Stonehenge Glossary

Discover the meaning behind the stones by clicking on the glossary for a list of Stonehenge terms and an explanation summary.

Glossary

    A - C

    Altar Stone

    A sandstone block within the inner horseshoe of stones at Stonehenge, which today lies underneath the fallen upright of the tallest trilithon.

    The Altar Stone is of a different geology to all the other stones, being calcareous sandstone, probably from south Wales. We do not know whether it once stood upright or was always horizontal. The 17th-century architect Inigo Jones seems to have been the first to call it the Altar Stone.

    Antiquary

    Someone who studies or collects ancient artefacts and archaeological sites in order to gain knowledge about the past.

    Usually the term is applied to the gentlemen scholars of the 17th to the 19th centuries, who had an interest in surveying and excavating prehistoric monuments. Many round barrows in the Stonehenge area were opened by antiquaries. Some were intent only on finding ancient artefacts to add to their own collections but others recorded their excavation carefully and their work forms the basis of our understanding today.

    Aubrey Hole

    One of a ring of 56 pits placed just within the ditch and bank at Stonehenge, dating from the earliest phase of the monument.

    The Aubrey Holes probably held wood or stone pillars, and cremations were placed within and around them. They are named after the 17th-century antiquary John Aubrey, who was the first to notice and plot depressions in the grass that showed their positions. A total of 32 have been excavated.

    BC and AD

    Designations for the years before and after the year Jesus Christ was born, designed as the year 0. BC stands for 'Before Christ' and AD for 'Anno Domini' (the 'year of our Lord').
    It might seem strange to use a Christian calendar system when referring to British prehistory, but the BC/AD labels are widely used and understood. The years BC run backwards in time from the year designated as 0. For example, the sarsen stones were raised at Stonehenge in about 2500 BC, which is about 4,500 years ago.

    Bluestone

    Igneous rocks that are foreign to the chalk geology of Salisbury Plain.

    Bluestone is not a geological term but a convenient label for all the smaller stones at Stonehenge, which are not sarsen stones. They are a variety of types, including dolerites, spotted dolerites, rhyolites and volcanic tuffs, all of which come from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales.

    Bronze Age

    A period of prehistory, which in Britain lasted between about 2200 and 1150 BC.

    The Bronze Age began about 2200 BC when the use of metal and new styles of burial, including the construction of round barrows, became widespread. Later, in about 1500 BC, people changed the focus of their activity to building the earliest field systems and permanent settlements. The period ended when iron was widely used: the start of the Iron Age.

    Causewayed enclosure

    An early Neolithic monument consisting of a roughly circular area of land bounded by one or more lines of banks and ditches.

    The ditches were dug as a series of elongated pits, with narrow gaps or causeways, between them. The enclosed areas appear to have been used for a variety of activities: temporary settlement, ceremony, ritual deposition, feasting and perhaps the exchange of goods. A recent programme of dating these monuments has shown that they were built between 3750 and 3500 BC. The closest to Stonehenge is Robin Hood's Ball.

    Cremation

    The use of a high-temperature fire to burn dead animal or human bodies, leaving behind ashes and small pieces of burnt bone.

    Cremation and inhumation (the burial of a whole body) are the two main ways of burying the dead. Cremated remains are also known to have been buried in prehistoric Britain: at Stonehenge and other sites in the Neolithic period, and inside round barrows in the early Bronze Age.

    Cursus

    A long and relatively narrow enclosure, built in the early Neolithic period, defined by earthwork banks with external ditches.

    Usually more than 250m long, these enormous enclosures were built between about 3600 and 3300 BC. Their function is not known, although they were presumably ceremonial spaces. They may also have formed barriers or routes across the landscape. There are two near Stonehenge - the Stonehenge (or Greater) Cursus and the Lesser Cursus.

    D - H

    Druid

    A member of the priestly class in Britain during the Iron Age (c 700 BC - AD 43), as recorded by Classical authors at the time of the Roman conquest in the 1st century AD.

    Little is known about the Iron Age Druids. Written Roman accounts, the only known sources, refer to rituals involving sacred oak groves, the cutting of mistletoe, and sacrifices of animal and humans. In the wake of the Celtic revival during the 18th and 19th centuries, friendly societies and neo-pagan groups were founded based on received ideas about the ancient Druids.

    Equinox

    An event that occurs twice a year (around 20 March and 22 September), when the plane of the Earth's equator passes the centre of the sun.

    At this time, night and day are about equal length. There is no clear evidence that the prehistoric people who built Stonehenge marked the equinoxes as well as the solstices, but other megalithic monuments (such as a burial cairn at Loughcrew, County Meath, Ireland) are known to align with the sun at these times of year.

    Heel Stone

    A large upright stone, standing where the Avenue meets the earthwork enclosure.

    This stone, unlike all the other sarsen stones at Stonehenge, is unworked and retains its natural shape. It may have been an isolated stone that was raised upright in the Neolithic period. It marks the position of the rising sun at the summer solstice. It may always stood alone or have been paired originally with a second, now lost, stone. Its name may derive from a legend associated with Stonehenge that relates how the Devil threw a stone at a friar, leaving the friar's heel imprint on it.

    Henge

    A Neolithic earthwork enclosure, usually circular, defined by a bank with a ditch inside it.

    Henges can enclose a variety of other features: timber or stone circles (as at Woodhenge and Stonehenge), standing stones or even, in the case of Durrington Walls, settlements. Recent research suggests that henges may have been built after the main activity on the site. This type of monument is named after the earthwork at Stonehenge, but that is now viewed as an unusual early type of henge, because the ditch is outside the bank.

    L - N

    Lintel

    A horizontal block that spans the space or opening between two vertical supports.

