Stonehenge

The giant standing stone structure known as Stonehenge was constructed over 5,000 years ago. How the great stones were placed and the purpose behind Stonehenge has puzzled historians for centuries since the people who built and used it left no written records.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Vida Systems, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Stonehenge, England (2006-05-23) by John FoxxGetty Images

Modern day technology is helping to shed light on the purpose of Stonehenge and how it was constructed by people who, at the time, hadn’t yet invented the wheel.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge was constructed using 2 different stones; a locally sourced sandstone and bluestone. The bluestones are of particular interest to archaeologists as they were not naturally found anywhere near Stonehenge itself.

Moving the bluestones would have been a phenomenal task, particularly when you remember this culture didn’t yet have the wheel.

Without written records or clear evidence, archaeologists have suggested a number of theories to explain how the stones were moved to the site and have tested several of them. 

Stages of Stonehenge

Built over a number of different stages, one of Stonehenge’s first stages was a large, rounded pit dug out around 3000 BC, using tools made from reindeer antlers. Over centuries the site developed from a wooden construction to today’s standing stones.

Two types of rock

The large sandstone boulders in Stonehenge’s outer ring are found locally while the inner stones of bluestone are believed to have been carried over 240 kilometers to arrive at the site. How these 4-ton rocks were transported is open to debate.

Carried by giants

People have been trying to explain the mystery of Stonehenge for centuries. A 12th century manuscript suggested that the magician Merlin commanded a giant to carry the giant stones from Africa to England. Science has not been able to replicate this theory. 

Sliding home

A common theory says that a purpose-built sled was constructed for each stone. The sled runners were greased by animal fat to help the sled move. Snow may have also have helped the stones across the ground. 

Running along

A variation on the sled theory suggests the use of wooden rollers to help roll the stones along. Experiments performed at the University of London have successfully replicated this method with stones weighing up to 1 ton. 

Woven rollers

A theory emerged in 2010 suggesting that giant wicker baskets could have been constructed around the stones. Once encased in the baskets the stone could be rolled by 4 or 5 men. An engineer has replicated this scenario moving a 1-ton stone. 

Ball bearings

Archaeologists have found small carved stones near some other standing stone sites. This led to the theory that the stones were moved using ball bearings, and that the workers building Stonehenge used carved wooden balls to help the stones move along grooved logs. 

Raising Stonehenge

Transporting the rocks required for Stonehenge was a phenomenal task for a population without the wheel. However, that was only a small portion of the task.

The great standing stones needed to be lifted upright and even more impressively, lintels (horizontal stones) lifted to lay across the top of the standing stones to form trilithons. Each lintel weighs up to 50 tons.

Shaping the stone

Each stone needed to be shaped, carved, and polished using hammerstones and this was done just north of the site. At the top of each standing stone a tenon joint was carved and a mortise joint was hollowed out to ensure a fit. 

Raising the sarsens

The leading theory for raising the 9-meter tall stones states that workers first dug a large hole. Then a tilting stone was placed at the foot end of the sarsen.

Using a pivot block greased with animal fat, the sarsen was pulled over the hole until the tilting stone helped the sarsen fall into the hole at the correct angle. 

Hoisting upright

Once the sarsen was moved into the large hole, it was pulled upright using a wooden A-frame and rope made of plant fiber. This method of raising the sarsens has been successfully replicated using stones weighing 5 tons.

Raising the lintels

To form the trilithons (the stone arches), the lintels needed to be lifted into place. One theory says that the standing stones were actually buried, forming mounds that the lintels could be dragged up. After the lintels were in place, the dirt was removed. 

Construction lifting

Another theory about the lintels involves the building of a wooden tower structure. As each layer was added, the lintel was lifted closer to its destination. Once the tower reached the top of the standing stones, the lintel was rolled into place.

