Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, is a unique Neolithic monument that combines several
episodes of construction with various monument classes. The final monument, as seen in the early twenty-first century, represents an extraordinary level of sophistication in design, material, construction, and functionrarely found at other prehistoric sites in Europe.

Stonehenge evolved slowly over a millennium or longer and was embellished and rebuilt according to changing styles, social aspirations, and beliefs in tandem with the local political landscape of Wiltshire.The various stages, which archaeology identifies in three main phases and at least eight constructional episodes, link closely with monument building and developments seen elsewhere in Britain and Europe.
Stonehenge began its development in the early third millennium B.C., a period of transition between the earlier Neolithic, with its monuments of collective long barrows and communal causewayed enclosures, and the later Neolithic world of henges, avenues, ceremonial enclosures, circles, and mega-lithic monuments.

Across Britain and western Europe, this period signaled the closure of many of the megalithic tombs and seems to indicate changes in society, from small-scale, apparently egalitarian farming groups to more hierarchical and territorially aware societies. Burial especially reflected these changes, with the abandonment of collective rites and the emergence over the third millennium B.C. of individual burials furnished with personal ornaments, weapons, and tools. Landscape also showed changes, including more open landscapes cleared of trees, growing numbers of settlements, and an apparent preoccupation with the creation of ceremonial and monumental areas incorporating numerous sites within what is described as "sacred geography," or monuments arranged intentionally to take advantage of other sites and views, creating an arena for ceremonial activities.

Toward the end of the third millennium B.C., the later Neolithic and Bell Beaker periods evidenced increasing numbers of individual burials and ritual deposits and the growing use of megalithic stones and building of henges. Early metal objects, first of copper and then of bronze and gold, appeared in burials, and these items have close parallels with material developments in western Europe and across the British Isles. The quest for metals, with a related rise in interaction between groups, is reflected in rapidly changing fashions in metalwork, ornaments, and ritual practices. Wessex and its so-called Wessex culture lay at the junction between the metal-rich west of Britain and consumers in central eastern Britain and Europe. Through political, ritual, and economic control, these communities acquired materials and fine objects for use and burial in the tombs of elites on Salisbury Plain and the chalk lands of southern Britain.
The main building phases of Stonehenge reveal the growing importance of the Stonehenge area as a focus for burial and ritual. Earlier sites either were abandoned or, as in the case of Stonehenge, were massively embellished and rebuilt; many other very large and prominent monuments were located within easy sight of Stonehenge.

Geographic Information Systems studies suggest the Stonehenge was visible to all its contemporary neighbors and thus strategically located at the center of a monumental landscape. The significance of its location may stem from Stonehenge's special function as an observatory for the study of lunar and solar movements. Without doubt, the later phases of Stonehenge's construction focused on the orientation of the structures, which aligned with observations of the solstices and equinoxes, especially the rising of the midsummer and midwinter sun. Few other prehistoric sites appear to have had comparable structures, although several were observatories, such as the passage graves at Maes Howe on Orkney, Newgrange (rising midwinter sun) and Knowth in County Meath, Ireland, and many of the stone circles across Britain and Ireland.


Stonehenge was constructed over some fifteen hundred years, with long periods between building episodes. The first stage, c. 2950-2900 B.C., included a small causewayed enclosure ditch with an inner and outer surrounding bank, which had three entrances (one aligned roughly northeast, close to the present one). At this time, the construction of the fifty-six Aubrey Holes probably took place; these manmade holes filled with rubble may have supported a line of timber posts. Deposits and bones were placed at the ends of the ditch, signifying ritual activity. At the same time, the Greater and Lesser Cursus monuments, termed "cursus" after their long, linear form, suggestive of a racetrack, were constructed to the north of the Stonehenge enclosure. Some 4 kilometers north, the causewayed enclosure of Robin Hood's Ball probably was still in use. The surrounding landscape was becoming increasingly clear of tree cover, as farming communities continued to expand across the area. Survey has identified many potential settlement sites.

