14. According to legend, Stonehenge was built by Merlin
Where Henry of Huntingdon was content to celebrate the mystery of the building of Stonehenge, his contemporary Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1095-c.1155) wouldn’t let the matter rest there. In his Historia regum Britanniae, where this noted fibber started the medieval obsession with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Geoffrey had a rather unique theory: magic. Geoffrey said that the British King Aurelius Ambrose wanted a monument to the British chiefs slaughtered by the vicious Saxon warlord Hengest in Wiltshire. Naturally, he decided to consult a wizard, none other than Merlin himself, about what to do.
Merlin of course had a good idea. He knew of a stone circle in Ireland called The Giant’s Ring that had magical healing properties, which Merlin promised would stand for all eternity if transferred to England. Merlin led a group of men to Ireland, who slaughtered locals who didn’t want the stones pilfered, but they baulked at the size of the magical monoliths. ‘It is not by sinew but by knowledge that these stones shall be moved’, said Merlin, who used his great wisdom to move the stones onto the waiting ships. They’ve stood at Stonehenge ever since.
The musical heritage of Stonehenge predates Spinal Tap (above) by a very long way. We’ve already discussed the possible reasons for the Bluestones being quarried and transported 140 miles, but in 2014 another theory was proposed by London’s College of Art. Studying thousands of Bluestones along the Carn Meryn ridge, researchers found that a high proportion made a ringing sound ‘like a bell’ when struck. ‘There’s lots of different tones, you could play a tune’, said researcher Paul Devereux. ‘In fact, we have had percussionists who have played proper percussion pieces off the rocks’.
According to veteran Stonehenge archaeologist Professor Tim Darvill, the musical qualities of the Bluestones may actually shed some light on why they were carried such a long way. ‘Ringing rocks are a prominent part of many cultures’, he noted. ‘You can almost see [Stonehenge] as a pre-historic glockenspiel, if you like’. And it’s a tantalising theory. Music, after all, is an inimical part of human nature. Perhaps the Bluestones were imported to be a musical accompaniment to ceremonies and religious rituals taking place at Stonehenge. It’s certainly as good a theory as any to solve this millennia-long mystery.
Stonehenge was excavated around 1640 by the pioneering antiquarian John Aubrey. Struggling to work out what it was, he came up with the theory that it was a temple built by the Druids in the distant past. He knew about Druids from the writings of Tacitus and others, and at the time it was a sound theory. After all, it was clear both that it was very old and that it had an astronomical function (see below). A century later, William Stukely, another antiquarian, endorsed the Druid hypothesis, and is credited with popularising this enduring myth.
Neither Aubrey nor Stukely had access to the research and methods of dating we have today, and as early as the 19th century the Druid-hypothesis had been quashed. John Lubbock found Bronze Age items at the site, and dated it on this basis. From radiocarbon dating we know today that Stonehenge was built thousands of years before the Druids came into being in about 300 BC. This does not preclude Druids using the existing structure for their religious devotions, of course, but nonetheless no archaeological evidence for this has been found. Still, try telling that to the Neopagans.
11. Its astronomical purpose has been long-acknowledged
John Aubrey may have been off the mark with his Druid-temple theory, but one thing he got right was the link between Stonehenge and astronomy. Aubrey sketched out the arrangement of the stones, and from this he worked out that they were positioned so that the rising sun at Summer Solstice would appear directly in the middle of the two tallest stones in the circle. William Stukely later discovered that the sun rises in the direction of the Stonehenge Avenue at the Solstice. What an entrance you could make, strolling down the avenue at dawn on the solstice!
There’s another alignment, too. In 1997, Professor Gordon Freeman discovered that the sun at the Winter Solstice also rises directly between two other upright stones. There are two main theories about why Stonehenge was aligned in this way. Firstly, the alignment may have had something to do with sun worship. After all, the sun brings warmth and makes crops grow, making it an obvious object of primitive devotion. Secondly, it has been suggested that Stonehenge is an ancient astrological calendar, a way of telling the time of year by mapping the position of the sun in relation to the monoliths.
10. Stonehenge is included in Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born in Dorset, a county bordering Wiltshire, and much of his literature celebrates the natural and human history of the South West of England. He took a keen interest in local archaeology, and chose Stonehenge as the setting for the tragic climax of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). It is there that Tess and her estranged husband Angel Clare spent their last night together, after Tess has killed her abusive lover, Alec Stoke-D’Urberville. On the run from the authorities, the couple desperately try to live in the moment before Tess is inevitably arrested and executed.
