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Stonehenge is an ancient stone circle of early Britons situated in the English county of Wiltshire.
Stonehenge is a Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic monument. Stonehenge is located near Amesbury in the English county of Wiltshire. Stonehenge is about 8 miles (13 km) north of Salisbury. Stonehenge is composed of earthworks surrounding a circular setting of large standing stones and is one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world. Archaeologists think that the standing stones at Stonehenge were erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC although the surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC.
The site and its surroundings were added to the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1986 in a co-listing with Avebury henge monument, and it is also a legally protected Scheduled Ancient Monument. Stonehenge itself is owned and managed by English Heritage while the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust.
Christopher Chippindale's Stonehenge Complete gives the derivation of Stonehenge as coming from the Old English words "stan" meaning "stone", and either "hencg" meaning "hinge" (because the stone lintels hinge on the upright stones) or "hen(c)en" meaning "gallows" or "instrument of torture". Stonehenge is a "henge monument" meaning that it consists of menhirs (large rocks) in a circular formation. Medieval gallows consisted of two uprights with a lintel joining them, resembling Stonehenge's trilithons, rather than looking like the inverted L-shape more familiar today.
The "henge" portion has given its name to a class of monuments known as henges. Archaeologists define henges as earthworks consisting of a circular banked enclosure with an internal ditch. As often happens in archaeological terminology, this is a holdover from antiquarian usage, and Stonehenge cannot in fact be truly classified as a henge site as its bank is inside its ditch. Despite being contemporary with true Neolithic henges and stone circles, Stonehenge is in many ways atypical. For example, its extant trilithons make it unique. Stonehenge is only distantly related to the other stones circles in the British Isles, such as the Ring of Brodgar.
Development of Stonehenge.
The Stonehenge complex was built in several construction phases spanning 3,000 years, although there is evidence for activity both before and afterwards on the site.
Dating and understanding the various phases of activity at Stonehenge is not a simple task; it is complicated by poorly-kept early excavation records, surprisingly few accurate scientific dates and the disturbance of the natural chalk by periglacial effects and animal burrowing. The modern phasing most generally agreed by archaeologists is detailed below. Features mentioned in the text are numbered and shown on the plan, right, which illustrates the site as of 2004. The plan omits the trilithon lintels for clarity. Holes that no longer, or never, contained stones are shown as open circles and stones visible today are shown coloured.
Archaeologists have found four (or possibly five, although one may have been a natural tree throw) large Mesolithic postholes which date to around 8000 BC nearby, beneath the modern tourist car-park. These held pine posts around 0.75 m (2.4ft) in diameter which were erected and left to rot in situ. Three of the posts (and possibly four) were in an east-west alignment and may have had ritual significance; no parallels are known from Britain at the time but similar sites have been found in Scandinavia. At this time, Salisbury Plain was still wooded but four thousand years later, during the earlier Neolithic, a cursus monument was built 600 m north of the site as the first farmers began to clear the forest and exploit the area. Several other early Neolithic sites, a causewayed enclosure at Robin Hood's Ball and long barrow tombs were built in the surrounding landscape.
Stonehenge view: Mike Parker Pearson.
Mike Parker Pearson, leader of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, noted that Stonehenge was associated with burial from the earliest period of its existence:
Stonehenge evolved in several construction phases spanning at least 1500 years. There is evidence of large-scale construction on and around the monument that perhaps extends the landscape's time frame to 6500 years.
Scholars believe that Stonehenge once stood as a magnificent complete monument. This cannot be proved as around half of the stones that should be present are missing, and many of the assumed stone sockets have never been found. Dating and understanding the various phases of activity is complicated by disturbance of the natural chalk by periglacial effects and animal burrowing, poor quality early excavation records, and a lack of accurate, scientifically verified dates. The modern phasing most generally agreed to by archaeologists is detailed below. Features mentioned in the text are numbered and shown on the plan, right.
Stonehenge 1 (ca. 3100 BC).
