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Stonehenge

Stonehenge (© fotoVoyager | iStockphoto.com)

Introduction

The monoliths of Stonehenge, 13km northwest of Salisbury, are the oldest prehistoric monuments of Britain and some of the oldest in the world. The word Stonehenge comes from the Old English words Stanhen gist, which mean 'hanging stones'.

Stonehenge has been designated Wolrd Heritage site by the UNESCO in 1986 and attracts some 700,000 visitors annually.

The premises are now fenced to prevent New Age groups from camping there and risk damaging the site. Stonehenge lies just alongside the A303, but a tunnel (due to open in 2006) and new visitor centre 4km away will soon return it to the tranquility it deserves.

Stonehenge at dawn (© Stephen Inglis | iStockphoto.com)

History

Stonehenge was constructed in several phases, starting some 5,000 years ago, although the recent discovery of Mesolithic postholes supports the existence of human activity on the spot 10,000 years before present.

The circular banked enclosure ('henge') and internal ditch dates back to 3000 BC. The granite bluestones of the inner circle were brought from the Preseli Hills in South Wales around 2000 BC and weigh about 4 tonnes each.

The bigger stones (megaliths) that make Stonehenge famous were brought from the Marlborough Downs some 30km north around 1500BC. They are made of sarsen (silicified sandstone) and weigh on average 50 tonnes. It is estimated that it would take 600 people to haul them.

500 years later, the sarsen stones were re-arranged in 5 trilithons (2 upright stones with a lintel on the top) in the shape of a horseshoe. Three of them are still standing.

Stonehenge at sunset (© Daniel Gilbey | Dreamstime.com)
Stonehenge at night (© Markus Gann | Dreamstime.com)

Function

The stone circles were constructed by the pagan Bronze-age Celtic people for religious purposes. The alignment of the stones carry astrological meanings, as they coincide with the solstices and equinoxes. For instance, on midsummer's sunrise and midwinter's sunset light passes exactly into the centre of the monument between the horseshoe.

It has been speculated that priests practised healing rituals or held religious festivals. However, recent excavations suggest that the site was used for cremation burial throughout its history.


How to get there

Stonehenge is on the A303, 3km west of Amesbury. If you rely on public transports, you should first get to Salisbury, then catch a bus from there (40min). Buses run about once every hour from 10am.

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