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Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England
Information about Stonehenge, Wiltshire, EnglandStonehenge is a prehistoric monument located in the English county of Wiltshire, about 3.2 kilometres (2.0 mi) west of Amesbury and 13 kilometres (8.1 mi) north of Salisbury. One of the most famous sites in the world, Stonehenge is composed of earthworks surrounding a circular setting of large standing stones and sits at the centre of the densest complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds. Archaeologists had believed that the iconic stone monument was erected around 2500 BC, as described in the chronology below. However one recent theory has suggested that the first stones were not erected until 2400-2200 BC, whilst another suggests that bluestones may have been erected at the site as early as 3000 BC (see phase 1 below). The surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC. The site and its surroundings were added to the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1986 (31 years ago) in a co-listing with Avebury henge monument, and it is also a legally protected Scheduled Ancient Monument. Stonehenge itself is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage while the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust.
New archaeological evidence found by the Stonehenge Riverside Project indicates that Stonehenge served as a burial ground from its earliest beginnings. The dating of cremated remains found on the site shows that burials took place there as early as 3000 BC, when the first ditches were being constructed around the monument. Burials continued at Stonehenge for at least another 500 years.
HistoryMike Parker Pearson, leader of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, noted that Stonehenge was associated with burial from the earliest period of its existence:
Stonehenge was a place of burial from its beginning to its zenith in the mid third millennium B.C. The cremation burial dating to Stonehenge's sarsen stones phase is likely just one of many from this later period of the monument's use and demonstrates that it was still very much a domain of the dead.
— Mike Parker Pearson
Stonehenge itself evolved in several construction phases spanning at least 1500 (517 years ago) years. There is, however, evidence of large scale construction on and around the monument that perhaps extends the landscape's time frame to 6500 years.
It is widely assumed that Stonehenge once stood as a magnificent "complete" monument, although this cannot be proved as around half of the stones that should be present are missing, and many of the assumed stone sockets have never been found. Dating and understanding the various phases of activity is complicated by disturbance of the natural chalk by periglacial effects and animal burrowing, poor quality early excavation records, and a lack of accurate, scientifically verified dates. The modern phasing most generally agreed by archaeologists is detailed below. Features mentioned in the text are numbered and shown on the plan, right.
Before the monument (8000 BC forward)Archaeologists have found four, or possibly five, large Mesolithic postholes (one may have been a natural tree throw), which date to around 8000 BC, beneath the modern tourist car-park nearby. These held pine posts around 0.75 metres (2 ft 6 in) in diameter which were erected and eventually rotted in situ. Three of the posts (and possibly four) were in an east-west alignment which may have had ritual significance; no parallels are known from Britain at the time but similar sites have been found in Scandinavia. At this time, Salisbury Plain was still wooded but four thousand years later, during the earlier Neolithic, a causewayed enclosure at Robin Hood's Ball and long barrow tombs were built in the surrounding landscape. In approximately 3500 BC a large cursus monument was built 700 metres (2,300 ft) north of the site as the first farmers began to clear the trees and exploit the area.
Stonehenge 1 (ca. 3100 BC)The first monument consisted of a circular bank and ditch enclosure made of Late Cretaceous (Santonian Age) Seaford Chalk, (7 and 8) measuring about 110 metres (360 ft) in diameter with a large entrance to the north east and a smaller one to the south (14). It stood in open grassland on a slightly sloping, but not especially remarkable, spot. The builders placed the bones of deer and oxen in the bottom of the ditch as well as some worked flint tools. The bones were considerably older than the antler picks used to dig the ditch, and the people who buried them had looked after them for some time prior to burial. The ditch itself was continuous but had been dug in sections, like the ditches of the earlier causewayed enclosures in the area. The chalk dug from the ditch was piled up to form the bank. This first stage is dated to around 3100 BC, after which the ditch began to silt up naturally. Within the outer edge of the enclosed area was a circle of 56 pits, each about a metre (3'3") in diameter(13), known as the Aubrey holes after John Aubrey, the seventeenth century antiquarian who was thought to have first identified them. The pits may have contained standing timbers creating a timber circle, although there is no excavated evidence of them. A recent excavation has suggested that the Aubrey Holes may have originally been used to erect a bluestone circle. If this were the case, it would advance the earliest known stone structure at the monument by some 500 years. A small outer bank beyond the ditch could also date to this period.
