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History Blog: Stonehenge - The History and Evolution of a Henge Monument

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The Stonehenge we see today evolved in three phases over 800 years. It is an example of the continued importance of a site to different historical groups of people.

Stonehenge is set within a landscape rich in ancient barrows and monuments. Nearby Silbury Hill and Woodhenge predate it by several hundred years. However Stonehenge is the most enduringly famous of the Neolithic remains of Salisbury Plain.

Stonehenge was built in three discernable stages by different cultural groups. It is not possible to say exactly why it was built. However, recent excavations suggest that its evolution did not end with the addition of its famous Sarcen Stones.

Stonehenge Phase 1

Stonehenge began with a circular bank and ditch of approximately 100m across. Carbon dating of the antler picks left behind in the ditch date this first phase to 3100BC. At the same time, just inside the bank 56 round pits were hacked out of the chalk landscape. One metre wide and deep, with flat bottoms, they formed a 284 foot diameter circle and became known as the ‘Aubrey Holes’ after their initial discoverer. Some cremated human remains have been found in the back fill but it is thought that the holes themselves were not graves but to hold wooden posts.

Of the major stones, only the heel stone was present at this time.

Stonehenge Phase 2

This began in approximately 2500 BC and involved a complete remodelling of the site. A 1km avenue, consisting of a pair of parallel ditches and banks was constructed running from the henge to the River Avon in the east.

However, the most significant feature of this phase was the arrival of the bluestones. 82 of these stones were transported from the Prescelli Mountains of South Wales. They were positioned so that the entrance to the circle they formed was directly opposite to the position of the rising sun at midsummer. This, and the sheer effort involved in moving them 250 miles across land and water suggests that the bluestones were of great significance to the meaning of the site at this time.

Stonehenge Phase 3

The final stage of Stonehenge’s evolution began in 2300BC. Firstly, the bluestones were removed from their original position. At this stage the sarsen stones were introduced. Forming a circle of stones with a continuous top lintel, each stone weighed approximately 50 tonnes each and was shaped using mortice and tenon carpentry techniques to allow the uprights to fit into the top lintel or bridging stone. The resulting arrangements of two uprights to one bridging stone were named by Stukeley ‘trilithons’.

Inside the outer sarsen stone circle was a horseshoe arrangement of free standing trilithons. In all, 80 stones were erected in a feat of engineering which indicates a high level of social organisation and cohesion. Finally, the original bluestones were repositioned in an oval. Outside the sarcen stone circle, two concentric rings of 59 holes were dug. Later on, the bluestones were repositioned again and in the horseshoe and circle arrangement we see today.

Who built Stonehenge?

Archaeologists have identified different cultures linked to the construction of Stonehenge: Windmill and Wessex Culture and the Beaker People. With time, it is possibly that the site’s meaning may have changed it was modified by different cultural groups. But the continuous use of the site and the effort spent on each phase of construction is suggestive of its continued importance. Possibly by making the site their own, each group used Stonehenge as a symbol of their dominance over the landscape.

The Current dig

The most recent excavations of 2014 have concentrated on the significance of the bluestones to the meaning of the site. Previously uncovered areas have revealed activity on the site as late as the 4th century AD. The changes to the site may have been small but they do suggest that the relevance of Stonehenge lived on.
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