Stonehenge is one of the most iconic monuments in the world, a spiritual site that’s a masterpiece of prehistoric engineering.
In one sense, the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge needs no introduction. Even if you haven’t visited it in person, you’ve likely seen it many times in films, on TV, and in advertising. Its huge stones evoke mystery and grandeur.
Stonehenge isn’t a place for solitary contemplation, however, given the fact it’s one of the most visited sites in Britain. But even when it’s crowded with tourists, it’s still an awe-inspiring place.
Located on an open plain about 90 miles west of London, Stonehenge was built in stages. Around 5,000 years ago, a henge was built, a circular ditch with an inner and an outer bank. Several timber structures were constructed inside the enclosure, along with 56 pits that held either stones or timber posts. About 64 cremated bodies were buried in the area, making Stonehenge the largest late-Neolithic cemetery in the British Isles.
About 500 years later, massive stones were added to the complex, a construction project that took years. We don’t know if this work was done by slaves, or by people who gave their time and effort willingly to be part of a great communal project. Either option involved hard, heavy labor, especially given the rudimentary technology of the time.
Two types of stones were used. The larger stones are sarsen, which is a very hard type of sandstone. The nearest source for sarsen is on the Marlborough Downs, which are twenty miles away. These stones were sculpted to form the joined uprights and lintels of the circle and their exterior was removed so they’d have a bright appearance.
The second, smaller stones are called bluestones, which include a variety of volcanic rocks. Though they appear gray, when they’re wet many of these stones have a dark blue color. All of the bluestones came from the Preseli Hills in western Wales, which is more than 150 miles away. It’s not known why the builders of Stonehenge traveled so far to get these stones–perhaps they thought the blue color gave the rocks some special significance or power.
The sarsens were erected first, set up in an outer circle and an inner horseshoe. The bluestones were added later in a double arc between them. Around 200-300 years later, the bluestones were rearranged, and then rearranged again.
When I first visited Stonehenge more than two decades ago, it was possible to walk close to the stones. Today most visitors are allowed to walk around the monument only at a distance, but it’s still a remarkable thing to be in the presence of this amazing spiritual site. (Along with many others, I consider Stonehenge a spiritual site, because it seems inconceivable that its builders would have gone to so much effort to create it otherwise).
The site’s visitor center has a 360-degree audiovisual experience that gives a sense for the monument in varying seasons and weather and in different eras. Its exhibits include more than 250 archeological objects found at or near the site, including jewelry, pottery, and human remains.
I was especially intrigued by an exhibit that includes the reconstructed head of a 5,000-year-old man, who died of unknown causes when he was between 25 and 40 years of age. A chemical analysis of his teeth indicates that he was born at least 100 km away, perhaps in south or west Britain.
Standing in front of this reconstructed head was one of the most powerful moments I had at Stonehenge. He looked so familiar and so contemporary that it was difficult to believe he lived thousands of years ago.
While we’ll never know for certain how Stonehenge was built or how it was used, it’s clear that part of its purpose was to indicate the movements of the sun through the year. Some have even called it a Neolithic calendar.
If you stand in the middle of the Stone Circle on the summer solstice, the sun rises just to the left of what’s known as the Heel Stone. At one point there was likely another stone close to it, so that the two formed a frame for the solstice sunrise.
At the winter solstice, the sun would originally have set between the two uprights of the tallest trilithon, which is a term for an arrangement of two stones topped by a flat lintel. It would have dropped down into what’s known as the Altar Stone, a sandstone block, before disappearing.
Archeological evidence indicates that the site was used for burials and ceremonies even before the first enclosure was built. It also suggests that a settlement at nearby Durrington Wells was used for feasts, but not for year-round habitation. Researchers have even been able to make an educated guess at the timing of those celebrations. The pig bones that were thrown away here were all about nine months old. Since piglets are born in the spring, that means that the feasts were held in midwinter.
Outside of the visitor center is a replica of one of the upright sarsen stones. Weighing in at about 62,000 pounds, it would have taken about 100 strong people to move it. It’s believed that the massive stones were moved by putting them on a wooden sledge, which was then pulled over rollers or along rails. Visitors are invited to try to pull the sarsen, which gives a sense for the immense effort involved in moving them.
The site also includes reproductions of five Neolithic homes that the builders of Stonehenge likely lived in. The simple, one-room huts are based on archeological remains found at Durrington Wells and are quite a contrast to the immense stones of the monument.
After touring the visitor center, you can either walk for a mile and a half or take a shuttle bus to the Stone Circle. There you can circle around the stones, getting as close to them as ten yards away. (It’s also possible to book a Special Access visit that takes place outside of the normal hours and allows a limited number of people to walk amid the stones.)
As I walked around the monument, I remembered the variety of theories about its origin, from Druid temple and healing center to a place where ancestors were worshipped (that idea about the Druid temple is certainly false, since the Druids didn’t exist until two centuries after Stonehenge was built).
What we do know for certain is that Stonehenge is a Wonder of the World and a living temple for modern Druids and pagans, who flock here on the solstices in particular. It’s also a place where we can feel a direct connection to the deep past and to experience that most exquisite of emotions: awe.
“What is Stonehenge? It is the roofless past,” wrote soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon in 1928. I also like this description by writer John Mitchell in 1981: “One might almost suppose that it was specially designed to accommodate every notion that could possibly be projected onto it.”
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.