Stonehenge 2 (ca. 3000 BC)Evidence of the second phase is no longer visible. The number of postholes dating to the early 3rd millennium BC suggest that some form of timber structure was built within the enclosure during this period. Further standing timbers were placed at the northeast entrance, and a parallel alignment of posts ran inwards from the southern entrance. The postholes are smaller than the Aubrey Holes, being only around 0.4 metres (16 in) in diameter and are much less regularly spaced. The bank was purposely reduced in height and the ditch continued to silt up. At least twenty-five of the Aubrey Holes are known to have contained later, intrusive, cremation burials dating to the two centuries after the monument's inception. It seems that whatever the holes' initial function, it changed to become a funerary one during Phase 2. Thirty further cremations were placed in the enclosure's ditch and at other points within the monument, mostly in the eastern half. Stonehenge is therefore interpreted as functioning as an enclosed cremation cemetery at this time, the earliest known cremation cemetery in the British Isles. Fragments of unburnt human bone have also been found in the ditch-fill. Dating evidence is provided by the late Neolithic grooved ware pottery that has been found in connection with the features from this phase.
Stonehenge 3 I (ca. 2600 BC)Archaeological excavation has indicated that around 2600 BC, timber was abandoned in favour of stone, and two concentric arrays of holes (the Q and R Holes) were dug in the centre of the site. These stone sockets are only partly known (hence on present evidence are sometimes described as forming ‘crescents’), however they could be the remains of a double ring. Again, there is little firm dating evidence for this phase. The holes held up to 80 standing stones (shown blue on the plan) only 43 of which can be traced today. The bluestones (some of which are made of dolerite, an igneous rock), were thought for much of the 20th century to have been transported by humans from the Preseli Hills, 250 kilometres (160 mi) away in modern day Pembrokeshire in Wales. Another theory that has recently gained support, is that they were brought much nearer to the site as glacial erratics by the Irish Sea Glacier. Other standing stones may well have been small sarsens, used later as lintels. The stones, which weighed about four tons, consisted mostly of spotted Ordovician dolerite but included examples of rhyolite, tuff and volcanic and calcareous ash; in total around 20 different rock types are represented. Each monolith measures around 2 metres (6.6 ft) in height, between 1 m and 1.5 m (3.3-4.9 ft) wide and around 0.8 metres (2.6 ft) thick. What was to become known as the Altar Stone (1), is almost certainly derived from either Carmarthenshire or the Brecon Beacons and may have stood as a single large monolith.
The north eastern entrance was also widened at this time, with the result that it precisely matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset of the period. This phase of the monument was abandoned unfinished, however, the small standing stones were apparently removed and the Q and R holes purposefully backfilled. Even so, the monument appears to have eclipsed the site at Avebury in importance towards the end of this phase.
The Heelstone (5), a Tertiary sandstone, may also have been erected outside the north eastern entrance during this period, although it cannot be accurately dated and may have been installed at any time during phase 3. At first it was accompanied by a second stone which is no longer visible. Two, or possibly three, large portal stones were set up just inside the north eastern entrance, of which only one, the fallen Slaughter Stone (4), 4.9 metres (16 ft) long, now remains. Other features, loosely dated to phase 3, include the four Station Stones (6), two of which stood atop mounds (2 and 3). The mounds are known as 'barrows' although they do not contain burials. Stonehenge Avenue, (10), a parallel pair of ditches and banks leading 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) to the River Avon was also added. Two ditches similar to Heelstone Ditch circling the Heelstone (which was by then reduced to a single monolith) were later dug around the Station Stones.
Stonehenge 3 II (2600 BC to 2400 BC)During the next major phase of activity, 30 enormous Oligocene-Miocene sarsen stones (shown grey on the plan) were brought to the site. They may have come from a quarry, around 40 kilometres (25 mi) north of Stonehenge on the Marlborough Downs, or they may have been collected from a "litter" of sarsens on the chalk downs, closer to hand. The stones were dressed and fashioned with mortise and tenon joints before 30 were erected as a 33 metres (110 ft) diameter circle of standing stones, with a ring of 30 lintel stones resting on top. The lintels were fitted to one another using another woodworking method, the tongue and groove joint. Each standing stone was around 4.1 metres (13 ft) high, 2.1 metres (6 ft 11 in) wide and weighed around 25 tons. Each had clearly been worked with the final visual effect in mind; the orthostats widen slightly towards the top in order that their perspective remains constant when viewed from the ground, while the lintel stones curve slightly to continue the circular appearance of the earlier monument. The inward-facing surfaces of the stones are smoother and more finely worked than the outer surfaces. The average thickness of the stones is 1.1 metres (3 ft 7 in) and the average distance between them is 1 metre (3 ft 3 in). A total of 74 stones would have been needed to complete the circle and, unless some of the sarsens have since been removed from the site, it would seem that the ring was left incomplete. The lintel stones are each around 3.2 metres (10 ft), 1 metre (3 ft 3 in) wide and 0.8 metres (2 ft 7 in) thick. The tops of the lintels are 4.9 metres (16 ft) above the ground.
