History of Stonehenge

Stonehenge is perhaps the world’s most famous prehistoric monument. It was built in several stages: the first monument was an early henge monument, built about 5,000 years ago, and the unique stone circle was erected in the late Neolithic period about 2500 BC. In the early Bronze Age many burial mounds were built nearby.

Today, together with Avebury, Stonehenge forms the heart of a World Heritage Site, with a unique concentration of prehistoric monuments.

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The Greater, or Stonehenge, Cursus, a huge rectangular earthwork enclosure 1.7 miles long, seen from the air in 2000
The Greater, or Stonehenge, Cursus, a huge rectangular earthwork enclosure 1.7 miles long, seen from the air in 2000

Before Stonehenge

The earliest structures known in the immediate area are four or five pits, three of which appear to have held large pine ‘totem-pole like’ posts erected in the Mesolithic period, between 8500 and 7000 BC.[1] It is not known how these posts relate to the later monument of Stonehenge.

At this 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.[2] It is possible that this is why it became the site of an early Neolithic monument complex.

This complex included the causewayed enclosure at Robin Hood’s Ball, two cursus monuments or rectangular earthworks (the Greater, or Stonehenge, and Lesser Cursus), and several long barrows, all dating from the centuries around 3500 BC. The presence of these monuments probably influenced the later location of Stonehenge.

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A stone (gneiss) macehead and bone pins found associated with cremated human remains in the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge, evidence that very early in its development Stonehenge was a cemetery
A stone (gneiss) macehead and bone pins found associated with cremated human remains in the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge, evidence that very early in its development Stonehenge was a cemetery
© English Heritage, with permission from Salisbury Museum

The Earliest Monument

It is possible that features such as the Heel Stone and the low mound known as the North Barrow were early components of Stonehenge,[3] but the earliest known major event was the construction of a circular ditch with an inner and outer bank, built about 3000 BC. This enclosed an area about 100 metres in diameter, and had two entrances. It was an early form of henge monument.[4]

Within the bank and ditch were possibly some timber structures and set just inside the bank were 56 pits, known as the Aubrey Holes. There has been much debate about what stood in these holes: the consensus for many years has been that they held upright timber posts, but recently the idea has re-emerged that some of them may have held stones.[5]

Within and around the Aubrey Holes, and also in the ditch, people buried cremations. About 64 cremations have been found, and perhaps as many as 150 individuals were originally buried at Stonehenge, making it the largest late Neolithic cemetery in the British Isles.[6]

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A reconstruction showing the raising of a stone in the outer sarsen circle
A reconstruction showing the raising of a stone in the outer sarsen circle
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Lorimer)

The Stone Settings

In about 2500 BC the stones were set up in the centre of the monument. Two types of stone are used at Stonehenge – the larger sarsens and the smaller ‘bluestones’. The sarsens were erected in two concentric arrangements – an inner horseshoe and an outer circle – and the bluestones were set up between them in a double arc.[7]

Probably at the same time that the stones were being set up in the centre of the monument, the sarsens close to the entrance were raised, together with the four Station Stones on the periphery.

About 200 or 300 years later the central bluestones were rearranged to form a circle and inner oval (which was again later altered to form a horseshoe). The earthwork Avenue was also built at this time, connecting Stonehenge with the river Avon.

One of the last prehistoric activities at Stonehenge was the digging around the stone settings of two rings of concentric pits, the so-called Y and Z holes, radiocarbon dated by antlers within them to between 1800 and 1500 BC. They may have been intended for a rearrangement of the stones that was never completed.[8]

The Normanton Down Barrows lie on the crest of a low ridge just to the south of Stonehenge. Excavation of these early Bronze Age barrows has produced several rich finds, including beads and other personal ornaments
The Normanton Down Barrows lie on the crest of a low ridge just to the south of Stonehenge. Excavation of these early Bronze Age barrows has produced several rich finds, including beads and other personal ornaments

After Stonehenge was built

The stone settings at Stonehenge were built at a time of great change in prehistory, just as new styles of ‘Beaker’ pottery and the knowledge of metalworking, together with a transition to the burial of individuals with grave goods, were arriving from the Continent. From about 2400 BC, well-furnished Beaker graves such as that of the Amesbury Archer[9] are found nearby.