The first monument consisted of a circular bank and ditch enclosure (7 and 8) measuring around 110 m (360 feet) in diameter with a large entrance to the north east and a smaller one to the south (14). It stood in open grassland on a slightly sloping but not especially remarkable spot. The builders placed the bones of deer and oxen in the bottom of the ditch as well as some worked flint tools. The bones were considerably older than the antler picks used to dig the ditch and the people who buried them had looked after them for some time prior to burial. The ditch itself was continuous but had been dug in sections, like the ditches of the earlier causewayed enclosures in the area. The chalk dug from the ditch was piled up to form the bank. This first stage is dated to around 3100 BC after which the ditch began to silt up naturally and was not cleared out by the builders. Within the outer edge of the enclosed area was dug a circle of 56 pits, each around 1 m in diameter (13), known as the Aubrey holes after John Aubrey, the seventeenth century antiquarian who was thought to have first identified them. The pits may have contained standing timbers, creating a timber circle although there is no excavated evidence of them. A small outer bank beyond the ditch could also date to this period (9).
Stonehenge 2 (ca. 3000 BC).
Evidence of the second phase is no longer visible. It appears from the number of postholes dating to this period that some form of timber structure was built within the enclosure during the early 3rd millennium BC. Further standing timbers were placed at the northeast entrance and a parallel alignment of posts ran inwards from the southern entrance. The postholes are smaller than the Aubrey Holes, being only around 0.4 m in diameter and are much less regularly spaced. The bank was purposely reduced in height and the ditch continued to silt up. At least twenty-five of the Aubrey Holes are known to have contained later, intrusive, cremation burials dating to the two centuries after the monument's inception. It seems that whatever the holes' initial function, it changed to become a funerary one during Phase 2. Thirty further cremations were placed in the enclosure's ditch and at other points within the monument, mostly in the eastern half. Stonehenge is therefore interpreted as functioning as an enclosed cremation cemetery at this time, the earliest known cremation cemetery in the British Isles. Fragments of unburnt human bone have also been found in the ditch fill. Late Neolithic grooved ware pottery has been found in connection with the features from this phase providing dating evidence.
Stonehenge 3 I (ca. 2600 BC).
Archaeological excavation has indicated that around 2600 BC, timber was abandoned in favour of stone and two concentric crescents of holes (called the Q and R Holes) were dug in the centre of the site. Again, there is little firm dating evidence for this phase. The holes held up to 80 standing stones (shown blue on the plan) 43 of which were derived from the Preseli Hills, 250 km away in modern day Pembrokeshire in Wales. Other standing stones may well have been small sarsens, used later as lintels. The far-travelled stones, which weighed about four tons, consisted mostly of spotted dolerite but included examples of rhyolite, tuff and volcanic and calcareous ash. Each measures around 2 m in height, between 1 m and 1.5 m wide and around 0.8 m thick. What was to become known as the Altar Stone (1), a six-ton specimen of green micaceous sandstone, twice the height of the bluestones, is derived from either South Pembrokeshire or the Brecon Beacons and may have stood as a single large monolith.
The north eastern entrance was also widened at this time with the result that it precisely matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset of the period. This phase of the monument was abandoned unfinished however, the small standing stones were apparently removed and the Q and R holes purposefully backfilled. Even so, the monument appears to have eclipsed the site at Avebury in importance towards the end of this phase and the Amesbury Archer, found in 2002 three miles (5 km) to the south, would have seen the site in this state.
The Heelstone (5) may also have been erected outside the north eastern entrance during this period although it cannot be securely dated and may have been installed at any time in phase 3. At first, a second stone, now no longer visible, joined it. Two, or possibly three, large portal stones were set up just inside the north eastern entrance of which only one, the fallen Slaughter Stone (4), 16 ft (4.9 m) long, now remains. Other features loosely dated to phase 3 include the four Station Stones (6), two of which stood atop mounds (2 and 3). The mounds are known as 'barrows' although they do not contain burials. The Avenue, (10), a parallel pair of ditches and banks leading 3 km to the River Avon was also added. Ditches were later dug around the Station Stones and the Heelstone, which was by then reduced to a single monolith.
Stonehenge 3 II (2450 BC to 2100 BC).