Within this circle stood five trilithons of dressed sarsen stone arranged in a horseshoe shape 13.7 metres (45 ft) across with its open end facing north east. These huge stones, ten uprights and five lintels, weigh up to 50 tons each and were again linked using complex jointing. They are arranged symmetrically; the smallest pair of trilithons were around 6 metres (20 ft) tall, the next pair a little higher and the largest, single trilithon in the south west corner would have been 7.3 metres (24 ft) tall. Only one upright from the Great Trilithon still stands of which 6.7 metres (22 ft) is visible and a further 2.4 metres (7 ft 10 in) is below ground.
The images (wallpaper) of a 'dagger' and 14 'axeheads' have been carved on one of the sarsens, known as stone 53 and further carvings of axeheads have been seen on the outer faces of stones 3, 4, and 5. The carvings are difficult to date, but are morphologically similar to late Bronze Age weapons; recent laser scanning work on the carvings supports this interpretation. The pair of trilithons in the north east are smallest, measuring around 6 metres (20 ft) in height; the largest, which is in the south west of the horseshoe, is almost 7.5 metres (25 ft) tall.
This ambitious phase has been radiocarbon dated to between 2600 and 2400 BC, slightly earlier than the Stonehenge Archer, discovered in the outer ditch of the monument in 1978 (39 years ago), and the two sets of burials, known as the Amesbury Archer and the Boscombe Bowmen, discovered 4.8 kilometres (3.0 mi) to the west. At about the same time, a large timber circle and a second avenue were constructed 3.2 kilometres (2.0 mi) away at Durrington Walls overlooking the River Avon. The timber circle was orientated towards the rising sun on the midwinter solstice, opposing the solar alignments at Stonehenge, whilst the avenue was aligned with the setting sun on the summer solstice and led from the river to the timber circle. Evidence of huge fires on the banks of the Avon between the two avenues also suggests that both circles were linked, and they were perhaps used as a procession route on the longest and shortest days of the year. Parker Pearson speculates that the wooden circle at Durrington Walls was the centre of a 'land of the living', whilst the stone circle represented a 'land of the dead', with the Avon serving as a journey between the two.
Stonehenge 3 IIILater in the Bronze Age, although the exact details of activities during this period are still unclear, the bluestones appear to have been re-erected. They were placed within the outer sarsen circle and may have been trimmed in some way. Like the sarsens, a few have timber-working style cuts in them suggesting that, during this phase, they may have been linked with lintels and were part of a larger structure.
Stonehenge 3 IV (2280 BC to 1930 (87 years ago) BC)This phase saw further rearrangement of the bluestones. They were arranged in a circle between the two rings of sarsens and in an oval at the centre of the inner ring. Some archaeologists argue that some of these bluestones were from a second group brought from Wales. All the stones formed well-spaced uprights without any of the linking lintels inferred in Stonehenge 3 III. The Altar Stone may have been moved within the oval at this time and re-erected vertically. Although this would seem the most impressive phase of work, Stonehenge 3 IV was rather shabbily built compared to its immediate predecessors, as the newly re-installed bluestones were not well-founded and began to fall over. However, only minor changes were made after this phase.
Stonehenge 3 V (2280 BC to 1930 (87 years ago) BC)Soon afterwards, the north eastern section of the Phase 3 IV bluestone circle was removed, creating a horseshoe-shaped setting (the Bluestone Horseshoe) which mirrored the shape of the central sarsen Trilithons. This phase is contemporary with the Seahenge site in Norfolk.
