A huge circle of stones, some weighing as much as 50 tons, sits in the English countryside outside Salisbury. Known as Stonehenge, the Neolithic monument inspired Swiss author Erich von Däniken to suggest it was a model of the solar system that also functioned as an alien landing pad—after all, how else could those massive stones have ended up hundreds of miles from their home quarry?
No one knows what, exactly, the meaning of Stonehenge is, but, as with all the other sites in this collection, the explanation is not aliens. Instead, scientists have demonstrated it’s actually possible to build such a thing using technologies that would have been around 5,000 years ago, when the earliest structures at the site were built.
And now, it appears as though the stones are aligned with solstices and eclipses, suggesting the Stonehenge builders were at least keeping an eye on the heavens, even if they didn’t come from above.
Stonehenge is a massive stone monument located on a chalky plain north of the modern-day city of Salisbury, England. Research shows that the site has continuously evolved over a period of about 10,000 years. The structure that we call “Stonehenge” was built between roughly 5,000 and 4,000 years ago and was one part of a larger sacred landscape that included a massive stone monument that was 15 times the size of Stonehenge.
The biggest of Stonehenge’s stones, known as sarsens, are up to 30 feet (9 meters) tall and weigh 25 tons (22.6 metric tons) on average. It is widely believed that they were brought from Marlborough Downs, a distance of 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the north.
Smaller stones, referred to as “bluestones” (they have a bluish tinge when wet or freshly broken), weigh up to 4 tons and come from several different sites in western Wales, having been transported as far as 140 miles (225 km). It’s unknown how people in antiquity moved them that far. Recent experiments show that it is possible for a one-ton stone to be moved by a dozen people on a wooden trackway, but whether this technique was actually used by the ancient builders is uncertain.
Stonehenge is just one part of a larger sacred landscape that contains many other stone and wooden structures as well as burials. Archaeologists have also found evidence for widespread prehistoric hunting and a road that may have led to Stonehenge.
From what scientists can tell, Salisbury Plain was considered to be a sacred area long before Stonehenge itself was constructed. As early as 10,500 years ago, three large pine posts, which were totem poles of sorts, were erected at the site.
Hunting played an important role in the area. Researchers have uncovered roughly 350 animal bones and 12,500 flint tools or fragments, just a mile away from Stonehenge, the finds dating from 7500 B.C. to 4700 B.C. The presence of abundant game may have led people to consider the area sacred.
Dozens of burial mounds have been discovered near Stonehenge indicating that hundreds, if not thousands, of people, were buried there in ancient times. At least 17 shrines, some in the shape of a circle, have also been discovered near Stonehenge. A “House of the Dead” was recently discovered near Stonehenge that dates to 3700 B.C.-3500 B.C.
Around 5,500 years ago two earthworks known as Cursus monuments were erected at Stonehenge, the longest of which ran for 1.8 miles (3 km). By 5,300 years ago two massive eyeglass-shaped wooden palisades, which were set ablaze during ceremonies, were constructed at Avebury, near Stonehenge.
At Stonehenge, more construction occurred around 5,000 years ago with postholes indicating that either bluestones or upright timber posts were propped up on the site. Then, around 4,600 years ago, a double circle made using dozens of bluestones was created at the site.
By 4,400 years ago, Stonehenge had changed again, having a series of sarsen stones erected in the shape of a horseshoe, with every pair of these huge stones having a stone lintel connecting them. In turn, a ring of sarsens surrounded this horseshoe, their tops connecting to each other, giving the appearance of a giant interconnected stone circle surrounding the horseshoe.
By 4,300 years ago, Stonehenge had been expanded to include the addition of two bluestone rings, one inside the horseshoe and another between the horseshoe and the outer layer of interconnected sarsen stonesConstruction at Stonehenge slowed down around 4,000 years ago. As time went on the monument fell into neglect and disuse, some of its stones fell over while others were taken away.
Why was Stonehenge constructed?
Many theories have been put forward that why Stonehenge was constructed.
“It’s part of a much more complex landscape with processional and ritual activities that go around it,” Gaffney told Live Science, noting that people may have traveled considerable distances to come to Stonehenge.
One theory about Stonehenge, released in 2012 by members of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, is that Stonehenge marks the “unification of Britain,” a point when people across the island worked together and used a similar style of houses, pottery, and other items.
It would explain why they were able to bring bluestones all the way from west Wales and how the labor and resources for the construction were marshaled.
“Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labor of thousands to move stones from as far away as west Wales, shaping them and erecting them. Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification,” said Prof.Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield in a news release.