This was shouted out by our teenage daughter when we arrived at Stonehenge. A little disrespectful some might think, but I found it to be very accurate indeed.
Stonehenge is somewhere I used to drive past almost weekly on business and stopped only once, before the old road was closed and the new visitor center was built. It has always been a place I have been intrigued by, as have thousands of others, and even though a lot more has been discovered about this site, we are still asking “Why?” and “How?”.
So, during our UK leg of the European Tour we visited this ancient site, which sits near the A303, the main road from London to the South West of England. A lot has changed since I was last there. The new visitor center is very impressive, having been built into the landscape, exhibiting some of the archaeological finds, as well as telling the story (as it is known today) of Stonehenge and its people.
Stonehenge is much more than the stones we are all familiar with. The circular ditch and bank surrounding the stone circle is the earliest and oldest part of this site, dating from around 3000 B.C. The central stone cluster was built around 2500 B.C, which is arranged in a circular and a horseshoe structure.
Archaeology has uncovered human remains from about 60 individuals, men, women and some children, all excavated from the circular ditch, and date from about 3 centuries after the ditch was first dug. It is thought that the ditch may have functioned as a cemetery long before the stones were put into place.
The large stones are known as sarsen stones, which is a hard reddish sandstone. The nearest consistent source for this type of stone is 19 miles/30 km north, on the Marlborough Downs. The smaller stones are collectively known as bluestones, although this includes a variety of different types of rock. Their connection is their source: Preseli Hills in Wales, some 150 miles/240 km west of Stonehenge. There is no doubt about the origin of these stones, as their mineral composition matches precisely with those still found at Preseli Hills.
Most other stone circles built around the same time as Stonehenge contained natural, rough, unworked stones. Not at Stonehenge, here the sarsen stones have been worked into their specific shapes. Modern laser scanning revealed more than 115 carvings in the stones, all of them of different types of axes and daggers from the Bronze Age.
The outer stone circle originally contained 30 upright sarsen, capped by horizontal lintel stones. Only 17 sarsen still stand with 5 lintels in place. The inner circles originally contained 80 bluestones, some of them weighing up to 3 tonnes.
The uprights are locked to their lintels by mortise and tenon joints. The end of the lintels are in turn locked together using tongue and groove joints. Quite an engineering feat considering how long ago this work took place.
It is believed that Stonehenge was never really completed. It’s public site, the one facing the entrance avenue was carefully constructed, whereas the back was less perfect, even seemingly missing some stones.
Stonehenge is aligned with the summer and winter solstice, 6 months and 180 degrees apart. According to experts the winter solstice was the more important one out of the two. Winter was a time of fear, with food shortages, long cold and dark days. The people of Stonehenge celebrated the winter solstice as a time when the year turned. After the shortest day the light would return, and light meant life.
Stonehenge has no obvious practical purpose, so why was it built? It was not lived in and could not be defended, so a spiritual reason might be why the people put so much effort into the building of this structure. It could also have been a place to worship long dead ancestors. Alternatively it might have been seen as a place of healing, as the bluestones are said to have healing powers.
Perhaps all of these are true. Over time, the site at Stonehenge was changed and added to, so perhaps over its life it served different purposes.
Over the last century Stonehenge has sat side by side with the British Military, who use the Salisbury Plains for exercises, but there also used to be a military aerodrome at Larkhill Camp. It was closed in 1921 and the land returned to its owner. Larkhill Camp still exists as a Military Garrison, but the land that Stonehenge sits on used to be farmland and in 1915 a big sale of land took place. On the auction list was Stonehenge, and it was sold for £6,600 to Cecil Chubb, who on 26 October 1918 gave the land to the Nation and in 1986 Stonehenge became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
These days the stones are roped off and one way to be allowed into the circle of stones to touch them is by either booking a special visit before or after normal opening hours, but book well in advance, as this is very popular (go to the English Heritage website for more details). One other way to get close to the stones is to attend the summer or winter solstice celebrations, for which the ropes are taken down and the public is able to experience Stonehenge at its best.
The area all around Stonehenge is full of significant prehistoric sites. There is Woodhenge, east of Stonehenge, West Amesbury henge, the Stonehenge Cursus to name but a few. Some sites are on private land or land owned by the Ministry of Defence, so are not accessible to the public.
The friends we visited live in Larkhill and the row of houses is one of the last ones on a road that eventually becomes a bridleway leading to the back of Stonehenge. Now, if we lived in that location you would not be able to stop me going up that path every single day, rain or shine. This path crosses the Stonehenge Cursus and it was amazing to see this long elongated earthwork enclosure that is 330 feet/100 m wide and 1.7 miles/2.7 km long. Seeing Stonehenge from the back, even though we didn’t go all the way to the end of the path, was just amazing. I did have my camera with me, but this was one sight I wanted to keep just for myself in my mind’s eye only.