Stonehenge is as enigmatic as it is iconic—an ancient monument shrouded in myth, history, and science that we haven’t fully decoded, even 5,000 years after the creation of its earliest structures. Stonehenge has been studied since the 17th century, first under King James I, and recently by more qualified archaeologists, yet we still haven’t reached a conclusion on why or how a monument of this scale was built with the early technology of the time. It is perhaps for this reason that 800,000 visitors a year are attracted to a vast English plain some 90 miles outside London.
Step up to the stones that were erected by Neolithic humans and you’ll see why they continue to puzzle even the brightest scientists and historians. Imagine stacking its great trilithons without any forklifts or cranes, only human strength and a few primitive tools. Its ethereal air carries far across Salisbury Plain, and you’ll feel it at the other Neolithic sites scattered across the area.
Those who haven’t been to Stonehenge (and many who have!) sometimes aren’t aware of the site’s rich and mysterious history. This list of 20 lesser known facts about Stonehenge will help you better understand its past and present or perhaps even decide to plan a visit!
20 Stonehenge Was Originally A Burial Site (Probably)
The site of Stonehenge was in use long before work on the iconic stone circle was ever begun. People lived, worked, prayed, and ruled here, as revealed by remains and artifacts much older than Stonehenge found in the area. In the 20th century, archaeologists dug up cremated bodies buried with grave goods within Stonehenge, suggesting that the original plan for the monument was a burial ground.
With this theory, you can think of the standing stones as grand tombstones, likely for a royal family from around 3000 BCE, the time construction at Stonehenge began.
19 The Romans Respected It
Stonehenge has fascinated later inhabitants of the area since its original architects disappeared, and the Roman occupants of Britain were no exception. By the time the Romans arrived on the island, Stonehenge had been abandoned for over a thousand years, and the Romans would probably have been superstitious of its presence.
Roman coins were found within the circle, left by soldiers stationed nearby, perhaps as a peace offering in hopes that the spirits of whoever built it would leave them alone. The fact that they left it alone and didn’t alter or destroy it in any way shows they had a level of esteem for it.
18 The Sun On Summer Solstice Aligns With The Stones
Another popular theory concerning Stonehenge’s purpose is that it was an early form of an astronomical observatory. Scientists aren’t generally as accepting of this theory as they are with the idea that it was an ancient cemetery, but the evidence supporting it lies in the position of the stones and the rising and setting of the sun.
Standing in the middle of the circle facing northeast, the sun rises over the Heel Stone, located outside the monument on the summer solstice. Alternatively, approaching the circle on the winter solstice, the sun sets through the trilithon positioned to the southwest.
17 We Don't Know It's Primary Purpose
Of all the legends and theories proposed in the last millennium, we still don’t know which one, if any, tells the complete story of Stonehenge’s purpose or even exactly who built it.
Since it’s the brainchild of a Neolithic architect, there aren’t any written records of what they were thinking when they created it, and we only have the monuments they left behind to study.
Many popular theories have been delegitimized by modern science, including the idea that it was built by druids as a temple as Stonehenge predates the arrival of the Celts in Britain.
16 1,500 Years Is A Long Construction Period
Although we roughly date Stonehenge at 5,000 years old, reflecting the date construction began, it wasn’t finished until 1,500 years later. Stonehenge was built in phases, with periods in between when it was untouched.
The oldest phase was a simple ditch around the site, dug using only deer antlers. The stones were added later, first the smaller outer ones and later the massive inner stones, some lifted into three stoned trilithons. By 1600 BCE the rings were completed, looking something like what we still see today, albeit even more impressive as some of the stones are now missing.
15 Some Stones Came From Wales
Another mystery surrounding the origins of Stonehenge are the stones themselves. The two types of stone used to build Stonehenge—sarsen and bluestone—are not native to Salisbury Plain and had to be transported from Marlborough Downs and the Preseli Hills, respectively.