The next major phase of activity at the tail end of the 3rd millennium BC saw 30 enormous sarsen stones (shown grey on the plan) brought from a quarry around 24 miles (40 km) north to the site on the Marlborough Downs. The stones were dressed and fashioned with mortise and tenon joints before 30 were erected as a 33 m (108 ft) diameter circle of standing stones with a 'lintel' of 30 stones resting on top. The lintels were joined to one another using another woodworking method, the tongue in groove joint. Each standing stone was around 4.1 m (13.5 feet) high, 2.1 m (7.5 feet) wide and weighed around 25 tons. Each had clearly been worked with the final effect in mind; the orthostats widen slightly towards the top in order that their perspective remains constant as they rise up from the ground while the lintel stones curve slightly to continue the circular appearance of the earlier monument. The sides of the stones that face inwards are smoother and more finely worked than the sides that face outwards. The average thickness of these stones is 1.1 m (3.75 feet) and the average distance between them is 1 m (3.5 feet). A total of 74 stones would have been needed to complete the circle and unless some of the sarsens were removed from the site, it would seem that the ring was left incomplete. Of the lintel stones, they are each around 3.2 m long (10.5 feet), 1 m (3.5 feet) wide and 0.8 m (2.75 feet) thick. The tops of the lintels are 4.9 m (16 feet) above the ground.
Within this circle stood five trilithons of dressed sarsen stone arranged in a horseshoe shape 13.7 m (45 feet) across with its open end facing north east. These huge stones, ten uprights and five lintels, weigh up to 50 tons each and were again linked using complex jointings. They are arranged symmetrically; the smallest pair of trilithons were around 6 m (20 feet) tall, the next pair a little higher and the largest, single trilithon in the south west corner would have been 7.3 m (24 feet) tall. Only one upright from the Great Trilithon still stands; 6.7 m (22 ft) is visible and a further 2.4 m (8 feet) is below ground.
The images of a 'dagger' and 14 'axe-heads' have been recorded carved on one of the sarsens, known as stone 53. Further axe-head carvings have been seen on the outer faces of stones known as numbers 3, 4, and 5. They are difficult to date but are morphologically similar to later Bronze Age weapons; recent laser scanning work on the carvings supports this interpretation. The pair of trilithons in north east are smallest, measuring around 6 m (20 feet) in height and the largest is the trilithon in the south west of the horseshoe is almost 7.5 m (24 feet) tall.
This ambitious phase of Stonehenge is radiocarbon dated to between 2440 and 2100 BC.
Stonehenge 3 III.
Later in the Bronze Age, the bluestones appear to have been re-erected for the first time, although the precise details of this period are still unclear. They were placed within the outer sarsen circle and at this time may have been trimmed in some way. A few have timber working-style cuts in them like the sarsens themselves, suggesting they may have been linked with lintels and part of a larger structure during this phase.
Stonehenge 3 IV (2280 BC to 1930 BC).
This phase saw further rearrangement of the bluestones as they were placed in a circle between the two settings of sarsens and in an oval in the very centre. Some archaeologists argue that some of the bluestones in this period were part of a second group brought from Wales. All the stones were well-spaced uprights without any of the linking lintels inferred in Stonehenge 3 III. The Altar Stone may have been moved within the oval and stood vertically. Although this would seem the most impressive phase of work, Stonehenge 3 IV was rather shabbily built compared to its immediate predecessors, the newly re-installed bluestones were not at all well founded and began to fall over. However, only minor changes were made after this phase. Stonehenge 3 IV dates from 2280 to 1930 BC.
Stonehenge 3 V (2280 BC to 1930 BC).
Soon afterwards, the north eastern section of the Phase 3 IV Bluestone circle was removed, creating a horseshoe-shaped setting termed the Bluestone Horseshoe. This mirrored the shape of the central sarsen Trilithons and dates from 2270 to 1930 BC. This phase is contemporary with the famous Seahenge site in Norfolk.
Stonehenge: After the monument (1600 BC on).
