Stonehenge is a prehistoric marvel. This stone circle rises out of Salisbury Plain, its rugged stones complemented by a swish visitor center that explores its incredible construction. But Stonehenge isn’t just a 4000-year-old monument: it’s a swirl of ancient myths and modern controversy, a symbol of England from long before England even existed, and one of the world’s great mysteries.
Here, we explore its features, history and how to get the most out of a visit.
What is Stonehenge?
Set in Wiltshire, Southwest England, Stonehenge was built in stages between around 3000 and 2000 BCE, and tweaks to its layout continued until 1500 BCE. Its massive stones were transported from as far away as Wales, and formed a place of ritual for many centuries.
People have long pondered its origins. Myths associate it with giants and human sacrifice. It’s been sold at auction, hosted New Age parties and might one day have a highway rumbling beneath it. And it’s visited by more than a million visitors a year, who come to gaze at its weathered, evocative stones, and learn about the ancient people that went to mind-boggling lengths to raise it and numerous nearby monuments.
Special features of Stonehenge
The stone circles
Stonehenge is made up of granite "bluestones" and larger sarsen (a kind of sandstone) blocks. Each sarsen stone is around 4m tall and 2m wide, weighing 25–30 metric tons, while even the smaller bluestone pillars weigh several tons. They form two circles, and a number of the standing stones are topped with long lintel stones, forming arches called trilithons. Between the two circles is a horseshoe of stones, and at the center is the great Altar Stone. Several of the standing stones and lintels are missing, but enough remains to give a clear sense of what once stood.
The ritual landscape
This central area was only one part of a wider ritual landscape. At sunrise on the longest day of the year, the sun shines past the mighty Heel Stone, which sits outside the main circles, into the heart of Stonehenge. A pathway, which would have been walked by prehistoric pilgrims, runs past the Heel Stone, while burial mounds and the remains of other circles have been uncovered in the surrounding area.
What does Stonehenge mean?
That depends on who you ask. The famously wrong 12th-century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth said it was built in Ireland by African giants, before being whisked across to Wiltshire by Merlin as a resting place for Arthurian royalty. It has also been identified as a Roman temple and associated with the druids, who were priests and advisers in Celtic Britain – one 18th-century engraving portrayed it as a site where people were sacrificed to the gods.
We now know that Celts didn’t arrive in England until around 300 BCE. Stonehenge is in fact the work of earlier hunter-gatherers and the Beaker People, who were named after the broken pots they left behind. Like the Celts, they were an oral culture that left no written records, but Stonehenge’s shape gives a major clue to its purpose.
Two paths, lined up with the sun’s rays on the summer and winter solstices, were probably used for processions on those dates. Animal remains found near the site suggest several thousand people might have come for the winter festivities, from as far away as the Scottish Highlands. Human remains indicate that cremations took place here too.
Stonehenge might have been used for ancestor worship and as a symbolic "land of the dead", as a cosmic calendar, as a symbol of peace built by newly unified tribes, or as a place of healing.
How was Stonehenge built?
Stonehenge’s construction was epic. Up to 80 bluestones were transported 240km from the Preseli Hills in Wales either by sea or – incredibly, given they each weigh as much as a small car – by land. The wheel had not yet arrived in Britain, so they were probably either pulled on sledges greased with animal fat or rolled over tree trunks. They may have been particularly prized for their acoustic properties.
The larger sarsen stones traveled 30km from the Marlborough Downs. They feature carved plugs and indentations, indicating that some of the arches are slotted together. During the henge’s 1500-year heyday, stones were added and removed on several occasions.
For much of its history, Stonehenge has meant whatever people have wanted it to mean. It passed from owner to owner as an antique curiosity until it was bequeathed to the nation in 1928. More recently, there’s been a clash between those who see it as a museum piece, to be gazed on but not touched, and those who believe it should be a living site, with free access.
Modern pagans made it the centerpiece of their revivalist "druidic" rituals in the twentieth century. For New Age travelers in the 1970s and 80s, it was a place to celebrate the equinox and feel a connection to ancient freedoms – until the police broke up their 1985 festival by force. Access was tightened up in subsequent years, with ticketing introduced and a fence erected.
Ley-line enthusiasts, meanwhile, suggest that Stonehenge is the center of a network of connections, making it a place of spiritual power, while Erich von Däniken claimed in his bestselling book Chariots of the Gods? that it was built by aliens who also constructed the pyramids.
The theories will keep coming – especially if new finds continue. Scans have suggested that at least 17 more monuments lie waiting to be unearthed, and archaeologist Dan Snow has described what we can see now as "just a beginning".
Any new digs may be hampered by a plan to reroute the A303 highway under the site. That would improve journey times to the popular holiday destinations of Devon and Cornwall, and keep cars away from the circle itself – but might destroy thousands of years of still-buried history.
Planning your trip
- Stonehenge is generally open 9am–8pm during the summer, 9:30am–7pm in April, May and September, and 9:30am–5pm in the winter months. Check for the latest details.
-Book in advance for the best rate and to secure your spot. English Heritage and National Trust members get in free, but still need to book.
- There are direct trains from London Waterloo (90 minutes), Cardiff (two hours) and Exeter (two hours) to Salisbury. Buses connect the station with Stonehenge. You can drive from London in around two hours.
- Most visitors spend two or three hours exploring the circle and the Visitor Center. The circle itself is a substantial sight, but to get a real sense of its wonder it’s worth taking in the surrounding countryside and the exhibition. You’ll be viewing the stones from around 10m away – to get closer, book a Stone Circle Experience, which is highly recommended and gets you inside the circle. The experiences are held in the early morning and evening and need to be booked long in advance.
- A very different experience can be had at the solstices when access is generally free. Winter (late December) can be wet and chilly and summer (late June) gets bigger crowds.
- Fascinated by Stonehenge, but can’t visit? You can get an interactive tour online. Avebury Stone Circle is another stunner, and you can explore it for free – it’s a 30-minute drive away from Stonehenge.
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