Megalithic Stone Circle: History, Architecture, Interpretation.

Pin it

Stonehenge Stone Circle (2000)
A centre of Megalithic architecture
and Neolithic Tomb Culture.

Stonehenge (c.3100-1100 BCE)


History and Construction
Megalithic Art
The Architects: Who Built Stonehenge?
Interpretation: What is the Meaning of Stonehenge?
Neolithic Culture

For a chronological background,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For early prehistoric works, see:
Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Works.


Probably the world's most famous individual example of megalithic art, the Neolithic stone monument at Stonehenge is located on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, in England. Consisting of a number of earth and timber structures, as well as the celebrated stone circle of megaliths - including five huge trilithons at its centre measuring over 24 feet in height - it was built in stages over a period of about two thousand years (c.3100-1100 BCE). While it is known mainly for its Stone Age architecture, it also contains numerous megalithic petroglyphs, and rock engravings. The monument is at the centre of a dense web of other Neolithic monuments including hundreds of prehistoric burial mounds. As to why Stonehenge was built in the first place, archeologists believe it was probably a multifunctional site of Neolithic tomb culture, involved in burial, ancestor worship and healing. At any rate, there seems no doubt that by 2000 BCE, the site had become the most important ceremonial centre in southern England. In 1986 the site was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites, along with the Avebury Henge monument, also in Wiltshire. The Stonehenge site is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage. The surrounding land is owned by the British National Trust. Most of our present knowledge about the complex is based chiefly on archeological investigations conducted since 1919, and particularly since 1950.



Note: a "henge" is a circular earthwork comprising of a ditch ringed by bank of earth and stones. Thus Stonehenge is not a typical henge since its ditch is outside its bank.

History and Construction: When Was Stonehenge Built?

The origins of Stonehenge as a prehistoric site go back to at least the 9th millennium BCE - the era of Mesolithic art - when the area was still wooded. A number of large Mesolithic postholes have been found, dating to 8000 BCE, all of which originally held pine uprights nearly 3-feet in diameter, similar to several others found in Scandinavia. Later, during the succeeding period of Neolithic art, a causewayed enclosure plus some 460 long barrow tombs were built in the locality, notably West Kennet long barrow (c.3600 BCE). The largest underground burial chamber in England, it was the scene of some 45 burials of important tribal figures over 24 generations. About 3500 BCE, a cursus was constructed half a mile north of the site, as part of a general clearance of the area.

The construction of the Stonehenge monument began some four centuries later, and took place in three main stages.



Stonehenge Stage 1 (c.3100 BCE)

This first stage saw the creation of a 360 ft diameter enclosure on slightly sloping grassland, which consisted of a ditch (20 ft wide, up to 7 feet deep). Apart from two entrances to the north-east and south, the ditch was continuous, and its inside bank was built up using the excavated earth and chalky rubble. Around much of the outer edge of the enclosed area some 56 pits were dug, each about 3 ft in diameter. Christened "Aubrey holes" after John Aubrey, the 17th-century archeologist who first identified them, the pits were probably intended as postholes, although no traces of timber have been found. Some evidence suggests that the holes were designed to take stone slabs. If true, this would add 500 years to the age of Stonehenge as a megalithic site.

Stonehenge 2 (c.3000 BCE)

A number of upright timbers were erected in various patterns inside the enclosure during this period. Meantime the ditch began silting up and eventually half of the Aubrey Holes were used as tombs for cremation burials, as were other newly dug holes. These changes suggest that Stonehenge was really not much more than a Neolithic necropolis at this time.

Stonehenge 3 - Phase I (c.2600 BCE)

About 2600 BCE, Stonehenge's occupants began using stone instead of timber. They dug two concentric circles of holes (known as Q and R Holes) in the middle of the enclosure, which held as many as 80 upright bluestone pillars, each weighing about 4 tons, and measuring roughly 6 ft in height, 5 feet in width. (Subsequently, these stones were removed and their holes refilled.) The north-east entrance to the enclosure was widened so as to align it with the midsummer and midwinter solstices. It was probably during this period that other large megaliths were erected, including the Altar Stone, the Heel Stone and the Slaughter Stone, to name but three. In addition, several mounds were created, as well as a 2-mile long "Avenue" - consisting of a pair of parallel ditches and banks - which led to the River Avon.

Stonehenge 3 - Phase II (2600-2400 BCE)

During this phase, Stonehenge's builders constructed a 100 ft diameter stone circle in the centre of the enclosure, using 30 massive Oligocene-Miocene sarsen stones, which were given mortise and tenon joints before being erected and topped with a ring of 30 lintel stones, fitted together using the tongue and groove joint. Each of these sarsens was about 13 ft high, 7 ft wide and weighed around 25 tons. The height of each trilithon (upright plus lintel) was about 16 ft. More importantly, in the context of prehistoric art, each megalith had been sculpted for optimum effect. Thus each orthostat had been widened towards the top to offer a constant perspective when seen from the ground, while the lintels have a slight curve to enhance the monument's circular effect. Moreover, the inward-facing surfaces are smoother than the outer surfaces.

In addition, inside this stone circle, Stonehenge's architects erected a horseshoe of five enormous trilithons (3-stone strctures) of sarsen stone, with its open end facing north east. Each of the 15 stones weighed up to 50 tons, and stood between 20 and 24 ft in height.

