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How was Stonehenge built?

Stonehenge wasn’t built overnight. In fact, it took 1,500 years for the site as we know it today to take shape. What began as a simple earthen henge in 3000 B.C. evolved over a period of time as the site grew and expanded into the Stonehenge that we see before us today.

But before we go a bit deeper into this topic, you can learn more about this site’s fascinating history and see it for yourself with our Stonehenge Tours.

Stonehenge’s construction spanned several distinct phases, each lasting many hundreds of years. Just as the social, religious and ethnic composition of its ancient Neolithic builders evolved during this period, so did the Stonehenge site.

Stonehenge would become a mirror that reflected the evolution of ancient Neolithic peoples at the time. If you’d like to explore why Stonehenge was built, and by whom, we have an article on that. In the meantime, let’s take a look at how Stonehenge was built.

How long did it take to build Stonehenge?

Construction on Stonehenge lasted approximately 1,500 years and spanned several distinct phases between 3,000 B.C and 1,500 B.C. The site at Stonehenge grew and developed over a very long period of time and was not completed all at once by its builders.

Phases of Construction

stonehenge phases of construction

The First Phase (3,000 B.C.)

Construction on Stonehenge began around 5,000 years ago in 3,000 B.C. It was during this time that the foundations of the site that would later become Stonehenge were first laid.

Around this time, the ‘Heel Stone’ was erected at the entrance to the henge which marks the place on the horizon where the sunrise of the Summer Solstice appears.

the heel stone at stonehenge
The ‘Heel Stone’ marks the entrance path to Stonehenge

Four ‘Station Stones’ (only 2 survive today) were also very likely placed during this period, although they may also have equally arrived during Phase 2. These stones are set just inside the bank and, like the Heel Stone, align approximately to the Summer and Winter solstices.

The first, and oldest, part of Stonehenge is a large earthwork, or ‘henge’, consisting of an earthen ditch (and accompanying bank) and 56 distinct ‘Aubrey holes‘ dotted around the perimeter of the site.

But what exactly are the Aubrey Holes?

The Aubrey Holes

diagram of the aubrey holes at stonehenge
The early site consisted of earthworks and the 56 Aubrey Holes

In 1666, John Aubrey – an English antiquarian and writer – visited Stonehenge and observed a series of holes dug around the circumference of the henge.

The ‘Aubrey Holes’, as they came to be known, are a ring of 56 round pits dug into the chalk with an average depth of 1.06m (3.4ft).

Cremated human bones were found in many of the Aubrey Holes – but why?

Excavations have revealed cremated human bones (mostly men, with some women and children) in and around the holes. New research indicates these bones may have – mysteriously – come from people who lived more than 200 kilometres (120 miles) away from Stonehenge.

Crude picks made of deer antlers that were used to dig the ditch were also found in the holes, as well as the bones of cattle and deer.

The exact purpose of the holes remains a mystery, although the likelihood is that they were originally used to support wooden posts (or smaller bluestones) before later being used to bury cremated remains.

The Second Phase (2,900 – 2,600 B.C.)

Historians and archaeologists aren’t entirely sure what – if anything – happened during this stage of construction. It wasn’t until the stones themselves started to arrive during Phase 3 that we began to see any signs of activity on the site.

As always, there are theories.

One theory is that the Aubrey Holes (remember those?) are partially filled, and wooden poles appear during this time at the henge’s centre and near the northeastern entrance.

wooden henge example
An example of a reconstructed wooden henge

Wooden poles? Why?

The cluster of poles at the northeastern entrance may have served as markers for astronomical events, or it is possible that they were used to create a palisade fence that acted as an entrance to Stonehenge which may have guided people through narrow paths to the ceremonial centre.

The Third Phase (2,600 – 1,500 B.C.)

The longest and most dramatic of all periods. This period contained the most changes of any period, and it was during this time that Stonehenge, as we know it today, began to take shape.

The Bluestones Arrive (2,600 – 2,500 B.C.)

With the exception of evidence of human burials, Stonehenge remained largely untouched from its initial stages of construction for around 500 years. Then suddenly, around 2,500 B.C., the smaller ‘bluestones’ started to arrive.

preseli hills quarry in Pembrokeshire
Site of the Stonehenge dolerite stones, or ‘bluestones’

Around 82 bluestones arrived from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, Wales – around 140 miles (225km) away.

How do all of these giant stones, some weighing up to 4 tons, end up at Stonehenge?

We aren’t sure. What makes this event truly mind-boggling is the fact that the people alive during this time were still using stone tools.

Archaeologists believe that the bluestones were transported by natural waterways and dragged over land. These ‘bluestones’ were then set up in two concentric half-circles.

stonehenge bluestones concentric half circle
Bluestones in their original concentric half-circle shape

The Sarsen Stones Arrive (2,000 B.C.)

At some point, a 100-foot diameter of 30 massive sarsen stones (weighing up to 50 tons) appears on-site and is arranged into the famous ‘Outer Circle’.

Horizontal lintels were then placed on top of the enormous Sarsen Stones while, at the same time, a horseshoe-shaped setting of 5 ‘trilithons is constructed in what would become known as the ‘Inner Circle’.

stonehenge sarsen stones of the outer circle

What are the Sarsen Stones?

Sarsen itself is a type of hard sandstone only found in certain locations around England. The gigantic Sarsen Stones found at Stonehenge are originally from a site 20 miles (32km) north of Stonehenge on the Marlborough Downs in North Wiltshire.

Transportation by water would have been impossible due to the immense weight of the stones, and they could therefore only have been moved using sledges, ropes and an awful lot of manpower.

Bluestone Rearrangement (1,500 B.C.)

Around this time, the bluestones are re-erected into the familiar formations that we see today; an oval perimeter around the inside of the outer sarsen stone circle and a horseshoe shape within the trilithons at the centre.

A day trip to Stonehenge is the perfect way to explore this ancient and mysterious Neolithic site, so take a look at our unforgettable Stonehenge Tours.