Visual Arts Look-Up Logo

Stonehenge Stone Circle

Megalithic Monument, England
Construction, Rock Art, Purpose

Main A-Z Index

CONTENTS

Stone Circles and Standing Stones at Stonehenge
The megalithic stone circle at Stonehenge, a major Neolithic ceremonial and gathering centre in Southern England. Image by Balou46. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Summary

Stonehenge is a megalithic stone circle complex located on Salisbury Plain in England. In its heyday, it was a major centre of Stone Age culture in southern Britain. Even now, it is one of the most famous sites known to archaeology in Europe.

The complex consists of three concentric rings of stones:

The stone circles are enclosed by an outer ring of earthworks.

The entire complex is surrounded by a dense web of prehistoric burial mounds (tumuli).

Stonehenge was built in stages from about 3,100 to 1,600 BC, and belonged to the same Neolithic culture of farming people, which was responsible for the Carnac standing stones and the Gavrinis passage tomb in Brittany, as well as the tombs at Newgrange and Knowth, in Ireland.

As farming replaced hunter-gathering across Europe, megaliths became the most powerful form of expression. Since Stonehenge emerged from a farming culture, it is no surprise that it was aligned to the seasons of the year, notably the summer and winter solstices.

While Stonehenge is world famous for its megalithic architecture, it also contains a small quantity of rock art, in the form of engravings, although many appear to have faded.

The Stonehenge site is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage. Sadly, very little has been done over the past century, to restore the ruined monument to its original condition.

It may be Britain's most famous landmark of the Stone Age, but as things look, it will soon be no more than a heap of stones.

In 1986, Stonehenge was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites, along with the Avebury Henge monument, 20 miles to the north.

Back to top

Origins

The origins of Stonehenge as a prehistoric settlement of sorts, go back to the Mesolithic culture of the 9th millennium BC, when the area was still wooded.

Several sizeable postholes measuring 0.75 metres (2.5 ft) were found near the stone circle, dating to 8,000 BC, all of which originally held pine supports.

However, no further signs of any significant occupation were found until about 4,000 BC, when a causewayed enclosure (a tribal rallying point or centre), was built some 4 kilometres northwest of Stonehenge.

Over the next few centuries, more than 450 long barrow tombs were built in the area, notably West Kennet long barrow (c.3600 BC), where 45 important tribal figures were buried over twenty-four generations.

A century later, in 3,500 BC, a 3-kilometre long cursus (a man-made 'track' used for ceremonial competitions) was created, less than a kilometre north of Stonehenge.

Construction

The construction of the Stonehenge monument began 400 years later, and took place in three main stages.

Stonehenge Phase 1:
3,100 BC

Stonehenge Phase 2:
2,900-2,600 BC

Stonehenge Phase 3:
2,600-2,400 BC

Stonehenge Phase 4:
2,280-1,100 BC

During the period 2280-1930 BC, the bluestones were rearranged in a circular pattern between the two rings of trilithons, and in an oval arrangement within the centre of the inner horseshoe. Construction was below par causing numerous stones to tilt or topple over. After this, there were numerous adjustments and modifications made to the site, but all were minor.

To compare Ancient Egyptian architecture of the Bronze Age, see: Egyptian Pyramids and Egyptian Temples (c.3000-30 BC).

Back to top

Megalithic Art

Stonehenge is principally known for its megalithic architecture and engineering, but the site also features a certain amount of megalithic art, in the form of rock engravings on the orthostats.

The carvings - created mostly after 1800 BC - include images of axeheads and other Bronze Age weapons, and have been described by one archaeologist as the most significant gallery of ancient art in Britain.

In addition, recent laser scans of the surface of three monoliths, have indicated that other pictographs, such as abstract signs and symbols - now too faded to be seen by the naked eye - may still be detectable.

Who Built Stonehenge?

Archaeogenetics evidence shows that people who built Stonehenge were descended from early farmers belonging to the Aegean Civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean, and from hunter-gatherers from western Europe. Specifically, from female farmers and male hunter-gatherers.

Their agricultural know-how came largely from Anatolia, home of the world famous neolithic sites of Göbekli Tepe (9,500 BC) and Nevalı Çori (8,620 BC), as well as the world's first proto-city at Çatalhöyük (7,100 BC).

