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Published March 9th 2020
Step back in time to the world of our Neolithic ancestors
They stand silent and still on the Salisbury plain. A ring of huge stone pillars, the sentinels of a world that have long vanished. They are the guardians of a very ancient past and the keepers of secrets and mysteries that have endured for thousands of years.
Their name is known the world over. They are the best known prehistoric monuments in Europe, and yet they continue to mystify and bewilder us all.
Stonehenge is one of the most famous landmarks in the United Kingdom, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the UK's most visited tourist attractions. It is also one of the most enigmatic prehistoric monuments. Despite all the exciting recent developments on Stonehenge, the stones continue to guard their secrets.
Visiting the site was a surreal, haunting experience for me. Like many of you, I had known about the stones since I was a child. Over the years I had seen pictures of them in books, and tourist brochures, and on the TV and internet, and I had always been awed by them. But finally standing on the grassy plain before them, and being close enough to almost touch them, was a completely different thing altogether. I felt like I was standing at the gateway between our world and the world of the Stonehenge builders. I felt like I was on the edge of time between ours and theirs. We were so close and yet so far away, separated by thousands of years. In spite of the many tourists like me clamouring around the stones and taking their selfies, you cannot but be blown away by the stones' mystery and magnificence.
Today Stonehenge is cared for by English Heritage, a charity that manages over 400 historic monuments, buildings and places. Next to the impressive stone ruins, the Stonehenge site also has an outstanding Visitor and Exhibition Centre where you can learn so much more about the world of the Stonehenge builders and the enigma they had constructed.
The extraordinary landscape of Stonehenge stretches back thousands of years even before the first stones were raised. Not long after the last Ice Age ended (about 10 000 BCE), when the land that is now Britain was still connected to mainland Europe, a group of people (very likely hunters and gatherers) erected some unique and largely unexplained structures close to where Stonehenge was to stand thousands of years later. All that's left are three large pits dug into the chalk, but research has revealed that they had originally held large wooden (pine) posts. Radiocarbon dating has revealed that the mysterious posts were raised between 8500 and 7000 BCE. At this time Salisbury Plain was still wooded, but over the next 4000 years when farmers became more numerous in Britain, the woods of Salisbury were gradually cleared, and enclosures and long barrow tombs began to be built.
Stonehenge evolved in several construction phases spanning at least 1500 years, from the Neolithic period (New Stone Age from about 4000 BCE-2500 BCE) right up the period known as the Bronze Age when the first metal tools and weapons were made. The first larger stones were brought to the site of Stonehenge from around 2500 BCE. They are sarsen stones, a type of extremely hard sandstone, found on the Marlborough Downs in north Wiltshire, about 30km to the north of Stonehenge. The smaller stones are collectively known as bluestones, and they were sourced from the Preseli Hills in Wales, 240km to the west of Stonehenge.
How the Stonehenge builders would have raised the stones. (Source:https://www.facebook.com/StonehengeEH/photos/a.684348064923355/2929792070378932/?type=3&theater)
The stones lie in the centre of a circular earthwork enclosure, defined by a ditch and an inner bank made of the chalk excavated from the ditch. In the picture below, you can clearly see the circular ditch and bank surrounding the stones. This circular enclosure is said to be the first Stonehenge and was built at least 500 years before the first stones were brought to the site. Bones of deer and oxen, as well as some, worked flint tools were found buried in the ditch, with some of the animal bones radiocarbon dated to several hundred years before 3000BCE.
Inside the inner edge of the bank is a circle of 56 large circular pits spaced between 4m and 5m apart. These are known as Aubrey Holes, named after their original discoverer, the 17th-century antiquarian John Aubrey. Cremated human bones were found in the holes, as well as the bank and the ditch. The only dated remains in the Aubrey Holes can be dated from about 3000 BCE. So it is clear that during its early life, Stonehenge was a cemetery.
The time of Stonehenge Stonehenge was built during the Neolithic, a time of human history characterized by the invention of agriculture and farming, and fixed human settlements. Archaeologists believe Stonehenge was built between 3000 BCE and 2000BCE, with the first stones raised around 2500 BCE. To put this within its historical context, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt was constructed around 2580–2560 BCE. It seems as though humans were obsessed with building large monuments around this time!