It’s unclear whether the rock was transported by human strength or pushed by glaciers earlier. However, if our ancestors were responsible for moving the stones, it would mean they had to carry the bluestones all the way from Wales over land and water, an incredible feat for Stone Age engineering.
14 Charles Darwin Studied Worms Here
Stonehenge was a muse for Charles Darwin, the renowned English naturalist. In 1877, Darwin was particularly interested in the digging power of worms and their effect on other objects in the soil, namely, rocks and therefore Stonehenge was the perfect setting for such a study.
Darwin’s research led to the conclusion that fallen rocks sink over time due to earthworms burrowing underneath the stone. His study was unique in that it wasn’t for archaeological purposes, and it was one of the earliest professional studies at the site.
13 A Pagan Gathering Place For The Summer Solstice Festival
Interest in the mysticism of Stonehenge gained popularity in the 1970s with the New Age movement, bringing an influx of worshippers and partiers to the site to witness the summer solstice sunrise each year. It was banned in the 1980s and reinstated in 2000, and thousands of people continue to flock to Stonehenge every June 21st.
While some attend the summer solstice festival only for the wild party that literally lasts until the sun comes up, many Neo-Druids come to worship their ancestors and revel in the reported healing powers of Stonehenge.
12 There's A Murky Medieval History
Stonehenge has attracted visitors since its original inhabitants, from Romans to Celts, and although it was, of course, well known in the Middle Ages, they knew nothing about it and came up with elaborate stories concerning its formation and history.
It wasn’t well documented, so we can’t be sure what happened there during the time, though it was widely considered the work of the wizard Merlin. The story states that Merlin magically erected the monument with stones taken from a site in Ireland. The legend was accepted as truth as late as the 16th century.
11 The Ancient Order Of Druids Held Rituals At Stonehenge
Since the first mention that Stonehenge could be a Druidic temple, modern Druids have held it in high regard. From the summer solstice festival to organized rituals among Druidic groups, whether its purpose was Druidic or not, it is symbolic with pagan and Celtic spirituality.
An elite group, the Ancient Order of Druids, were one of the first groups to worship here with religious rituals. In 1905 they were ordered to pay admission fees to its owner after a long court battle, though this didn’t deter them. Their membership even included elites, including Winston Churchill.
10 Stonehenge VS Pyramids
Stonehenge’s mystique is often compared to that of the Egyptian pyramids, both harbouring secrets from their creators lost with time. Theorists throw around the possibilities that the structures, both or either, are the work of aliens and hold otherworldly powers.
The Pyramids of Giza were built around the same time as Stonehenge as well as align with astronomical events, suggesting that both cultures tied together with the stars, if what we know about both is true.
A better comparison, however, is between Stonehenge and Newgrange, in neighboring Ireland. Newgrange is older than Stonehenge, but culturally not so far off, as it aligns with the sun on the winter solstice, marking the new year.
9 First Mentioned In Writing In The 12th Century
Though Medieval Brits couldn’t quite explain what Stonehenge was or why it was there, they can claim to be the first to record its existence in writing. In 1130, a record of English history was written by Henry of Huntingdon, who wrote of “Stanenges” and the inconceivable concept of stacking the enormous stones on top of one another.
Six years later Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote down the legend of Merlin building the monument via wizardry, implanting the myth in the collective British mind for the next 400 years. His record contradicted Huntingdon’s admittance of confusion on how Stonehenge came into existence.
8 The Stones Are Unique To The UK
As interesting as Stonehenge’s archaeological history is, it’s important not to dismiss the type of rock used to build it. The monument was created using stone native to the UK - sarsens, the larger stones, and bluestone, the smaller outer stones.
The sarsens are sandstone remainders from a glacier in southern England and each weighs about 25 tons, meaning Stone Age workers likely had to carry them 20 miles from their origin in Marlborough Downs.
The bluestones come from Wales and weigh 2-5 tons each, representing different types of rock. They traveled 150 miles and would have caused much frustration for humans to move.
