Art History Mystery: Stonehenge
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! In today’s post, we are diving into one of the oldest enduring mysteries in art history and archaeology! Stonehenge, the ancient and mysterious monument located on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, has captivated the human imagination for centuries. Its massive stone pillars and intricate design have led to numerous speculations about its purpose and origin. But, how was it built? And by who? No, it was not aliens! But, to find out more, keep on reading!
The Builders of Stonehenge
Stonehenge's construction began around 3100 BCE during the late Neolithic period, making it over 4,000 years old! While we don't have concrete historical records of its construction, archaeologists believe that it was built by a community of skilled craftsmen and laborers. These people were part of a society that had developed advanced agricultural techniques. This allowed them to build more permanent settlements versus the nomadic colonies typically seen in hunter-gatherer society. By “settling down”, craftsmen could devise ways to create monuments such as Stonehenge.
It is important to note that there is a common misconception that Stonehenge was built by the Druids, a religious order that existed centuries later during the Iron Age. But, in fact, Stonehenge predates the Druids by several millennia. The indigenous Britons who lived in the region during the Neolithic period are the likely builders. They had the knowledge and skills necessary for such a monumental undertaking.
Two different types of stones were used in the construction of Stonehenge. The larger stones are called “sarsen stones”. They are a type of silcrete rock, which is found all over England. Archaeologists have found evidence that the sarsen stones used at Stonehenge were sourced from various quarries near the Marlborough Downs, about 20 miles away. On average, the stones weighed about 25 tons, with the largest weighing it at an astounding 30 tons! Transporting these massive stones would have been a significant challenge. Some theories suggest that the builders used wooden sledges and possibly rollers to move the stones overland.
The other type of stones used at the site are called “bluestones”. This term can refer to a few different kinds of rocks, but the ones at Stonehenge can be traced to all the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales. Bluestones get their name from the bluish hue they take on when they get wet. These ones are smaller, measuring in between 2-5 tons.
Once the stones were transported to the site, they were meticulously shaped and dressed to fit the desired design. This would have required immense skill and precision, as each stone needed to fit snugly with its neighboring stones. To shape the stones, the builders likely used tools made of harder stones, such as flint and chert, which were available in the area.
Stonehenge's iconic trilithons (two vertical stones with a horizontal lintel stone on top) are a testament to the Neolithic builders' engineering prowess. These massive stones were raised into position using ingenious methods, possibly involving wooden scaffolding, counterweights, and the leverage of long wooden poles.
Stonehenge stands as an enduring testament to the ingenuity and craftsmanship of ancient builders. While their identities may remain a mystery, their legacy lives on in the form of this awe-inspiring monument. The techniques they employed to move, shape, and erect the massive stones continue to captivate our imaginations and remind us of the remarkable achievements of early human societies.
Stonehenge. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Plan of Stonehenge. CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The Heel Stone. CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Gardener’s Art through the Ages, 12th edition by Fred S. Kleiner