Even though the last known construction of Stonehenge was about 1600 BC, and the last known usage of Stonehenge was during the Iron Age (if not as late as the 7th century), where Roman coins, prehistoric pottery, an unusual bone point and a skeleton of a young male (780-410 cal BC) were found, we have no idea if Stonehenge was in continuous use or exactly how it was used. The burial of a decapitated Saxon man has also been excavated from Stonehenge, dated to the 7th century. The site was known by scholars during the Middle Ages and since then it has been studied and adopted by numerous different groups. For further details of Stonehenge's historical role, see below.
Myths and legends of Stonehenge.
Stonehenge "Friar's Heel" or the "Sunday Stone".
The Heel Stone was once known as "Friar's Heel." A folk tale, which cannot be dated earlier than the seventeenth century, relates the origin of the name of this stone:
The Heel Stone was once known as "Friar's Heel." A folk tale, which cannot be dated earlier than the seventeenth century, relates the origin of the name of this stone:
The Devil bought the stones from a woman in Ireland, wrapped them up, and brought them to Salisbury plain. One of the stones fell into the Avon, the rest were carried to the plain. The Devil then cried out, "No-one will ever find out how these stones came here." A friar replied, "That's what you think!," whereupon the Devil threw one of the stones at him and struck him on the heel. The stone stuck in the ground and is still there.
Some claim "Friar's Heel" is a corruption of "Freyja's He-ol" or "Freyja Sul", from the Nordic goddess Freyja and (allegedly) the Welsh words for "way" and "Friday" respectively.
Stonehenge: Arthurian legend.
Stonehenge is also mentioned within Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth said that Merlin the wizard directed its removal from Ireland, where it had been constructed on Mount Killaraus by Giants, who brought the stones from Africa. After it had been rebuilt near Amesbury, Geoffrey further narrates how first Ambrosius Aurelianus, then Uther Pendragon, and finally Constantine III, were buried inside the ring of stones. In many places in his Historia Regum Britanniae Geoffrey mixes British legend and his own imagination; it is intriguing that he connects Ambrosius Aurelianus with this prehistoric monument, seeing how there is place-name evidence to connect Ambrosius with nearby Amesbury.
In World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics (3rd ed.), by Donna Rosenburg, on pp. 428-30, she summarizes the Stonehenge story of the definitive Arthur legend. By this the reader learns that, according to the legend of King Arthur, the rocks of Stonehenge were healing rocks from Africa. Giants brought them from Africa to Ireland for their healing properties. The second King of Britain, Aurelius Ambrosias (5th Century), wished to erect a memorial to the nobles (3000) who had died in battle with the Saxons. Those nobles were buried near Salisbury. With the help of Merlin, Aurelius made Stonehenge that monument. So the King sent Merlin, Uther Pendragon (Arthur's father), and 15,000 knights to Ireland to retrieve the rocks. They slew 7,000 Irish. As the knights tried to move the rocks with ropes and force, they failed. Then Merlin whispered incantations over the rocks and they became as light as pebbles. Then Stonehenge was dedicated in Britain. Shortly after, Aurelius died and was buried within the Stonehenge monument, or "The Giants' Ring of Stonehenge".
Stonehenge's recent history.
By the beginning of the 20th century a number of the stones had fallen or were leaning precariously, probably due to the increase in curious visitors clambering on them during the nineteenth century. Three phases of conservation work were undertaken which righted some unstable or fallen stones and carefully replaced them in their original positions using information from antiquarian drawings.
Stonehenge is a place of pilgrimage for neo-druids and those following pagan or neo-pagan beliefs. The midsummer sunrise began attracting modern visitors in 1870s, with the first record of recreated Druidic practices dating to 1905 when the Ancient Order of Druids enacted a ceremony. Despite efforts by archaeologists and historians to stress the differences between the Iron Age Druidic religion, the much older monument and modern Druidry, Stonehenge has become increasingly, almost inextricably, associated with British Druidism, Neo Paganism and New Age philosophy. After the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985 this use of the site was stopped for several years, and currently ritual use of Stonehenge is carefully controlled.
