History and mystery
Stonehenge is a fascinating monument. The earliest archaeological finds here indicate that the area has held significance since about 8000 or 7500 BC. The first known incarnation of Stonehenge was a huge earthwork ditch built about 3000 BC, which circled an area of 100 square metres including two entrances and some wooden structures. The massive stones we see today were placed there around 2500 BC atop a sacred burial ground for the cremated dead of the Neolithic era. Sarsens – the larger stones – are arranged in two concentric formations; an outer circle and inner horseshoe, with the smaller ‘bluestones’ set up around them in a double arc. Four Station Stones are also located on the outside. An earthwork avenue was created connecting Stonehenge to the Avon River a few hundred years later.
Stonehenge retained its importance throughout the early Bronze Age. Four of the sarsens were carved with pictures of Bronze Age weapons like axes and daggers, marking the change in burial traditions during this era as people began to be buried with their belongings, and many round barrow burial mounds began popping up nearby. The site remained in use throughout the Roman occupation and many Roman artefacts have also been found there.
Stonehenge is the most sophisticated prehistoric monument of its type anywhere in the world, and surrounding Avebury the largest prehistoric burial site. It was clearly a project of dedication and mass importance, as construction would have required huge numbers of organised and skilled workers.
Although we have dates for its creation and we know that people were buried here, exactly who built this spectacular monument and why remains unknown. What was the importance of its layout? Its location? How were these huge stones transported and erected from 150 miles in the north with such primitive technology?
Some theories as to its function and significance have included a druidic temple, a pagan ritual arena, an astronomical observatory, a place for worshipping ancestors or a site of healing. During the Middle Ages it was widely believed that Merlin, the famous enchanter of King Arthur’s court, had brought the stones over from Ireland. The modern contention is that it is some kind of prehistoric temple aligned with the movement of the sun - but it seems that it will forever be shrouded in mystery.
In addition to the stones themselves there is plenty more to see at the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. The Neolithic Houses in the visitor centre explain how people lived in Neolithic times. These recreations inspire the imagination and further highlight the grandeur of human achievement in Stonehenge. Experts talk about methods of building and primitive tools and techniques and also provide demonstrations of Neolithic domestic skills using natural materials, such as flint knapping, grinding grain and making rope out of rushes.
There is a great audiovisual show inside the visitors’ centre. This gives visitors a 360° display of the changes of the seasons from the perspective of inside the stone circle, including the winter and summer solstices. These were sacred times of year in the druidic calendar and the mysterious positioning of this ancient monument catches the light at these times in such a way that the sun lights a path through it (the summer solstice continues to attract around 20,000 worshippers a year). Visitors may also experience the changing landscape throughout the ages with an interactive map and can enjoy coffee or a bite to eat in the local café.
This ancient and deeply mysterious site never fails to inspire wonder in all who visit. It is a truly unique place and one of the most memorable attractions in the whole of the UK - do not miss your chance to pay a visit.