Learn about the engineering and architecture of Stonehenge, Britain’s most famous prehistoric monument.
The Engineering of Stonehenge
Stonehenge is one of Britain’s most famous prehistoric monuments and is a World Heritage Site. As well as being an icon of the British countryside, Stonehenge is a spectacular feat of engineering and the only surviving lintelled stone circle in the world.
Origins of Stonehenge
Originally built around 3,000 BCE as an earthen circular enclosure reinforced with 56 stone or timber blocks, the site of Stonehenge was used for ceremonial cremations.
Constructing the Stones
In the late Neolithic period, around 2500 BCE, the famous stones were added. Stonehenge consists of large sandstone blocks called sarsens and smaller ‘bluestones’ (so-called because they have a bluish tinge when freshly broken or wet). The sarsens formed an inner horseshoe and an outer circle, while the bluestones were set up between them in a double arc. 200 or 300 years later the bluestones were rearranged to form a circle and inner oval (which was again later altered to form a horseshoe).
Interlocking sarsens, from Historic England
The stones were raised by first digging a hole with a sloping side. The back of the hole was lined with wooden stakes, then the stone was moved into position and hauled upright using plant-fibre rope and probably a wooden A-frame (weights may have helped tip the stone upright). The hole was then packed with rubble. The horizontal stones were probably raised using timber frames, with the vertical and horizontal stones slotted together using mortice holes and tenons.
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Dunn)
Adding to the mystery of Stonehenge is that its purpose has been disputed. Theories have included it as a coronation place for Danish kings, an astronomical computer, a Druid temple and a Roman temple.
Today it’s generally agreed that Stonehenge was aligned with the movements of the sun. The main axis of the stones is aligned upon the solstitial axis, and at midsummer, the sun rises close to the ‘Heel Stone’, a large sarsen stone outside the entrance to the Stonehenge earthwork. At midwinter, the sun sets in the gap between the two tallest trilithons. The seasonal cycles were clearly important to the builders of Stonehenge, but we may never know exactly what the purpose was.