What Is Stonehenge? - Theories, Facts & History

Instructor: Andrew Peterson

Andrew has a PhD and masters degree in world history.

Stonehenge is perhaps one of the most famous prehistoric structures in the world. Despite its fame, there is still a great deal of mystery surrounding it, which we will discuss in this lesson, along with looking at its history and factual details.

What is Stonehenge?

Stonehenge is an arrangement of giant stone blocks in the southwest of England dating back somewhere between 3000 BCE to as recent at 1600 BCE. Archaeologists have shown that the site of Stonehenge was not built all at once but was developed over a great period of time.

A view of Stonehenge
Stonehenge

Early on the site was likely used as a burial ground and consisted of little more than mounds and circular ditches. Sometime later giant stones were erected on the site and arranged in concentric circles. Over thousands of years these stones were configured into different arrangements and replaced several times.

A plan of Stonehenge showing the large stones at the center and the surrounding pits and mounds
Stonehenge Plan

Stonehenge is an example of what is called a megalithic structure or monument. Megalith literally means 'large stone.' Such megalithic monuments are not uncommon. In fact, Stonehenge is one of many megalithic sites in southern England alone. Other famous examples of megalithic sites from around the world include the stone statues of Easter Island, the Aztec pyramids, and ancient Mesopotamian ziggurats.

Construction

Perhaps the most impressive fact about Stonehenge is that we do not know exactly how or why it was built. The largest stones that make up the site weigh several tons and were transported from several miles away. The largest stones are called Sarsen Stones and form the iconic profile of Stonehenge that is so famous today. The Sarsen Stones stand in groups, each group having two large vertical pillar stones capped by a perpendicular top stone, or lentel.

The famous Sarsen Stones with the top lentels
Sarsen Stones

Some of the smaller stones at the site were brought in from as far away as Wales, over 100 miles away from Stonehenge. There is no written record of how the site was constructed or how heavy stones could have been transported over such great distances.

Although the specific methods of construction are unknown to historians and archaeologists, we can infer a number of things from the size and location of Stonehenge. Firstly, Stonehenge would have required the labor of hundreds if not thousands of people. Secondly, the fact that some of the stones came from over 100 miles away tells us that the larger region of Southwest England and Wales was likely connected through networks of trade and transportation. Stonehenge was built by a community that had a significant population and some measure of scientific understanding.

Purpose

A great deal of debate surrounds the purpose of Stonehenge. Why was it built? Did the site serve as a religious shrine? Was Stonehenge some sort of celestial calendar? Or was it simply a gathering place of some significance?

We know for certain that the Stonehenge site and the surrounding area was used as a burial ground early in its history. Many human remains have been found buried at the site.

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