The second major phase at Stonehenge is marked by the construction of the central stone settings. There are two types of stones at Stonehenge – the larger sarsens and the smaller 'bluestones'. 'Bluestone' is the name used to refer to all the non-sarsen stones at Stonehenge.
The bluestones are of varied geology but largely seem to have come from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales. New geological research is currently being carried out to identify the sites of their origin more accurately. How the stones were transported for over 250km (156 miles) to Stonehenge remains unknown, but it is probable that a combination of human transport via rivers and the sea, and hauling over land, brought them to the site. Some people think that the bluestones were brought to Salisbury Plain by glacial action, but this theory is not widely accepted by archaeologists.
The larger sarsen stones are a type of silicified sandstone, a stone found scattered across southern England. Most archaeologists believe that these stones were brought from the Marlborough Downs, where great quantities of sarsens still lie scattered in the landscape, although the exact location of their origin is not known.
Circles and Horseshoes
Existing evidence suggests that the 'bluestones' were the first stones to be erected at Stonehenge, in a double circle. From the stones that remain on site today, it can be seen that some were shaped to enable them to fit together with others; two have mortice holes and others have signs of tenons. This suggests that either in this first arrangement or perhaps at another site altogether, these bluestones formed a lintelled arrangement.
The sarsens were erected in two concentric arrangements – an inner horseshoe of five trilithons (two vertical stones capped by a third horizontal lintel) and an outer circle of 30 uprights with continuous lintels.
The sarsen stones weigh on average 25 tonnes and were transported to the site, dressed, erected and secured together with sophisticated joints – a remarkable achievement. The sarsen stones were worked using hammerstones and mauls. This probably took place to the north of the monument where dressing floors have been found.
At the same time or earlier, the unshaped stones close to the entrance were raised, along with the four Station Stones on the periphery of the monument. These stones may relate to the setting out of the monument, or to solstitial and lunar alignments.
Alignments at Stonehenge
Later, the bluestones were re-arranged to form a circle and inner oval (which was again later altered to form a horseshoe). Near the centre of Stonehenge was the Altar Stone, now fallen, which may have stood upright.
Once the stone settings were erect, the Avenue was built to connect Stonehenge with the River Avon and the small henge on its bank, discovered in 2008, at West Amesbury. Today the Avenue can be seen in part as low parallel banks enclosing a corridor about 12m wide.
The main axis of Stonehenge is aligned upon the solstitial axis. At midsummer, the sun rises over the horizon to the north-east, to the west of the Heel Stone (and possibly between it and its lost partner, Stone 97).
At midwinter, the sun sets in the south-west, in the gap between the two tallest trilithons, one of which has now fallen. These times in the seasonal cycle were obviously important to the prehistoric people who built and used Stonehenge.
Who Built Stonehenge and Why?
Who built Stonehenge? To the best of our current knowledge, it was the native inhabitants of Britain, who at that time were practising a lifestyle of herding animals and small-scale agriculture. They were skilled flint-workers and used pottery known as Grooved Ware.
It is likely that the people who built and used Stonehenge occupied the seasonal settlement at the site of Durrington Walls. At other times of the year they may have travelled across a wide area of southern England. These people must have had sophisticated contact networks, supreme organisational skills and a remarkable dedication to their cosmological beliefs.
What was Stonehenge for? Cremation burials continued at Stonehenge until at least the time the sarsens were erected, but neither this funerary activity nor the solstitial alignments seem to be the sole reason for the presence of such a sophisticated monument.
It appears to have been a ceremonial site of great importance for the people of the late Neolithic, a temple where appropriate ceremonies marked the passing of time, seasons and cycles of life and death.
Various theories have been proposed about Stonehenge: a place of Druid worship, or an astronomical computer. Newer theories have suggested the role of Stonehenge as a centre of ancestor worship or as a cult place of healing.
Detailed Plan of the Stones
A detailed plan of the stones at Stonehenge can be downloaded from the right-hand side of this page.
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