Stonehenge stands on Salisbury Plain, massive, isolated and mysterious. People have been trying to fathom the meaning and history of the UK's - and probably the world's - most impressive and important standing stones for at least 800 years.
Now, research is throwing up some new ideas about Stonehenge; its origins and purposes. The latest theories may change the way you think about this magical place. And, after a major remake of the visitor facilities a few years ago, the stories - and the mysteries - of Stonehenge are clearer than ever before.
What to Expect When You Go
The first thing you'll notice about the Stonehenge visitor center is how little you notice it. The building, by architects Denton Corker Marshall, almost vanishes in the landscape. Its curving roof matches the rolling hills and seems to float on a forest of young trees - the artful poles that support it.
Beside the center, an almost silent electric train delivers you to the ancient stones a mile and a half away. If you choose to walk instead, you'll have a better chance to understand how the monument fits in its ancient, ceremonial landscape. In the past, visitors to Stonehenge never had an opportunity to notice all the prehistoric mounds scattered around the site. But, riding across the landscape, under the big skies of Salisbury Plain, is a truly evocative way to arrive.
Afterward, take time to explore the visitor center itself. Inside it, two pavilions house a cafe and a shop as well as a small, excellent museum and exhibition. The display puts some real meat on the bones of a visit to Stonehenge, exploring the myths and theories of the past as well as the latest conclusions of researchers working on the site.
Among the highlights:
- Real tools used by the makers of Stonehenge - among them a red deer antler used to dig the ditch and build the banks that were the first structures at the site.
- A set of Neolithic tools including a flint awl, a saw and a "fabricator" used to strike a spark and make fire. The awl and saw look pretty much like tools used today.
- A reconstructed head of an early Neolithic man, made using forensic techniques based on the skeleton of a man excavated nearby in the 19th century.
- A bronze ax in the same shape as axes carved on some of the stones, 700 years after Stonehenge was built.
- A map of Britain at the time that Stonehenge was in use, showing dozens of other, similar sites, stone circles and mounds being built all over the country at the same time. It suggests an elaborately organized society that shared customs, monuments and rituals and that spread from the far north to the English Channel.
- Outside, a reconstructed Neolithic village (based on nearby discoveries) that gives visitors an idea of how the builders of Stonehenge lived.
And How Do They Know This?
That's the best part of a story that goes all the way back to the earliest speculation about the mysterious monument. According to English Heritage which, together with The National Trust, manages the site about 90 miles southwest of London, early references have been found in the mid 12th century writings of Henry of Huntingdon, a Lincoln clergyman who wrote a history of England.
He called the site Stanenges and wrote of stones of "wonderful size...erected after the manner of doorways, so that doorway appears to have been raised upon doorway; and no one can conceive how such great stones have been so raised aloft, or why they were built there."
His questions - how was Stonehenge built, why was its location chosen and by whom - have puzzled generations of writers, researchers and visitors. Now, in the first decades of the 21st century, archaeologists are beginning to come up with some new answers - as well as a lot of new questions. Questions such as:
How Was Stonehenge Built and By Whom?
One of the great mysteries of Stonehenge is its actual creation. Some of its heaviest stones come from hundreds of miles away in the Preseli Hills of Wales.
How were they transported by a society that did not use the wheel? And calling the monument "the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world," English Heritage points out that while other Neolithic stone monuments were essentially piles of natural stones and boulders, Stonehenge is made of dressed stones, fitted together with precise mortise and tenon joints.
When all the lintel stones of the outer circle were in place, they formed a perfectly horizontal, interlocking circle, even though the monument stands on sloping ground.
Early writers theorized the monument was built by Romans. Others, such as the 12th century British cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth, placed it in the heart of Arthurian legends and suggested that Merlin had a hand in building it. There are stories of Merlin flying the bluestones from Wales and levitating them to the top of the monument. And of course, there are plenty of stories of alien involvement.
Current theories are equally impressive though more down to earth. From 2003 to 2009, in the Stonehenge Riverside Project, teams of archaeologists from the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Southampton and Bournemouth, along with University College London, studied the monument and the surrounding landscape. They suggest that it was built as a unification project between farming tribes of East and West Britons who, between 3,000 BC and 2,500 BC, shared a common culture.
Archaeology Professor Mike Parker Pearson of University College, London author of Stonehenge, a New Understanding: Solving the Mysteries of the Greatest Stone Age Monument, explains:
“…there was a growing island-wide culture – the same styles of houses, pottery and other material forms were used from Orkney to the south coast...Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labor of thousands...Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification.”
And a settlement being excavated about two miles northeast of the monument, Durrington Walls, supports this theory with evidence of as many as 1,000 houses and 4,000 people from all over Britain taking part - at a time when the estimated population of the entire country was about 10,000.
The village of builders was probably the largest Neolithic village in Europe. The manpower to undertake so much plain hard work was there. The stones were moved from Wales, via sledges and by boat, not by dark arts or secret sciences. Though the level of organization required at such an early period, is rather amazing.
And that's just one theory. Another is that the Welsh stones were carried by Ice Age glaciers and were found naturally littering the plain when Stonehenge's builders walked the earth.
