Why was Stonehenge built?

For thousands of years, Stonehenge had stood in magnificent isolation in an empty plain in southern England. We still can’t be sure exactly when it was built, or why it was built, because it was already standing thousands of years before the first written records were made in Britain. Stonehenge comes from a time of myth and legend. Was it a temple? Was it a memorial to the dead? Was it built as a gathering place? And why was this part of England covered in so many monuments and burial sites, but so few villages?

The mysteries of Stonehenge are as challenging today as they have ever been. Every archaeological study reveals new information: some confirm theories, but many mean old theories have to be torn up.

But everyone agrees Stonehenge is important. At a time when Britain probably only had a population of 10-20,000 people, thousands of them must have come together to spend their time building this ancient monument.


Stonehenge is one of the most famous ancient monuments in the world, but it is unique. Most monuments of this scale  – like the Pyramids of Egypt and South America, Greek and Roman temples or ancient Asian and African cities – were remembered in stories and writings, so we know who built them and why.

But Stonehenge is not mentioned in any history. We don’t have the names of anyone who built it, and we don’t even know what it was called (Stonehenge is a modern name) or what language the builders spoke. When the Romans brought writing to Britain 2000 years ago, Stonehenge was already a site of legend.

Stonehenge is one of the oldest “buildings” in the world, and one used for far longer than any other. Until the past ten years, experts said the oldest parts of Stonehenge were about 5,500 years old. But then they had to tear up the history books and start again, when they found five holes that held wooden poles as a part of a monument – they were erected over 10,000 years ago (twice as long ago as the Pyramids were built).

This means that people have been building or rebuilding monuments here on this site for over 6,000 years!

Archaeologists are now looking for more about this much older Stonehenge, and to find out what happened between 10,000 years ago and 5,500 years ago.

We do know that the major monument building started about 5,500 years ago, and lasted for 2,000 years!


Stonehenge is built on Salisbury Plain, a large area in the centre of Southern England that even today has very few towns. Archaeologists have found few signs of any large prehistoric villages nearby. That is the first mystery of Stonehenge – where did its builders live? All other large monuments like this, all over the world, have nearby towns where the workers lived, but Stonehenge does not have any.

Stonehenge is also surrounded by other prehistoric remains. When you stand at Stonehenge, within sight there are several “barrows”, prehistoric tombs covered in burial mounds. Nearby are other circular monuments – one is much larger than Stonehenge in size, but with smaller stones. There is also the site of a large wooden circular monument called Woodhenge (“henge” is the word for a circular prehistoric monument).

And further away but still on the edge of Salisbury Plain, there are hundreds of nearby monuments. 20kms away from Stonehenge is Silbury Hill, a 100 metre high man-made hill, a pyramid-shaped mound of earth that is still the highest man-made mound in Europe. And nearby is Avebury. Although Avebury is not as well known as Stonehenge, it is a much bigger stone circle, the largest anywhere in the world. Avebury is so big that it has a village inside the circle.

Salisbury Plain covers several hundred square kilometres, and has hundreds of prehistoric monuments, but there are no places where people lived. It is obviously a very special place, a sacred landscape, and some have even called it “the world’s biggest temple.”


As we said earlier, the oldest part of Stonehenge is the four or five postholes that held wooden poles. These were built anywhere between 10 and 11,000 years ago, and significantly they are lined east to west, like the later stone circles.

Then there is a gap in our knowledge until just over 5,000 years ago, when the first circle we have found was built; a mound of the local chalk rock over 100 metres in diameter. Chalk is white and the bank must have been visible for kilometres. Inside the bank were 56 holes that contained either timber poles or standing stones (no-one is sure which!)

A few hundred years later, wooden poles were added outside the circle, making a processional doorway. Then 4,500 years ago, two inner circles of stone were built where the biggest stones stand today. The stones used here were brought over 250 kilometres, from a site in the very west of Britain, even thought there are large stones in the landscape around Stonehenge. These “bluestones” must have special significance, but no-one knows why they were special.

In the final main phase, the biggest of all stones used were erected. Some of them weigh over 50 tonnes each, and stand 10 metres high (with a further few metres buried below ground level).

In later centuries some stones were moved, but by 3,700 years ago, the circle was left behind – perhaps abandoned and half-forgotten.

Why did the builders need to use the “bluestones”? – stones that weight up to 10 tonnes each and have to be transported 250 kilometres away. How did they get the stones from mountains in the west of Wales to this plain in the centre of England. The theories about ancient builders is that they moved large stones on timber rollers, but they could not have done this for 250 kilometres – it would have taken years to move the stones that far. This is another unsolved mystery!  


A lot of people have suggested that Stonehenge was a place to remember the dead ancestors, and that it was part of a cemetery where the most important people in Britain were buried.

But there are actually very few burials on the site of Stonehenge, despite the size of the monument, and the burials do not seem to be marked in any special way. Most experts now think these are stray burials, and that Stonehenge was not a funeral site.


As we said earlier, the building of Stonehenge must have required quite a large part of the population of Britain at a time when Britain was almost empty of people. So why was Stonehenge so important that it needed up to 25% of the island’s population to build it, and why were stones brought hundreds of kilometres to make it?

Some modern archaeologists have suggested that it was an important meeting place – not exactly a modern parliament, but a place where all the tribes of the country could meet up on important occasions. They have found large piles of animal bones buried nearby =, which are probably a sign of massive feasts for hundreds of people.


The most popular theory is that Stonehenge was a temple. This has been the assumption for hundreds of years, and it is understandable. After all, Stonehenge looks like a temple. And as has been known for over 300 years, the shape of Stonehenge means that certain stones line up with the sun at certain times of the year. The centre of the circle is roughly in line with the sunrise on the longest day of the year (the summer solstice) – it is not perfectly in line because the slight variations in the Earth’s rotation mean that the position of the sunrise has changed over the past 5,000 years. And you remember the first, wooden posts erected over 10,000 years ago? These were in line with that sunrise too.

It is the most likely theory. Britain has many other henges, and they all tend to align in the same way, so sun worship does seem to have been the main religion in Britain in the late Stone Age.


In the end, it is impossible to say what Stonehenge was, because there are no records from those times. A temple does seem to be the most likely explanation, but it was used for some burials and it mist have been an important meeting place as well.

Why was it built where it is? Again, no-one knows. It is not in a central part of the country, and it is not near any large settlements. But it is part of the larger sacred landscape we spoke about.

In the end, we have to ask: will we ever solve the mystery? We do not think so. But perhaps that is a good thing. It is good to have some mysteries left to think about!