In the early Bronze Age, one of the greatest concentrations of round barrows in Britain was built in the area around Stonehenge. Many barrow groups appear to have been deliberately located on hilltops visible from Stonehenge itself, such as those on King Barrow Ridge and the particularly rich burials at the Normanton Down cemetery.

Four of the sarsens at Stonehenge were adorned with hundreds of carvings depicting axe-heads and a few daggers. They appear to be bronze axes of the Arreton Down type, dating from about 1750–1500 BC. Perhaps these axes were a symbol of power or status within early Bronze Age society, or were related in some way to nearby round barrow burials.[10]

more about Stonehenge’s European Connections
A mid-14th century manuscript illustration showing Merlin building Stonehenge, an idea widely accepted until as late as the 16th century
A mid-14th-century manuscript illustration showing the wizard Merlin building Stonehenge. This idea, explained by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ in 1136, was widely accepted until as late as the 16th century
© British Library Board (Egerton MS 3028 fol 30)

Later History

From the middle Bronze Age, less communal effort went into the construction of ceremonial monuments such as Stonehenge and more on activities such as the creation of fields.[11]

In the Iron Age, probably about 700 BC, a major hillfort later known as Vespasian’s Camp was constructed 1¼ miles east of Stonehenge overlooking the river Avon.[12] Stonehenge appears to have been frequently visited in the Roman period (from AD 43), since many Roman objects have been found there.[13] Recent excavations raised the possibility that it was a place of ritual importance to Romano-British people.[14]

The small town of Amesbury is likely to have been established around the 6th century AD at a crossing point over the Avon. A decapitated man, possibly a criminal, was buried at Stonehenge in the Saxon period.[15] From this time on, sheep husbandry dominated the open downland around Stonehenge.[16] The earliest surviving written references to Stonehenge date from the medieval period, and from the 14th century onwards there are increasing references to Stonehenge and drawings and paintings of it.

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Restoration work on the Stonehenge sarsen circle in 1919. A lintel is in the process of being replaced
This photograph from 1914 shows one of the lintels being replaced during restoration work on the Stonehenge sarsen circle
© Historic England Archive

Stonehenge in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Since 1897, when the Ministry of Defence bought a vast tract of land on Salisbury Plain for army training exercises, the activities of the military have had an impact on the area. Barracks, firing ranges, field hospitals, airfields and light railways were established.[17] Some of these, such as the First World War Stonehenge airfield, have long since been demolished, but others, such as the Larkhill airfield sheds, still stand and are important in the history of early military aviation.[18]

Meanwhile, the introduction of turnpike roads and the railway to Salisbury brought many more visitors to Stonehenge. From the 1880s, various stones had been propped up with timber poles, but concern for the safety of visitors grew when an outer sarsen upright and its lintel fell in 1900. The then owner, Sir Edmund Antrobus, with the help of the Society of Antiquaries, organised the re-erection of the leaning tallest trilithon in 1901.

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The Avenue leading up to Stonehenge, seen in the snow. The monument has been gradually returned to its original landscape and grassland setting
The Avenue leading up to Stonehenge, seen in the snow. The monument has been gradually returned to its original landscape and grassland setting

This was the start of a sequence of campaigns to conserve and restore Stonehenge – the last stones were consolidated in 1964.[19]

The monument remained in private ownership until 1918 when Cecil Chubb, a local man who had purchased Stonehenge from the Atrobus family at an auction three years previously, gave it to the nation.[20] Thereafter, the duty to conserve the monument fell to the state, today a role performed on its behalf by English Heritage.

From 1927, the National Trust began to acquire the land around Stonehenge to preserve it and restore it to grassland. Large areas of the Stonehenge landscape are now in their ownership. More recent improvements to the landscape – including the removal of the old visitor facilities and the closure of the section of the old A344 that ran close to the stones – have begun the process of returning Stonehenge to an open grassland setting, but there is more that can be done. English Heritage welcomes government plans to invest in a tunnel, which would remove much of the busy A303 and help reconnect the monument to its ancient landscape.

     
About the Author

Susan Greaney BA MSc (Oxon) is an archaeologist and prehistorian in the English Heritage Properties Research team.

Buy the guidebook to Stonehenge

Read more about Stonehenge

  • Building Stonehenge

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

  • Description of Stonehenge

    In the Stonehenge we see today various stones are fallen or missing, making the original plan difficult to understand. This page explains the different elements of the monument.

  • Why Does Stonehenge Matter?

