Stonehenge is surely Britain's greatest national icon, symbolizing mystery, power and endurance. Its original purpose is unclear to us, but some have speculated that it was a temple made for the worship of ancient earth deities. It has been called an astronomical observatory for marking significant events on the prehistoric calendar. Others claim that it was a sacred site for the burial of high-ranking citizens from the societies of long ago.
While we can't say with any degree of certainty what it was for, we can say that it wasn't constructed for any casual purpose. Only something very important to the ancients would have been worth the effort and investment that it took to construct Stonehenge.
The stones we see today represent Stonehenge in ruin. Many of the original
stones have fallen or been removed by previous generations for home construction
or road repair. There has been serious damage to some of the smaller bluestones
resulting from close visitor contact (prohibited since 1978) and the prehistoric
carvings on the larger sarsen stones show signs of significant wear.
Construction of the Henge
In its day, the construction of Stonehenge was an impressive engineering
feat, requiring commitment, time and vast amounts of manual labor. In its
first phase, Stonehenge was a large earthwork; a bank and ditch arrangement
called a henge, constructed approximately 5,000 years ago. It is believed that the ditch was
dug with tools made from the antlers of red deer and, possibly, wood. The
underlying chalk was loosened with picks and shoveled with the shoulderblades
of cattle. It was then loaded into baskets and carried away. Modern experiments
have shown that these tools were more than equal to the great task of earth
digging and moving.
About 2,000 BC, the first stone circle (which is now the inner circle),
comprised of small bluestones, was set up, but abandoned before completion.
The stones used in that first circle are believed to be from the Prescelly
Mountains, located roughly 240 miles away, at the southwestern tip of Wales.
The bluestones weigh up to 4 tons each and about 80 stones were used, in
all. Given the distance they had to travel, this presented quite a transportation
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Modern theories speculate that the stones were dragged by roller and sledge
from the inland mountains to the headwaters of Milford Haven. There they
were loaded onto rafts, barges or boats and sailed along the south coast
of Wales, then up the Rivers Avon and Frome to a point near present-day
Frome in Somerset. From this point, so the theory goes, the stones were
hauled overland, again, to a place near Warminster in Wiltshire, approximately
6 miles away. From there, it's back into the pool for a slow float down the
River Wylye to Salisbury, then up the Salisbury Avon to West Amesbury, leaving
only a short 2 mile drag from West Amesbury to the Stonehenge site.
Construction of the Outer Ring
The giant sarsen stones (which form the outer circle), weigh as much as
50 tons each. To transport them from the Marlborough Downs, roughly 20 miles
to the north, is a problem of even greater magnitude than that of moving
the bluestones. Most of the way, the going is relatively easy, but at the
steepest part of the route, at Redhorn Hill, modern work studies estimate
that at least 600 men would have been needed just to get each stone past
Once on site, a sarsen stone was prepared to accommodate stone lintels along
its top surface. It was then dragged until the end was over the opening
of the hole. Great levers were inserted under the stone and it was raised
until gravity made it slide into the hole. At this point, the stone stood
on about a 30° angle from the ground. Ropes were attached to the top
and teams of men pulled from the other side to raise it into the full upright
position. It was secured by filling the hole at its base with small, round
packing stones. At this point, the lintels were lowered into place and secured
vertically by mortice and tenon joints and horizontally by tongue and groove
joints. Stonehenge was probably finally completed around 1500 BC.
Who Built Stonehenge?
The question of who built Stonehenge is largely unanswered, even today.
The monument's construction has been attributed to many ancient peoples
throughout the years, but the most captivating and enduring attribution
has been to the Druids. This erroneous connection was first made around
3 centuries ago by the antiquary, John Aubrey. Julius Caesar and other Roman
writers told of a Celtic priesthood who flourished around the time of their
first conquest (55 BC). By this time, though, the stones had been standing
for 2,000 years, and were, perhaps, already in a ruined condition. Besides,
the Druids worshipped in forest temples and had no need for stone structures.
The best guess seems to be that the Stonehenge site was begun by the people
of the late Neolithic period (around 3000 BC) and carried forward by people
from a new economy which was arising at this time. These "new"
people, called Beaker Folk because of their use of pottery drinking vessels,
began to use metal implements and to live in a more communal fashion than
their ancestors. Some think that they may have been immigrants from the
continent, but that contention is not supported by archaeological evidence.
It is likely that they were indigenous people doing the same old things
in new ways.
As Legend Has It
The legend of King Arthur provides another story of the construction of
Stonehenge. It is told by the twelfth century writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth,
in his History of the Kings of Britain
that Merlin brought the stones to the Salisbury Plain from Ireland.
Sometime in the fifth century, there had been a massacre of 300 British
noblemen by the treacherous Saxon leader, Hengest. Geoffrey tells us that the high king, Aurelius Ambrosius, wanted to create a fitting memorial to the slain men. Merlin
suggested an expedition to Ireland for the purpose of transplanting the
Giant's Ring stone circle to Britain.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the stones of the Giant's Ring were originally
brought from Africa to Ireland by giants (who else but giants could handle
the job?). The stones were located on "Mount Killaraus" and were
used as a site for performing rituals and for healing. Led by King Uther
and Merlin, the expedition arrived at the spot in Ireland. The Britons,
none of whom were giants, apparently, were unsuccessful in their attempts
to move the great stones. At this point, Merlin realized that only his magic
arts would turn the trick. So, they were dismantled and shipped back to
Britain where they were set up (see illus. at right) as they had been before, in a great circle,
around the mass grave of the murdered noblemen. The story goes on to tell
that Aurelius, Uther and Arthur's successor, Constantine were also buried
there in their time*.
Present Day Stonehenge
Situated in a vast plain, surrounded by hundreds of round barrows, or burial
mounds, the Stonehenge site is truly impressive, and all the more so, the
closer you approach. It is a place where much human effort was expended
for a purpose we can only guess at. Some people see it as a place steeped
in magic and mystery, some as a place where their imaginations of the past can be fired
and others hold it to be a sacred place. But whatever viewpoint is brought
to it and whatever its original purpose was, it should be treated as the
ancients treated it, as a place of honor .
The modern age has not been altogether kind to Stonehenge, despite the lip
service it pays to the preservation of heritage sites. There is a major
highway running no more than 100 yards away from the stones, and a commercial
circus has sprung up around it, complete with parking lots, gift shops and
ice cream stands. The organization, English Heritage, is committed to righting
these wrongs, and in the coming years, we may get to see Stonehenge in the
setting for which it was originally created. Despite all its dilapidation and
the encroachment of the modern world, Stonehenge, today, is an awe-inspiring
sight, and no travel itinerary around Britain should omit it.
* Lacy, Norris J, ed., The Arthurian Encyclopedia, New York, Peter Bedrick
Books, 1986, article by Geoffrey Ashe, p. 529.