Mysterious and ancient, Stonehenge has baffled archaeologists, not to mention the general public, for centuries. One of England's most visited monuments (attracting over a million visitors a year) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the circle of giant stones standing starkly against the wide sweep of Salisbury Plain still has the capacity to fascinate and move those who view it. Unsympathetic visitor facilites have been removed to better establish the stones in their original context of grass fields, other nearby monuments, and original processional approach, the Avenue. Although general visitors can no longer enter the stone circle itself (except by special arrangement; call for further information), you can roam free over the surrounding landscape with its Neolithic earthworks, some of which predate the stones. To best experience the awe and mystery of Stonehenge, visit the circle in the early morning or in the evening, when the crowds have dispersed.
Stonehenge was begun as early as 3000 BC with the construction of a circular earthwork enclosure. The nearby Cursus, long rectangular earthwork banks, were also created around this time. The stone circle itself was completed in stages, beginning around 2500 BC with the inner circle of bluestones, and continued to be changed and in use until around 1600 BC. The early inner circle was later surrounded by an outer circle of 30 sarsen stones, huge sandstone blocks weighing up to 25 tons, which are believed to have originated from the Marlborough Down. Within these two circles was a horseshoe-shape group of sarsen trilithons (two large vertical stones supporting a third stone laid horizontally across it) and within that another horseshoe-shape grouping of bluestones. The sarsens used in the trilithons averaged 45 tons. Many of the huge stones were brought here from great distances before the invention of the wheel, and it's not certain what ancient form of transportation was used to move them. The bluestones, for example, are thought to have come from the Preseli Hills on the Atlantic coast of Wales, and may have been moved by raft over sea and river, and then dragged on rollers across country despite weighing as much as 4 tons each—a total journey of 149 miles as the crow flies. However, every time a reconstruction of the journey has been attempted, it has failed. The labor involved in quarrying, transporting, and carving these stones is astonishing, all the more so when you realize that it was accomplished about the same time as the construction of Egypt's major pyramids. Stonehenge (the name derives from the Saxon term for "hanging stones") has been excavated several times over the centuries, but the primary reason for its erection remains unknown. It's fairly certain that it was a religious site, and that worship here involved the cycles of the sun; the alignment of the stones on the axis of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset makes this clear. Viewed from the center of the stone circle, the sun rises adjacent to the Heel Stone at midsummer and sets between the stones of the tallest trilithon at midwinter. The Druids certainly had nothing to do with the construction: the monument had already been in existence for nearly 2,000 years by the time they appeared. Some historians have maintained that Stonehenge was a kind of Neolithic computer, with a sophisticated astronomical purpose—an observatory of sorts—though evidence from excavations in the early 20th century shows that it had once been used as a burial ground. Excavations at Durrington Walls, another archaeological site a couple of miles northeast (off A345), have unearthed a seasonally occupied settlement dating from around 2500 BC, which may have been built and occupied by those who constructed Stonehenge. Another possibility is that this Neolithic village was home to those who performed the religious rites at Stonehenge, where people gathered from far and wide to feast and worship. The finds show Stonehenge not to be an isolated monument, but part of a much larger complex of ceremonial structures. Without direct access to the stones, it is not possible to closely examine their prehistoric carvings, some of which show axes and daggers, so bring a pair of binoculars to help make out the details on the monoliths. To fully engage your imagination, or to get that magical photo, it's worth exploring all aspects of the site, both near and far. An improved visitor center is located 1.5 miles away (access to the stone circle is via a frequent shuttle), with parking, audio guide rental, a café, loads of branded merchandise, and an exhibition of prehistoric objects found at the site. There's also a dramatic display using time-lapse photography that puts you (virtually) in the center of the circle as the seasons change. Next to the visitor center are some re-created Neolithic huts that show how the people who built and used Stonehenge might have lived.
- Address: Junction of A303 and A360, Amesbury, SP4 7DE | Map It
- Phone: 0870/333–1181; 01722/343830
- Cost: £14.90
- Hours: Mid-Mar.–May and Sept.–mid-Oct., daily 9:30–7; June–Aug., daily 9–8; mid-Oct.–mid-Mar., daily 9:30–5. Last admission 2 hrs before closing
- Website: www.english-heritage.org.uk
- Location: Stonehenge