How old Is Stonehenge?
The common wisdom has been that the monument is about 5,000 years old and was built in several stages over a period of 500 years. In fact, much of the main building of Stonehenge, visible today, was probably built within that time frame.
But the use of the Stonehenge site for important, and probably ritual purposes goes back much further - perhaps as long ago as 8,000 to 10,000 years. Excavations around the monument's parking area in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s found pits that held wooden posts planted between 8500BC and 7000BC.
It's not clear whether these are directly related to Stonehenge but what is becoming more evident is that the landscape of Salisbury Plain was important to early Britons for many thousands of years.
Why Salisbury Plain?
Conspiracy theorists suggest that the plain is a nice big landing place for spaceships and that the lines and grooves visible from the air and through geophysical surveys are ley lines.
It's much more likely that the landscape chose itself. Ancient Britain was covered by forests. A large open space, thousands of acres of treeless chalk grassland, would have been rare and special. Even today, driving across Salisbury plain in the dark of night, its mysterious earthworks looming blank against a starry sky, can be a transcendent, almost supernatural experience.
And the lines, known as periglacial stripes that coincidentally line up with the axis of the solstice are natural geological features. The farming people who settled the area and who closely observed seasonal signs noticed the alignment with the change of seasons and chose the site and position of Stonehenge because of them.
That was the conclusion reached by Prof. Pearson's group. He said, “When we stumbled across this extraordinary natural arrangement of the sun’s path being marked in the land, we realized that prehistoric people selected this place to build Stonehenge because of its pre-ordained significance...Perhaps they saw this place as the centre of the world."
What Was Stonehenge Used For?
Take your pick: Druid worship, burials, harvest festivals, animal sacrifices, solstice celebrations, communal rituals, a healing center, a farming calendar, a defensive earthwork, a signal to the gods, an alien landing strip. There are dozens of theories about what Stonehenge was used for. And over the years, archaeological excavations have found evidence of most of these activities (except aliens - so far). The discovery of a few dozen burials in the area is a relatively recent finding, for example.
The fact is, the ritual landscape that Stonehenge is a part of was in use by different human societies for thousands of years. It's likely that it had a variety of different uses over the millennia. We may never fully understand this mysterious place, but archaeologists and historians are getting closer all the time.
When To Go
Every year, Wiccans, Neo Pagans, New Agers and curious tourists flock to Stonehenge for the summer solstice. It is the only time that visitors are allowed to camp out around the site and spend all night waiting for dawn.
But findings at Durrington Walls suggest that midwinter, not midsummer was the most important and the time for rituals and feasting. Most of the other monuments in the Stonehenge area are aligned to midwinter sunrise and sunset. That theory makes even more sense when you consider the fire festivals and observances of midwinter all over Northern Europe.
You can visit Stonehenge at any time of year and each season has its advantages and disadvantages. Go in winter and you don't have to get up very early to see the sunrise, always an impressive sight at the monument. In December, the sun rises there at about 8 a.m. The monument is not open then but you can see it a short distance away from the A303. The site is likely to be much less crowded as well. The down side is that Salisbury Plain is cold, windswept and, in recent years, either covered in snow or so waterlogged that access to the other, associated sites are limited.
If you go in summer, you will be competing with hordes of others and, if you want to see the sunrise, you'd better be an early riser. In June, the sunrises before 5 a.m. On the plus side, you can comfortably walk from the visitor center to the site without freezing. And with the much longer hours of daylight, you have more time to explore the nearby prehistoric sites and the city of Salisbury.
Stonehenge, the most architecturally sophisticated stone circle in the world is just one monument at the center of a fascinating prehistoric landscape studded with subtle landmarks. The Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites UNESCO World Heritage site includes:
- A massive Henge at Avebury that has the largest stone circle in the world.
- Silbury Hill - a mysterious, man-made conical hill, the largest in Europe, about 100 feet high and 4,400 years old. No one has yet been able to discover who built it and why. Try the National Trust Silbury Hill Walk.
- West Kennet Long Barrow, one of the largest Neolithic barrow graves in Britain.
Also nearby: The small city of Salisbury with its cathedral, home to the best preserved original copy of the Magna Carta and The Medieval Clock - the oldest working clock in existence is about 20 minutes away by car or local bus.
- Admission is by time-limited ticket with advance booking recommended. For opening times, current prices and to book tickets, see the Stonehenge ticketing website.
- The Stonehenge landscape - Find suggested walks on the National Trust website.
- Getting there:
- By train from London Waterloo to Salisbury Station (check National Rail Enquiries) then The Stonehenge Tour Bus , the dedicated public bus from the train station.
- On foot or cycle - Wiltshire County Council publish directions to Stonehenge by foot and cycle paths as well as local buses. You can also find the Stonehenge on the Sustrans website of the National Cycle Network.
- By car - Stonehenge is off the A360, reached from London on the M3 and the A303 (set SatNavs for Postcode SP4 7DE). It's about 88 miles and takes just under two hours in good traffic conditions. There is parking at the site that is free for Stonehenge ticket holders.