The Mysteries of Stonehenge
Created | Updated Jun 28, 2019
Stonehenge, 'tis a magic place
Where the moon doth rise with a dragon's face
- Spinal Tap
Stonehenge, the ruin of a megalithic stone circle, is a national treasure that has the power to stir even the hardest of hearts. It has inspired poets and artists over the centuries and is now visited by approximately 750,000 tourists each year. It is located two miles (3km) west of the town of Amesbury, about eight miles (13km) northwest of Salisbury in the county of Wiltshire, England.
Despite years of research and study, the reason behind the construction of Stonehenge remains an enigma. The mysteries surrounding the stone circles are many and varied. Huge and not-so-huge lumps of rock (some weigh as much as 45 tons) have inspired people to make pilgrimages around the time of the summer and winter solstices for centuries. The monument has become just as famous for the protests and demands that the public be allowed free access to it, countered by the enforced protection of the stones to stop people from chipping off the odd memento1.
A Description of the Monument as it is Today
Stonehenge is set in the flat green grassland of Salisbury Plain. As you approach the monument, the first impression is of a jumble of large rectangular stones, some upright, some fallen down. Closer inspection shows the following features:
18 large standing stones form an incomplete circle about 33m in diameter. The stones are roughly cut into a rectangular shape and are on average about four metres high. The gap between the stones is less than the width of the stones. Across the tops of six of the gaps are horizontal lintel stones. It is obvious that once there was a complete circle and that the lintel stones went all the way around the circle. Originally there would have been 30 stones and 30 lintels. Now many are missing; others have fallen over and can still be seen lying in position.
Inside the circle are ten giant stones, eight of which are still standing, two lying flat where they fell. The biggest of these is seven metres high and is estimated to weigh over 45 tonnes. The giant stones are grouped into pairs and each pair has a lintel to make a Π-shaped group of three known as a 'trilithon'. Three of these are still complete. The trilithons are arranged in a horseshoe shape around the centre of the circle, with the open end of the horseshoe facing northeast.
Dotted around the inside of the circle are various smaller stones, typically about two metres high. These are known as bluestones, because they are made from a type of rock which has a blue look when wet. They are not placed randomly but the pattern is hard to discern because most of the original stones are now missing; they once formed a circle of sixty stones just inside the outer circle, and a horseshoe of bluestones inside the trilithon horseshoe.
At the very centre of the circle is a flat horizontal stone. This is known as the 'altar stone' from the assumption that Stonehenge is a temple, but originally it would have probably been standing upright as well.
Looking outside of the stone circle, there are other features to be seen. These all form part of the Stonehenge monument:
A low circular earth bank surrounds the entire complex. It has a diameter of about 98m (320 feet). Outside this is a shallow circular ditch - the ditch provided the earth for the building of the bank. There is a wide gap in the bank and ditch to the northeast providing access to the site. On the south side of this gap lies a fallen standing stone which traditionally is known as the slaughter stone, although there is no reason to believe it was ever used for slaughter. It is believed to have originally formed one of a pair of 'portal stones' which stood on either side of the entrance to the site, forming a ceremonial gateway. Such portal stones exist in almost all Stone Age megalithic monuments. The northern portal stone (Stone D) is now gone, and the southern one, the Slaughter Stone, was moved at least twice after it was first erected before ending up in its present lying position.
Leading away from the gap in the bank is a straight path heading northeast. On either side of this path, known as 'the Avenue', are a bank and ditch. It originally would have gone off into the distance as far as the River Avon at West Amesbury, but now it is cut short almost immediately by a modern road, the A344, which passes very close to Stonehenge. The Avenue provides a formal approach to the circle of Stonehenge, as well as being the probable route by which the big stones were brought to the site by river.
To the north and south, just inside the bank, are two low mounds. These are imaginatively named the north mound and south mound. Each mound is surrounded by a ditch.
To the northwest and southeast, just inside the bank are two stones known as the Station Stones. The southeast one has fallen, but the northwest one is still standing.
In the avenue, slightly off centre, and almost at the modern road, is a large standing stone, about five metres high, which is known as the 'heelstone'.
Archaeologists have found places where other stones once stood, and where wooden poles were put into the ground. There are also three circles of holes known as the Y holes, the Z holes and the Aubrey holes, which were dug and later filled in.
