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The Nature and Purpose of Stonehenge

Updated on June 15, 2017
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John is a professional librarian, now semi-retired, who writes articles based on material gleaned from obscure books and journals.

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Stonehenge

Stonehenge is arguably the world’s most famous stone circle, and it is an iconic image of the Stone Age/Bronze Age. It has been the subject of a vast amount of scientific investigation over several centuries, and yet its true purpose has never been established with any certainty.

Travelers on the A303 in Wiltshire, southern England, are made dramatically aware of Stonehenge as it appears ahead of them, rising starkly above the bare chalk downs two miles west of the small town of Amesbury. The numerous banks, ditches and burial mounds that are still visible in this area are clear evidence that, in times gone by, this was an important centre of population.

It is quite possible that the purpose of Stonehenge changed over the time during which it was built, and it is very clear that its construction took place over a very long time span, occupying three distinct phases.

Phase I

Phase I of construction dates from around 3100 to 2900 BCE, with the creation of the circular bank and ditch, about 300 feet in diameter, that surrounds the site. Just inside the bank 56 post holes were dug, each of which would presumably have held a wooden post. These are what are now known as the Aubrey holes, which take their name from John Aubrey, a writer and antiquary, who referred to them in a work dating from 1666. It is not known why these holes were dug, although it is possible that they could have been an astronomical calculator or maybe a crude form of calendar, the idea being that a post would be moved to a different hole at different times of the year.

Plan of Phase I, with Aubrey holes in white
Plan of Phase I, with Aubrey holes in white | Source

Phase II

Whatever their function, it is clear that it was not continued during the later development of Stonehenge, for there is evidence that most of the holes were filled in with cremation deposits. During Phase II, dating from around 2900-2400 BCE, there is evidence of timber constructions at the centre of the circle and the north-eastern entrance. Over a 500-year period there would clearly have been many changes to the buildings in question, and it is impossible to work out exactly what these would have looked like at any particular time.

However, the above-mentioned deposits found in the Aubrey holes and elsewhere, that appear to be the results of cremations, suggest that the function of Stonehenge at this time was as a central tribal site for the conducting of funerals. One can imagine that any wooden and thatched buildings would have been at great risk of catching fire under these circumstances, hence the confusion caused by the many post-holes and evident rebuilding over a huge span of time.

Bluestones in the Preseli Hills
Bluestones in the Preseli Hills | Source

Phase III

It was only after the site had been in use for around 500 years that the first stones arrived. Phase III is dated from around 2550-1600 BCE and has been divided by archaeologists into several sub-phases. It also overlaps with Phase II, indicating a time when there were both stone and timber constructions in place, and therefore a possible continuation of the original purpose.

The first stones to arrive were bluestones, so called for their bluish-black coloration, that can only have come from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales, involving a journey of more than two hundred miles by land and sea, a considerable undertaking for Bronze Age people. Although the stones in question are considerably smaller than the giant lintel-bearing sarsen stones that typify Stonehenge for most people, these bluestones would have weighed about four tons each, standing about six feet high, and more than 80 of them were transported in all.

For all that effort to have been made, there must clearly have been a specific reason. If the site had been used for hundreds of years for cremations, and ceremonies had been marred by accidental fires as speculated above, there may well have been an intention to create a more permanent site. Travellers could have arrived with stories of mysterious colored stones from distant mountains, possibly used for a similar purpose by the Welsh tribes.

(There is a theory, advanced by some, that the bluestones were glacial erratics that were found much closer to Stonehenge than West Wales. However, this idea poses a whole raft of other questions relating to the nature and direction of glacial deposition in the region)

It may also have been thought that funerals of important people deserved special rites, and the establishment of a special place for these was therefore necessary. It is noticeable in Victorian cemeteries in North Wales that the common people were buried under headstones made from local slate, but Scottish granite was used for the graves of “quality” people. In Scotland, the opposite is the case. Going to extra trouble to mark the passing of an important person may well date from the Stonehenge era and beyond; after all, this was also the time when Egyptian pharaohs were being buried inside vast pyramids.

Another possibility is that the bluestones were thought to have healing properties, and that the site was therefore a place of worship and healing. A current archaeological investigation of empty bluestone holes hopes to produce evidence that could strengthen this claim.

It is evident that the original plan to build a complete bluestone circle was never completed, and that at various stages these were moved into new configurations. However, the arrival of the sarsens, which completely dwarf the bluestones, would seem to mark a total change of mind about how the site should look, and possibly there is a change of purpose inherent as well.

The upright sarsens weigh about 50 tons each, and would have been brought overland for the whole of their journey from the Marlborough Downs, some 20 miles away. These massive stones, up to 20 feet high (they stand about 13 feet above the ground, but the amount below ground varies) were also shaped with primitive tools that must have taken vast numbers of man-hours to achieve. It has indeed been estimated that the whole construction of Stonehenge, throughout its history, must have consumed around thirty million hours of labour. However, despite the hugely long history of Stonehenge, it is quite possible that the main period of construction, of the raising of the main stones, took no more than three years to complete.

One feature of Stonehenge that sets it apart from the many other stone circles that have been built in Britain (at least 900) is that the uprights were linked by stone lintels, some of which are still in place. Every upright stone (originally 30 of them in the outer circle) was carved to leave a protruding knob that would fit into a groove or bowl on the lintel stone placed on top. These joints were obviously so well engineered that part of the original ring is still linked by lintels 4,000 years later. In the days before spirit levels, ensuring that all the uprights were at the same height, thus enabling all the lintels to fit, must have been a remarkable achievement in itself.

Inside the main circle, a horseshoe of the most massive sarsens was erected in five pairs, known as trilithons, each pair joined by a lintel. Outside the circle, other stones were erected, including four “station stones” at intervals just inside the Aubrey holes, two of them surrounded by banks and ditches. In line with the open horseshoe are the so-called “slaughter stone” and the heel stone, the latter of which is outside the outer ditch and bank but in the entrance way to the site. Another significant stone is the so-called “altar stone”, inside the trilithon horseshoe, because it appears to have always been horizontal, and it is of a type of sandstone that is unique to Stonehenge, having come from South Wales.

There is also evidence that Stonehenge was originally planned to be even bigger than it was. Two more complete rings of holes were dug outside the main circle, suggesting that at least 60 more stones could have been erected.


"Foamhenge": a reconstruction of Stonehenge showing bluestones and sarsens
"Foamhenge": a reconstruction of Stonehenge showing bluestones and sarsens | Source

Why Was It Built?

So what was the purpose of the “new” Stonehenge? Much has been made of the way that the stones align with the rising sun at the summer solstice on 21st June. This has given rise to the annual ceremony performed by “druids” and the belief that Stonehenge was built as an astronomical observatory.

However, it has also been suggested that the midwinter solstice in December would have had greater significance for the builders of Stonehenge. After all, the reason why we celebrate Christmas when we do is because the Church fathers sought to counteract the pagan festivals that were celebrated at this time of year. This was a time when food was in short supply and it was a cause for celebration that the days would now lengthen and bring promise of new growth. Whether this involved religious practices is a moot point.

So, what was Stonehenge for? The evidence seems to point to a variety of purposes over the course of its history, from cremation site to temple and observatory. However, the fact remains that it was clearly a site of considerable significance for thousands of years. Many questions remain, and some may never be answered!

Sunrise at the Summer Solstice
Sunrise at the Summer Solstice | Source

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