Who built Stonehenge?
A visit to Stonehenge is bound to make you ask: who built it? It is a question nearly as old as the stones themselves. And what do we know about the people who achieved this prehistoric marvel? Words Susan Greaney
In the early medieval period, writers thought they knew who had built Stonehenge—Merlin. But by the early 17th century, scholars were looking for a more plausible answer. In 1620, architect Inigo Jones thought it was based on classical geometry and constructed by the Romans. Antiquary John Aubrey thought that the native Britons, in particular the Druids, were the builders of Stonehenge. Antiquary William Stukeley’s 1740 book firmly established the idea that it was a Druid temple.
Towards the end of the 19th century, archaeologists began to realise that Stonehenge could be much older, linking finds to the Bronze Age. William Gowland’s excavations in 1901 showed that Stonehenge was built in Neolithic or early Bronze Age. Today, we think the stones were raised about 2,500 BC by the native inhabitants of late Neolithic Britain.
The Early Theories…
John Aubrey Proposed that Stonehenge was a temple built by the Druids, the priests of the pagan Celts, who came to England in the centuries immediately prior to the Christian era.
William Stukeley The first person to recognise the alignment of Stonehenge on the solstices. Like John Aubrey, however, he mistakenly attributed their construction to the Druids.
Inigo Jones Believed the stones were a Roman temple of the Tuscan order built to the sky god Coelus. Later disproved by evidence establishing the period in which the stones were first laid.
Stonehenge was built before metal began to be used in Britain. The most common finds from this period are flint tools required for everyday activities such as hunting, making leather and preparing food. We know from animal bones that the people who constructed Stonehenge had livestock and probably also grew small quantities of crops, but still gathered wild plants and hunted wild animals.
Whether visiting in 1958 or today, children have always been fascinated by Stonehenge.
At the time that Stonehenge was built, people across Britain were using a type of flat-based decorated pottery called Grooved Ware, often found at late Neolithic monuments across Britain. Many of these prehistoric finds can be seen at Wiltshire Museum, Devizes, at Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum and at the new Stonehenge visitor centre later this year.
Until a few years ago, experts thought late Neolithic people were largely mobile, moving between seasonal temporary camps. But in 2006, a team led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson, part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, discovered several small buildings at Durrington, just over two miles north-east of Stonehenge. These houses appear to have been inhabited on a temporary, seasonal basis about 2,500 BC, the time that Stonehenge was built. Was this where its builders lived?
Among the excavated houses were mounds of rubbish, including cow and pig bones and broken Grooved Ware pottery, showing that large midwinter feasts were held here. Nearby were complex timber monuments, buildings set within special enclosures and other strange wooden structures. This was a place of ritual, probably connected to the ceremonies at Stonehenge.
Stone arrowheads and grooved pottery have helped our understanding of the Neolithic period
After the settlement was abandoned, an enormous henge called Durrington Walls was built, which is still visible today. Part of Durrington Walls and nearby Woodhenge are English Heritage properties you can explore. You can walk from Stonehenge across the fields to Durrington Walls, perhaps the route that its builders took. You’ll see other fragments from the past—the enormous Cursus monument, which pre-dates Stonehenge, and many of the early Bronze Age round barrows that scatter this area.
There are further clues in the monument itself. Transporting the stones, shaping them and fitting them together took great organisation and hundreds of people in what was a sophisticated and organised society. You can find out more at Stonehenge’s new visitor centre later this year.
Neolithic Life: Round the Houses
Outside the new Stonehenge visitor centre will be an external gallery, where we’ll be recreating three of the late Neolithic houses excavated at Durrington Walls. Here you’ll be able to see what life was like at the time Stonehenge was built. And at Old Sarum, Wiltshire, volunteers are building some prototype houses to test different ideas about the methods and materials used.
You can follow the progress of our project on our blog at www.neolithichouses.wordpress.com and our Twitter account @NeolithicHouses. If you’d like to get involved with building the houses at the visitor centre next year, or working in the external gallery, keep an eye on our website for volunteering opportunities.
We’ll be holding tours and open days at the Old Sarum houses so you can come and learn more about prehistoric life and experimental archaeology:
- 24 May A Members’ Only Event giving special access to the buildings
- 25-27 May Learn about Neolithic life as part of an open weekend.
All details and booking information can be found on our What’s On page
English Heritage website: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/
Merlin @ Stonehenge
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