The Building of Stonehenge
Many people, on seeing Stonehenge for the first time, are staggered by the immensity and age of the monument. They immediately imagine that it was constructed in one fell swoop. The reality is that it developed its present form over a series of constructions covering well over a thousand years.
The first phase consisted of the circular ditch and inner bank, set in a wooded landscape. Red deer antler picks and ox bone scrapers found discarded in the earthwork show they were the tools used. Current dating methods on these have narrowed its probable date of construction to between 3100 and 2920 BC. Originally, the bank would probably have been about two metres high (six feet). The people who built it were New Stone Age people known as the Windmill civilisation2.
The Station Stones and Heel Stone and a few other standing stones were probably put in place during this phase, and it is these stones that give Stonehenge one of its remarkable features - its alignment with various astronomical phenomena.
Standing at the centre of the circle, the sun will rise over the Heel Stone on midsummer's day, the summer solstice (21 June).
Also from the centre of the circle, on midwinter's day, the winter solstice (21 December), the moon used to rise directly over Stone D when it was at its most northerly position. Stone D is missing now, but its original location is confirmed by the archaeologists. Lunar events such as this occur once every 18 years.
Standing at the western station stone on the summer solstice, the moon will rise directly over the centre of the southern mound when it is at its maximum position south. It is assumed that there was once a station stone on each of the mounds.
Again at the western station stone on the summer solstice, the moon will rise directly over the eastern station stone when it is at its minimum position south.
Once again at the western station stone, but this time at the winter solstice, the sun used to rise directly over Stone H, a stone which is now missing but whose position is confirmed by the archaeologists.
There are some other alignments claimed for the monument, but none of them are as certain as these ones.
How They Did It
We don't know why the builders of Stonehenge wanted to align the stones with astronomical events, but we can make a reasonable guess as to how they did it. Archaeologists have discovered a number of places where holes were dug and wooden poles were erected. These weren't just fence posts: from the depth and size of the holes, it is estimated that they could have been five metres tall! The pattern of these posts seems to be experimental - the builders would note the position of moonrise and sunrise and place posts to mark them. The following year, the moon would rise in a slightly different position and this was marked as well. There are a fairly regular series of holes marking the position of moonrise over a period of 18 years, the length of a full lunar cycle. There are a few gaps, presumably where the skies were cloudy and no observation was possible. At the end of the study period, the builders had everything they needed to position the giant standing stones where they wanted them.
About a thousand years went by before anything further was done at Stonehenge. In about 2100 BC, a Bronze Age tribe known as the Beaker People3 were responsible for the next phase of building. They erected huge numbers of head-height stones in two concentric circles, roughly where the present stone circle stands. These were not the giant stones we see today but the smaller 'bluestones'.
There were no solar or lunar alignments involved here, just a double ring of head-height standing stones. And it was never even finished; the bluestone circle construction was abandoned when about three quarters finished. Nevertheless, this phase is also remarkable because of the feat of transporting the stones.
If megalith-building is your thing, then somewhere there has to be a place that yields the perfect rock for it. The Beaker People found this perfect quarry in the Presceli Mountains of North Pembrokeshire, Wales, specifically Carn Menyn. The bluestones are made of dolerite, also known as diabase, (of which the 'bluestones' are one type); this is an intrusive igneous rock. It is exceptionally hard (harder than granite) and forms very regular cleavage planes, which means that it comes out of the ground pretty much as pre-formed pillars. It also looks very fine; blue-grey, glossy and sparkling when freshly quarried.
Approximately 80 of these bluestone columns were dug out of the mountain, each one weighing about four tons. It's supposed that they used a combination of river-barging and dragging overland to move these 'Bluestones' the two hundred plus miles to Salisbury Plain. What can we say about the builders of Stonehenge II? We can deduce that they were part of a sophisticated society that had enough excess labour and food to contemplate a very large work-intensive construction such as Stonehenge.
HH Thomas of the Geological Survey of Great Britain first demonstrated the Pembrokeshire origins of these stones in the early 1920s. It was a while before anybody believed him, mainly because of incredulity about a primitive civilisation's ability to move such loads over long distances. To this day, some claim that Merlin's magic was involved, which is roughly as plausible as the still-espoused theory that the bluestones were ice-age erratics – modern geologists reckon that the ice-sheet did not extend as far south as Wiltshire. The ice-sheet theory was definitively disproved in 1994 using chlorine-36 dating. That theory propounds that the stones were carried by ice 40,000 years ago, and were lying around ready for use when the first stone ring was built. However the chlorine-36 dating shows that the stone was first exposed to air only 14,000 years ago, too late for any ice-sheet to have carried it to Wiltshire.
