"Much of what has been written about Stonehenge is derivative, second-rate or plain wrong." Chippindale
view from inside circle
view from within looking out, showing one of the bluestones just inside the lintelled circle of sarsens.

Grandiose, world-renowned and utterly unique, Stonehenge has held on to most of its secrets despite the efforts of archaeologists. It is impossible to put into context by looking at other stone circles because it is one of a kind. There really is nothing else remotely like it. We can find bigger stone circles at Castlerigg, Avebury, Newgrange and Stanton Drew. We can find structures within circles at Avebury, but nowhere else in the world is the singular lintel structure of Stonehenge to be found. Nor is there any other example of the tongue and groove interlocking construction which has enable this drystone building to stand against the passage of Time for almost four thousand years.

Indeed, some of the attraction of Stonehenge is perhaps this feeling that this building from so long ago, both temporally and culturally, connects us with our past. It reaches to us across the ages - two hundred generations of people, from our prehistoric ancestors who left no writing that we can discern, to us with all the trappings of our post-industrial world. Unlike nearly all other stone circles, Stonehenge is a building. Clearly stone has been laid upon stone, with intent and with remarkable precision.

Stonehenge was built in several phases over more than a thousand years. Later builders occasionally reversed the efforts of previous efforts, sometimes reusing the fruit of their labour. Few guesses as to its purpose have yielded fruit, but some alignments with solar and lunar phenomena can be observed, and these are most likely intentional. The midsummer sunrise lies very close to the axis between the Heel stone and the centre of the circle , though since this alignment is not exact some dispute its significance (Burl, Chippindale). The midwinter sunset seems to be a better candidate for the alignment, both astronomically and spiritually

More accurately aligned are fifty-three postholes across the entrance in 11 rows by six, lined up with the extreme midwinter risings of the moon which would indicate meticulous observation. Another pertinent fact is that the latitude of Stonehenge is remarkable in that the extreme northern and southern rising and setting of the sun and the moon are at right angles to each other. This neat alignment would be changed by moving the monument only a few miles north or south.

Stonehenge from the southeast

As an engineering achievement Stonehenge is phenomenal. The stones were shaped with stone 'mauls' - large rounded stones that could be comfortably held and used to pound away at the surface of the stones. Sarsen is extremely hard, and this process must have been difficult. Using stone mauls, and antler picks to dig holes in the chalk, our prehistoric ancestors raised the sarsen lintels to form a circle 100f t (30m) across and 16ft (4.9m) above the sloping ground. They achieved the top surface of the lintels level and truly circular to within an inch or so (Chippindale, .

plan of original conception of Stonehenge
a plan of Stonehenge as perhaps originally conceived - red stones are existing sarsens, grey stones are missing or fallen.

From 1000BC Stonehenge falls into decline, and much of the damage we see occurred in the two and a half thousand years that followed. Stone 14 fell inwards in AD1750, on January 3, 1797 a trilithon fell back across the sarsen circle (this was re-erected in 1958 - it is the one with the goddess carving). A circle stone, 23, was blown down in a gale in 1963.

The weather can be blamed for much of the damage visible today, which is concentrated on the SW side of the circle which takes most of the force of the prevailing wind, some of the damage can also be attributed to the work of man.

There is some evidence that the Romans may have destroyed part of Stonehenge - though they were normally tolerant of local religions the ancient Druids (as opposed to the modern ones) opposed the Empire. In some of the Y and Z holes, dug after the main structure was erected but left to fill naturally, there is a concentration of bluestone chips and Roman-British pottery above the normal silt of the centuries. Tacitus describes the Druids, forced back by the Romans to the Isle of Anglesey in AD61, howling curses at the Romans who were coming to massacre them. It is possible that Stonehenge was sacked at around that time.

Souvenir-hunters seem to have chipped off their fair share.

Stonehenge is now in the care of English Heritage who look after the monument and the National Trust who own much of the land. We can only hope that the plans to move the roads which intrude into the setting and shift the car-park further away do come to pass, so that Stonehenge once more stands in majesty on the plain.

Without writing or oral continuity, the Neolithic builders of Stonehenge managed to transmit their vision across the long intercession of three-and-a-half thousand lonely years. More than a million visitors a year come to see what they had to say. And though we cannot determine what it was, or why they felt the need, one thing is clear enough. It mattered to the Stonehenge people to have their rings of stone. It meant a lot to them, and we can only admire their determination and engineering - for Stonehenge is one of the oldest buildings on earth.

A quick tour of Stonehenge is available to show you what it looks like from several points around the path and a couple of pictures from inside the stones...

  1. Stonehenge Complete, Christopher Chippindale,Thames&Hudson 1994, ISBN 0-500-27750-8 ,page 273
  2. The Stone Circles of the British Isles, Aubrey Burl, Yale University Press 1976, ISBN 0-300-02398-7 , page 305
  3. Stonehenge Complete, Christopher Chippindale,Thames&Hudson 1994, ISBN 0-500-27750-8 ,page 57
  4. Stonehenge Complete, Christopher Chippindale,Thames&Hudson 1994, ISBN 0-500-27750-8 ,page 19
  5. The Making Of Stonehenge, Rodney Castleden, Routledge, 1993, ISBN 0-415-08513-6, p247