Stonehenge is surely Britain's greatest national icon, symbolizing mystery, power
and endurance. Its
original purpose is unclear to us, but some have speculated that
it was a temple made for the worship of ancient earth deities. It has been called an
astronomical observatory for marking significant events on the prehistoric calendar.
Others claim that it was a sacred site for the burial of high-ranking citizens from the
societies of long ago.
While we can't say with any degree of certainty what it was for, we can say that it wasn't
constructed for any casual purpose. Only something very important to the ancients would
have been worth the effort and investment that it took to construct Stonehenge. The stones
we see today represent Stonehenge in ruin. Many of the original stones have fallen or been
removed by previous generations for home construction or road repair. There has been
serious damage to some of the smaller bluestones resulting from close visitor contact
(prohibited since 1978) and the prehistoric carvings on the larger sarsen stones show
signs of significant wear.
The legend of King Arthur provides another story of the construction of
Stonehenge. It is told by the twelfth century writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History
of the Kings of Britain that Merlin brought the stones to the Salisbury Plain from
Ireland. Sometime in the fifth century, there had been a massacre of 300 British noblemen
by the treacherous Saxon leader, Hengest. Geoffrey tells us that the high king, Aurelius
Ambrosius, wanted to create a fitting memorial to the slain men. Merlin suggested an
expedition to Ireland for the purpose of transplanting the Giant's Ring stone circle to
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the stones of the Giant's Ring were originally brought
from Africa to Ireland by giants (who else but giants could handle the job?). The stones
were located on "Mount Killaraus" and were used as a site for performing rituals
and for healing. Led by King Uther and Merlin, the expedition arrived at the spot in
Ireland. The Britons, none of whom were giants, apparently, were unsuccessful in their
attempts to move the great stones. At this point, Merlin realized that only his magic arts
would turn the trick. So, they were dismantled and shipped back to Britain where they were
set up as they had been before, in a great circle, around the mass grave of the murdered
In its day, the construction of Stonehenge was an impressive engineering feat,
requiring commitment, time and vast amounts of manual labor. In its first phase,
Stonehenge was a large earthwork; a bank and ditch arrangement called a henge, constructed
approximately 5,000 years ago. It is believed that the ditch was dug with tools made from
the antlers of red deer and, possibly, wood. The underlying chalk was loosened with picks
and shoveled with the shoulderblades of cattle. It was then loaded into baskets and
carried away. Modern experiments have shown that these tools were more than equal to the
great task of earth digging and moving.
|The Inner Ring - The Bluestones:|
About 2,000 BC, the first stone circle (which is now the inner circle), comprised
of small bluestones, was set up, but abandoned before completion. The stones used in that
first circle are believed to be from the Prescelly Mountains, located roughly 240 miles
away, at the southwestern tip of Wales. The bluestones weigh up to 4 tons each and about
80 stones were used, in all. Given the distance they had to travel, this presented quite a
Modern theories speculate that the stones were dragged by roller and sledge from the
inland mountains to the headwaters of Milford Haven. There they were loaded onto rafts,
barges or boats and sailed along the south coast of Wales, then up the Rivers Avon and
Frome to a point near present-day Frome in Somerset. From this point, so the theory goes,
the stones were hauled overland, again, to a place near Warminster in Wiltshire,
approximately 6 miles away. From there, it's back into the pool for a slow float down the
River Wylye to Salisbury, then up the Salisbury Avon to West Amesbury, leaving only a
short 2 mile drag from West Amesbury to the Stonehenge site.
|The Outer Ring|
The giant sarsen stones (which form the outer circle), weigh as much as 50 tons
each. To transport them from the Marlborough Downs, roughly 20 miles to the north, is a
problem of even greater magnitude than that of moving the bluestones. Most of the way, the
going is relatively easy, but at the steepest part of the route, at Redhorn Hill, modern
work studies estimate that at least 600 men would have been needed just to get each stone
past this obstacle.
Once on site, a sarsen stone was prepared to accommodate stone lintels along its top
surface. It was then dragged until the end was over the opening of the hole. Great levers
were inserted under the stone and it was raised until gravity made it slide into the hole.
At this point, the stone stood on about a 30° angle from the ground. Ropes were attached
to the top and teams of men pulled from the other side to raise it into the full upright
position. It was secured by filling the hole at its base with small, round packing stones.
At this point, the lintels were lowered into place and secured vertically by mortice and
tenon joints and horizontally by tongue and groove joints. Stonehenge was probably finally
completed around 1500 BC.
The question of who built Stonehenge is largely unanswered, even today. The
monument's construction has been attributed to many ancient people throughout the years.
The best guess seems to be that the Stonehenge site was begun by the people of the late
Neolithic period (around 3000 BC) and carried forward by people from a new economy which
was arising at this time. Some think that they may have been immigrants from the
continent, but that contention is not supported by archaeological evidence.