Other monuments appeared in the area during this period, including Silbury Hill which - at 130 ft in height, 500 ft in diameter, and covering an area of 5 acres - is the biggest man-made mound in Europe. Built about 2660 BCE, a century before Avebury henge, it contains no graves or shrines, but nevertheless exemplifies the cultural and architectural ambitions of Neolithic man. Other important monuments include the massive circular earthwork built some 2 miles away by the River Avon at Durrington Walls, and the megalithic monument at Avebury. The latter, erected between 2500 and 2200 BCE, not long after the arrival of the sarsens at Stonehenge, occupies about 30 acres and is the largest stone circle in Europe. It consists of some 100 megaliths, ringed by a 20 foot high ring mound. Woodhenge, located about a mile north-east of Stonehenge, was another henge enclosure. About the same size as Stonehenge, it contained several concentric circles of timber uprights.

Later Construction Work (2280-1100 BCE)

During the period 2280-1930 BCE the bluestones were rearranged in a circle between the two rings of sarsens and in an oval arrangement at the centre of the sarsen horseshoe. The work was not up to previous standards and many of the stones tilted or fell over. Further bluestone rearrangements took place during the period 1930-1600, while about 1550 two concentric rings of holes (known as Y and Z holes) were dug just outside the sarsen circle. These were later filled in. About 1100 BCE the Avenue was extended both eastwards and southeastwards for about 1.5 miles, indicating that the Stonehenge site was still in use and under development. (See also: Bronze Age Art.)

Visited by the Roman general Vespasian, who built a camp alongside the Avenue near the River Avon, Stonehenge was known throughout Anglo-Saxon Britain and studied by a series of medieval scholars. Sadly, over time, the megalithic site has shrunk considerably, with many of its stone slabs having been purloined by builders and others. Its architectural features have also been affected by centuries of erosion and weather.

Megalithic Art

Although Stonehenge is known mainly for its cultural contribution to Neolithic architectural design, the site also features a certain amount of rock art, such as carvings and engravings. This collection of rock carvings, mostly created after 1800 BCE, has been described by one expert as the most significant gallery of ancient art in Britain. For instance, carvings of weaponry including a dagger, some cups and 14 axeheads have been discovered on one of the sarsens (stone 53); more carvings have been found on a number of other stones, all quite similar to late Bronze Age weapons. Recent laser scanning investigations of the surface of three stones, have suggested that other pictographs, geometric symbols and abstract signs - too weak to be seen by the human eye - may be detectable on other stones.

Who Built Stonehenge?

Archeologists believe that three groups were involved: the Windmill Hill people, the Beaker people, and the Wess-x people.

The Windmill Hill people originated in eastern England, and are named after their nearby earthworks and barrows. It is thought that they constructed the large circular furrows and mounds. One of the earliest semi-nomadic hunting and gathering groups with an agricultural economy, they attached great importance to circles and symmetrical design. The Beaker people - so-called because of their tradition of including beakers, or pottery cups, in their graves - are thought to have migrated from Spain. A progressive, well-organized but warlike people, they buried their dead not in mass graves but in small individual tombs marked by mounds called tumuli. The Beaker folk included a range of weaponry in their graves, like daggers and battle-axes - coinciding exactly with the engravings of weaponry found on some of the sarsen stones. The Wess-x People, who appeared about 1500 BCE, were the final builders of Stonehenge. One of the most advanced Bronze Age cultures outside the Mediterranean area, whose main settlements were invariably located close to important road junctions, they controlled trade routes throughout the south of the country.

Interpretation: What is the Meaning of Stonehenge?

According to Professor G. Wainwright OBE, FSA, and Professor Timothy Darvill OBE, Stonehenge was in all probability a place of healing – a prehistoric version of Lourdes. This explains the large number of burials in the area, as well as the unusually high incidence of limblessness and physical deformity in the graves. Even so, they agree with other experts that the complex was almost certainly multifunctional: being also used as a necropolis and a ceremonial place of ancestor worship. In comparison, Professor Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University is of the opinion that Stonehenge was an important ritualistic centre. He believes that Stonehenge (a domain of the dead) was linked to the circle at Durrington Walls (a place of the living). One should also note that the architects of Stonehenge incorporated a celestial alignment. The site is aligned northeast-southwest, linking up with the solstice and equinox points: thus, on midsummer's morning for instance, the sun's first rays go directly into the centre of the monument through the arms of the sarsen horseshoe. Conversely, at the moment of the winter solstice, the sun sets exactly between the largest sarsen stones. Whether this spectacular coincidence had a purely ceremonial or quasi-religious function, or whether - like the alignments at Newgrange Megalithic passage tomb and the larger Knowth megalithic tomb - it might have helped to regulate farming activities like planting and harvesting, will probably never be known. (See also, Archeological Monuments in Ireland.)

Neolithic Culture

Unlike Stone Age art from the Upper Paleolithic - which consisted mostly of cave art and small "venus figurines", Neolithic art is primarily associated with pottery, textiles and monumental megalithic architecture. The oldest art involving stone structures is to be found at Gobekli Tepe (9000 BCE) and Catal Huyuk (c.6100 BCE) - both in Turkey. It consists of shallow relief sculpture and numerous engravings. Brittany and Ireland were also home to important centres of megalithic culture, such as the Barnenez mound (c.4800 BCE), the Carnac stones (c.4000 BCE) and Gavrinis (c.3500 BCE), Newgrange (c.3100 BCE), and Knowth (c.2500 BCE).

Outside Europe, the most famous form of megalithic culture are the famous Egyptian pyramids, dating from about 2600 BCE onwards. For more details about the pyramids as well as individual megaliths like the Sphinx at Giza, see: Ancient Egyptian Architecture (c.3000 BCE - 160 CE).

• For information about prehistoric megaliths, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.