Significance of Stonehenge

Stonehenge is a unique prehistoric monument, at the centre of an extraordinary archaeological landscape so rich and varied that it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1986. It is a rich source for the study of prehistory and holds a pivotal place in the development of archaeology.

Stonehenge from the north-east, showing a well-preserved section of the outer sarsen circle

Stonehenge from the north-east, showing a well-preserved section of the outer sarsen circle

World Heritage Site

The World Heritage Site Management Plan summarises the significance, or outstanding universal value, of the site as follows:

‘The Stonehenge, Avebury, and Associated Sites World Heritage Site is internationally important for its complexes of outstanding prehistoric monuments. Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world, while Avebury is the largest in the world. Together with inter-related monuments and their associated landscapes, they help us to understand Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial and mortuary practices. They demonstrate around 2000 years of continuous use and monument building between c. 3700 and 1600 BC. As such they represent a unique embodiment of our collective heritage.’[1] 

View down onto the interlocking sarsen circle

View down onto the interlocking sarsen circle

The Stone Monument

The significance of Stonehenge itself can be summarised as follows:

  • Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated and only surviving lintelled stone circle in the world. 
  • The earliest stage of the monument is one of the largest cremations cemeteries known in Neolithic Britain.[2]
  • The stones were brought from very long distances – the bluestones from the Preseli Hills, over 150 miles away, and the sarsens probably from the Marlborough Downs, 19 miles to the north.
  • The stones were dressed using sophisticated techniques[3] and erected using precisely interlocking joints, unseen at any other prehistoric monument.

A Unique Landscape

Stonehenge does not stand in isolation, but forms part of a remarkable ancient landscape of early Neolithic, late Neolithic and early Bronze Age monuments.

This landscape is a vast source of information about the ceremonial and funerary practices of Neolithic and Bronze Age people. It can also help our understanding of regional and international contacts from the 4th to 2nd millennia BC, and shed light on how prehistoric society was organised.

Archaeology and Interpretation

Stonehenge has often been at the forefront of the development of archaeology (see Research on Stonehenge). Key milestones and discoveries can be explored using the archaeology layer on our landscape map.

It has also perhaps been the focus of more theories about its origin and purpose than any other prehistoric monument. These have included, in chronological order, a coronation place for Danish kings,[4] a Druid temple,[5] an astronomical computer for predicting eclipses and solar events,[6] a place where ancestors were worshipped[7] or a cult centre for healing.[8]

Today, the interpretation of Stonehenge which is most generally accepted is that of a prehistoric temple aligned with the movements of the sun.

Celebrating the midsummer solstice in 2010

The crowd celebrating midsummer solstice in 2010

Icon and Inspiration

Finally, Stonehenge is an icon of the past and a powerful image of ancient achievement. It has been the subject of many paintings and poems and featured in books, music and films.

Stonehenge continues to have a role as a sacred place of special religious and cultural significance for many, and inspires a strong sense of awe and humility for thousands of visitors who are drawn to the site every year.

Footnotes

1. Official UNESCO brief description of the World Heritage Site, agreed by the World Heritage Committee, July 2008; published in C Young, A Chadburn and I Bedu, Stonehenge World Heritage Site Management Plan 2009 (English Heritage, London, 2009), part 1, p 21.
2. M Parker Pearson, A Chamberlain, M Jay, P Marshall, J Pollard, C Richards, J Thomas, C Tilley and K Welham, ‘Who was buried at Stonehenge?Antiquity 83 (2009), 23 (subscription required; accessed 18 Nov 2013).
3. M Abbott and H Anderson-Whymark, Stonehenge Laser Scan: Archaeological Analysis Report, English Heritage Research Department Report 32-2012 (English Heritage, 2012), pp 26–37. 
4. W Charleton, Chorea Gigantum: Or, The Most Famous Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly Called Stone-Heng, Standing on Salisbury Plain, Restored to the Danes  (1663) (accessed 18 Nov 2013).
5. J Aubrey, Monumenta Britannica, or, A Miscellany of British Antiquities, Parts I and II, ed J Fowles (Sherborne, 1980–82; originally compiled 1665–93).
6. G Hawkins, Stonehenge Decoded (London, 1965).
7. M Parker Pearson and Ramilinsonina, ‘Stonehenge for the ancestors: the stones pass on the message’, Antiquity 72 (1998), 308–26 (subscription required; accessed 18 Nov 2013).
8. T Darvill, ‘Towards the within: Stonehenge and its purpose’, in Cults in Context: Reconsidering Ritual in Archaeology, ed D A Barrowclough and C Malone (Oxford, 2007), pp 148–57.

Portico: Researching English Heritage Sites

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