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British history

Stonehenge

Stonehenge todayStonehenge todayStonehenge was built about 4500 years ago on Salisbury Plain in southern England. It consists of two circles of 82 standing stones, one circle inside another. Large capping stones, called lintels, rest on top of them. The outer circle of standing stones are each around 4.1 metres (13 feet) high, 2.1 metres (7 feet) wide and weigh around 25 tonnes. Surrounding the stone circles are a circular ditch and banks. Many of the stones at Stonehenge still stand today.


Ancient earthworks near StonehengeAncient earthworks near Stonehenge

Earlier structures 

The earliest structures at Stonehenge—pits in the ground, some of which once held large wooden posts—date back to between 8500 and 7000 BC. At that time, when much of the rest of southern England was covered by woodland, the chalk downland around Stonehenge may have been an open, grassy landscape. This might explain why the location was chosen as a sacred site. Earthworks, including several long barrows (mounds of earth or stone, probably built as tombs), and enclosures, were built in the area around 3500 BC.



A plan showing the circular ditchA plan showing the circular ditch

Circular ditch

In about 3100 BC, a circular ditch, surrounded by both an inner and outer bank of earth, was dug at the site of Stonehenge. The earthworks enclosed an area about 100 metres (330 feet) in diameter and had two entrances. This formed a monument called a henge. Here, people buried the ashes of family members who had been cremated after they had died.




How it was built 

Workers haul a standing stone into placeWorkers haul a standing stone into placeIn about 2600 BC, a number of large stones were set in position at the centre of the henge. Two types of stone were used at Stonehenge: the larger sarsens (sandstone) and the smaller bluestones. The massive stones had to be dragged across the plain on rollers. They were each slid into deep pits, then hauled upright by teams of workers.

 A trilithon (inner horseshoe standing stones) A trilithon (inner horseshoe standing stones)
Ten of the largest sarsens, measuring between 6 and 7.5 metres (20–25 feet) high and weighing up to 50 tonnes each, were erected in shape of a horseshoe, with its open end facing northeast. The stones were capped by lintel stones, each one resting across a pair of standing stones. This inner arc was surrounded by an outer circle of 30 smaller sarsens. These were also capped by lintels, forming a continuous ring.

A circle of bluestones were erected between the horsehoe and outer circle. Another arc of bluestones were placed inside the sarsen horseshoe.

At the same time, the stones close to the entrance were raised, together with the four Station Stones around the edge of the monument.

Stonehenge as it may have looked at its completionStonehenge as it may have looked at its completion

Bluestones from the Preseli MountainsBluestones from the Preseli Mountains

The stones

The sarsens may have come from a quarry around 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Stonehenge on the Marlborough Downs. The bluestones (a term for all of the "foreign" stones at Stonehenge, covering more than 20 different types including dolerite, a volcanic, or igneous, rock) were not quarried locally. They were brought all the way from the Preseli Mountains in Pembrokeshire in southwest Wales, 240 kilometres (150 miles) away. It is not known how these heavy stones, weighing up to 4 tonnes each, were transported over such a long distance. 



Why was Stonehenge built?

Stonehenge at the summer solsticeStonehenge at the summer solsticeThe Heel StoneThe Heel StoneIt is not known who ordered Stonehenge to be built or what exactly it was built for. We do know that it was a major burial site, so it is likely that the site was a place of ancestor worship, too. Some archaeologists think that Stonehenge could also have been a place of healing.

It is possible that Stonehenge may have acted as a gigantic calendar. The sun rises above a stone outside the main entrance to the stone circle, The Heel Stone, at the summer solstice. The first rays shine directly into the horseshoe-shaped group of sarsen stones at the centre. By observing when this happened, a record of the days passing throughout the year could be made. This knowledge was vital for an ancient people with no other means of knowing exactly when to sow or harvest their crops.

 
 

See also in Science

Four of the sarsens at Stonehenge are covered with hundreds of carvings. Most of them are depictions of axe-heads as well as a few daggers. They date from about 1750–1500 BC, during the Bronze Age in Britain.

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