Where is Stonehenge?
Set on the wind-swept Salisbury Plains of Wiltshire in England, Stonehenge is around 90 miles (144 km) from Central London. Whilst the nearest town is Amesbury (5.6 miles/9 km away), the closest large town with direct transport links to London is Salisbury (9.5 miles/15 km away).
Getting to Stonehenge from London
What is Stonehenge?
A UNESCO designated World Heritage Site, Stonehenge is perhaps the world’s preeminent Neolithic monument. Despite its fame, the stone circle known as Stonehenge remains shrouded in mystery thousands of years later. To this day, we’re not quite certain what Stonehenge is, or why it was built. However, there is no shortage of theories.
Who built Stonehenge?
Stonehenge wasn’t built all at once. Instead, archaeologists believe that it was constructed across several distinct phases – each lasting generations – with the earliest commencing more than 5,000 years ago. Just as its construction spanned several stages, its builders also belonged to distinct groups.
In fact, Stonehenge took so long to build that the descendants of those who originally started construction on Stonehenge were replaced by an entirely new population of people in what amounted to an extreme genetic shift in the space of a few thousand years.
New DNA evidence suggests that the original builders – Neolithic people from Iberia (modern day Spain and Portugal) – were replaced by the ‘Bell Beaker’ people who migrated from mainland Europe.
How old is Stonehenge?
As a site, Stonehenge as a whole is more than 5,000 years old. However, In order to gauge how old Stonehenge is, it is first important to understand that construction spanned thousands of years. As a result, some parts of the famous Neolithic site are older than the rest. For example, the circular earth bank and ditch (or ‘henge’) that surrounds the stones was constructed ~3,100 BC. In contrast, the first stones were raised several hundred years later between 2,400 and 2,200 BC.
What is a ‘henge’?
A henge is the term given to prehistoric earthwork monuments. Typically based on a circular ‘bank and ditch’ , usually with the bank on the outside, a henge usually has one entrance, although there are some examples with two or three entrances.
How was Stonehenge built?
The creation of the Stonehenge monument tested the ingenuity and technology of an ancient people to their limit. Without the use of modern-day technology, how did our Neolithic ancestors manage to carry out such a monumental undertaking?
Cutting the stone
The first task was to cut the stone from rock in far-flung quarries – no easy feat at a time in human history where tools were made from stone and wood. New studies have shown that the source of Stonehenge’s dolerite stone, also known as ‘bluestone’, are formed of natural, vertical pillars.
Unlike other stone quarries, which were formed of solid rock, the natural formation of the rock in the Welsh quarries made the stone easier to extract. Ancient workers eased the pillars off the rock face by inserting wedges into the ready-made joints using mallets. The pillars were then lowered using perishable rope onto earth platforms, which acted as loading bays.
Transporting the stones
The giant sarsen and bluestones then had to be transported to a site that was anywhere between 30 and 180 miles away from the site itself, depending on where the stones came from. Most archaeologists agree that the stones were transported by human effort, although exactly how this was done remains unknown. The stones are commonly thought to have been hauled over land and carried via sea networks.
Shaping the stones
Once they reached the site at Stonehenge, the large sarsen and bluestones were worked into shape. We have archaeological evidence on-site at Stonehenge that this was achieved using sarsen and flint hammerstones in various sizes; larger ones were used to flake and chip the stone, while smaller ones were used to smooth the stone.
Fitting the stones
An innovative design incorporating mortice holes and protruding tenons were used to fit the huge upright stones with the horizontal lintels. Meanwhile, the horizontal lintels were slotted together using tongue and groove joints.
How were the stones raised?
To raise the stones, builders dug deep ditches with a sloping side for the massive sarsen stones. They were hoisted and hauled upright using ropes and likely a wooden frame. Once in place, the ditches were packed tightly with rubble and earth.
What was Stonehenge used for?
Why was Stonehenge built? What was it used for? These are questions for which there are innumerable theories suggesting what Stonehenge was used for. The reality is that no firm evidence exists to explain exactly what it was used for, and instead we are left with our best guesses.
What did Stonehenge look like originally?
