Stonehenge is one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world. It is located in the county of Wiltshire, in the south of England, close to the ancient cathedral town of Salisbury. A “henge” is a circular prehistoric monument, and Stonehenge probably started out as a ring made of banked-up earth about 3,100 BC. Excavations have revealed that Stonehenge served as a burial ground from its earliest beginnings, and was probably used for some sort of religious ceremony.

The stone circle that is seen today is thought to date from around 1,500 BC and is no longer complete. The stone to build the earliest structure came from a site in Wales over 380 km away around 2,150 BC - one of the many mysteries of the monument is how did people of that era transport stones weighing 4 tonnes each over such a distance, and then raise them up into a double circle with the entrance aligned with the summer sunrise? Then about 2000 BC more and larger Sarsen stones weighing up to 50 tonnes were brought to the site from about 40 km to the north and an outer ring with continuous lintels was constructed.

In 2002 a public poll voted Stonehenge as one of the seven wonders of Britain, and throughout history this mysterious structure has featured in popular culture. A 12th century writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, linked it to the legends of King Arthur, and the English novelist Thomas Hardy set the climax of Tess of the d’Urbevilles there in 1891. Numerous famous artists, including Constable and Turner, have painted the stone circle, and in the Beatles film Help! the group is seen performing with Stonehenge in the background. More recently the monument has become popular in computer games.

English Heritage now controls public access and allows visitors to get near, but not touch, the stones in exchange for a fee. Guidebooks are available in Spanish and Japanese, and you can buy T shirts printed with a Stonehenge motif! You can download a guide with “fun games and activities to do at the site” from the English Heritage website. At the Summer Solstice, present day “Druids” are permitted to hold ceremonies at Stonehenge, and unless you are one it is probably better to avoid the crowds on that day (dawn on 21st June).

Note: less well-known internationally, but possibly more satisfying to visit, is the Neolithic henge and avenue of standing stones at Avebury near Marlborough, 27 km from Stonehenge. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, owned and managed by the English National Trust.

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