The transportation feat was human then, and it was very remarkable; the stones may have been moved on tree-trunk rollers4, or perhaps dragged along greased 'tramlines' made from planks. The quarry lies on the so-called Golden Road which linked Bronze Age Wiltshire to the Irish Sea and possibly to Ireland. It was an important trade route.
The Beaker People, sadly for them, never quite finished their defining project. It seems that the site was abandoned for a number of centuries before the final phase, the erection of the giant stones we see today.
In about 1550 BC, the final manifestation of the temple took shape. It is dominated by the gargantuan stones in the arrangement that is still visible today; a capped circle of standing stones surrounding a horseshoe of bigger 'trilithons'. The builders were a people known as the First Wessex. To make room for the stone circle, they had to remove the older bluestone circles, but they re-used about half of the original complement of bluestones as part of the lesser circles and the horseshoe formation.
The giant stones are known as 'sarsens' and are made of a hard sandstone from the Marlborough Downs, about 20 miles (30km) to the north of Stonehenge. This type of stone again forms pillar-like structures naturally, due to the bedding and cleavage. The term sarsen is possibly a contraction of 'Sarsden-stones' - a term for the broken masses of sandstone found on the Downs.
The great sarsens were deftly dressed by hammering them with stone balls known as 'mauls'. Righting them and raising their lintels remains an awe-inspiring engineering accomplishment for its time.
Other than the retention of the north-easterly direction so that the sun still rises above the heel stone on midsummer's day, there is no particular astronomical alignments in the placing of the giant stones. There were presumably placed for their dramatic effect.
The Summer Solstice
Each day, the sun rises in a slightly different position on the horizon, getting progressively further north5 each day until 21 or 22 June when it starts moving south again. Around this time, the sun appears to 'stand still' on the north-eastern horizon, because it rises in almost the same position for a few days in a row. This is called the 'summer solstice' (from the Latin for 'sun stands still'). The solstice occurs on the longest day and is a very important date for agriculture - it is the middle of the summer growing season, because the plants depend on sunlight to grow6.
Stonehenge is aligned in such a way that for a person standing at the exact centre of the monument, on the morning of the summer solstice, the sun will rise directly above the heel stone. The horseshoe shape of the giant sarsens is arranged in such a way that the open end of horseshoe points the same direction. Such alignments are very common in Stone Age megaliths. Many of the thousands of megaliths throughout the British Isles are aligned with one or other of the solstices.
Although this alignment with the sun was built into the original Stonehenge I, it was retained in Stonehenge III, the monument we see today. The other alignments do not seem to have been important to the later builders - some of them are even blocked by the erection of the stone circle. We can assume, though that the First Wessex people gathered at the centre of the circle to watch the sunrise.
It must be pointed out, though, that this line when extended in the opposite direction points to the position on the horizon of sunset on the winter solstice. Standing at the heel stone, on the evening of the Winter Solstice (21 or 22 December), the sun would set directly between the pillars of the Great Trilithon. Despite the gathering of modern-day Druids at the mid-Summer solstice, it's possible that the builders of the final stage of this great monument gathered to watch the setting of the mid-winter sun and the coming and promise of the new year.
There is something about this almost mystical alignment which draws people to celebrate the solstice at Stonehenge, for reasons quite personal to them. To be close to one's ancestors can give a sense of comfort; to commune with nature gives a respite from today's high-tech modern world; meeting like-minded people can make one's heart leap and feed the soul; then there are those who just want to brag that they've been there, it's a guaranteed party piece. You don't have to be a hippy, a druid, a drop-out or a tree-hugger to enjoy Stonehenge. You don't even have to wear flowers in your hair. Just make sure you leave your mobile phone at home - a badly timed call could destroy the atmosphere.
So What Is Stonehenge?
Was It A Calendar?
The first person to recognise the alignment of Stonehenge on the solstices was Lincolnshire-born antiquarian The Reverend Dr William Stukeley (1687 - 1765). Stonehenge has played an intricate part in the science of Archaeoastronomy. The stones of Stonehenge are aligned with particular significance to the solstice points and to various lunar events, so, does that make it a calendar?