Stonehenge, as we see it today, was, in fact, the final stage of a multi-stage construction process that spanned generations and thousands of years. In order to understand what Stonehenge looked like during its construction, check out our phases of Stonehenge post.
About the stones at Stonehenge
The stones at Stonehenge didn’t appear on-site until somewhere around 2,400 and 2,200 BC during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. There are two main types of stone at Stonehenge, Sarsen and ‘Bluestone’ – more on that later.
Perhaps the most mysterious of all the stones found at Stonehenge, Bluestone is the term used to refer to the 42 smaller stones found at Stonehenge. They get their name from the white spots found in the igneous blue rock and are believed to have come from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, West Wales – around 180 miles (290km) away from Stonehenge.
How did they get to Stonehenge? What was so special about the Preseli Hills 5,000 years ago? To this day, there is are plenty of theories and unanswered questions about these mysterious stones.
Located at the centre of the stone circle, you won’t be able to see this stone unless you take a special access tour of Stonehenge. One of the sarsen megaliths found at Stonehenge, the Altar Stone is made of red sandstone from the Senni Beds, a type of sandstone found in southern Wales.
Originally, four ‘Station Stones’ were dotted around the perimeter of Stonehenge marking the four corners of a rectangle. Their installation at the monument dates sometime into Stonehenge’s third stage of construction, some 4,000 years ago. Today, two of the four survive, and their exact purpose remains a mystery.
Sarsen stones are a type of sandstone that is found naturally across southern England. The giant megaliths at Stonehenge, weighing an average of 25 tons, were brought from the Marlborough Downs, some 20 miles (32km) away. The largest sarsen stone, the Heel Stone, weighs an incredible 30 tons.
The Heel Stone
The Heel Stone is a single, unshaped sarsen boulder standing within the Avenue outside the entrance of the henge earthwork.
The Slaughter Stone
Another sarsen stone, the Slaughter Stone once stood upright alongside one or two other stones across the causeway entrance. Its name comes from the (incorrect) belief that it was the stone where sacrifices were carried out, and the red tinge to its upper surface was due to the blood of sacrificial victims. In reality, it is a combination of age, the iron found in the stone and algae growth that has led to the red colourisation.
How long should I spend at Stonehenge?
We recommend allowing at least 2 hours to enjoy everything Stonehenge has to offer. As well as the Stone Circle itself, Stonehenge also has a world-class visitor centre located about a mile away from the stones themselves where guests can explore over 250 ancient objects and even come face-to-face with a 5,500-year-old man.
How close can I get to Stonehenge?
As we mentioned earlier, the only way to get inside the Inner Circle at Stonehenge is via a private access tour. If you’re just visiting the site, the closest you can get to the stones is around 10 yards away. A path runs around the perimeter of the stones, outlined by a series of rope fences that the public isn’t allowed to cross and are guarded by staff at all times.
Why is Stonehenge so special?
Every year, over a million people are drawn to the ancient site at Stonehenge – but why? Here are our main reasons why Stonehenge is so special to visitors that have included Barack Obama among many others:
- We still don’t know why Stonehenge was built, and are constantly unearthing new discoveries about who built it and why. Even today, our understanding of Stonehenge is far from comprehensive.
- Religion and Spirituality
- Stonehenge is a place of special significance for modern-day Druids in Britain. In modern practice, Druidry is a spiritual or religious movement centred around the reverence of the natural world. Often referred to as ‘hippies’, Druids have a deep love for nature, rituals and ceremony. Many people who visit Stonehenge claim to have a ‘connection’ with the site.
- Architectural marvel
- There’s no denying it, Stonehenge is an amazing feat of engineering carried out by an ancient people with limited tools and primitive technology. The fact that the stones – somehow – managed to make their way to the site from quarries located hundreds of miles away only deepens our fascination with the site.
Find out more
The best, and most economical, way to explore Stonehenge for yourself is via one of our guided day tours to Stonehenge from London. Our tours include transport to and from Stonehenge, the services of an expert tour guide and entrance to the site itself. Not convinced? Check out our comparison table.