Three groups of these descendants were involved in the construction of Stonehenge. They are known as the Windmill Hill people, the Beaker people, and the Wessex people, and they worked on the site during three different periods.

The Windmill Hill people came first, arriving around 3,000 BC. These people originated in eastern England, and are named after their nearby earthworks on Windmill Hill, near Stonehenge.

They were a semi-nomadic group of foragers who also practiced an agricultural lifestyle and attached great importance to circles and symmetrical structures.

They arranged collective burials in stone tombs, and created large circular hill-top enclosures, based around a mound.

They raised sheep, goats, cattle and pigs, and grew wheat and created stone tools from mined flint.

The Beaker people - named after their tradition of placing pottery cups in their graves - arrived around 2,500 BC.

A progressive but fierce people, they buried their dead not in mass graves but in small individual tombs marked by mounds called tumuli.

The Beaker people placed weapons in their graves, like daggers and battle-axes - matching exactly the images of weaponry found on some of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge.

They were sun worshippers who aligned Stonehenge precisely with the midsummer and winter solstices.

The Wessex People appeared about 1500 BC. They were the final builders of Stonehenge.

They belonged to an advanced Bronze Age culture whose main settlements were located close to important road junctions. Like the Celts in years to come, they specialized in controlling trade routes throughout the south of the country.

It's likely they were responsible for the bronze dagger carving found on one of the large sarsen stones. The Wessex people were known for their rich offerings placed in the graves of chieftains, including gold artifacts.

What was the Purpose of Stonehenge?

Answer: No one knows, although theories abound.

For example, Professor G. Wainwright and Professor Timothy Darvill believe that Stonehenge was in all probability a place of healing - a Stone Age Lourdes. This would account for numerous burials in the district, as well as the abnormally high incidence of limblessness and physical deformity in the graves.

However, they concede that the site was probably multifunctional, and was also used as a cemetery and a ceremonial place of ancestor worship.

In contrast, Professor Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University believes that Stonehenge (a domain of the dead) was associated with the circle at Durrington Walls (a place of the living).

The architects and builders of Stonehenge incorporated the sun, moon and stars in their designs. The site is aligned northeast-southwest, connecting with the solstice and equinox.

Thus at midsummer, the early sunshine penetrates directly into the centre of the monument through the arms of the sarsen horseshoe. While at the winter solstice, the sun sets exactly between the largest sarsen stones

Whether this alignment had a ceremonial or quasi-religious function, or whether - like the alignments at Newgrange passage tomb and the larger Knowth passage tomb - it was designed to help regulate planting and harvesting, will never be known.

Other Local Monuments

A large number of other monuments were created in the area between Stonehenge and Avebury henge during the early Bronze Age.

These include Silbury Hill, the biggest man-made mound in Europe, which measures 40 metres (130 ft) in height, 153 metres (500 ft) in diameter, and occupies an area of 5 acres. Constructed about 2,660 BC, a century before Avebury henge, it contains no graves, but even so exemplifies the architectural ambitions of Neolithic man.

Other famous monuments include the huge circular earthwork built some 2 miles away at Durrington Walls, and the megalithic Avebury henge.

The latter, erected between 2,500 and 2,200 BC, is the largest stone circle in Europe. It consists of some 100 megaliths, encircled by a 20 foot high mound.

Woodhenge, which stands about 1.6 kilometres (1 mile) north-east of Stonehenge, is another henge enclosure. Roughly the same size as Stonehenge, it contains several concentric circles of timber uprights.

NEXT: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) Chippindale, C (2004), Stonehenge Complete, London: Thames and Hudson, ISBN 0-500-28467-9.
(2) "Great Stone Circles." Burl, A. Yale University Press, 1999.
(3) "A dynastic elite in monumental Neolithic society". Cassidy, Lara (2020). Nature. 582 (7812): 384–388.
(4) "Ancient genomes indicate population replacement in Early Neolithic Britain". Brace, Selina; et al, (2019). Nature Ecology & Evolution. 3 (5): 765–771.
(5) Stonehenge Landscapes: Journeys Through Real-and-imagined Worlds, Sally Exon, Vincent Gaffney, Ann Woodward, Ron Yortson. (2000) Archaeopress, ISBN 0-9539923-0-6, 978-0-9539923-0-0.

Back to top


Home