Hardy gives Stonehenge an unusual gothic character. Tess and Angel stumble upon it by accident on a misty night, leading Angel to ask, ‘what monstrous place is this?’ Symbolically, Tess is tired of running from justice, and lays herself down on one of the fallen stones. Hardy describes Stonehenge as a place of human sacrifice, and the implicit idea is that Tess has accepted her fate, like so many others did before her there. The lovers’ final night together is heartbreaking, and ends at dawn with Tess’s tragically inevitable arrest. ‘I am ready’, she says when the police arrive.
9. There are over 900 stone circles in Britain apart from Stonehenge
Though Stonehenge is by far the most famous stone circle in the world, there are many others like it. In Britain alone, there are more than 900 others of varying sizes dotted across the island. Around 20 miles north of Stonehenge is Avebury Stone Circle, the largest stone-henge in the world. It dates back to 2850 BC, and is made up of three circles of upright stones. Unfortunately, the area has been settled since the early medieval period, and people were so scared of the stone circle that its construction was blamed on Satan and many stones were pulled down.
Another stone circle worth mentioning is Castlerigg Stone Circle in the Lake District. This one doesn’t have an enclosing ditch, and hence is not a henge, but it’s one of the oldest stone circles in the UK and dates from 3000 BC. At its centre lies a mysterious rectangle of stones, and it is surrounded by some of Britain’s highest mountains. We know precious little about the specific function of any stone circle, but their millennia of survival is nothing short of miraculous. Folklore however tells us that these monuments are people turned to stone by the devil or witches.
So far we’ve been talking about the near-miraculous Bluestones and their long journey from Wales, but let’s not forget about the other stones at Stonehenge. The larger Sarsens were found more locally, but people still had to lug them from as far away as 25 miles. Each of the larger ring of Sarsens is 4.1 metres (13 feet) high, 2.1 metres (nearly 7 feet) wide, and weighs about 25 tonnes. All you can really say is thank God they weren’t in Wales. The Sarsens also came after the Bluestones to Stonehenge – but we’ll get onto that later.
Today, 53 Sarsens remain at Stonehenge, but there were originally around 85. To get a sense of how difficult these were to move, think of the restoration work carried out at Stonehenge in the 1950s and 60s (above). Heavy duty machinery had to be employed to move the Sarsens, and even then it was a real struggle to get the fallen stones upright despite the use of scaffolding. No one knows precisely how prehistoric people got the larger Sarsens upright, or managed to lay the smaller Sarsens to flat on top of the 4-metre high monsters.
7. It probably took 30 million hours of labor to build Stonehenge
When you’re marvelling at Stonehenge, you not only have to think about how hard it was to move the stones all that way, but how they were positioned with such a perfect alignment to the sun at specific times of the year, and furthermore how they were erected at all. Salisbury Plain is not perfectly flat, and to get the stones to stand perfectly upright required a mixture of brute force and patience. They had to be placed vertically in angled pits dug with flint and antler tools and angled upright with ropes whilst the pit was gradually filled in.
The 9-tonne lintels on top of the standing Sarsens were either rolled up a high bank of sloped earth or moved with ropes and a platform. Their perfect fit would have required much more trial and error, given the slight slope of the ground around Stonehenge. The builders carved mortices to fix the lintels into a perfect horizontal position, which would have required several attempts for perfection. And imagine how many times the stones were erected ever so slightly out of perfect alignment with the sun. No wonder it’s been calculated that it took 30 million man-hours to build.
It’s not just prehistoric artefacts that are found at Stonehenge. Both Roman and medieval items have been found at the site, presumably left by itinerant ancient litterbugs since the site wasn’t occupied after the Iron Age. And it seems that one unfortunate man met a sticky end at Stonehenge in the Anglo-Saxon period. He died sometime in the 7th century, and was forgotten about until his lonely grave was found during a 1923 excavation. A small nick in the lower jaw and a cut in the fourth vertebra suggest that he was killed with a single, clean blow.
This all suggests a professional execution, probably with a sword. Archaeologists have determined that he was aged between 28 and 32, and came from the South of England. Further archaeological CSI suggests that whoever he was, he was not a popular chap. After being beheaded, he was simply stuffed by force into a crudely dug pit and covered up. This all tallies with what we know about execution in this period. Other execution victims have been found in prehistoric sites, possibly because they were thought to be haunted, never settled by nice people, and hence served as an extra punishment.
5. Over 200 people are buried there, from far and wide
Whilst our Anglo-Saxon friend may have been buried in a single grave, once shoved beneath the surface he would have found himself in good company. In fact, there are over 200 people from different periods buried at Stonehenge and some experts think it’s simply a great big graveyard. We’ve already discussed the 63 cremated individuals, but there are many other noteworthy burials. The so-called Stonehenge Archer, found in the ditch, was buried c. 2300 BC with flint arrowheads, some of which were stuck in his body, suggesting that he was killed with a bow and arrow.