The second phase of building took place over the next five hundred years, until 2400 B.C., and represented a complex series of timber settings within and around the ditched enclosure. Subsequent building has obscured the plan, but the northeastern entrance comprised a series of post-built corridors that allowed observation of the sun and blocked access to the circle. The interior included a central structure—perhaps a building—and a southern entrance with a post corridor and barriers. Cremations were inserted into the Aubrey Holes and ditch, along with distinctive bone pins. During this phase a palisade was erected between Stonehenge and the Cursus monuments to the north, dividing the landscape into northern and southern sections. To the east, 3 kilometers distant, the immense Durrington Walls Henge and the small Woodhenge site beside it, incorporating large circular buildings, seem to have represented the major ceremonial focus during this period.

The third and major phase of building lasted from 2550-2450 to about 1600 B.C., with several intermittent bursts of construction and modification. The earth avenue was completed, leading northeastward from what was by then a single northeastern entrance. Sight lines focused on two stones in the entrance area (the surviving Heel Stone and another now lost) that aligned on the Slaughter Stone and provided a direct alignment to the center of the circle. Four station stones were set up against the inner ditch on small mounds, forming a quadrangular arrangement around the main circle.
The first stone phase (stage 3i) was initiated with the erection of bluestones in a crude circle (at least twenty-five stones) at the center of the henge, but lack of evidence and the subsequent removal of the stones leave the form of the possibly unfinished structure unclear. It was followed (stage 3ii), c. 2300 B.C., by the erection of some 30 huge (4 meters high) sarsen stones, capped and held together by a continuous ring of lintels, in a circle enclosing a horseshoe-shaped inner setting of 10 stones 7 meters high. These were "dressed," or shaped, in situ with stone mauls (hammers).

This arrangement was further modified with the insertion of bluestone within the sarsen circle (stage 3iii), but it was dismantled and rearranged by c. 2000 B.C. (stage 3iv), and more than twenty of the original stones probably were dressed and set in an oval around the inner sarsen horseshoe. Another ring of rougher bluestones was assembled between this and the outer sarsen circle, and an altar stone of Welsh sandstone was set at the center. Between 1900 and 1800 B.C. there was further rearrangement (stage 3v) of the bluestone, and stones in the northern section were removed. A final stage (stage 3vi) saw the excavation of two rings of pits around the main sarsen circle—the so-called Y and Z Holes, which may have been intended for additional settings. Material at the bases dates to c. 1600 B.C., and several contained deliberate deposits of antler. In parallel with these final phases of rebuilding, Stone-henge became the main focus of burial for the area, with about five hundred Bronze Age round barrows, some of which contain prestigious grave goods.


The raw materials that comprise Stonehenge were selected deliberately and transported over great distances, which suggests that the materials themselves were symbolically important. The sarsen stone that forms the main massive trilithons and circle derived from areas north and east of Salisbury Plain, some 20 to 30 kilometers distant. Sarsen is a very hard Tertiary sandstone, formed as a capping over the Wiltshire chalk and dispersed as shattered blocks over the Marlborough Downs and in the valleys. The shaping of this extremely hard material at Stonehenge represents a remarkable and very unusual exercise for British prehistory, when stones generally were selected in their natural form and utilized without further work. The bluestones have long been the focus of discussion, since they derive only from the Preseli Mountains of Southwest Wales, located 240 kilometers from Salisbury Plain.

Collectively, the stones are various forms of dolerite and rhyolite, occurring in large outcrops. Many theories have been proposed, and in the 1950s Richard Atkinson demonstrated the ease by which these quite small stones could be transported by raft to the Stonehenge area. Later geological study suggested that glacial ice probably transported considerable quantities of bluestone in a southeasterly direction and deposited it in central southern Britain.
The debate continues, but the carefully selected shape and size of the bluestones at Stonehenge seem to indicate that it would have been difficult to find so many similar stones deposited by natural agencies in Wiltshire. One theory suggests that the original bluestones were taken wholesale from an existing circle and removed to Stonehenge, perhaps as tribute or a gift. Other materials also have been found at Stonehenge, including the green sandstone altar stone, which may derive from the Cosheston Beds in southern Wales. Other local sites, such as West Kennet Long Barrow, include stone selected some distance away, such as Calne (Wiltshire) limestone. The interesting and complex dispersal of exotic stone axes and flint from early in the Neolithic further supports the idea that exotic materials were highly prized and had special symbolic properties.