    Stonehenge is a unique prehistoric monument, lying at the centre of an outstandingly rich archaeological landscape. It is an extraordinary source for the study of prehistory.

  • Research on Stonehenge

    Our understanding of Stonehenge is still changing as excavations and modern scientific techniques yield more information. Yet there are many questions about the monument that we have still to answer.

  • Sources for Stonehenge

    There is a vast amount of archaeological information about Stonehenge from the many investigations there, and numerous early sources, as well as a wealth of published and unpublished resources.

  • Stonehenge Collection Highlights

    Hundreds of prehistoric objects from the Stonehenge World Heritage Site are on display at the visitor centre. You can explore ten of them here in detail.

  • Virtual Tour of Stonehenge

    Take an interactive tour of Stonehenge with this 360 degree view from inside the stones, which explores the monument’s key features.

  • Explore the Stonehenge Landscape

    Use these interactive images to discover what the landscape around Stonehenge has looked like from before the monument was built to the present day.

  • The First World War Stonehenge aerodrome

    As they travel from the visitor centre to the stones, few of today’s visitors to Stonehenge realise they are crossing the site of a First World War airfield. Find out more.

  • Plan of Stonehenge

    Download this PDF plan of Stonehenge to explore the monument and see how it has developed over time.

  • Buy the guidebook

    The guidebook includes a tour and history of the site and its remarkable landscape, with many reconstruction drawings, historic images, maps and plans.

  • More histories

    Delve into our history pages to discover more about our sites, how they have changed over time, and who made them what they are today.

Footnotes

    G Vatcher and F de M Vatcher, ‘Excavation of three post-holes in Stonehenge car park’, Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine, 68 (1973), 57–63.
    C French et al, ‘Durrington Walls to West Amesbury by way of Stonehenge: a major transformation of the Holocene landscape’, Antiquaries Journal, 92 (2012), 1–36 (subscription required; accessed 26 Aug 2015).
    D Field and T Pearson, World Heritage Site Landscape Project: Stonehenge, Amesbury, Wiltshire Archaeological Survey Report, English Heritage Research Department Report 109-2010 (Swindon, 2010).
    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), 23–39 (subscription required; accessed 26 Aug 2015).
    M Parker Pearson, Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery (London, 2012), 193.
    T Darvill, P Marshall, M Parker Pearson and G Wainwright, ‘Stonehenge remodelled’, Antiquity, 86 (2012), 1021–40 (subscription required; accessed 26 Aug 2015).
    R Cleal, K Walker and R Montague, Stonehenge in Its Landscape: Twentieth-century Excavations, English Heritage Archaeological Report 10 (English Heritage, London, 1995), 256–65.
    AP Fitzpatrick, The Amesbury Archer and the Boscombe Bowmen: Bell Beaker Burials at Boscombe Down, Amesbury, Wiltshire (Wessex Archaeology, Salisbury, 2011).
    M Abbott and H Anderson-Whymark, Stonehenge Laser Scan: Archaeological Analysis, English Heritage Research Department Report 32-2012 (Swindon, 2012), 26–37.
    The earliest field systems and associated settlements, for example, at Winterbourne Stoke crossroads, date from this period. See J Richards, The Stonehenge Environs Project (London, 1990), 208–10.
    K Hunter-Mann, ‘Excavations at Vespasian’s Camp Iron Age hillfort’, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 92 (1999), 39–52.
    Cleal et al, op cit, 431–5.
    T Darvill and G Wainwright, ‘Stonehenge excavations 2008’, Antiquaries Journal, 89 (2009), 1–19 (subscription required; accessed 26 Aug 2015).
    M Pitts, A Bayliss, J McKinley, A Boylston, P Budd, J Evans, C Chenery, A Reynolds and S Semple, ‘An Anglo-Saxon decapitation and burial at Stonehenge’, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 95 (2002), 131–46.
    A Lawson, Chalkland: An Archaeology of Stonehenge and Its Region (Salisbury, 2007), 239.
    Wessex Archaeology, Stonehenge Military Installations: A Desk-based Assessment, Report 44411 (Salisbury, 1998).
    NC Parker, Aviation in Wiltshire: A Historical Survey, South Wiltshire Industrial Archaeology Society, History Monograph 5 (1984), 49.
    For a fantastic series of photographs of this work see J Richards, Stonehenge: A History in Photographs (English Heritage, London, 2004).
    C Chippindale, Stonehenge Complete, 4th edn (London, 2012), 176.
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