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How Stonehenge Worked


Stonehenge Doesn't Stand Alone
Fellow Neolithic henge Avebury sits about 19 miles north of Stonehenge.
Fellow Neolithic henge Avebury sits about 19 miles north of Stonehenge.
Lambert (Bart) Parren/iStock/Thinkstock

Although Stonehenge itself is the most well-known relic of the Neolithic, Britain — and especially the landscape immediately surrounding Stonehenge — is rich in archaeological discoveries:

  • In preparation for laying a parking lot for Stonehenge visitors in the 1960s, archaeologists discovered three postholes, which held pine poles (possibly totems) all dating to the eighth millennium B.C.E., about 650 feet (200 meters) from the Stonehenge site [source: Pearson]. Experts marveled at the idea of Mesolithic hunter-gather societies erecting monuments.
  • During the fourth millennium B.C.E. in Salisbury Plain, ancient Britons built 17 long barrows, earthen enclosures of wood or stone, to house the dead. Thousands of years later, between 2200 and 1700 B.C.E., the area remained important, as the ancient Britons built more than 1,000 additional round barrows [source: Pearson].
  • Also in the fourth millennium B.C.E, people were building causewayed enclosures, such as Robin Hood's Ball, 3 miles (4 kilometers) northwest of what would become the Stonehenge site [source: Pearson]. (Despite its name, it has nothing to do with the medieval hero.) Such enclosures consist of an earthen ditch and bank with entryways, which probably marked gathering places for ceremonies [source: Pearson].
  • In the 18th century, Antiquarian William Stukeley discovered what he thought looked like a Roman racetrack, so he called it the Cursus. The Cursus is a 1.75-mile (2.8-kilometer) long enclosure consisting of a bank and outer ditch (like Stonehenge) [source: Pearson]. Another much smaller cursus, called Lesser Cursus, sits close by to the northeast of the Greater Cursus. Archaeologists also date these to the fourth millennium B.C.E. but are still unsure of their purpose [source: Pearson].
  • Durrington Walls is an ancient henge encompassing 42 acres (0.17 square kilometers) just two miles (3.2 kilometers) northeast of Stonehenge. The bank and ditch once stood around 10 feet (3 meters) high and 18 feet (5.5 meters) deep [source: Pearson]. It contained two timber circles about the size of Stonehenge that archaeologists believe were temporary settlements for Stonehenge's builders. Just south of Durrington Walls stood another timber circle called Woodhenge.
  • About 18.5 miles (30 kilometers) north is Avebury, an enormous henge containing a circle of sarsen stones dating from 2850 to 2200 B.C.E [source English-Heritage.org].
  • In 2008, archaeologists excavated the end of the Stonehenge avenue before the river. What they found was Bluestonehenge, a henge 30 feet (10 meters) wide with holes that were possibly the original homes for Stonehenge's bluestones [source: Pearson]. Archaeologists date the henge to the 23rd century B.C.E. (around the same time the ditches along the avenue were dug), but the stones were probably placed there before 2500 B.C.E. [source: Pearson].