In more recent years, the setting of the monument has been affected by the proximity of the A303 road between Amesbury and Winterbourne Stoke, and the A344. In early 2003, the Department for Transport announced that the A303 would be upgraded, including the construction of the Stonehenge road tunnel. The controversial plans have not yet been finalised by the government.
The Stonehenge Cursus (sometimes known as the Greater Cursus) is a large Neolithic cursus monument next to Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.
It is roughly 3km long and between 100 and 150m wide. Excavations in 2007 dated the construction of the earthwork to between 3630 and 3375 BC. This makes the monument several hundred years older than the earliest phase of Stonehenge in 3000 BC. The cursus is part of the National Trust’s Stonehenge Landscape property.
Stonehenge cursus context.
Radiocarbon dating of a Red deer antler pick discovered at the bottom of the western terminal ditch suggests that the Stonehenge Cursus was first constructed between 3630 and 3375 BC. It is just under 3 km long, and is roughly 100m wide. Because of a slight difference in the alignment of its north and south ditches, it widens to a point nearly 150m near its western end. It is roughly aligned east-west and is orientated toward the sunrise on the spring and autumn equinoxes. There is a (later) Bronze Age round barrow inside the western end of the enclosure, and a large Neolithic long barrow was constructed at its east terminal. The Stonehenge Riverside Project excavated the remains of the long barrow in 2008 to determine if the barrow predated, or was contemporary with the cursus itself. The ditches of the cursus are not uniform and vary in width and depth. The eastern ditch is fairly shallow, as is the southern ditch - being only 0.75m deep and 1.8m wide at the top. At the western terminal, the ditch is 2m deep and 2.75m wide.
Like most cursus, its function is unclear, although it is believed to be ceremonial. The length of the cursus, running roughly east west, crosses a dry river valley known as Stonehenge Bottom. This may have been a winterbourne during the Neolithic era. If so, this would give it similar characteristics to other cursus, such as the Dorset Cursus, and it may be related to a ceremonial function. It has also been suggested that the Stonehenge Cursus acts as a boundary between areas of settlement and ceremonial activity. The cursus is also aligned on the equinox sunrise which rises over the eastern long barrow.
Stonehenge cursus excavation.
William Stukeley was the first antiquarian to identify and record the Stonehenge Cursus, although he incorrectly assumed it to be Roman in origin. In 1947 John FS Stone excavated a small area of the southern ditch toward the west end of the cursus. He discovered a small chipping of bluestone and an antler pick in a specially dug recess that dated from approximately 2500BC.
In 2007, the Stonehenge Riverside Project dug three trenches at the western end of the cursus, discovering the antler pick at the western terminus ditch. A trench in the northern ditch uncovered a sherd of pottery tentatively dated to the 4th millennium BC. A trench at the southern ditch found evidence of recuts into the originals ditch, approximately around 2500 BC (when Stones antler was deposited), and again between 2000 and 1500 BC.
Stonehenge Amesbury 42 Long Barrow.
Just beyond the eastern terminal of the Cursus is a Neolithic long barrow, orientated north-south. It was noted by William Stukeley in 1723 and Richard Colt Hoare in 1810, and was excavated by John Thurnam in 1868, recovering an ox skull and some secondary inhumations. The barrow has since been levelled and is now underneath a bridleway running along King Barrow Ridge. The 2m deep eastern ditch of the barrow was excavated once in the 1980’s by Julian Richards and his team for the Stonehenge Environs Project, although they failed to find any dateable material. The Stonehenge Riverside Project excavated the ditch once more in 2008.
As long ago as 1979, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments recommended that the barrow should be better protected, by diverting the bridleway around it and clearing the woodland between it and the cursus. This is yet to happen however.
Stonehenge: The Lesser Cursus.
750m northwest of the western end of the Stonehenge Cursus lies the Lesser Cursus, a 400m long and 60m wide earthwork orientated west-southwest - north-northeast. Although its banks and ditches survived into the 20th century, ploughing since World War II has levelled it and it is only visible today as a cropmark. The Lesser Cursus was excavated in 1983 as part of the Stonehenge Environs Project. They discovered that the original earthworks was only half its current length, but was then extended. They also concluded, as had previously been thought, that it had no eastern terminal. The ditches and banks simply stop leaving the eastern end open. The project also discovered several red deer antler picks that have dated the monument to approximately 3000BC.
