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The Eternal Mystery of Stonehenge

by Pearl Harris

Situated in the chalky lands of Wiltshire county in southwest England, nine miles north of Salisbury and just five minutes' drive from the picturesque little town of Amesbury, Stonehenge should be seen at least once by every visitor to Britain.


Apart from being the nearest town to Stonehenge, Amesbury has a proud history of its own. Formerly known as Amblesberie, Ambresbury and Ambrosbury, this pretty country town with a population of 28,000 is situated nine miles west of Salisbury.

Just west of Amesbury on the A303 bypass, clumps of beech trees, known as the Trafalgar Clumps, were planted about 200 years ago to represent the alignment of the English and French ships at the Battle of the Nile. It is reputed to have been Lady Emma Hamilton, Lord Nelson's mistress, who arranged for them to be planted on the estate of the Duke of Queensberry. The latter, himself an honorary Admiral, had befriended her after Nelson's death at Trafalgar.

West Amesbury, previously known as "Little Amesbury," is separated from the center of Amesbury by the river Avon and an Iron Age fort. West Amesbury is worth a visit for its thatched and timbered cottages and lovely period dwellings. 17th Century West Amesbury House is thought to have been associated with the Priory of Amesbury.

Through the ages, Amesbury has been a resting place for all travelers on foot, horseback and stage coach. Today it is the resting place of travelers of another kind, all with one single purpose -- a glimpse of Stonehenge.


It is thought that the name "Stonehenge" derives from the Anglo-Saxon "henge," meaning "hanging." Thus "Stonehenge" literally means "hanging stones," descriptive of the lintels suspended above the massive stone pillars of this mystifying monument.

Stonehenge is the world's only stone circle to contain these horizontal lintels. Today, the word "henge" has the archeological definition of "a circular enclosure surrounding settings of stones and timber uprights, or pits."

My first visit to Stonehenge was in 1978. Having overnighted in Amesbury, I walked along a quiet road across the green fields of Salisbury Plain surrounded only by the sounds of the countryside. Quite suddenly, as I came over a rise, the gigantic monoliths appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the early morning sunrise.

Virtually alone, I was free to wander around the mysterious stone circle, to touch and breathe in its magical aura. No tour buses, no motor cars, and very few other human beings were in sight. This is the memory of Stonehenge I will always treasure. It sounds almost unbelievable in the 21st century, doesn't it?

Sadly, modern tourism has left its indelible mark. Revisiting Stonehenge in 2004, I was staggered at the sheer volume of tourists, tour buses and motor vehicles of every description swarming over the site. A fee is charged for the large adjacent car park (refundable if you produce your entrance ticket to Stonehenge).

StonehengeCars whiz by at speed on the now busy main road along which I had previously ambled and which is now only safely crossed by means of an underground tunnel from the car park. Once over the road and within the perimeter of the unattractive high wire fence surrounding the monument, with an audio headpiece in place, you traipse around the silent circle of inaccessible monoliths in an endless queue of visitors, listening to a commentary in your language of choice.

Countless theories about the origin of Stonehenge have been propounded through the ages. One of these is that it was a means of astronomical calculation. Others theorize that it was a place of sacrifice, sun-worship or the site of a royal palace. The symmetry of the site and its location on a slight rise in the otherwise flat valley provides views of the horizon all around. Its alignment with sunrise and sunset points on summer and winter Solstices gives credence to the view that it might have been an ancient time-measuring site or observatory.

Stonehenge is classified as one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites which organization is attempting to solve the problem of the public's dissatisfaction at the present protected arrangement for viewing the site, while at the same time conserving it for posterity.

The stone circle one sees now is only a very small part of the original. Many of the outer stones were taken by local builders and farmers for construction. Visitors through the ages have also added to the gradual destruction of this monument, resulting in the present day "look but don't touch" policy, which angers and upsets many people.

The construction of Stonehenge is estimated to have taken place in three stages. The outer circle is believed to have been of wooden posts, surrounded by a ditch and bank. Fifty-six holes, assumed to have held wooden posts, are situated around the edge of the bank. These are known as "Aubrey Holes" after John Aubrey, who discovered them in 1666.

Stonehenge HeelstoneThe ditch must have been dug by hand, with the aid of animal bones. Deer antlers (discovered in excavations of the ditch) were used as axes and the shoulder blades of oxen as shovels. It was by carbon-dating of these antlers that scientists learned that the first henge was built in approximately 3100 BC. At this stage, too, the huge Heel Stone was placed at the entrance of the central enclosure.

In about 2500 BC the first stone circle was erected within the earthworks. This circle consisted of approximately 80 massive blocks of bluestones (dolerite), the origin of which is traced to the Preselli Mountains in Pembroke, South Wales, 245 miles away. One theory is that these blocks could have been carried to Salisbury Plain by a glacier from the Welsh mountains in the last Ice Age. However, the lack of other glacial debris in the area seems to discount this theory, leaving us to believe that these stones from the quarries of Preselli were somehow transported here by man. They might conceivably have been dragged to the sea, floated on massive rafts and then on up the River Avon and finally hauled overland to Salisbury Plain. Considering the fact that some stones are 25 feet in height and weigh approximately 40 tons, this is an incredible feat.

Work apparenlty ceased on Stonehenge for a period before the completion of the second phase. In approximately 1500 BC this was followed by the third phase, when the dolerite columns were re-arranged.

