We’ve had a look in previous guides at the theories behind why Stonehenge was built, who built it and how it was built. In this article, we’ll be exploring Stonehenge’s construction in a bit more detail. We already know that Stonehenge wasn’t built overnight; it took hundreds of years (and several distinct construction phases) for the site to end up as we know it today.
In fact, to begin with, there weren’t really any stones at Stonehenge. Intrigued? Read on.
Phase 1 – The First Stonehenge (c.3,000 BC)
The first, and oldest, part of Stonehenge was actually a large earthwork (or ‘henge), made up of:
- A ditch (and accompanying bank)
- 56 ‘Aubrey holes‘
In 1666, John Aubrey visited Stonehenge and observed and noted a series of holes dotted around the circumference of the henge. The ‘Aubrey holes’, as they came to be known, are a series of round pits dug into the chalk, with an average depth of 1.06m.
Excavations have revealed cremated human bones (mostly men, with some women and children) in and around the holes, which new research indicates came from much further afield than the local area. Also found in the holes were picks made of deer antlers used to dig the ditch, as well as the bones of cattle and deer.
The exact purpose of the holes remains a mystery, although the likelihood is that they were originally used to support wooden posts (or smaller bluestones) before later being used to bury cremated remains. During this period the ‘Heel Stone’ was also erected at the entrance to the henge, which marks the place on the horizon where the summer solstice sunrise appears.
The four station stones (only 2 survive today) are also probably placed during this period, although they may also have arrived during Phase 2. These stones are set just inside the bank, and align approximately to the summer and winter solstices.
Phase 2 – The Wooden Post Holes (c.2,900 – 2,600 BC)
We aren’t sure exactly what happened during this stage, as it isn’t until the stones started to arrive during Phase 3 that we begin to see any notable activity on the site. One theory is that the Aubrey holes are partially filled, and wooden poles appear during this time at the centre of the henge and near the north-eastern entrance.
The cluster of poles at the northeastern entrance may have served as markers for astronomical events (moon rise and set), or it is possible that they were used to create a palisade fence that acted as an entrance to Stonehenge and may have guided people through narrow paths to the ceremonial centre.
Phase 3 – The Stones Arrive (c.2,600 – 1,500 BC)
The longest and most dramatic of all periods. This period contained the most changes of any period, and it is during this time that Stonehenge, as we know it today, begins to take shape.
3.1) The Bluestones Arrive (c.2,600 – 2,500)
With the exception of evidence of human burials, Stonehenge remained largely untouched from its initial stages of construction for around 500 years, until in around 2,500 BC the smaller ‘bluestones’ started to arrive.
The bluestones came first; 82 in total arrived from the Presili hills in Pembrokeshire, Wales. How they arrived at Stonehenge remains a mystery, but it is thought that these stones (some weighing 4 tons) made their way to the site through a combination of waterways and being dragged over land. These ‘bluestones’ were set up in a two concentric half-circles, and would later be re-arranged.
3.2) The Sarsen Stones Arrive (c.2,000 BC)
At some point, a 100-foot diameter of 30 massive sarsen stones (weighing up to 50 tons) appears at the centre of the site and are arranged into the ‘Outer Circle’. The upright stones are topped with curved lintels to form a perfect circle. At the same time, a horseshoe-shaped setting of five ‘trilithons’ (paired uprights with a lintel) is constructed in what would become known as the ‘Inner Circle’.
Sarsen itself is a type of hard sandstone. The stones arrive from a site some 20 miles (32km) north of Stonehenge on the Marlborough Downs in North Wiltshire. Transportation by water would have been impossible due to the immense weight of the stones, and they could only have been moved using sledges, ropes and an awful lot of manpower.
3.3) Bluestone Rearrangement (c. 1,500 BC)
Around this time, the bluestones are re-erected into the familiar formations that we see today; an oval perimeter around the inside of the outer sarsen stone circle, and a horseshoe shape within the trilithons at the centre.
The best way to visit the mysterious, enigmatic site that is Stonehenge is by taking one of our fantastic guided tours to Stonehenge. Tickets include transport to and from Central London in one of our luxurious coaches with free Wi-Fi and USB charging onboard, as well as entrance to Stonehenge itself.
For more information on Stonehenge, including answers to why it was built, and by whom, check out our Stonehenge guide.