Of all the great monuments of antiquity, none except the Great Pyramid has aroused more speculation than Stonehenge; and it is still, because of its unique character, one of the major puzzles of prehistoric Europe. However, as a result of excavations in 1919-26, and again in 1950-64, some things can be said with confidence, if not with certainty, about who built it, and how, and when.
There seem to have been three successive Stonehenges, built over a period of about four centuries at the end of the Late Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. Stonehenge I consisted of a circular bank and ditch, enclosing a ring of fifty-six pits named after their seventeenth-century discoverer, John Aubrey. In and beyond its entrance, to the north-east, there were outlying features of stone and timber, including the so-called Heel Stone. It appears to have been built by the local prehistoric population, some time between 2000 and 1700 B.C.; and other examples of embanked circles containing rings of pits, of the same date, have been found elsewhere in Britain. Stonehenge II was apparently built not long before 1600 B.C. by the Beaker people, who had colonized parts of Britain from Europe during the past few centuries, bringing with them the first knowledge of metals, in pursuit of which they established trade routes from Ireland through Wales to the Stonehenge area. Their monument consisted of a double circle of “bluestones” brought from Wales, never finished before it was dismantled, with an entrance pointing to the midsummer sunrise. Beyond the entrance of the earlier earthwork, now widened, this new axis was marked by a pair of stones and by the first stretch of an embanked earthen Avenue, or processional way, leading to the river Avon. In this or the next period the four so-called Station Stones were erected, roughly on the line of the Aubrey circle and symmetrical to the midsummer sunrise axis. Three outlying holes on the east side (F,G,H) may possibly be connected with them; but their excavators believed that they were of natural origin, and due to the former growth of trees.
Stonehenge III replaced the unfinished bluestone circle about 1600 B.C. It consisted of a circle of thirty large pillars of local sandstone, brought from about twenty miles away, enclosing a horseshoe of five pairs of even larger pillars, all originally capped by lintels of the same stone. Though doubtless built by the local population, now growing rich and powerful as traders on a European scale in tin and gold and bronze, the design and details of Stonehenge III strongly suggest influence from the contemporary civilizations of Mycenean Greece and Minoan Crete.
OF THE METHODS used to dig the ditch and pits, to haul and shape and erect the massive pillars, and to lift the lintels into place, we know a little and can reasonably infer rather more. In the last few years experiment with primitive tools and methods has given good estimates of …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Stonehenge August 18, 1966