After the monument (1600 BC on)The last known construction at Stonehenge was about 1600 (417 years ago) BC (see 'Y and Z Holes' below), and the last usage of it was probably during the Iron Age. Roman coins and medieval artefacts have all been found in or around the monument but it is unknown if the monument was in continuous use throughout prehistory and beyond, or exactly how it would have been used. Notable is the late 7th-6th century BC large arcing Scroll Trench which deepens E-NE towards Heelstone, and the massive Iron Age hillfort Vespasian's Camp built alongside the Avenue near the Avon. A decapitated 7th century Saxon man was excavated from Stonehenge in 1923 (94 years ago). The site was known to scholars during the Middle Ages and since then it has been studied and adopted by numerous different groups.
16th century to presentStonehenge has changed ownership several times since King Henry VIII acquired Amesbury Abbey and its surrounding lands. In 1540 (477 years ago) Henry gave the estate to the Earl of Hertford. It subsequently passed to Lord Carleton and then the Marquis of Queensbury. The Antrobus family of Cheshire bought the estate in 1824 (193 years ago). During World War I an aerodrome had been built on the downs just to the west of the circle and, in the dry valley at Stonehenge Bottom, a main road junction had been built, along with several cottages and a cafe. The Antrobus family sold the site after their last heir was killed serving in France during the First World War. The auction by Knight Frank & Rutley estate agents in Salisbury was held on 21 sep. 1915 (102 years ago) and included "Lot 15. Stonehenge with about 30 acres, 2 rods, 37 perches of adjoining downland." [c. 12.4365 ha] Cecil Chubb bought the site for £6,600 and gave it to the nation three years later. Although it has been speculated that he purchased it at the suggestion of — or even as a present for — his wife, he, in fact, bought it on a whim as he believed a local man should be the new owner.
In the late 1920 (97 years ago) a nation-wide appeal was launched to save Stonehenge from the encroachment of the modern buildings that had begun to appear around it. In 1928 (89 years ago) the land around the monument was purchased with the appeal donations, and given to the National Trust in order to preserve it. The buildings were removed (although the roads were not), and the land returned to agriculture. More recently the land has been part of a grassland reversion scheme, returning the surrounding fields to native chalk grassland.
In 2002 (15 years ago) a public poll voted Stonehenge as one of the Seven Wonders of Britain, alongside Big Ben, the Eden Project, Hadrian's Wall, the London Eye, Windsor Castle, and York Minster.
NeopaganismStonehenge is a place of pilgrimage for neo-druids, and for certain others following pagan or neo-pagan beliefs. The midsummer sunrise began attracting modern visitors in the 1870s, with the first record of recreated Druidic practices dating to 1905 (112 years ago) when the Ancient Order of Druids enacted a ceremony. Despite efforts by archaeologists and historians to stress the differences between the Iron Age Druidic religion and the much older monument, Stonehenge has become increasingly, almost inextricably, associated with British Druidism, Neopaganism and New Age philosophy. Between 1972 (45 years ago) and 1984 (33 years ago), Stonehenge was the site of a free festival. After the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985 (32 years ago) this use of the site was stopped for several years, and currently ritual use of Stonehenge is carefully controlled.
Setting and accessAs motorised traffic increased, the setting of the monument began to be affected by the proximity of the two roads on either side — the A344 to Shrewton on the north side, and the A303 to Winterbourne Stoke to the south. Plans to upgrade the A303 and close the A344 to restore the vista from the stones have been considered since the monument became a World Heritage Site. However, the controversy surrounding expensive re-routing of the roads have led to the scheme being cancelled on multiple occasions. On 6 dec. 2007 (10 years ago) it was announced that extensive plans to build a tunnel under the landscape and create a permanent visitors' centre had been cancelled. On 13 May 2009 (8 years ago) the government gave approval for a £25 million scheme to create a smaller visitors' centre and close the A344, although this is dependent on funding and planning permission.
When Stonehenge first became open to the public it was possible to walk amongst and even climb on the stones, however this ended in 1977 (40 years ago) when the stones were roped off as a result of serious erosion. Visitors are no longer permitted to touch the stones, but are able walk around the monument from a short distance away. English Heritage does, however, permit access during the summer and winter solstice, and the spring and autumn equinox. Additionally, visitors can make special bookings to access the stones throughout the year.
The current access situation and the proximity of the two roads has drawn widespread criticism, highlighted by a 2006 (11 years ago) National Geographic survey. In the survey of conditions at 94 leading World Heritage Sites, 400 conservation and tourism experts ranked Stonehenge 75th in the list of destinations, declaring it to be "in moderate trouble".
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