Stonehenge

Stonehenge stōn´hĕnj˝ [key], group of standing stones on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, S England. Preeminent among megalithic monuments in the British Isles, it is similar to an older and larger monument at Avebury , some 20 mi (30 km) away. The great prehistoric structure is enclosed within a circular ditch 300 ft (91 m) in diameter, with a bank on the inner side, and is approached by a broad roadway called the Avenue that connects Stonehenge with the River Avon. Within the circular trench the stones are arranged in four series: The outermost is a circle of sandstones about 13.5 ft (4.1 m) high connected by lintels; the second is a circle of bluestone menhirs ; the third is horseshoe shaped; the innermost, ovoid. Within the ovoid lies the Altar Stone. The Heelstone is a great upright stone in the Avenue, northeast of the circle. A number of other ancient features are found in the surrounding landscape, including barrows; the Cursus, an long, elongated oval ditch; and the remains of other henges.

Human habitation in the area dates to at least 7000 BC; the first known monumental features in the landscape, including the Cursus, date to about 3500 BC; and the earth bank and ditch at Stonehenge date to roughly 3000 BC Stonehenge is now believed to have been built in several stages between c.3000 and c.1500 BC The first bluestones were apparently erected c.2600 BC; they were quarred in the Preseli Hills, Wales, c.150 miles (240 km) away, and may have been used for another purpose first. Stonehenge underwent a series of changes over the next millenium, as the erection, removal, and reerection of various stones shaped the site into the current arrangement; the main construction was completed before 2000 BC

It was at one time widely believed that Stonehenge was a druid temple, but this is contradicted by the fact that the druids probably did not arrive in Britain until c.250 BC In 1963 the American astronomer Gerald Hawkins theorized that Stonehenge was constructed and used as a huge astronomical instrument that could accurately measure solar and lunar movements as well as eclipses. Hawkins used a computer to test his calculations and found definite correlations between his figures and the solar and lunar positions in 1500 BC, a time now known to postdate Stonehenge's main construction. Some archaeologists objected to Hawkins's theory on the basis that the eclipse prediction system he proposed was much too complex for the Early Bronze Age society of England.

Most archaeologists agree, however, that Stonehenge could have been used to observe the motions of the moon as well as the sun. Research by the archaeologist Alexander Thom, based on the careful mapping of hundreds of megalithic sites, indicated that the megalithic ritual circles were built with a high degree of accuracy, requiring considerable mathematical and geometric sophistication. More recent speculation on the Neolithic ceremonial and cultural functions of Stonehenge has included its possible use as a center for healing and as a burial ground for a local ruling family. Among the burials near the site have been found remains of a man who was raised near the Alps and a teenage boy raised near the Mediterranean. A discovery in 2008 suggests that Stonehenge was aligned with the winter solstice sunset because local, natural ridges on the Plain that led to its site were so aligned, and other archaeological remains in the surrounding countryside suggest that prehistoric people gathered in the area around the time of the winter solstice. Evidence of a former stone circle with 25 bluestones has been found nearby beside the River Avon; the stones once used there may have been incorporated into Stonehenge. Some of the bluestones produce bell-like sounds when struck; it is unclear, however, how or if this property is connected to their use at Stonehenge.

See G. S. Hawkins, Stonehenge Decoded (1965); H. Harrison and L. E. Stover, Stonehenge (1972); A. Thom, Megalithic Sites in Britain (1967) and Megalithic Lunar Observations (1973); M. Parker Pearson, Stonehenge: A New Understanding (2013).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Archaeology: General