The landscape surrounding Stonehenge is a dry, rolling chalk plateau, with the broad Avon Valley and its floodplain to the east. The valley areas were attractive to early settlement, but perhaps because of its bleakness and lack of water, the area immediately surrounding Stonehenge was little settled. The special ritual status afforded the location also may have deterred settlement over much of prehistory. Initially (4000-3000 B.C.), the landscape at the beginning of the Neolithic was heavily wooded, and clearances made by early farmers were the main open spaces. By the transition from the earlier to the later Neolithic, c. 2900 B.C., it seems that well over half the landscape was open, and monuments such as the Cursus were widely visible. Over the next millennium, increasing clearance reduced tree cover to belts of woodland around the edge of the Avon Valley and sparse scrub, allowing Stonehenge and the surrounding monuments to be visible one from another and to gain prominence in a largely manmade landscape.

Late Mesolithic activity has been identified in the parking area of Stonehenge, where four large postholes were located. They may have demarcated an early shrine, but a relationship to activity more than four thousand years later seems remote. The two-ditched causewayed enclosure of Robin Hood's Ball represents the earliest major site in the Stonehenge landscape in the early fourth millennium B.C., alongside some ten or more long barrows in the immediate area. Such a concentration is typical of these ceremonial foci and is repeated around other causewayed enclosures. Other sites developed over the late fourth and third millennia B.C., including an enclosure on Normanton Down, which may have been a mortuary site. Contemporary with the building of the enclosure in Stonehenge phase I is the Coneybury Henge located to the southeast. It was small and oval-shaped and contained settings of some seven hundred wooden posts arranged around the inner edge and in radiating lines around a central point. Its ditches contained grooved-ware pottery, and, significantly, among the animal bone deposits was a white-tailed sea eagle, a rare bird never found inland, so its placement would appear to be intentional and ritual.
To the west of Stonehenge lies another very small henge, only about 7 meters in diameter—the Fargo Plantation, which surrounded inhumation and cremation burials. Such concerns also were reflected at Woodhenge, located 3 kilometers northeast of Stonehenge, where the central focus is on the burial of a child with Bell Beaker grave goods, who might have been killed in a ritual sacrifice. The site formed the ditched enclosure of a large structure— probably a circular building supported on six concentric rings of posts. Immediately north lies Durrington Walls, the second largest of all the henges of Britain, with a maximum diameter of 525 meters and covering some 12 hectares within an immense ditch and bank. Only a small linear area of this site had been investigated before road building took place, but this study revealed two more large, wooden, circular buildings. A great quantity of grooved-ware pottery was found together with animal remains and fine flint, suggesting offerings had been placed in the ditch and at the base of the timber posts. The henge sites all seem to have been occupied until the end of the third millennium. The Early Bronze Age saw an increasing emphasis on burial landscapes and the construction of monuments.

Over the course of only half a millennium, the five hundred or so round barrows were constructed in groups at prominent places in the Stonehenge landscape. Dramatic locales, such as the King Barrow Ridge, were chosen for linear cemeteries of as many as twenty large, round barrows. Another example, Winterbourne Stoke, west of Stonehenge, was the site of an earlier long barrow. To the south of Stonehenge, the Normanton Down cemetery, with more than twenty-five barrows, included very rich burials, such as Bush Barrow. Excavations at many sites in the nineteenth century emptied the tombs and destroyed much of the evidence; nevertheless, much artifactual information was gathered. This information formed the basis of studies by Stuart Piggott and others that helped define the Wessex culture of the Early Bronze Age, which lasted from c. 1900 to 1550 B.C.
Reference : Encyclopedia of the Barbarian World-Ancient Europe , 8000 B.C to A.D 1000 vol. 2


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