Access to the Stonehenge Cursus.
The Stonehenge Cursus is entirely located in the Stonehenge Landscape property’s open access land and is therefore free to visit. It is located 700m north of Stonehenge and is easily reached via the bridleway heading north from Stonehenge car park. The Lesser Cursus is on arable land, although a permissive path goes near it. However, as it is only visible as a cropmark, there is nothing to see. Amesbury 42 long barrow is under a bridleway at the far eastern end of the Greater Cursus.
Stonehenge Long barrow.
A long barrow is a prehistoric monument dating to the early Neolithic period. They are rectangular or trapezoidal earth mounds traditionally interpreted as collective tombs. Long barrows are also typical for several Celtic, Slavic, and Baltic cultures of Northern Europe of the 1st millennium AD.
Long barrows in the United Kingdom.
Around 300 are known from Scotland and England with a concentration of the monuments in southern and eastern England. Elsewhere in the British Isles Neolithic people buried their dead in Megalithic tombs.
Archaeological excavation indicated that the construction of the earth barrow was the last phase in a complex sequence connected with the ritual inhumation of the dead that took place in British society between around 4000 and 2400 BC. Many long barrow sites started off as small rectangular enclosures of earth banks topped by a timber palisade, constituting a mortuary enclosure. Within this was built a wooden room-sized mortuary chamber with large supporting posts. Sometimes a grand timber entrance was also built along with an avenue of wooden posts. Human remains were placed in this chamber, sometimes all at once and sometimes over a period of time. Often the bones found in them are disarticulated, implying that the bodies were subjected to exposure and excarnation prior to burial or that they were buried elsewhere and exhumed for the purposes of placing in the barrow. Rarely are whole skeletons found and it seems that only long bones and skulls survived until the final interment.
Up to fifty separate individuals were placed in each enclosure, males, females and children. There is only limited evidence for grave goods in these collective interments despite the belief that such individuals enjoyed high-status. The chambers were then surrounded and covered by large stone cairns or were set alight in the case of examples in Yorkshire. Only after these procedures was the earth barrow constructed over the top of the dead. The barrow was often far larger than the original mortuary enclosure and used material excavated from ditches dug along the long sides of the enclosure. Some barrows when excavated produced evidence of the mounds being partitioned by wattle fences which served no apparent structural purpose.
A similar group of chambered long barrows contain stone burial chambers, constructed from slabs. These may come from a different tradition or may indicate a differences in design caused by the availability of usable materials.
In many cases, weathering and ploughing during the intervening centuries along with early archaeological excavations and looting have left only the stone parts of the chambered monuments extant whilst some earth and timber long barrows may only survive beneath the surface. Others however are still visible in the countryside as barrows between 15 and 125m long and surviving to heights of 4-5m.
50% of the long barrows in Gloucestershire, 66% in Hampshire, 80% in Lincolnshire and almost all the burial mounds in Essex have been damaged. According to English Heritage modern tillage techniques have done as much damage in the last 6 decades as traditional tilling did in 6 centuries.
It has been conjectured that long barrows are derived from the timber long houses built by the continental Neolithic European Linearbandkeramic culture which was contemporary with the British Mesolithic. Archaeologists including Ian Hodder have noted similarities between the two forms although a significant number of long mounds in southern England have been demonstrated more recently to have limited primary evidence of burial at all. Traditionally, these structures have been interpreted as 'houses' for the dead and that barrow builders may have continued this old idea in the Neolithic and later periods. In those long barrows that do contain appreciable quantities of human remains, their concentration in just one small part of the overall structure has led some to argue that the long barrow was not merely a repository for the dead but also a general monument acting as a territorial marker, a place of religious offering and a community centre. Some appear to have been built over pre-existing occupation sites which may support this interpretation. Chambered long barrows however do appear to have been primarily intended as burial sites.
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