7 There's An Ancient Village Site At The Monument
Of course, the people who built Stonehenge weren’t going to travel for construction, so there were little villages nearby in which they lived. At least one village was excavated at Durrington Walls, close to the monument, which existed around the same time the stones were being put into place.
The buildings were thatched cottages made of chalk, simple dwellings consisting of a single room. Though the buildings are long decayed, there is a replica village built almost exactly as it would have been in 2500 BCE at Stonehenge, run by the organization that also manages the entire World Heritage Site, English Heritage.
6 Stonehenge Was Auctioned Off In 1915
Stonehenge was privately owned until 1918, when it was donated to the English government. The land was owned by Sir Edmund Antrobus (coincidentally a member of the Ancient Order of Druids) in the late 19th century, but when the Antrobus heir passed away in 1915, the family’s lands had to be sold.
Naturally, it was put up for auction—and Stonehenge was included in the price. It sold for £6,600 to a local man named Cecil Chubb, who, after leaving it in the hands of the government, was knighted for the donation.
5 We're Still Discovering New Carvings On The Stones
From a far distance, the stones seem to show little detail, that they are simple rectangular blocks arranges in a circular pattern. But get up close and have an idea of what to look for, and you’ll notice shallow carvings on the rocks.
Some of the Bronze Age carvings are visible inscriptions left after Stonehenge was completed, appearing to be pictures of axes, but there are more which can only be viewed through laser scans done in 2011. These date as far back as the time of its building, and in total, there are over 100 carved axe symbols in the stones (that we know of).
4 Salisbury Plain Houses The Most Prehistoric Sites In England
It seems that prehistoric humans were fond of Salisbury Plain, because the area is home to the largest number of Neolithic ruins, including Stonehenge, Woodhenge, and Avebury.
The plain itself sits on a chalk plateau and covers an area primarily in Wiltshire. With access to the River Avon, it’s connected to waterways in southwestern England, which meant a transportation system for Stone Age tribes.
Stonehenge is no doubt the most famous landmark on the plain, but apart from henges, there are many remains of earthwork buildings and forts scattered in the vicinity.
3 Symbol Of The Union Of Britain
The University of Sheffield published an article in 2012 claiming that Stonehenge was built to honor the unification of Britain 5,000 years ago. Scholars from across England studied the socio-political history of Britain at the time and concluded that Stonehenge was the result.
Previously, only local materials were used to build. But at the time of Stonehenge’s construction people were using stones and tools from across Britain. While Stonehenge may or may not have been built because of this, it must have been a result as it showed that Stonehenge’s builders were able to collect materials all the way from Wales.
2 A Bottle Of Port Was Excavated In the 19th Century
There was once a very thoughtful antiquarian studying Stonehenge. William Cunnington was working on a dig in 1802 around the Slaughter Stone, a fallen sarsen whose morbid name is not reflective of its history. When he finished his study, he buried a bottle of port underneath the stone.
The bottle was found over 120 years later by archaeologist William Hawley, who read the intact label, “For the consideration of future excavators.” Unfortunately, Cunnington didn’t expect the bottle to remain hidden for so long and the cork had rotted, leaving all the bottle’s contents to leak out.
1 There's A Bigger And Larger Henge At Avebury
What most people don’t realize is that Stonehenge is part of a larger Neolithic henge site, and its UNESCO World Heritage designation groups together Stonehenge with its larger and older neighbor, the Avebury Henge.
The site at Avebury consists of three circles of sarsen stones, and like Stonehenge, we aren’t sure of its purpose, though it was probably used for worship. It’s thought that in the Middle Ages part of the monument was destroyed due to locals believing it had pagan connections with the devil.
Though there aren’t any towering trilithons, Avebury is well worth a visit if you’re in the area visiting Stonehenge.
References: english-heritage.org.uk, history.com, sheffield.ac.uk