A simpler and more utilitarian astronomical calendar could have been constructed much more easily. The scale of the thing suggests that it must have had some religious significance to the people who built it. The pharaohs could have been given simple headstones, but because of their religious importance, people laboured for years to make them massive burial tombs. It seems that whoever built Stonehenge must have been motivated by something more than just wanting to know what day it was.
If the original builders had a priesthood caste and if they were using Stonehenge to predict lunar eclipses this would help the priests maintain their authority. The book Stonehenge Decoded by Gerald S Hawkins postulates how the alignments could have been used for just such a purpose.
Was It a Temple?
Nowadays when we think of religious ceremonies, we imagine large churches, cathedrals or mosques, where many worshippers can get indoors and do their worshipping away from the elements. In prehistoric times, most religious ceremonies took place out of doors - the Ancient Greeks built temples with roofs for their gods, but the ceremonies of worship took place in front of the temple, under the sky. It is reasonable to assume that the ancient people of Britain did the same. The most striking features of Stonehenge, the giant sarsen stones, do not form part of any of the astronomical alignments or possible calendar uses of the megalith. It seems obvious that they are there as a setting for some religious ceremony.
It also should be noted that there are other Stone Age monuments in the area near Stonehenge, including the Woodhenge and Durrington Walls monuments. Both of these were linked to Stonehenge by ceremonial paths. It has been suggested that the three monuments were used for funereal rites in a similar manner to the pyramids of Egypt with their mortuary temples and causeways. The body of the deceased person would be brought between monuments in a journey symbolising the journey of the soul into the next life.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, it was believed by many that Stonehenge had been built by the Druids, the priest caste of the Britons, the Celtic people who lived throughout Britain up to about the 5th Century AD. Many people set up a new order of Druids, and invented new rites. They concentrated their attentions on Stonehenge as 'their temple' and in August 1905, more than 200 new recruits were initiated into the Ancient Order of Druids. A photograph of the ceremony shows them wearing white robes and false beards. In later years, these neo-Druids were banned from the site, causing much public debate. We now know that whoever built Stonehenge, it was not the Druids, because when they arrived in the British Isles, the most recent parts of Stonehenge were already more than a thousand years old.
Then There's The More Wacky Thoughts
Is It An Ancient Crop Circle Marker?
Agriglyphs, or as they are more commonly known, crop circles, have been around since the 17th Century. Or at least, that is the first time one was recorded, in 1678, on a woodcut pamphlet called The Mowing-Devil. People of the day were superstitious and the punishment for crimes such as heresy (not believing in God) was public execution. So it was understandable that if people believed in God, they would also believe in the Devil.
Many crop circles appear in Wiltshire; it's a veritable hot-spot for the mysterious phenomena. If you're lucky and have a light aircraft at your disposal for transport, you can get a good view of them. Many farmers are averse to letting tourists trample what's left of their crops, so it's doubtful you would obtain permission to get up-close-and-personal with one.
Stonehenge is associated with Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth said that Merlin directed its removal from Ireland, where it had been constructed on Mount Killaraus by giants who brought the stones from Africa. After it had been rebuilt near Amesbury, Geoffrey further narrated how first Uther Pendragon, then Constantine III, were buried inside the ring of stones.
Stonehenge is the centre of a spiral energy flow, or so we are told by those who believe in the ancient art of dowsing. There are many speculations as to the meanings of the spirals, but the one that is most relevant is the symbolic meaning signifying the entrance into another realm of consciousness. Spirals have long been associated with energy patterns found by geomancers around the earth. Some have dowsed around the stones at Avebury and Stonehenge and have found spiralling energy at each stone marker. Other sacred places such as at Sedona in Arizona, have been sought after because of the vortexes or spiralling energy that is said to take the pilgrim or visitor into altered states of consciousness.
In 1977, Paul Devereux and John Steel, authors of Earthmind, founded the Dragon Project to better understand the earth and her emanations. Using Geiger counters, ultrasound and other instruments to measure the magnetic frequencies at different places on the earth (specifically sacred sites) they found that the instruments registered higher in frequencies at the sacred sites than at other locations at nearby sites. They have speculated that the granite around the areas is able to 'hold' the frequencies, which have been enhanced through ritual and prayer. They also found that granite has the capacity to attract and emit radioactive fields.
Such findings are not accepted, however, by conventional scientists. In fact, a representative sample of physics students, when asked, had never even heard of the term 'radioactive fields', although research into this topic was hindered by frequent requests for more beer.