The purpose of Stonehenge - astrological calendar

Stonehenge was built by an unknown culture for unknown reasons. For centuries people have put forward theories about the purpose of Stonehenge. Certainly a monument at such a colossal scale was immensely important to the people who built it.

Archaeological evidence and the use of new technologies such as laser scanning is helping shed light on why Stonehenge was built.

Summer solstice

Probably the most popular theory on the purpose behind Stonehenge is that it served as a site to celebrate the summer solstice. The sun's first rays during the morning of the summer solstice slice through the trilithons to reach the centre of the monument. 

Winter solstice

A growing number of archaeologists are gathering evidence that Stonehenge was actually only visited during the winter solstice. A number of pig bones have been found nearby. These animals were slaughtered during Dec-Jan each year, right around the time of the winter solstice

A gathering spot

Some archaeologists believe that Stonehenge was a gathering place during the winter solstice. As many as 4,000 people may have arrived each year, a huge number when the entire population of United Kingdom would have been less than 10,000.

An ancient computer

Another theory suggests that Stonehenge was built so it could be used as an ancient calculator to map the paths of the sun, moon, and stars. As such, it could be utilized to predict solar and lunar eclipses. 

Purpose of Stonehenge - burial, sacrifice and healing

Recent reexamination of evidence collected in the 1920s has led some archaeologists to put forward different theories as to the purpose of Stonehenge. These theories envisage Stonehenge as a place of burial or sacrifice, or even a place of healing.

Elite burial site

In the 1920s an unidentified mass was exhumed from Stonehenge before being reburied and dismissed.

Recently archaeologists discovered it was the remains of 60 individuals who were cremated at the beginning of Stonehenge’s construction, leading to the theory that elite families were buried at the site.

A place for healing

Other archaeologists have a different theory about the remains found near Stonehenge. They note that many of them show signs of trauma or deformity and theorize that Stonehenge may have been a pilgrimage site for the sick and injured.

Human sacrifice

A popular belief was that Stonehenge was used by druids to perform human sacrifices. This theory was debunked by the use of radiocarbon dating of the stone, which showed they were built some 2,000 years before druids appeared.

Purpose of Stonehenge - acoustic temple

A few of the more unusual theories behind the purpose of Stonehenge center around its acoustic characteristics. These theories are particularly hard to prove as there is no written evidence, nor any physical evidence that was left behind.

Giant bells

Rather than studying what it looks like, some archaeologists have investigated what it sounds like. The area from which the bluestones were transported is renowned for making stone bells. Stonehenge could be an enormous set of bells, a sound that would reverberate for miles. 

A concert experience

Mathematical analysis of Stonehenge’s acoustic properties found that the site had the same type of sound properties as premier concert halls. The sound produced by a few people playing percussion in the middle would have been an extraordinary experience for Neolithic man. 

Stonehenge today

After Stonehenge was abandoned around 3,000 years ago, it stood intact until around the 14th century. Over the next 400 years Christians tried to destroy the stones, believing them offensive due to their pagan origins.

The Stonehenge seen today is markedly different to how it was constructed originally. 

A gift to the nation

During medieval times, Stonehenge and the land around it was owned by an abbey. During King Henry VIII’s reign, the land was confiscated and passed into private ownership. In 1915 a local barrister bought the monument and lands for £6k and gifted it to the nation 3 years later

A story of decay

The 1800s was a difficult time as it was common practice to chip off pieces of stone as souvenirs and many people carved their name into the bluestone. The site was unsafe and in 1900 a trilithon collapsed. After England acquired the site, preservation and restoration work began

Deserving special protection

The most famous and sophisticated stone circle in the world, Stonehenge became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. The structure is now recognized as being of “outstanding international importance and therefore as deserving special protection.”

Visiting Stonehenge today

Over 1 million people a year visit Stonehenge, with the summer solstice drawing the largest crowds. Locals have free access to the site, which was a provision of the gifting in 1918, and visitors pay a small fee to view the stones. 

Now explore for yourself.

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