Located in open grassland on the rolling hills of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, is arguably the world's most famous prehistoric monument. Stonehenge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is lauded as the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world.
Construction of Stonehenge began around 3000 BC during the Neolithic Period and continued well into the Bronze Age for over 1,500 years. The original monument was an early form of henge, which the British Museum describes as ‘a series of ceremonial monuments defined by ditches and banks of soil, usually circular or oval in shape, used to enclose a sacred space.’
By 2500 BC, the huge stone boulders had been brought to the site. The smaller bluestones were transported from west Wales on a remarkable journey spanning some 150 miles, whilst the larger sarsens came from the Marlborough Downs around 20 miles away.
The monumental task of transporting the stones, as well as raising them into place, has puzzled the minds of archaeologists and historians throughout history.
Over the years, several theories including some outlandish claims, have been put forward to explain who built Stonehenge and why? We take a look at five of them.
1. Solar calendar
The most widespread and popular theory about Stonehenge has been around since the 18th century. It suggests the monument is an ancient solar calendar that served as a physical representation of the year. It has been observed that the axis of the stones at the centre of Stonehenge marks the position of the rising sun on both the winter and summer solstice – the shortest and longest days of the year.
This would have enabled the ancient people to keep track of the changing seasons, vitally important for the local farming communities. It also provided people with an opportunity to gather together and celebrate the changes in the solar year.
2. Burial ground
During the early Bronze Age, burial mounds began to crop up around Stonehenge, reflecting the changing attitudes of people towards death and the afterlife. Burying people with sacred objects became the dominant way of expressing spiritual meaning across Britain and Europe.
Starting in 1900 BC and lasting for about 1,000 years, around 350 burial mounds were built at the Stonehenge site, suggesting the place took on ceremonial significance, acting like an ancient burial ground and temple to the dead.
3. A Druid temple
Around the 17th century, a theory connecting Stonehenge with the Druids arose. Given the awe-inspiring nature of Stonehenge, it's easy to see how the site could inspire religious spirituality and be used as a place of worship. Along with the well-established links between the ancient Celtic pagans and the changing of the seasons, it’s easy to also see the connection between Stonehenge and the Druids.
So was Stonehenge a Druid temple erected by the ancient Celtic pagans as a place of worship? The short answer is no. The construction of Stonehenge predates the Druids by some 2,400 years. What’s more, the ancient Druids, unlike their modern contemporaries, didn't worship the Sun or solstice since no records of such celebrations exist.
4. Place of healing
Skeletal analysis of bones unearthed at the Stonehenge site reveals many had marks of injury or illness. This gave rise to a theory, proposed by two leading British archaeologists, that the location was an important site for ancient healing. People came from far and wide to be healed by the magical powers of the giant stones.
Adding to this theory is evidence on the bluestones themselves, many of which display signs of having been chipped away at. Was this just ancient vandalism or deliberate acts by ancient people, hoping to take home a part of the magical healing stones to create some kind of healing talisman?
5. Aliens and wizards
Considering how impressive Stonehenge is, it’s easy to understand how previous generations have placed mythical explanations at the heart of the monument’s construction.
A popular theory during the Medieval Period had the mythical wizard Merlin at the centre of the creation of Stonehenge. The famous mage was a pivotal character in the legend of King Arthur and a theory arose around the 12th century linking Merlin to Stonehenge.
Using giants or just his own magic, Merlin supposedly moved the monument from Ireland and placed it at its current location on Salisbury Plain.
The spiritual successor to the Medieval wizard theory is surely the modern extra-terrestrial one. Gaining traction in the late 60s and into the 70s, the alien theory was founded on the principle that Stonehenge couldn’t possibly have been made by ancient people who possessed such primitive tools. Instead, it had to be the work of some advanced extra-terrestrial civilisation.
One clear theory as to why Stonehenge was built and by whom might never become clear, but what is evident is how the monument stood for different things over the generations, its meaning and purpose shifting and altering with those who inhabited its surroundings.
Facts about Stonehenge
- The Stonehenge bluestones weigh between two and five tonnes each, whilst the larger sarsens weigh around 25 tonnes. The largest sarsen, the Heel Stone, weighs a whopping 30 tonnes.
- Many theories have been proposed as to how the giant stones were raised. The most popular theory suggests they were moved into position using plant fibre ropes and a wooden A-frame. Another theory took inspiration from the Easter Island heads, claiming the Stonehenge slabs were rocked from side to side with levers. Small pieces of wood were then placed underneath the lifted side until the rock was nearly upright.
- The UNESCO World Heritage Site at Stonehenge is massive, covering some 6,500 acres. To put that into perspective, that’s 7.5 times as big as New York City’s Central Park.
- The tallest standing stone at Stonehenge is 8.71 metres tall, around 28 feet, with a portion of it buried underground.