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Raising the stones
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Raising the stones

As the path leads back over the bank and ditch, note the pale concrete spots in the grass that mark the position of excavated Aubrey Holes. The path then curves left round the outside of the enclosure.

Having moved their building materials to Stonehenge, how did our prehistoric ancestors shape and erect these stones? Although Stonehenge was constructed during a time when stone tools were gradually being replaced by copper and bronze, these new metals were too soft to have been used to shape the hard sarsens or bluestones. Both types of stone could only have been shaped by using round sarsen balls known as mauls. Many have been found at Stonehenge, ranging from the size of an orange to some as big as footballs. Shaping the stones, and creating the joints that fixed them together, must have been a long and uncomfortable process. Evidence, in the form of layers of stone chippings, suggests that the main sarsen working area lay just to the north of the enclosure, on the opposite side of the modern road. Once shaped, the stones intended as uprights could be raised. Holes were dug into the chalk, the depth of each one calculated in order to level up the tops of the stones (it was easier to dig out chalk than to remove bits from the stone).

Raising the stones

A collection of sarsen hammerstones, or mauls, found at Stonehenge (now in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum).


Excavation has shown that most of the holes that hold uprights have one straight side and one that slopes. It seems likely that the stone was slid into the hole and initially rested at an angle against the sloping side. Experiments have shown that this can be done by balancing the stone on a ramp, with its end poised over the hole. Smaller stones then can be dragged along the length of the stone until their weight causes it to overbalance, pivot on the solid end of the ramp and drop into the hole. The stone is then hauled upright against the vertical face using ropes of hide or vegetable fibre. Finally the hole is backfilled with chalk, fragments of stone, bits of broken deer antler picks and mauls, all rammed down firmly to hold the stone in place. There are several theories as to how the lintels were raised into position. Experiments have shown that a 10-tonne stone can be dragged sideways up a sloping ramp made of earth or timber. Alternatively the lintels could have been raised on a platform of interlocking timbers. Each end of the lintel would have been raised in turn, using levers. As each end was levered up, supporting timbers would have been inserted and the stone rose as the platform grew in height. Either of these methods is possible and would have left no trace for archaeologists to find.

Raising the stones

Carvings of prehistoric daggers on an upright of one of the sarsen trilithons, probably dating from about 1800 BC.


Most of what is carved on the surface of the stones is of a recent date – the names of visitors who must have come prepared with a hammer and chisel; but some decoration is much older. The shallow outlines of daggers and axes of prehistoric form lay undiscovered until spotted by a sharp-eyed archaeologist in 1953. These carvings cannot be directly dated, but the shapes of the weapons and tools suggest that they date to later in the Bronze Age, about 1800 BC.

Raising the stones

Archaeologists Richard Atkinson and Stuart Piggott excavating at Stonehenge in 1958. Note the complex pattern of stone holes and post holes, revealed by the removal of the trilithon that fell in 1797.



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