Stonehenge is perhaps the world’s most famous prehistoric monument. It was built in several stages: the first monument was an early henge monument, built about 5,000 years ago, and the unique stone circle was erected in the late Neolithic period about 2500 BC. In the early Bronze Age many burial mounds were built nearby. Today, along with Avebury, it forms the heart of a World Heritage Site, with a unique concentration of prehistoric monuments.
The earliest structures known in the immediate area are four or five pits, three of which appear to have held large pine ‘totem-pole like’ posts erected in the Mesolithic period, between 8500 and 7000 BC. It is not known how these posts relate to the later monument of Stonehenge.
At this time, when much of the rest of southern England was largely covered by woodland, the chalk downland in the area of Stonehenge may have been an unusually open landscape. It is possible that this is why it became the site of an early Neolithic monument complex.
This complex included the causewayed enclosure at Robin Hood’s Ball, two cursus monuments or rectangular earthworks (the Greater, or Stonehenge, and Lesser Cursus), and several long barrows, all dating from the centuries around 3500 BC. The presence of these monuments probably influenced the later location of Stonehenge.
It is possible that features such as the Heel Stone and the low mound known as the North Barrow were early components of Stonehenge, but the earliest known major event was the construction of a circular ditch with an inner and outer bank, built about 3000 BC. This enclosed an area about 100 metres in diameter, and had two entrances. It was an early form of henge monument.
Within the bank and ditch were possibly some timber structures and set just inside the bank were 56 pits, known as the Aubrey Holes. There has been much debate about what stood in these holes: the consensus for many years has been that they held upright timber posts, but recently the idea has re-emerged that some of them may have held stones.
Within and around the Aubrey Holes, and also in the ditch, people buried cremations. About 64 cremations have been found, and perhaps as many as 150 individuals were originally buried at Stonehenge, making it the largest late Neolithic cemetery in the British Isles.
A stone (gneiss) macehead and bone pins found associated with cremated human remains in the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge, evidence that very early in its development Stonehenge was a cemetery
In about 2500 BC the stones were set up in the centre of the monument. Two types of stone are used at Stonehenge – the larger sarsens and the smaller ‘bluestones’. The sarsens were erected in two concentric arrangements – an inner horseshoe and an outer circle – and the bluestones were set up between them in a double arc.
Probably at the same time that the stones were being set up in the centre of the monument, the sarsens close to the entrance were raised, together with the four Station Stones on the periphery.
About 200 or 300 years later the central bluestones were rearranged to form a circle and inner oval (which was again later altered to form a horseshoe). The earthwork Avenue was also built at this time, connecting Stonehenge with the river Avon.
One of the last prehistoric activities at Stonehenge was the digging around the stone settings of two rings of concentric pits, the so-called Y and Z holes, radiocarbon dated by antlers within them to between 1800 and 1500 BC. They may have been intended for a rearrangement of the stones that was never completed.
The stone settings at Stonehenge were built at a time of great change in prehistory, just as new styles of ‘Beaker’ pottery and the knowledge of metalworking, together with a transition to the burial of individuals with grave goods, were arriving from the Continent. From about 2400 BC, well-furnished Beaker graves such as that of the Amesbury Archer are found nearby.
In the early Bronze Age, one of the greatest concentrations of round barrows in Britain was built in the area around Stonehenge. Many barrow groups appear to have been deliberately located on hilltops visible from Stonehenge itself, such as those on King Barrow Ridge and the particularly rich burials at the Normanton Down cemetery.
Four of the sarsens at Stonehenge were adorned with hundreds of carvings depicting axe-heads and a few daggers. They appear to be bronze axes of the Arreton Down type, dating from about 1750–1500 BC. Perhaps these axes were a symbol of power or status within early Bronze Age society, or were related in some way to nearby round barrow burials.
From the middle Bronze Age, less communal effort went into the construction of ceremonial monuments such as Stonehenge and more on activities such as the creation of fields.
In the Iron Age, probably about 700 BC, a major hillfort later known as Vespasian’s Camp was constructed 1¼ miles east of Stonehenge overlooking the river Avon. Stonehenge appears to have been frequently visited in the Roman period (from AD 43), since many Roman objects have been found there. Recent excavations raised the possibility that it was a place of ritual importance to Romano-British people.
The small town of Amesbury is likely to have been established around the 6th century AD at a crossing point over the Avon. A decapitated man, possibly a criminal, was buried at Stonehenge in the Saxon period. From this time on, sheep husbandry dominated the open downland around Stonehenge. The earliest surviving written references to Stonehenge date from the medieval period, and from the 14th century onwards there are increasing references to Stonehenge and drawings and paintings of it.