Located 13 km from Salisbury in Wiltshire, Stonehenge is one of the most famous prehistoric monuments in the world.
The first major construction at Stonehenge was a circular ditch, with an inner and outer bank built about 3000 BCE. With its two entrances, the ditch enclosed an area about 100 metres in diameter. Today the banks are visible as low grass earthworks, but a great part of the external bank has been ploughed up. The ditch on the eastern side was excavated in the 1920’s making it deeper than the western side.
It is generally believed that the first construction there took the form of wooden structures, which were contained within the bank and ditch, whilst just inside the bank were 56 pits, which became known as the Aubrey Holes (named after John Aubrey who discovered them in the 17th century). These were thought to have held the timber posts. It is believed that the use of timber was replaced by stone around 2600 BCE and an array of holes were dug for them in the centre of the site. Around the Aubrey Holes, and in the ditch, evidence has been found that it was used as a cemetery with perhaps 150 people having been buried there, making it the largest late Neolithic cemetery in the British Isles.
Stonehenge, as we see it today, with its lintelled stone circle with enormous sarsens (large sandstone blocks) and smaller bluestones (The term "bluestone" refers to the collection of smaller stones) was erected in the late Neolithic period around 2500 BCE.
The sarsens, some of which weigh over 30 tonnes, were probably brought from the Marlborough Downs, 19 miles to the north, while the bluestones (weighing up to 3 tonnes) came over 150 miles from the Preseli Hills in Wales. The stones were dressed then erected and held in position by interlocking joints, which can be seen at the top of some of the stones and in the replica found by the display of huts near the museum at the visitors centre.
The sarsens were erected in two concentric arrangements – an inner horseshoe and an outer circle –the bluestones were set up between them in a double arc. It is believed that the stones in the centre of the monument; the sarsens close to the entrance, and the four Station Stones on the periphery were set up about the same time.
Four of the sarsens at Stonehenge contained carvings depicting axe-heads and daggers, probably dating from about 1750–1500 BCE. It is believed that axes were a symbol of power or status in the early Bronze Age. Various stones have fallen or are missing, making the original plan difficult to understand. The earthwork Avenue connecting Stonehenge with the river Avon was constructed about 200 or 300 years later.
Two rings of concentric pits, known as the Y and Z holes, were constructed between 1800 and 1500 BCE which may have been intended for additional stones, although these were never completed.
At the north east of the sarsen circle at the end of Stonehenge Avenue is a rough stone standing 4.9 metres (12 feet) high which leans slightly towards the stone circle. This is known as the Heel Stone, although it has also been known as Frier’s Heel and the Sun-stone. It is possible that this and the low mound known as the ‘North Barrow’ were the earliest part of Stonehenge.
The purpose of Stonehenge is not known with certainty, but it is believed to have had a spiritual connection for the people. Certainly, the burials found there would seem to indicate this, as would its alignment, as the structure is aligned so that at the Summer Solstice the sun rises about the heel stone and its rays shine into the centre of Stonehenge. Likewise at the Winter Solstice it marks when the short days will turn to herald the return of the summer.
Stonehenge remained important into the early Bronze Age, when many burial mounds were built around the site on hilltops, forming one of the greatest concentrations of round barrows in Britain - many being visible from Stonehenge itself.
It is known that Stonehenge was frequently visited in Roman times, as many Roman objects have been found there. In 1897, a great deal of land on Salisbury Plain was purchased by the Ministry of Defence as an army training exercises area. Stonehenge was in private ownership until 1918, when Cecil Chubb gave it to the nation. Its conservation then became the responsibility of the Nation, and is it is currently undertaken by English Heritage.
From 1927, the National Trust began to acquire the land around Stonehenge in order to restore it to grassland. Today the monument has a new visitor centre which opened in December 2013. The centre is located 2 km west of the monument, just off the A360. Consisting of a museum, containing a number of artefacts found at the site, it holds the reconstructed face of one who lived and died here in Neolithic times. The centre also has a wraparound screen to enable visitors to see Stonehenge at different stages of its existence and at different times of the day and year. It also contains a shop, café and a number of replica huts designed to give us an idea of life during the Bronze Age.