Nearest town: Salisbury
Nearest village: Amesbury
Map reference: SU 123422
best-known of all megalithic sites dates back 4000 years
Certainly the best known of all megalithic sites, Stonehenge stands in isolation on the undulating
chalk of Salisbury Plain, west of Amesbury, between the busy A303 and A344 roads. At first sight this unique and
enigmatic site appears smaller than imagined, but the tallest upright stone is 6.7m (22ft) high, with
another 2.4m (8ft) below ground.
The outermost element of the site is the Avenue that runs straight
down a gentle slope for 530m (560yds) into Stonehenge Bottom. The Avenue consists of
twin banks about 12m (40ft) apart with internal ditches, and it begins at the entrance to the earthwork enclosure.
Here is the Heel Stone, a
large upright unworked sarsen (hard sandstone) which lies immediately adjacent to the A344 road. It is worth noting
that the nearest source of stones of the size represented by the large sarsens at Stonehenge is on
the Marlborough Downs, about 30km (18mi) to the NE. It can only be assumed that these stones (the
heaviest of which weighs about 45 tons) were transported on some type of sledge.
from the Heel Stone is an earthwork enclosure that consists of a ditch and an interior
bank, the height of which was calculated by Professor Atkinson as being about 1.8m (6ft). It is known
that there were at least two entrances, the one now visible (facing NE) and one to the south. Lying
within the entrance is an unworked and now recumbent sarsen stone, stained a rusty red caused by
rainwater acting on iron, and known as the Slaughter Stone. Arranged around the inner edge of
the earthwork bank were originally four small uprights: the Station Stones, of which two are still visible. Immediately adjacent to the bank is a ring of 56 pits, known as the Aubrey
Holes, marked by circular concrete spots. The area between the inner edge of the bank and the
outermost stone settings includes at least two further settings of pits: the Y and Z holes.
On the central area of the site there are the stone settings, the sophisticated arrangements that set
Stonehenge apart from any other prehistoric monument in Europe. In their construction two
types of stone were used: sarsen and bluestone. The sarsens used in the central settings are much larger. The
bluestone is a mixture of rocks found on the Preseli Mountains in SW Wales. The most widely
accepted theory regards the arrival of the bluestones on Salisbury Plain as the result of human
effort, with the route being partly overland and partly by water.
In its complete form the
outermost stone setting consisted of a circle of 30 upright sarsens, of which 17 still stand,
each weighing about 25 tons. The tops of these uprights were linked by a continuous ring of
horizontal sarsen lintels, only a small part of which is now still in position. The stones in the
sarsen circle are carefully shaped and the horizontal lintels are joined not only by means
of simple mortice-and-tenon joints, but they are also locked using what is effectively a dovetail joint.
The edges are smoothed into a gentle curve which follows the line of the entire circle.
bluestone setting, concentric the outer sarsen circle, consisted originally of about 60 stones, but many have fallen, dissolved or been crushed. Inside these two circles lies the sarsen
horseshoe, consisted originally of five sarsen trilithons (a Greek word that means three
stones), each comprising two uprights with a horizontal lintel. Although now fragmentary, the
arrangement shows the careful grading of the five trilithons, the tallest of which is 6.7m
(22ft) high above ground level. Enfolded within this massive horseshoe lies a smaller horseshoe
arrangement of upright bluestones.
Current archaeological research shows that this site was constructed and modified on various phases, spanning several centuries:
Pre-Stonehenge (9th-8th millennium BC): at least 4 mesolithic pits which originally
contained big pine posts, in a line about 200m from the present henge site
Stonehenge 1 (from 3100 BC): construction of the circular bank, the ditch, and the 56 Aubrey
Holes which probably originally contained timber posts
Stonehenge 2 (from 2550 BC): pottery, animal bones, and cremated human remains placed
in ditch; cremations deposited in some of the partially filled Aubrey Holes; complex of posts in
interior and in entrance causeway
Stonehenge 3 (from 2100 BC): sequence of stone-related structures. A close dating is not possible, but the sequence was probably as follows:
Bluestones from Wales erected in q and r holes and then dismantled
Sarsen circle and trilithons erected, possibly also a
bluestone setting which may have included trilithons, this latter then
Bluestone circle and oval setting
Arc of bluestones
removed from oval to leave present horseshoe setting
Y and Z holes dug, probably for stones which were never erected; during this phase
the avenue was also constructed.
Early mention of Stonehenge was made in 1135 by chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, who claimed that it
was brought by a tribe of giants from Africa to Ireland, and from there flown by the wizard
Merlin across the sea. Another legend claims that the stones were stolen from an Irish woman by the
Devil, and re-erected on Salisbury Plain by Merlin for Ambrosius Aurelianus, the King of Britons.
Stonehenge is a World Heritage Site cared by English Heritage. This conservation
organization, along with the National Trust (which owns 587ha of land surrounding the monument), is working
towards removing the A344 road and improving the landscape around the stones. Their aim is to restore
Stonehenge to its isolated dignity. In fact, as one of the most visited monument in England,
the site is always overwhelmed with tourists. The best approach is early in the morning or
in the evening, when it is not open to the public. There are magnificent
views of the monument coming by car from the A303. In the Salisbury Museum are objects found during excavations
at Stonehenge and an original William Turner painting of the site.