- Stonehenge’s Multiphase Construction
- The Megaliths of Stonehenge
- Who Built Stonehenge?
- Stonehenge’s Function and Significance
- Stonehenge Today
For centuries, historians and archaeologists have puzzled over the many mysteries of Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument that took Neolithic builders an estimated 1,500 years to erect. Located in southern England, it is comprised of roughly 100 massive upright stones placed in a circular layout.
While many modern scholars now agree that Stonehenge was once a burial ground, they have yet to determine what other purposes it served and how a civilization without modern technology—or even the wheel—produced the mighty monument. Its construction is all the more baffling because, while the sandstone slabs of its outer ring hail from local quarries, scientists have traced the bluestones that make up its inner ring all the way to the Preseli Hills in Wales, some 200 miles from where Stonehenge sits on Salisbury Plain.
Today, nearly 1 million people visit Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986, every year.
Stonehenge’s Multiphase Construction
Archaeologists believe England most iconic prehistoric ruin was built in several stages, with the earliest constructed 5,000 or more years ago. First, Neolithic Britons used primitive tools—possibly made from deer antlers—to dig a massive circular ditch and bank, or henge, on Salisbury Plain. Deep pits dating back to that era and located within the circle—known as Aubrey holes after John Aubrey, the 17th-century antiquarian who discovered them—may have once held a ring of timber posts, according to some scholars.
Did you know? In 1620, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, dug a large hole in the ground at the center of Stonehenge looking for buried treasure.
Several hundred years later, it is thought, Stonehenge’s builders hoisted an estimated 80 non-indigenous bluestones, 43 of which remain today, into standing positions and placed them in either a horseshoe or circular formation.
During the third phase of construction, which took place around 2000 B.C., sarsen sandstone slabs were arranged into an outer crescent or ring; some were assembled into the iconic three-pieced structures called trilithons that stand tall in the center of Stonehenge. Some 50 sarsen stones are now visible on the site, which may once have contained many more. Radiocarbon dating suggests that work continued at Stonehenge until roughly 1600 B.C., with the bluestones in particularly being repositioned multiple times.
READ MORE: What Made Stonehenge’s Builders Collect Massive Stones from 180 Miles Away?
The Megaliths of Stonehenge
Stonehenge’s sarsens, of which the largest weighs more than 40 tons and rises 24 feet, were likely sourced from quarries 25 miles north of Salisbury Plain and transported with the help of sledges and ropes; they may even have already been scattered in the immediate vicinity when the monument’s Neolithic architects first broke ground there.
The smaller bluestones, on the other hand, have been traced all the way to the Preseli Hills in Wales, some 200 miles away from Stonehenge. How, then, did prehistoric builders without sophisticated tools or engineering haul these boulders, which weigh up to 4 tons, over such a great distance?
According to one longstanding theory, Stonehenge’s builders fashioned sledges and rollers out of tree trunks to lug the bluestones from the Preseli Hills. They then transferred the boulders onto rafts and floated them first along the Welsh coast and then up the River Avon toward Salisbury Plain; alternatively, they may have towed each stone with a fleet of vessels. More recent hypotheses have them transporting the bluestones with supersized wicker baskets or a combination of ball bearings, long grooved planks and teams of oxen.
As early as the 1970s, geologists have been adding their voices to the debate over how Stonehenge came into being. Challenging the classic image of industrious Neolithic builders pushing, carting, rolling or hauling the craggy bluestones from faraway Wales, some scientists have suggested that glaciers, not humans, did most of the heavy lifting.
The globe is dotted with giant rocks known as glacial erratics that were carried over long distances by moving ice floes. Perhaps Stonehenge’s mammoth slabs were snatched from the Preseli Hills by glaciers during one of the Ice Ages and deposited a stone’s throw away—at least comparatively—from Salisbury Plain. Most archaeologists have remained cool toward the glacial theory, however, wondering how the forces of nature could possibly have delivered the exact number of stones needed to complete the circle.
Who Built Stonehenge?
According to the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose tale of…