Giant sandstones -- now knows as Sarsens -- were transported from Marlborough Downs, 20 miles distant, to form a circle of 25 trilithons (two upright pillars crossed by a horizontal lintel) and an inner horseshoe formation consisting of five trilithons.

By the use of stone balls known as "mauls," the sandstones were hammered to size. Each pair of sarsen stones was pulled upright and connected at the top by a lintel. Woodworking techniques were used here for the first time, to enable the lintels to remain in position. Joints were made in stone to link the lintels in a circular fashion by means of tongue and groove joints. The lintel and uprights were connected with ball and socket joints or mortice and tenon.

Stonehenge was once the property of Sir Cecil Chubb, a local man, who donated it to the nation in 1918. It is now managed and preserved by the English Heritage and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1986. The National Trust owns 1500 acres of landscape around Stonehenge and is primarily concerned with the protection of this land for future generations, the area being rich in rare vegetation such as sedge grass and lichens.

Stonehenge Barrows

Long before the construction of Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain was covered in forests and later transformed to open chalk downland. Today, the Plain is chiefly owned by the Ministry of Defense, which through its ownership has fortunately saved the 100,000 acres from modern agricultural exploitation.

Now virtually uninhabited except by Army families living in temporary barracks, Salisbury Plain was once the dwelling place of Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age man, with hundreds of burial mounds scattered throughout the Plain testifying to this fact.

Old SarumApart from Stonehenge, major historical sites are to be found at Old Sarum, Figsbury, Danebury, Badbury and in the Marlborough region.

The grave of "The Amesbury Archer," a male skeleton dating back to approximately 2300 BC and also known as "The King of Stonehenge," was unearthed three miles from Stonehenge by the Wessex Archeological team in May 2002. This grave was discovered during routine excavations and is one of the richest of the early Bronze Age burial sites ever to have been found. The goods buried next to the skeleton suggest he was a warrior or possibly even a King.

The grave contained the earliest datable copper and gold artifacts ever discovered in Britain. Oxygen isotope analysis of the archer's teeth and bones suggests that he originated from central Europe, probably the Alps. The significance of this find is that in the Amesbury Archer, we have the first evidence that people migrated from the continent of Europe to Britain over 4000 years ago. A second skeleton -- that of a younger man thought to be a relative -- was later unearthed in the vicinity of the Amesbury Archer.

More than a hundred artifacts discovered next to the Amesbury Archer are on display in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, and will be joined later by the human remains. These artifacts include copper knives, flint arrowheads, pottery, wristguards and gold hair ornaments. The Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum is situated in King's House, The Close, in Salisbury. Its open hours are from Monday-Saturday 1000-1700 (July and August) and Sundays 1400-1700.

Just two miles northeast of Stonehenge, Woodhenge, another henge monument, dates back to approximately 2300 BC. It is thought to have consisted of six concentric rings of wooden posts, probably covered by a roof or joined by lintels. A grave of a young child has been found at Woodhenge, suggesting a ritual sacrifice.


To the north of Stonehenge is the Cursus -- thus named in the 18th century when it was thought to have been some kind of racetrack. Other theories are that it had a ritual use, although its true function has not yet been established. The Cursus consists of two straight banks and ditches, (90-130 meters apart) about two miles in length running from east to west.

Stonehenge and its surroundings will continue to inspire controversy and debate for centuries to come. On the Modern Antiquarian website, for example, we learn that in New Zealand, the Phoenix Astronomical Society has, in February 2005, unveiled a Stonehenge Replica near Wairarapa. Called Stonehenge Aotearoa, this site is a full-scale replica and aims to assist in the study of basic Astronomy.

Modern man may continue in his search for the truth of Stonehenge, its original purpose and method of construction -- but will never fully uncover its secret. Herein lies the true mystique that daily attracts such a multitude of visitors from all over the globe to Salisbury Plain.

Related Articles:

Stonehenge: The Giants' Dance, by Sue Kendrick

Amesbury: A Stepping Stone to History, by Pearl Harris

More Information:


English Heritage - Stonehenge
Excellent site explaining history, opening times, events etc.

Modern Antiquarian

The Stonehenge Project
All the latest news about the new plans to transform the Stonehenge site and surrounding landscape.

Good site for gathering the latest news and theories.

A practical guide to planning your visit. Includes some accommodation and campsites.


Visit Salisbury/Stonehenge

Salisbury Leisure and Tourism

Old Sarum

Old Sarum

Wessex Archaeology: The Amesbury Archer

The Amesbury Archer

Weird Wiltshire: Woodhenge


This is Amesbury: Woodhenge

About Britain
Has good accommodation listing with on-line booking.

Pearl Harris, whose ancestors hail from Britain, was born in South Africa. In 2002, she emigrated to the Czech Republic with her husband, their dog and cat. Pearl resides permanently in the Czech Republic where she works as a freelance travel writer, English teacher and proof-reader. Her main passion is travel. Having traveled extensively in Africa, Europe,the USA and UK, she never intends to stop. Other interests are pets, photography, reading and writing. Pearl, a retired Diagnostic Radiographer, has a B.A. in English and Linguistics, post-graduate Diploma in Translation and TEFL qualification. Her only daughter, a professional photographer, lives in New Orleans.
Article © 2006 Pearl Harris
Photos © 2006 Moira Allen


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