Welcome to Stonehenge in Southern England. Together with the nearby prehistoric site of Avebury, Stonehenge was granted World Heritage status in 1986 in recognition of the importance of the monuments which date from around 3700 BC to 1600 BC.
( N.B. The term ‘B.C’. is equivalent to the alternative term of ‘B.C.E.’ both of which use the birth of Christ as a reference point.)
Stonehenge is one of about 1000 stone rings still in existence in the British Isles. It was built during the late Neolithic era when large open enclosures were built for ceremonial purposes. The progression of stone circle building in Britain and Ireland is as follows:
→Middle to late Neolithic period, c.3370 to 2670 BC: Impressive, but few in number and concentrated around the coastal areas and sea routes.
→Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age period, c.2670 to 1975 BC: A period noted for technically perfect circles and rings with extended diameters of up to 250 ft (76M). This period coincided with the introduction of metallurgy and arrival of the Beaker People from Europe.
→Early to Middle Bronze Age, c 1975 to 1200 BC: A period which coincided with intense stone circle construction. The rings were predominantly oval in shape and with modest diameters of around 60 feet (18M). By this time the rings may have developed from original community based functions to personal, individual family use.
→End of stone circle building: No stone circles were built after 1000 BC. This may have been influenced by climate change ( slight cooling) which possibly impacted on farming practices and, in turn, religious beliefs.
The imposing and mysterious structure dominates the Wiltshire landscape. However, Stonehenge should not be viewed in isolation but as an integral part of the local landscape which is well populated with prehistoric burial mounds, standing stones and henges which include Windmill Hill, Woodhenge, Avebury, Durrington Walls and Silbury Hill. These structures would infer a prosperous farming and trading population with social hierarchies.
The basic Stonehenge structure visible today dates from around 2500 BC but was not the result of a single, one-off project. The structure on the site evolved over a long period of time. In fact, analysis of post holes located underneath the current car park (parking lot) indicate human occupation dating back to about 8000 BC. Here is an approximate chronological progression:
♦Phase 1, 3200 BC: A spacious earthen ring with a central timber setting and an outlying stone. Such earthen rings are known as ‘henges’.
♦Phase 2, 2200 BC: Two unfinished circles of Welsh bluestones replaced the posts and an earthen avenue was laid out.
♦Phase 3, 2000 BC: The two circles were removed and replaced by the lintelled sarsen ring and internal horseshoe of five trilithons.
♦Phase 4, 1600 BC: The bluestones were returned. Outlines of a bronze dagger, axes and stylised images were carved at cardinal points on the stones.
Clearly, over a very long period of time, the Stonehenge site was deemed very special and treated with reverence and activity. Over the years people have speculated on the purpose of the structure with suggestions including: a druid temple, fertility rights, a primitive astronomical computer and sun worship. A large number of cremation burials have been found on the site. Latest thinking is that Stonehenge, like similar structures, represents a transition from this world into the next and a representation of how the other world creates life in a never ending circle. In the latter theory, the stones not only represent the dead but physically are the dead. Alignment of Stonehenge to the summer and winter solstices is evident, a feature which may have been important to the builders and users of Stonehenge.
→Bluestones: It is believed there were originally eighty bluestones used in the structure of which forty three remain. These are synonymous with Stonehenge but there are competing theories as to their source, viz:
→Technology: It is evident the builders of Stonehenge were adept in woodworking and transported those skills to stone working. For example, classic mortise and tenon joints were used to connect the lintels with supporting sarsens. To place both uprights and lintels in position with the primitive technology of the day represented a stunning achievement. Some sort of earthen ramps may have been employed.
→Sarsens: Around 2000 BC some thirty, 20-50 ton blocks of sandstone were transported approximately 18 miles from a source in the Marlborough Downs. Another heroic effort for this period of history.
→Aubrey Holes: Around 2400 BC fifty six pits were dug along the inner edge of the henge and then filled in. Subsequently, they were re-dug to receive human cremations.
→The People of Stonehenge: A significant population must have existed at this time. They appear to have been skilled farmers growing wheat and barley and keeping pigs and sheep. Diet may have supplemented with wild fruit, peas, lentils, nuts and honey. Houses (huts) would have been of wooden construction with wattle and daub walls. Clothing would have comprised items made from leather, wool and skins.
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