The Millennium Stone
On 8 April, 2000 a group of volunteers from a lottery funded project tried to show how part of Stonehenge could have been built, 4,000 years ago. Using only methods available at that period in history they planned to take an eight feet tall, three tonne Bluestone from the Presceli mountains (Mynydd Preseli) around the Welsh coast and eventually to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire7. The scheme failed after just 17 miles when the stone sank in 50 feet of water off the Pembrokeshire coast. It was recovered by divers and is now part of an exhibit at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales in Camarthenshire. The project did underscore the immense task it was to transport the stones to build that monument, whatever its purpose, and even if they had used all the equipment available today it would still have been incredibly difficult. We can only imagine the dedication and determination of those ancient builders and admire them for those qualities.
Book Reference: "Threshold Places" by Constance S. Rodriguez PhD, LCSW.
More Questions Than Answers
Having read this far, you are probably no wiser about why Stonehenge was built - but one fact stands out, it's been there a long time and will still be there for future generations to ponder over and wonder about. Maybe we will never find out for sure - but ongoing mysteries attract more interest than solved puzzles, that's just human nature.
Stonehenge was not always held in such high regard as it is now. During the First World War it was considered for demolition. Those who ran a nearby airfield wanted the stones removed because they thought Stonehenge might pose a danger to low-flying planes. Luckily for us, the application was never sanctioned.
Stonehenge as we see it today actually dates from the early 20th Century when it was substantially restored. Stones that had started to fall over were straightened up and set in concrete. This can be seen by comparing the monument as it stands today with the picture by John Constable showing it as it was in 1836.
King Henry VIII used to own Stonehenge; later owners included the nuns of Amesbury Abbey; and the last private owner Sir Cecil Chubb bought Stonehenge in 1915 for £6,600 and gifted it to the nation in 1918, with a condition that the entrance fee would never be more than one shilling (5p). Somehow that condition appears to have been forgotten about - see below for current admission charges.
Like giant Lego bricks, the sarsen stones in the trilithons actually have lumps on the top, which fit into corresponding holes in the under sides of the lintel. This detail is very unusual in stone construction, as it is considered unnecessary - the weight of the stone is enough to hold the pieces in place. It is, however, a technique used in building with wood. Archaeologists usually take this as a sign that the builders were not really used to working with stone but had built large structures out of wood (certainly they never built anything else like Stonehenge).
Stonehenge became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, putting it on a par with the Great Pyramid of Khufu (the only one remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and the Great Wall of China. You need to be a member of the National Trust to get inside the surrounding fence; the closest you can get to the stones is about ten metres away (30 feet). The NT does small tours, usually guided by an archaeologist, at unearthly hours of the morning. You can listen to the educated chat, or you can wander off a bit and absorb the atmosphere. Contact the National Trust for current details.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is the Government Department responsible for the care and protection of Stonehenge. DCMS is also the Department responsible for World Heritage Sites in the UK. English Heritage is responsible for Stonehenge itself and operates the current visitor centre. There are plans to build a world-class visitor centre. The Stonehenge Project will rescue this iconic World Heritage Site from the destructiveness of the 21st Century and give it the dignified setting it deserves. It will be built outside the World Heritage Site and there will be improved access through the Stonehenge World Heritage Site landscape. Roads will be removed or tunnelled and ploughed fields returned to open grassland.
English Heritage is working in partnership with a number of major organisations, primarily the National Trust, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency. The visitor centre and access project will cost around £67.5m. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is the sponsoring Government department and is providing some of the funding, committing around £13m. The Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded a Stage 1 pass for a grant of £25m. The remaining cost will be met by English Heritage, the National Trust and from a major fundraising campaign.
The Department for Transport and the Highways Agency are progressing plans for the road improvements around Stonehenge. Motorists will benefit from a flyover at Countess Roundabout, improvements to the Longbarrow crossroads and a bypass around the village of Winterbourne Stoke. When the A303 tunnel is complete, the A344 alongside the Stones will be closed and the present car park and facilities removed, leaving only an underground operations base and visitor toilets.
The public enjoyed visiting the ancient monument of Stonehenge on Boxing Day 2005 and New Year's Day 2006, as English Heritage has responded to demand and decided to open the site over the Christmas period for the first time in over a decade.
In 2014, the US president Barack Obama paid a visit to Stonehenge on his return from a NATO summit, fulfilling a wish on his 'bucket list'.
Details of opening times, admission prices and guided tours with access to the circle itself can be found at the English Heritage website.