More than one million people visit Stonehenge each year. It is one of Britain’s most important ancient monuments, having been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986.
The Neolithic monument is widely believed to be a prehistoric temple built to mark the movements of the sun. Each year thousands of people descend on the ancient religious site to watch the sun rise for the summer solstice, marking the longest day of the year and the first day of summer.
As archaeologists and researchers continue to study the area, their recent finds paint a picture of a far more mysterious and elaborate Neolithic and Bronze Age world than previously thought.
Archaeologists believe the area was occupied beginning around 9,000 years ago, suggesting it had significance long before Stonehenge was built. Remains of pits and cremations within and around the area, suggest as many as 150 individuals were buried at Stonehenge, making it the largest late Neolithic cemetery in the British Isles.
Stonehenge was in the making for at least 400 years. The first phase, starting around 3,000 B.C was a simple circular “henge” an earthwork enclosure consisting of circular banks of earth paralleled by an internal ditch, these can be found throughout the British Isles.
Sometime from 2,600 B.C the first stone construction was built of bluestones. The 4-8 tonne bluestones came from Carn Menyn, 170 miles away at the eastern end of the Preseli hills, in Wales. The Preseli hills are today still dotted with dolmens (ancient tombs), stone circles, and other megalithic monuments.
How the fabled bluestones were transported has been hotly debated over the years. The general consensus is that they were transported by river along the coast of Wales, across the Severn estuary, into the upper reaches of the Avon, a 250 mile journey. On arrival the stones would have been dragged along the Avenue – the ancient processional approach to Stonehenge, and up to the site. Here they would have been decoratively stippled, grooved and smoothed, then erected in pairs to form a double arc.
Soon after, the larger outer circle of giant stones Sarsens- a local hard sandstone weighing 25 tons, were erected. These huge standing stones (Trilithons) were brought in from Marlborough Downs, 20-30 miles away. At some point the stones were linked by an avenue to the River Avon.
The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes project, (2010/14) a four year collaboration between the University of Bradford, England, and the Boltzmann Institute Vienna, produced the first detailed underground survey of the area surrounding Stonehenge.
The team used underground radar and magnetic imaging techniques to produce a 3-D map of a four square mile area. The map showed that Stonehenge lies at the centre of a complex web of structures of ancient burial mounds, unknown settlements, processional routes and even gold-adorned burials; far from the ‘guarded area’ once believed.
Studies conducted by Michael Allen, an expert in environmental archaeology, revealed that the Stonehenge landscape was cleared, grazed, and farmed, people lived around the site going about their everyday business:
“I see it being used like a Cathedral, or Wembley Stadium,” Allen said. Some days it was used to hold solemn rituals, other days for more ordinary gatherings”
Why was Stonehenge Built?
“All you can say is that something once happened here in the deep past, and once it had, it was reinforced and became more important over a larger area pulling in more and more people from great distances, that is how ritual works, through repeated actions, says Parker Pearson
Monuments have lives of their own and their significance changes over the huge amount of time that they are built and re-built.”
Stonehenge is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage; the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust.
Stonehenge- 1825 Joseph Mallord William Turner
The electric storm raging around the stones in this representation of Stonehenge contributes a heightened sense of drama and mystery to the popular tourist attraction. The stones are illuminated by lightning against a dark sky, and a shepherd and some of his flock are struck down in the storm.