Stonehenge is a Neolithic monument in Wiltshire, England, and one of the most famous prehistoric sanctuaries in the world. The ensemble consists of four concentric circles built of stones and is classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Many historians have analysed the construction over time, and several hypotheses have been put forward regarding its significance. For a long time, the ensemble was associated with King Arthur’s wizard, Merlin, the Druids, or the sun god Apollo. It was later suggested that it was built for the ancestors, being a stone monument designed to house the spirits of the dead, but Stonehenge still hasn’t revealed all of its secrets.
Stonehenge was constructed in the Neolithic period, approximately 5,000 years ago, and it first consisted of a circular ditch and bank that housed a circle of upright timber posts. The first stones had started to arrive by 2,500 BC, which marked the start of eight centuries of construction and alteration. By the time of the Bronze Age, Stonehenge had its standing stones arranged in the current alignment that marks the changing seasons and the passage of the sun. It was also the largest temple in Britain.
Archaeologists have been baffled by the purpose of the monument for centuries, and by the time of King James I, it was believed that it was a temple built by the Romans for the god Uranus or Apollo. Over the centuries, historians concluded that Stonehenge has a religious purpose due to the alignment of the major axis with the midsummer sunrise. However, no firm evidence has been found, and theories about its significance still abound, ranging from a calendar to the extra-terrestrial.
How Was the Monument Built?
The construction of the enigmatic Stonehenge monument has been a mystery for centuries. But due to technological advancements, the mystery has started to gradually shrink.
According to recent studies, the stones that make up the construction were removed from the ground about 500 years before its erection began. Moreover, it appears that the huge pieces of stone were extracted from the stone quarries in Wales, 225 km away from the site.
Researchers are now considering the possibility that the monument was originally built in Wales and later dismantled and brought to Wiltshire, England.
The Alignment of the Major Axis
Every year on the 21st of June, the longest day of the year, the sun rises behind the Heel Stone, and the rays shine in the heart of the stones. For this reason, it is believed that Stonehenge was built to mark the summer solstice. People come from all over the world to witness the sunrise every year. Since the sunset at the winter solstice occurs on the exact opposite side, some historians argued that Stonehenge was, in fact, built to mark the shortest day, a mark of the return of lighter days after a long period of darkness.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Stonehenge was recognized as a monument of national importance. The entire site was fenced off in 1901, despite protests, to allow restoration work. Excavations of the site and further restoration followed in 1919, and carbon dating was used in 1950 for the first time.
For many years, visitors were allowed to wander among the stones, but as visitors started to come in large numbers from all over the world, access to the stones was restricted by 1978. Today, the stones are roped, but visitors can still get close views of the monument.
Tips for Visiting Stonehenge
Stonehenge is relatively easy to reach by train from London to Salisbury, from where visitors can embark on a Stonehenge tour bus. Organized tours are also available from both London and Salisbury.
During normal visiting hours, you can only view the stones from behind a rope. It is possible to see them up-close, though, by booking a “special access” slot and go beyond the ropes in groups of 30 visitors.
The Stonehenge Visitor Centre, opened in 2013, is located 1.5 miles west of the site and caters to over 1 million tourists a year. It houses permanent and temporary exhibitions, including hundreds of archaeological treasures from the Stonehenge site. The centre also has a gallery, a 110-seater café with hot and cold food, and a gift shop.