    At Stonehenge, the lintels are the horizontal stones that form the tops of the outer sarsen stone circle, and also those that rest on two upright stones forming each of the five central trilithons.

    Long barrow

    Rectangular or trapezoidal mounds of earth and/or stone, often with ditches on either side, built in the early Neolithic period as burial monuments.

    Long barrows were built between about 3800 and 3400 BC, and were generally used for communal burial, sometimes with only parts of skeletons selected for interment. The mound itself sometimes covers stone chambers, timber burial structures or partitions. Those with stone chambers are often called 'chambered tombs', as opposed to the earthen long barrows that are more common in the Stonehenge area.

    Mesolithic

    Mesolithic: A period of prehistory, which in Britain lasted between about 9700 and 4000 BC.

    The Mesolithic (or 'Middle Stone Age') began in Britain at the end of the last Ice Age, when hunter-gatherers migrated back into southern England from continental Europe. It lasted until the beginning of the Neolithic period, when the first domestic crops and livestock were introduced from continental Europe.

    Mortice

    Part of a joint used to connect adjoining pieces at a 90° angle, used at Stonehenge to join upright stones to horizontal ones.

    The tops of the upright sarsen stones at Stonehenge have one or two small round knobs, or tenons. These were fitted into mortice holes in the underside of the horizontal lintels, forming a simple but strong joint. This type of mortice and tenon joint is more often seen in woodworking, but stonemasons call it a 'joggle'.

    Neolithic

    A period of prehistory, which in Britain lasted between about 4000 and 2200 BC.

    The Neolithic (or 'New Stone Age') began in southern Britain about 4000 BC, signalled by the arrival of the first domestic livestock and crops, and the first pottery from continental Europe. The period ended when the use of metal and new styles of burial were widespread, about 2200 BC, the start of the Bronze Age.

    North Barrow

    One of two enigmatic roughly circular earthwork features of unknown date, situated just within the earthwork enclosure at Stonehenge.

    Although these earthworks were given the name 'barrows' by antiquaries, they are not burial mounds. They surround two of the Station Stones but their date of construction is unknown. The earthworks of the North 'Barrow' appear to suggest that it was built before the much larger outer earthwork enclosure of Stonehenge. When the South 'Barrow' was excavated by the archaeologist William Hawley in 1921, he found a chalk floor, which may suggest there was once a small building there.

    R - T

    Round barrow

    An earth mound, usually covering one or more graves or burials and surrounded by a circular ditch.

    Built mostly between 2200 and 1500 BC, in the early Bronze Age, round barrows also cover other features such as timber burial structures, rings of timber posts or pits. Many have different phases of construction and enlargement.

    Sarsen stone

    A type of hard silicified sandstone found scattered naturally across chalk areas of southern England.

    Sarsen, a hard rock created from sand bound by silica cement, formed as a crust over chalk geologies. Often fossil root holes can be seen in the stone, from millions of years ago when the stone was still forming. Over time the stone was broken up into large pieces and scattered by geological processes.

    Slaughter Stone

    A sarsen stone, which originally stood upright but is now lying flat on the ground, near the north-east entrance to the stone circle.

    The idea that this stone was used for slaughter appears to have been started by an anonymous writer, who referred to it in 1776 as a ‘table, upon which victims were dissected and prepared’. The idea and name seem to have resonated with 18th- and 19th-century romantic fantasies of the Druids. In reality, it is one of two or three upright stones that once stood across the causeway entrance to Stonehenge.

    Solstice

    An astronomical event which happens twice a year, when the apparent position of the sun in the sky reaches its most northerly or southerly extremes.

    The summer solstice is marked by the longest day. The date varies between 20 and 22 June , depending on the year. The winter solstice is marked by the shortest day, either 21 or 22 December each year. At Stonehenge, it appears that both of these events were marked by the layout of the stones and the position of the Avenue. Viewed from the centre of the stone circle, the sun rises adjacent to the Heel Stone at midsummer and sets between the stones of the tallest trilithon at midwinter.

    Station Stone

    One of four outlying sarsen stones, placed in a rectangle around the inner edge of the earthwork enclosure. Only two survive today.

    The stones were named by Edward Duke, a 19th-century antiquary and owner of Lake House in the nearby Woodford valley, who referred to these stones as 'astronomical stations'. The short sides of the rectangle formed by the stones were aligned on the solstices, like the stone circle, and the long sides are orientated to the most southerly possible rising position of the moon. These four stones may have been erected before the stone circle.

    Tenon

    Part of a joint used to connect adjoining pieces at a 90° angle, used at Stonehenge to join upright stones to horizontal ones.

    The tops of the upright sarsen stones at Stonehenge have one or two small round knobs, or tenons. These were fitted into mortice holes in the underside of the horizontal lintels, forming a simple but strong joint. This type of mortice and tenon joint is more often seen in woodworking, but stonemasons call it a 'joggle'.

    The Avenue

    This late Neolithic monument connects Stonehenge to the river Avon, 1.7 miles (2.8km) away. It was probably a processional route.

    Built in about 2300 BC, after the sarsen stones had been erected at Stonehenge, the Avenue consists of parallel banks and ditches forming a corridor about 12m wide. Today it has been largely destroyed by ploughing, but the earthworks are still visible close to Stonehenge. It was discovered in 1721 by the antiquary William Stukeley, who named it and noticed its alignment to the solstices.

    Trilithon

    The formation of two upright stones capped by a horizontal lintel.

    The 18th-century antiquary William Stukeley was the first to coin the term trilithon, from the Greek for ‘three stones’, after which the word seems to have entered common usage in English. There are five trilithons at Stonehenge, which make up the inner horseshoe of sarsen stones.

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