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History of Stonehenge
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From its earliest phase up to its abandonment 1500 years later, Stonehenge was probably the most important temple in Britain. Since then, it has been viewed by different ages and by different people both as an enigma and as a source of inspiration. From the Middle Ages onwards, people have been trying to understand the origins of Stonehenge and answer the fundamental questions about how and why it was built. New excavations and the reanalysis of previous finds have continually changed the way the site and its landscape are interpreted and these changes will continue. So what follows is not the final answer: it is simply our current state of understanding.

History of Stonehenge

One of the standing sarsen stones carved with graffiti by generations of visitors.

Before Stonehenge

Stonehenge was not the first structure to be built on this part of Salisbury Plain. Excavations carried out in 1966 and 1989 in the area of the present car park revealed four large pits, all of which showed convincing evidence that they had originally held large timber posts of about 75 cm (30 in.) in diameter. The wood that was used for the posts was identified as pine – an unusual tree to be found on chalk soils – but the date of the posts was even more unexpected. Radiocarbon dating showed that this was between 8500 and 7000 BC, in a period known as the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age. This was not long after the end of the last Ice Age, when Britain was still connected to mainland Europe.

As sea levels rose in the warming climate, trees grew: initially pine and hazel. Within this forest, in river valleys and on seashores, bands of hunters and gatherers lived on wild foods. It was these people who raised the posts, perhaps best interpreted as poles of the kind found on Native North American sites, commonly known as totem poles. These structures, more than 9000 years old and built so close to Stonehenge, are unique. There is nothing else like them in the British Isles from this ancient times.

Several thousand years later, by about 4000 BC, people had begun to tame the wildwood – the mixed forest of elm, oak and hazel that had replaced the earlier pine forests over much of mainland Britain. Using stone axes to fell trees and fires to create clearings, they opened up spaces in which they could farm. Unlike farming today, with its large fields and neat hedges, small cleared areas were carved out of the woods to grow cereals such as wheat and barley; there were also domesticated animals: cattle, pigs and sheep.

Farming, even on a small scale, brings stability and ties people to the land; it was at this time, between about 4000 and 3000 BC, that communal efforts resulted in the building of the first ceremonial monuments and burial mounds. Some upland chalk areas, like that around Stonehenge, may have had more of these sites because they remained comparatively free of woodland. The causewayed enclosure known as Robin Hood’s Ball, to the north-west of Stonehenge, was built at this time, as were both Cursus monuments and probably most of the long barrows in the area.

History of Stonehenge

Prehistoric finds from the area around Salisbury Plain dating from the time of the first Sonehenge or just before

1. Antler tools from before the time of Stonehenge, used for working leather and textiles (now in the Alexander Keiller Museum).
2. Three stone tools found in a Neolithic pottery vessel; the curved one is a flint sickle and provides rare evidence of agriculture at this time (now in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum).
3. Polished flint axes from the period before Stonehenge was built.
4. Early Neolithic pots with a baggy shape that may imitate the leather vessels more commonly used before this period.
(Artefact groups 3 and 4 are now in the Wiltshire Heritage Museum, Devizes).

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