The colossal size, its endurance for 4000 years and its mysterious symbolism certainly make Stonehenge Britain’s national icon. Although researchers are still unclear as to its original purpose, it is most likely that it was a religious place of worship to some outer deity or a grand memorial to earthbound nobility.
Stonehenge is surrounded by hundreds of burial mounds, known as barrows, located in an expansive plain about 2 miles west of the English town of Amesbury in Wiltshire. We can only guess at the purpose of the enormous human endeavours expended to build such a site. It is a place smoking of mystery and intrigue, firing imaginations of archaeologists and tourists as to the reason, use and construction.
Two Rings of Stone
The remains today at Stonehenge poorly reflect the impressive original structure. What are observed are merely the ruins of a once magnificent twin ring formation. Some of the original stones have been removed, some have fallen over and it is suspected that other missing stones have been cut up and used for other construction purposes by previous generations.
The Inner Ring
The smaller, inner circle is the oldest. It is believed to have been built around 2000 BC. These stones, although smaller than the ones used in the outer ring, are still enormous, weighing in at up to four tons each. The stones are natural bluestone and no local supply is within the region. The stones may have been quarried around 230 miles away in the Prescelly Mountains of southern Wales.
The Outer Ring
The larger, outer circle is regarded to be about 500 years younger than the inner ring. The stones of this massive circle can weigh as much as 50 tons. They are natural sandstones, called sarsens, found scattered all over the English chalk downs. The stones are likely to have been transported to the site from neighbouring Marlborough Downs about 20 miles to the north.
With both rings erected Stonehenge was completed around 1500 BC with no further additions after this time.
Whoever the builders were one thing is certain, they were an ancient people with immense skill in quarrying and moving extremely large stones. So skilled, in fact, that modern engineers would struggle today to achieve the same architectural feat.
The most popular attribution is the Druids, a priestly class of ancient Celts. To be the builders they would have needed to have been existing as a well-organised society as early as 2000 BC. All archaeological evidence about the Druids tends to prove that they were a later society.
Archaeology suggests that a people group from the late Neolithic period began the site and that its furtherance was by subsequent generations involving higher limits of organisation and technology. For example, the great sarsen stones of the outer circle would have required no less than six hundred men to move then up the steep rise on route from Marlborough Downs.
The technology to erect the stones and cap them with lintels was nothing short of engineering innovation. A clever combination of dug holes, levers, gravity, ropes and hundreds of men, gracefully slid the gigantic stones into upright positions. Lintel stones were swung over the top and secured by jointing.
Like many famous archaeological sites, Stonehenge as been attacked and exploited by commercialism. It is unlikely that further excavation of the site is practical, as digging beside the stones will undermine their stability. Therefore, the mystic that attracts so many to this site is certain to continue.