The Stonehenge Archer was a local man, but Stonehenge was an astonishingly multicultural place of burial. A 15 year old boy with a beautiful amber-bead necklace (above), radiocarbon dated to c.1550 BC, buried there has been proved to have grown up in the Mediterranean. Other burials add yet another layer of mystery to the Bluestones. Between 10 and 25 individuals amongst the 63 cremated people were not from Wiltshire, but Wales. Specifically, the very part of Wales where the Bluestones came from. Was Stonehenge a place of pilgrimage for Welsh people because of the stones carried far from their quarry?
We’ve already seen that Stonehenge began as just a henge, a circular bank-and-ditch enclosure. But the stones weren’t just suddenly put up. Stonehenge, as it exists today, is the product of thousands of years of design and redevelopment. At some stage, timber posts were probably erected, leaving the mysterious holes. In the stone phase, the Bluestones were the first to arrive around 2900 BC, suggesting that it took a lot to encourage the ancient builders to use stone. They placed these Welsh stones in an incomplete double circle, right in the middle of the henge.
Finally, about 400 years later, the giant Sarsens arrived. The Bluestones were rearranged to make a horseshoe, and the Sarsens formed an outer concentric ring. This was when Stonehenge got its more familiar appearance, with massive Sarsens topped by lintels in a circle around the Bluestones. The sides of the Sarsens facing the inside of the circle were smoother and better developed than the outer face, perhaps suggesting the safety that came from being inside. At this point in history, c.2500 BC, Stonehenge had its heyday, as archaeological evidence suggests up to 4, 000 people gathered there for Solstice celebrations.
3. The first excavation at Stonehenge took place in 1620
The first excavation at Stonehenge was undertaken by the Duke of Buckingham on behalf of King James I in 1620. James was intrigued by what Buckingham found, and sent the architect Inigo Jones to find out more. Jones, however, unhelpfully concluded that it was built by the Romans. The first man to find anything useful out about Stonehenge was John Aubrey (1626-97). Aubrey was an archaeological pioneer who was the first to record a number of important prehistoric monuments around Britain. At Stonehenge, he was the first to sketch the site’s plan and find the ancient postholes.
Aubrey became an archaeologist by accident. Aged 22, he was foxhunting near Avebury (see above), but soon gave up ruining the poor fox’s day to gaze at the surrounding landscape, ‘wonderfully surprised at the sight of those vast stones of which I had never heard before’. He realised that Avebury must represent a prehistoric temple, and got to work. Though he is most famous today for Stonehenge, Aubrey always retained a soft-spot for Avebury above all prehistoric monuments he came across: ‘Avebury does as much exceed in greatness the so reknowned [sic] Stonehenge, as a cathedral doeth a parish Church’.
2. Some people think that Stonehenge was built by aliens
Amongst the most controversial and, frankly, stupid historical schools of thought around today is the ancient aliens theory fanously propagated by the History Channel. The ‘logic’ behind the theory is that ancient people were not intelligent or technologically-advanced enough to build such things as the Pyramids or Teotihuacán, and so it must have been aliens. The problem with this theory is that it not only presupposes the existence of extraterrestrial life, but assumes that aliens had the inclination, biological capability, and technology to visit Earth. It also overlooks centuries of academic research and some great stories of human achievement.
But we have to look at the ancient alien theory about Stonehenge, as it’s disturbingly widespread. Acknowledging the astronomical significance of the monument, some people argue that knowledge about the heavens must have been given to prehistoric people in Wiltshire by aliens. The mystery of the Bluestones can be explained by aliens using their vessels to move them from the Preseli Hills, and the circular form of Stonehenge made an ideal landing-pad for their space ships. The only thing out of this world about Stonehenge however is the level of effort, knowledge, and sophistication required to build it.
1. Whoever built it had a phenomenal knowledge of astronomy and mathematics
Discounting the above for obvious reasons, there are many convincing theories about the function of Stonehenge. Burial ground, ceremonial site, temple, astronomical calendar: it is all of these things at once. But a final, mind-blowing thought before you go: the people who designed Stonehenge had an incredible knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. Aligning the stones to the precise location of the sun rising at the Summer Solstice and setting at the Winter Solstice would have required years of observing the skies. Given the various stages of building and redesign, this was not the work of an individual or a fluke.
Research published in 2005 also sheds light on the advanced mathematics behind Stonehenge. The landscape archaeologist Anthony Johnson used computer analysis to determine that the chalk pits around it form a 56-sided polygon, laid out using square and circle geometry. The builders first used a rope to mark a circle, then laid out two squares to make an internal octagon, and from there the huge polygon was formed. This is all evidence of significant planning and knowledge, and erecting the stones would have required calculations on weight and the angle of the surface. All this, 2, 000 years before Pythagoras…
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: