The true purpose of Stonehenge is endlessly debated, but there are certain myths, legends and assumptions about this prehistoric monument which are definitely untrue. Let’s debunk five myths a lot of people still believe about the iconic standing stones of Salisbury Plain.
1. The druids built Stonehenge
'Hundreds of years before the dawn of history lived a strange race of people: the druids! No one knows who they were or what they were doing, but their legacy remains hewn into the living rock... of Stonehenge!’
So intoned the parody rock band Spinal Tap, summing up what many people still believe about the origins of Stonehenge. But, while there’s certainly a cinematic allure to the idea of robed, bearded druids erecting these immense stones to conduct arcane and mystical rituals, there’s no truth to this myth.
First documented in detail by none other than Julius Caesar, who encountered them in Gaul, the druids were senior lawmakers, priests, doctors and teachers among the ancient Celts. Caesar’s description was written in the 1st century BC, which was roughly 500 years after the Celts had arrived in Britain.
So, given that construction on the stone circle began around 2,500 BC, it’s clear that as much time separated the druids from the creation of Stonehenge as separates us from the time of Jesus.
2. There were human sacrifices at Stonehenge
It’s certainly no myth that human sacrifices took place at prehistoric henges. For example, excavations at the Ring Sanctuary of Pömmelte, often described as the German cousin of Stonehenge, have uncovered the bodies of women and children who were bound, killed and dismembered in a ritualistic fashion.
But, despite what many have supposed, there’s no substantial evidence that Stonehenge was the site of such grisly murders. We say ‘substantial’ because there is the intriguing issue of the so-called ‘Stonehenge Archer’ – the remains of a man buried at the site around 2300 BC.
He was shot to death by arrows fired from multiple angles, which, in the view of some experts, suggests he was executed rather than killed in battle. Even if that was the case, it looks like this was a one-off killing rather than an example of regular, formalised human sacrifices by way of arrows at Stonehenge.
Perhaps one reason for the enduring popularity of this myth is the Slaughter Stone, which lies on its side within the monument. It’s thought that it got its ominous name, not because it was used for ancient sacrifices, but because rainwater captured in its grooves and hollows turns a rusty red, the result of a chemical reaction with iron in the stone.
3. The Altar Stone is one of the Welsh bluestones
The most eye-catching elements of Stonehenge are the looming sarsen stones, which were lugged over to the site from Marlborough Downs, less than 20 miles away. The smaller stones of the monument, found within the sarsen perimeter, are known as bluestones and hail from much further away – the Preseli Mountains of west Wales, to be exact.
Among them is the famous Altar Stone at the heart of the monument, which was long considered to have also been hauled over from Wales. However, research published in 2023 has revealed that the Altar Stone should not be classified as one of the Welsh bluestones.
New testing of the composition of the Altar Stone indicates it was probably brought from much further afield – perhaps the north of England, or even as far as Orkney. This would mean that the mysterious creators of Stonehenge transported the heavy stone almost 700 miles across Britain, an incredible feat by any measure.
4. Stonehenge has always belonged to the nation
Given its immense age and significance to British culture and lore, it’s natural to assume that Stonehenge has always been owned by the state. Actually, it was privately owned for much of modern history and was even auctioned off by estate agents not much more than a century ago.
Given to an earl by Henry VIII, Stonehenge and the surrounding land was passed down between various earls, dukes and baronets in the centuries that followed. Its final aristocratic owner decided to flog it in 1915, but strangely, ‘Lot 15’ didn’t attract much interest.
Wealthy barrister Cecil Chubb, who just happened to be in the bidding room on the hunt for nice furniture, snapped it up on a whim for £6,600. A local man, Chubb originally hoped Stonehenge would be a ‘cherished possession of my family for long years to come’, but he eventually decided it was more appropriate to hand it over to the nation.
That’s exactly what he did in 1918, and it’s now overseen by English Heritage.
5. It’s remained untouched across the millennia
Stonehenge has the awesome appearance of a geological formation – rugged, eternal and unyielding. But it most certainly has yielded, notably when a storm in 1900 blew down one of the huge sarsens and the stone it supported. This led one worried visitor to write to The Times warning that ‘this noble monument of ancient times is, at this rate of destruction, likely soon to disappear’.
There have also been plenty of deliberate modifications made, with stones being re-erected, straightened and restored throughout the 20th century.
What’s more, visitors have left their mark by chiselling names like ‘J HALE’ and ‘H.E. FOOTE’ into the stones. Tantalisingly, one of the names is ‘WREN’, leading many to believe that Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, unleashed his inner graffiti artist while visiting Stonehenge.