Stonehenge?

The orientation of Stonehenge, a megalithic site in Great Britain, aligns with the sun during the solstices and equinoxes.
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  • Written By: Sally Foster
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 11 March 2014
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Located about two miles (3.22 km) west of Amesbury, Wiltshire in Southern England, Stonehenge is a megalithic, or large stone, monument composed of standing stones and earthworks. One of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world, Stonehenge was added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) list of World Heritage Sites in 1986. While the scientific dating of Stonehenge is complicated due to poor excavation records and natural erosion, archaeologists generally agree that the complex was built in several phases from 2950 to 1600 BCE. In the 1940s, archaeologist Richard Atkinson proposed a three-stage construction. This theory has since been accepted and published by English Heritage, the United Kingdom's advisor on the historic environment of England.

Stonehenge 1, the first stage of construction, took place from approximately 2950 to 2900 BCE. During this phase, a circular bank enclosure measuring about 360 feet (110 m) in diameter was constructed on Salisbury plain. Inside this enclosure exists a second circle of 56 pits, generally believed to have held wooden posts.

Although evidence of Stonehenge 2 is no longer visible, archaeologists believe that this second phase of construction took place between 2900 and 2400 BCE. Some post holes in the center of the original circular enclosure suggest that a timber structure was built inside the enclosure during this time. In addition, the outer ring of holes seems to have been used for cremation burials during the second building phase of Stonehenge.

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During the third phase of construction, which spanned from approximately 2600 to 1600 BCE, builders seem to have abandoned timber materials in place of the large stones that are still visible on the site today. Stonehenge 3 has been broken down into several sub-phases. During the first sub-phase, two concentric crescents of holes were dug in the center of the original enclosure. These holes were fitted with 80 large bluestones.

The second sub-phase of Stonehenge 3 saw the arrival of large sarsen stones, brought to the site from a quarry on the Marlborough Downs. The following sub-phases denote periods of activity on the Stonehenge site during which the stones were rearranged in various patterns. During the final stage of construction, which took place around 1600 BCE, the bluestones were arranged in the horseshoe and circle pattern that is still visible today.

Much of the mystery that surrounds the study of Stonehenge has to do with the feats of engineering required to build the monument. Archaeologists have suggested that the stones were transported using timber and rope. Timber A-frames may also have been used to position the stones. It is estimated that the construction of the site may have involved some 242 years of man-work, while the working of the stones may have required up to 2,300 years of work.

While the significance of Stonehenge is very much under debate, most theories suggest that the site was built for ceremonial use. Archaeological evidence has indicated that the monument is astronomically aligned, placing particular significance on solstice and equinox points. There has been some speculation as to whether the monument could have been used to predict solar and lunar eclipses. In addition, many scientists believe that Stonehenge could have had some spiritual meaning and ritual uses for the prehistoric people who built it.

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Discuss this Article

anon175050
Post 10

The wood post stonehenge is a gateway door that could be covered in the evening with thorns to keep out predators that would eat livestock. The livestock was kept within the living area during the evening or the runways. The posts or gateway were directed towards the setting sun or rising sun to allow farmers to know when to herd their flocks from the fields or to know when to get them out to graze. The burial ground at stonehenge was that a sacred burial ground -- a cemetery.

anon21103
Post 7

I've heard a lot of stories about stonehenge but i think during the summer solstice when the light shines through the outer stones and through the circle to the middle stone a portal between here and somewhere else opens. only because there is such a short amount of time to actually test this it may very well be true and it is what i believe. many think it was a religious thing. it might very well have been but i remain with my comment i believe it's a portal.

anon11375
Post 6

As one reader observes:

‘How could such primitive people, from 2000 BC lift and precisely set these massive stones?’ The answer is that they were nowhere near as primitive as we may imagine: search the web using the words 'solving stonehenge' .....

anon9107
Post 4

There is no doubt in my mind that Stonehenge is one of the most mysterious structures known in today's society and we still question its original use. Many theories have been put forth but I really believe we are missing something very important and all of the theories brought forth are completely wrong and very far off, Stonehenge is truly amazing and until we find the definite use of it we can be nothing short of sceptical.

anon6117
Post 3

This is more an answer to the previous post: Previous societies were a lot more intelligent than we tend to give them credit for. Just because they didn't have cranes to lift the stones, doesn't mean that they didn't have the ability to logically solve these problems (and in order to do this type of megalith, they must have been dedicated in the first place). Also, because the stones are set deep in the earth (some at least 8 feet in) they would be able to stand the test of time. Because of the interest in Stonehenge now, I imagine that societies after the "first" builders maintained the structure, so that also would help it be maintained. This does not mean that it had to be the center of a city for people to make the effort to get to it. Remember the Crusades? The center of a city sounds like a great idea, but there would still be evidence of these so called wooden houses. there is still evidence of the previous "woodhenges" that stood in the place of stonehenge, and other wooden buildings of other sites still leave remnants. I believe that a ritual center of some kind (even if it was simply a gathering of many nomadic groups as a way to trade or if it really was a traditional ritualistic site) is one of the best theories going.

anon3906
Post 2

Stonehenge is very strange. How could such primitive people, from 2000 BC lift and precisely set these massive stones? And how could they possibly still stand 2000 years later? Would not earthquakes, floods, rain and weather such as wind, and erosion of the soil underneath cause the stones to tip over? My theory is that there was a living colony of people in the area, and the monument formed the centerpiece of a city. The houses were all made of wood, and over 2000 years of time, are now gone, but the city's centerpiece which had much work put into it, made of stone, still remains to this day.

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