Before looking in detail at the phases of Stonehenge itself, it is worth exploring what the landscape looked like before Stonehenge was built. Why was Stonehenge built in this particular location? Some clues may lie in the landscape and the earlier history of the area.
At a time when much of the rest of southern England was largely covered by woodland, the chalk downland in the area of Stonehenge may have been an unusually open landscape in the Mesolithic period. It is possible that this open area was significant to prehistoric people and this is why it later became the site of a monument complex.
Recent excavations and geophysical surveys have suggested the possible importance of geological features called periglacial stripes. They run parallel to the banks of the avenue and across the site of Stonehenge and align in places on the solstice axis. It is possible that these geological stripes may have been visible on the ground in early prehistory and could have led prehistoric people to believe that this was a special place.
Mesolithic activity at Stonehenge
The earliest sign of human activity we have in the area around Stonehenge was revealed during excavations in the area of the car park in the 1960s and 1980s. Here, four or five pits, three of which appear to have held large pine posts were erected in the Mesolithic period, between 8500 and 7000 BC. It is not known how, or if at all, these posts, described as ‘totem-pole like structures’, relate to the later monument of Stonehenge.
Early Neolithic monuments
Before Stonehenge was built, the area was the site of an early Neolithic monument complex. It included the causewayed enclosure at Robin Hood’s Ball, two cursus monuments (the Greater and Lesser Cursus) and several long barrows, all dating from the middle of the 4th millennium BC (the centuries around 3500 BC).
The presence of these monuments which appear to have been maintained or at least remembered for many hundreds of years may have influenced the later location of Stonehenge nearby.
Plan of the Stonehenge site
A plan of the Stonehenge site can be downloaded from the right-hand side of this page.
1. Allen, M J and Scaife, R 2007. ‘A new downland prehistory: long-term environmental change on the southern English chalklands’, in A Fleming and R Hingley (eds) 'Prehistoric and Roman Landscapes. Landscape History after Hoskins, Volume 1', Windgather Press
2. Parker Pearson, M, Marshall, P, Pollard, J, Richards, C, Thomas, J and Welham, K forthcoming 2011. ‘Stonehenge’ in 'The Oxford Encyclopaedia of European Prehistory'
3. Vatcher, G and Vatcher, F 1973. ‘Excavation of three post-holes in Stonehenge car park’, 'Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine', 68, 57–63