This is me at the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt in 2007. The Great Pyramid was built around the same time as the first stones of Stonehenge were brought to the site and raised.
Around the time the great stones were being built at Stonehenge, other henges-enclosures of chalk and timber-were also being built in the surrounding landscape. Such as Woodhenge, originally believed to have been a large burial mound, and Durrington Walls, a massive enclosure over 470m in diameter. What's extra special about Durrington Walls are the remains of Neolithic houses nearby. You can see a reconstruction of these houses situated just outside the Stonehenge visitor and exhibition centre. The Neolithic dwellings help to reconnect the ancient stones with the people that lived and worked in the Stonehenge landscape. You can actually step through the doors of these houses and get a real sense of what everyday life might have been like when Stonehenge was built.
There are also low grassy mounds visible on every hilltop from Stonehenge. These are round barrows, each the burial place of someone of wealth and status in the early Bronze Age. This was about the time, from 2300 BCE until about 1600BCE, when the building of Stonehenge was largely complete.
The Stonehenge site was clearly still being used as a sacred place to bury the dead. Bronze Age burials have been uncovered at Stonehenge and near the Stonehenge site. The Stonehenge Archer is the name given to a Bronze Age man whose body was discovered in the outer ditch of Stonehenge. Radiocarbon dating suggests that he died around 2300 BCE. At Amesbury near Stonehenge, the body of another Bronze Age man dating to the same time as the Stoneage Archer was found. He is nicknamed the Amesbury Archer because of the many arrowheads buried with him. The grave contained more artefacts than any other early British Bronze Age burial, including the earliest known gold objects ever found in England. Evidence from the Archer's tooth enamel suggests that he originated from an alpine region of central Europe. Also found in Amesbury and dating to about the same time as the Amesbury Archer and the Stonehenge Archer were the remains of the Boscombe Bowmen, so called because of the flint arrowheads placed in their shared grave. Evidence from their teeth also showed that they spent their early years in Wales, where the bluestones of Stonehenge were sourced, or from continental Europe. People from all over Europe were clearly drawn to Stonehenge, bringing with them new ideas and new technology, as evidenced by the treasures buried with them in their graves.
The Amesbury Archer, now in the Salisbury Museum. (Source:https://www.facebook.com/StonehengeEH/photos/a.684348064923355/2581044648587011/?type=3&theater)
Stonehenge is located in Wiltshire, England, about 3km west of Amesbury. If you are travelling by car, Stonehenge is clearly signposted from the A303, off the A360. You can also go on the Stonehenge Tour Bus departing from Salisbury rail and bus stations.
Parking is available onsite near the Visitor Centre. To visit the stones, you need to board a bus with your tickets. A Visitor Bus service runs frequently from the Visitor Centre and takes around 10 minutes to reach the Stones.
Entrance to Stonehenge is managed through timed tickets and advance booking is recommended. Pre-booking is the only way to guarantee entry on the day and at the time of your choice. If you're planning a visit and your chosen arrival time shows as sold out, then there are no more advance tickets available for that time. Entrance prices at the time of writing are Adult £19.00, Child (5-17 years) £11.40, Concession £17.10, and Family (2 adults, up to 3 children)£49.40.
The Stonehenge Visitor Centre houses an incredible exhibition where you can discover the story of Stonehenge through a powerful combination of cutting-edge audio-visual experiences and incredible ancient objects. Over 250 archaeological objects and treasures discovered in the landscape, are displayed together at Stonehenge for the first time. Ranging from jewellery, pottery and tools to ancient human remains, many of these items are on loan from the Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Museum.
Other facilities include a cafe, gift shop, toilets, disabled toilets, baby changing facilities, foreign language audio tours and guide books, walking routes, and wheelchair access.
For more information about visiting Stonehenge and to book your tickets, please go here.
Join English Heritage and enjoy unlimited access to over 400 historic places with free or reduced-price entry to hundreds of exciting events. Individual adult memberships start at £60 a year.
English Heritage members receive free site access to Stonehenge.