During our stay in Somerset two weeks ago we also visited sites in neighbouring Dorset and Wiltshire. One of those sites was Stonehenge in Wiltshire, one of the most well known monuments in the world. We’ve passed by ‘the stones’ a few times as we’ve driven along the A303 and glimpsed them from a distance, but being close up to them is quite something else. The picture above is one from inside the Visitor Centre, showing Stonehenge as it is today.
Stonehenge is located in the county of Wiltshire, two miles west of the town of Amesbury and eight miles north of the city of Salisbury.
The monument and its surroundings became a UNESCO world Heritage site in 1986. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage. The surrounding land is owned by the National Trust. But Stonehenge isn’t the only ancient site in the area. This stone circle itself is part of a group of late Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, including the timber monuments of Durrington, the small henge at Amesbury and the timber circle at Woodhenge. There are also several hundred barrows (burial mounds) in the area. In addition, 25 miles north of Stonehenge is the Avebury complex – argued to be the most impressive of all remaining prehistoric earthworks in Europe.
The first thing we see as we pull into the car park is the new Visitor Centre, opened in December 2013.
Inside the building is a café, which was busy even on a Tuesday – and a school day at that. There is also a display area about the monument and the Salisbury Plain region in general, with information about the people who inhabited it during the period of Stonehenge’s construction. Artefacts included flint tools and animal bones (mostly cattle) and antler picks. There were also metal items from the later Bronze Age and a display about how the site has been used and interpreted by ‘tourists’ from the mid 18th century to the present day:
There is lots of illustrated information about the three main phases of construction of Stonehenge (as in the models below) as well as reconstructions and artists impressions of other nearby ancient sites.
The first model above (left) shows the first major construction on the site, 5000 years ago, during the late Neolithic/New Stone Age. It was a circular enclosure with a ring of fifty-six pits which probably held upright pillars. Whether the pillars were wood or stone isn’t certain but it is likely there were some wooden ones in the enclosure. The chalk and earth from the enclosing ditch was used to make a large inner and smaller outer bank.
Five hundred years after the enclosure was built (middle picture) enormous sarsen stones were raised in the shape of an inner horseshoe and a surrounding circle, with smaller bluestones between them. The stones were aligned on the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. The huge sarsens were brought from 20 miles away, in north Wiltshire and the bluestones from several sites in Wales – some 140 miles away! Construction and alteration stretched over a period of 800 years, into the Bronze Age, by which time Stonehenge had become the greatest temple in Britain.
Shortly after the stones were erected, an earthwork was built, creating the Avenue (model above far right) leading to the entrance and the bluestones were rearranged. And that is how this great monument stayed for the following 4000 years. But destruction and decay took their toll and the following model shows what Stonehenge looked like in 1740, when the first accurate plans were drawn:
Many stones would have fallen naturally, others removed from the site for building material by local people. Visitors carved their names on stones and chipped off pieces as souvenirs. In 1908 a stone of the sarsen circle fell, leading to the first restoration project when the tallest stone, leaning dangerously, was set upright. Work continued and between 1959 – 64, all the stones that had fallen since 1740 had been re-erected and many others set in concrete.
The stone circle itself is approximately a mile and a half from the Visitor Centre. We decided to walk, but for anyone who would prefer not to, regular buses run back and forth – leaving roughly every five minutes. The site gets a lot of visitors and the buses are nearly all full, even mid-week. It’s a pleasant walk, either straight along the lane or across the fields. There are also things to see along the way. Right outside the Visitor Centre is a model showing one way in which the sarsen stones (which have an average weight of 25 tons) could have been moved:
There is also a reconstruction of part of Durrington village as it might have looked at the time of Stonehenge’s construction:
After a walk across the fields we reached the stones. Access into the circle itself is only possible on certain days but we were happy to just walk around it. The route takes us anticlockwise, so my photos bring us to the main entrance last:
The reasons for WHY Stonehenge was built has been the most difficult one for archaeologists to answer, but it’s generally accepted that the monument was built as a temple: a place of ceremony, burial and celebration.
Stonehenge has an axis that runs north-east to south-west, and was chosen because it reflects events in the annual movements of the sun and moon. The entrance faces the rising sun on the day of the summer solstice. The Avenue is also aligned with the winter solstice sunset.
That Stonehenge served as a solar calendar and marked the changing seasons is a plausible hypothesis. People of that time were dependent on the weather for the success of their crops and animals. During the cold, dark winter days they would long for the sun to return with his light and warmth – and at the winter solstice, they celebrated the fact that the sun would be doing just that. The number of pig bones found on the site have been offered as evidence of mid-winter feasts here, to celebrate this turning point.
Stonehenge as a place of burial is supported by the hundreds of human bones found at the site which show signs of cremation before burial. And of course, it has often been thought that Stonehenge was a place of sacrifice, notably human. One fallen sarsen stone in the main entrance to the Stonehenge enclosure has become known as the ‘Slaughter Stone’. This is because of the shallow indentations that fill with rainwater which reacts with iron in the stone and turns a rusty red. The guide book attributes the given name to the ‘over active Victorian imagination’.
Another idea put forward is that the bluestones were transported all the way from Wales because people there told of their healing powers.
So all in all, theories as to the purpose of Stonehenge are still being bandied about. One source suggests that Stonehenge can (perhaps) be seen as the prehistoric equivalent of a great cathedral, such as nearby Salisbury – built for worshipping, but also as a place where people could find healing and hope and important people could be buried.