Building Stonehenge

Stonehenge is a masterpiece of engineering. How did Neolithic people build it using only the simple tools and technologies available to them?

Sarsen stones lying on the Marlborough Downs

Sarsen stones lying on the Marlborough Downs

The first monument

The first monument at Stonehenge was a circular earthwork enclosure, built in about 3000 BC. A ditch was dug with simple antler tools, and the chalk piled up to make an inner and an outer bank. Within the ditch was a ring of 56 timber or stone posts. The monument was used as a cremation cemetery for several hundred years.

In about 2500 BC the site was transformed by the construction of the central stone settings. Enormous sarsen stones and smaller bluestones were raised to form a unique monument. Building Stonehenge took huge effort from hundreds of well-organised people.

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Transporting the Stones

There are two types of stone at Stonehenge - the larger sarsen stones and the smaller ‘bluestones’.

The sarsen stones are a type of sandstone, which is found scattered naturally across southern England. Most archaeologists believe that these stones were brought from the Marlborough Downs, 20 miles (32km) away. There great quantities of sarsens still lie across in the landscape, although their exact origin is not known. On average the sarsens weigh 25 tons, with the largest stone, the Heel Stone, weighing about 30 tons.

Bluestone is the term used to refer to the smaller stones at Stonehenge. These are of varied geology but all came from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales. Although they may not appear blue, they do have a bluish tinge when freshly broken or when wet. They weigh between 2 and 5 tons each.

The two main types of stone at Stonehenge were brought over very long distances to the site.

The two main types of stone at Stonehenge were brought over very long distances to the site.

Some people believe that the bluestones could have been brought to Salisbury Plain by the movement of glaciers, but most archaeologists think that they were transported by human effort. How this was done over a distance of more than 250 kilometres remains unknown, but it is probable the stones were both carried via water networks and hauled over land.

The Altar Stone is made of a type of old red sandstone from the Senni Beds, a type of sandstone that outcrops across southern Wales.

 

One of the bluestone outcrops in the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire

One of the bluestone outcrops in the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire

Shaping the Stones

Large quantities of sarsen and bluestone waste material, as well as broken hammerstones, have been found in the field to the north of Stonehenge, where the stones were worked into shape. Sarsen and flint hammerstones in various sizes have been found at Stonehenge. The larger ones would have been used to roughly flake and chip the stone, and the smaller to finish and smooth the surfaces.

Some hammerstones discovered during archaeological excavations at Stonehenge.

Some of the many hammerstones discovered during archaeological excavations at Stonehenge. With the permission of Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.

Analysis of a recent laser survey of the stones has revealed the different stoneworking methods used, and has shown that some parts of the monument were more carefully finished than others. In particular, the north-east side and the inner faces of the central trilithons were finely dressed.

This fallen sarsen has distinctive ridges, from the process of shaping the stone. It is not known why this particular stone was left unfinished.

This fallen sarsen has distinctive ridges, from the process of shaping the stone. It is not known why this particular stone was left unfinished.

To fit the upright stones with the horizontal lintels, mortice holes and protruding tenons were created. The lintels were slotted together using tongue and groove joints. These types of joint are usually found only in woodworking.

Mortice and Tenon joint

Diagram showing the joints used in the outer sarsen circle
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Dunn)

Raising the Stones

To erect a stone, people dug a large hole with a sloping side. The back of the hole was lined with a row of wooden stakes. The stone was then moved into position and hauled upright using plant fibre ropes and probably a wooden A-frame. Weights may have been used to help tip the stone upright. The hole was then packed securely with rubble.

Timber platforms were probably used to raise the horizontal lintels into position. Then, the final stage of shaping the tenons took place, to ensure a good fit into the mortice holes of the lintel.

Download a plan showing each phase of the building work at Stonehenge.

Building Stonehenge was a complex and sometimes dangerous process

Building Stonehenge was a complex and sometimes dangerous process
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Lorrimer)

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