What is Stonehenge?

The sight of its standing stones, situated on the bleak and windy hills of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, continues to make people gasp when they first see it. It has been excavated, x-rayed, measured, and surveyed - and still, all we know is that it was a sacred site used for over 5,000 years. Nothing is left to reveal to us how the stone circle was used.

Stonehenge

Wood you believe it?

Thanks to science, what we do know about Stonehenge is that it was in fact built in three stages, its construction estimated at requiring more than thirty million hours of labour. The first stage was a simple circle of timbers, surrounded by a ditch and bank, dug by hand using animal bones, back in the Neolithic period - that is around 3,100 BC! Fifty-six holes, known as Aubrey Holes (named after the 17th century antiquarian who found them in about 1666), have also been found which held wooden posts in place.

Pulley the other one!

The second, and arguably, most dramatic stage, occurred around 2,500BC. Through an amazing feat of logistics that still puzzles many scientists, some 82 bluestones from the Preseli Mountains in South Wales were dragged down to sea, floated on rafts, brought up the River Avon and dragged to Salisbury Plain. When you consider that each stone weighs around five tons, it makes this journey of some 245 miles even more astonishing!

Stone the crows!

The Stonehenge we marvel at today was constructed during the third and final stage - about 2,300 BC. While the bluestones were dug up and rearranged, even bigger Sarsen stones were brought in from the Marlborough Downs. These were hammered to size using balls of stone known as "mauls" and then pairs of stones were heaved upright before being linked on the top by "lintels". This was all cleverly designed on the alignment of the rising of the midsummer sun.

Chips with everything

Before Stonehenge was built, Salisbury Plain was a forest of towering pines and hazel woodland but over the centuries, the landscape changed to open chalk downland. What is now left of Stonehenge is sadly about half of the original monument: some of the stones fell down, others were taken away to be used for building or to repair farm tracks. Visitors over time have also added their damage too and once upon a time, it was quite normal to take a hammer to Stonehenge and chip bits off.

Back to nature

Over the next decade, it is hoped Stonehenge will at last be relieved of the noise and pollution from the surrounding roads and traffic and reunited with nature and the surrounding monuments. Planning applications have been put forward for roads to be removed or tunnelled and ploughed fields to be returned to open grassland. A new state of the art visitor centre, designed to blend into the landscape, is also planned to be built outside the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. Let's hope it happens.