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Stonehenge - Wiltshire, England
Stone Circle and Henge
National Grid Reference: SU 123 422

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The modern visitor to Stonehenge is viewing the ruins of the final phase of construction at the site. The mighty sarsen trilithons which are so familiar to everyone were only erected during the later period of use of the temple. To discover the origins of Stonehenge we must look back over 5,000 years.

Stonehenge Phase I

The oldest structures on the site of Stonehenge are the bank, ditch and the pits known as the Aubrey Holes which were dug just within the circumference of the ditch. These are thought to have been constructed around 3,100 BC. The ditch and bank are what make the "henge" at Stonehenge.

A common mistake is to refer to any stone circle site as a henge. A henge is an earthwork monument constructed in Neolithic Britain. Some henges might have contained timber posts or settings of stones at the centre, but by no means did they all. There is no available evidence for timber or stone having been erected at the centre of Stonehenge during this phase due to the amount of damage caused at the site by people digging for "treasure" in the centre. The henge at Stonehenge is unusual in that the bank is set within the ditch, usually the bank is on the outside of the ditch (as at Avebury for example). The ditch has become filled in over the years, and the bank has been worn down. Originally the ditch would have been around 2 metres deep and the bank around the same in height. The henge is around 120 metres in diameter. An entrance in the northeast section of the bank and ditch points towards the direction of the midsummer sunrise.

The 56 Aubrey Holes are named after the 17th Century antiquarian, John Aubrey, who first described these features. The pits are around a metre in diameter and the same in depth. Modern visitors can see the sites of the Aubrey Holes marked in cement around the inside edge of the ditch. It seems that the holes were filled in with chalk rubble soon after they were dug and there is no evidence that either stones or timbers ever stood in these pits. Later, people buried cremated bone within the pits but there is no evidence that they were originally dug for this purpose.

Stonehenge Phase II

Around 2,100 BC the site was redesigned. The so called "bluestones" were brought to Stonehenge and the construction of a double circle of these stones was started at the centre of the henge. The bluestones are so called because when freshly broken or wetted the stone is quite blue in colour. The geological name for this stone is spotted dolerite.

The bluestones are a point of some controversy at Stonehenge. The stone is not local to the area and can only be found in the Preseli Mountains of South Wales. One theory is that the stones were brought to the area by glaciers. As glacial erratics the stones might have been revered by the local population, realising that they were unlike any other stones in the vicinity and thus were of special significance.

The other theory is that they were transported by people all the way from the Preseli Mountains especially for the purpose. Each stone weighs around 4 tonnes and the theory is that they were transported by land, sea and river to Salisbury plain. A recent attempt to explore this possibility ended in disaster when a raft carrying a stone sank in Milford Haven. However, I favour this explanation of the transportation of the bluestones. If they were glacial erratics then surely we would still be finding pieces of bluestone in the area, and I'm not aware of any evidence for a glacier running from southwest Wales to Salisbury Plain.

 

It is thought that during this period the Heel Stone was added to the site, marking the direction of the midsummer sunrise from the centre of the circle. There is evidence in the form of a second stone hole that there might have been a pair of Heel stones erected at this time. It might also be that the Heel Stone was moved from one stone hole to the other at some point.

Excavations at the site show that this second phase of construction was never actually completed. The double circle of bluestones at the centre of the henge was never finished. A dramatic new plan had been formulated for Stonehenge.

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