Stonehenge's biggest mysteries: The five key questions about the prehistoric ... trends now

Stonehenge's biggest mysteries: The five key questions about the prehistoric ... trends now
Stonehenge's biggest mysteries: The five key questions about the prehistoric ... trends now

Stonehenge's biggest mysteries: The five key questions about the prehistoric ... trends now

Stonehenge - the prehistoric circle of 13-foot-tall stones in Wiltshire - is the source of some of the world's greatest mysteries.

Historians believe the monument was built about 5,000 years ago, but the reason for it remains unconfirmed.

Indeed, the massive rocks weigh upwards of several tonnes each, so how Neolithic Britons were able to hurl them to Salisbury Plain and arrange them has been long-debated.

MailOnline takes a look at the five biggest remaining mysteries about Stonehenge, and looks to the science for answers.

Stonehenge - the prehistoric circle of 13-foot-tall stones in Wiltshire - is the source of some of the world's greatest mysteries

Stonehenge - the prehistoric circle of 13-foot-tall stones in Wiltshire - is the source of some of the world's greatest mysteries 

An artist's impression of Britain 5,000 thousand years ago, as Stonehenge was being laboriously pieced together

An artist's impression of Britain 5,000 thousand years ago, as Stonehenge was being laboriously pieced together

1. Who built Stonehenge?

To get a good idea about the masterminds behind Stonehenge, we need to first look back at the earliest timeline of its construction.

It is thought that the famous ring of stones was built in stages, with construction of the first stage beginning in around 3,100 BC.

This age was determined through radiocarbon dating of organic matter at the site by various scientists over the past 70 years.

A circular ditch of Seaford chalk and series of round pits are thought to have been first discovered there by antiquarian John Aubrey in the 1666.

The 56 pits, or 'Aubrey holes' as they are now known, are about one metre (3.3 feet) wide and deep, with steep sides and flat bottoms.

It is thought that the famous ring of stones was built in stages, with construction of the first stage beginning at around 3,100 BC. Pictured: The first of the three Stonehenge construction phases archaeologists think took place.

It is thought that the famous ring of stones was built in stages, with construction of the first stage beginning at around 3,100 BC. Pictured: The first of the three Stonehenge construction phases archaeologists think took place.

An artist's impression of a Neolithic ceremony at the site circa 3,000 BC, when the monument was just a series of ditches without the monoliths it is known for today

An artist's impression of a Neolithic ceremony at the site circa 3,000 BC, when the monument was just a series of ditches without the monoliths it is known for today

STONEHENGE'S CONSTRUCTION REQUIRED GREAT INGENUITY 

Stonehenge was built thousands of years before machinery was invented. 

The heavy rocks weigh upwards of several tonnes each.

Some of the stones are believed to have originated from a quarry in Wales, some 140 miles (225km) away from the Wiltshire monument.

To do this would have required a high degree of ingenuity, and experts believe the ancient engineers used a pulley system over a shifting conveyor-belt of logs.

Historians now think that the ring of stones was built in several different stages, with the first completed around 5,000 years ago by Neolithic Britons who used primitive tools, possibly made from deer antlers.

Modern scientists now widely believe that Stonehenge was created by several different tribes over time.

After the Neolithic Britons - likely natives of the British Isles - started the construction, it was continued centuries later by their descendants. 

Over time, the descendants developed a more communal way of life and better tools which helped in the erection of the stones. 

Bones, tools and other artefacts found on the site seem to support this hypothesis.

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Excavations revealed cremated human bones in some of the chalk filling, which were deemed unimportant when first found in 1920 by William Hawley.

However, in 2013, they were reanalysed by archaeologists at University College London (UCL), who thus dated the area back to 3,000 BC.

The ditch and pits are widely thought to be the first stage of Stonehenge's construction. However, their purpose remains a mystery.

The second stage of construction began at some point between 2,900 and 2,600 BC, when a large number of wooden posts were dug in.

Fragments of timber, as well as cremated bones and pieces of pottery, allowed scientists to date this second construction stage to the Neolithic people.

From 2,600 BC is when the famous bluestones started being added, which is thought to have been the work of residents of a nearby Neolithic settlement.

Durrington Walls is a henge situated just 1.7 miles (2.8km) from the UNESCO World Heritage site, and dates back to around 2,500 BC.

According to the National Trust, it was a place where the builders lived for part of the year and held feasts and rituals.

Remnants of charred plant remains found at Durrington Walls has revealed that the builders fuelled themselves with sweet treats.

These include cooked hazelnuts, sloes, crab apples and other fruit, which may have been combined into 'Neolithic mince pies'.

Evidence of the eggs of parasitic worms have also been found in fossilised faeces left at Durrington Walls.

University of Cambridge scientists believe this shows the residents were also eating offal, and fed the scraps to dogs. 

Prehistoric hunting pits have been discovered at Stonehenge 

Thousands of prehistoric hunting pits that are believed to have been used to catch deer and wild boar have been unearthed near Stonehenge.

Archaeologists think they were dug by hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago — about 5,000 years before the UNESCO World Heritage site was built.

One of the pits, which was 13ft (4m) wide and 6.5ft (2m) deep, is the largest of its kind in north-west Europe.

The discovery shows ancient humans roamed the landscape during the early Mesolithic period, researchers say, when Britain was re-inhabited after the last Ice Age. 

Read more here

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Therefore, the construction actually drew people together - including those from Wales - and showed outsiders the power of the small building community.

A study of pig and cattle teeth left on ancient byways to Stonehenge also revealed people were bringing some of the animals to eat from as far as 500 miles (800km) away

In 2018, Oxford University researchers examined the strontium isotope composition in the cremated bones buried at Stonehenge between 3,180 and 2,380 BC. 

In 10 of the fragments of skull, they found chemicals in the remains were consistent with people from western Britain.

This is a region that includes west Wales - the known source of Stonehenge's bluestones - and suggesting that ancient Welshmen helped its construction.

As well as Durrington Walls, some of the visitors may have stayed at another nearby settlement called Blick Mead, about a mile east of the stone circle.

Carbon dating of bones from giant bulls and boars discarded at Vespsian's Camp at the settlement suggest it has been continually occupied since 8,820 BC.

David Jacques, a research fellow in archaeology at the University of Buckingham, said: 'In effect, Blick Mead was the very first Stonehenge Visitor Centre, up and running in the 8th millennium BC. 

'The River Avon would have been the A-Road – people would have come down on their log boats. 

'They would have had the equivalent of tour guides and there would have been feasting.' 

The third stage of construction is thought to have lasted until around 1,500 BC, and involved the arrangement of about 82 bluestones

The third stage of construction is thought to have lasted until around 1,500 BC, and involved the arrangement of about 82 bluestones 

In about 1,500 BC, more bluestones were erected just outside the outer circle and within the trilithons to give the familiar Stonehenge that can be seen today. Pictured: Plan of the central Stone Structure at Stonehenge as it survives today

In about 1,500 BC, more bluestones were erected just outside the outer circle and within the trilithons to give the familiar Stonehenge that can be seen today. Pictured: Plan of the central Stone Structure at Stonehenge as it survives today 

The third stage of construction is thought to have lasted until around 1,500 BC, and involved the arrangement of about 82 bluestones.

This was originally two concentric hemispheres of megaliths, as well as four separate 'Station Stones' and a large central megalith known as the 'Altar Stone'.

Later, 30 sarsen stones - a type hard sandstone from the Marlborough Downs in North Wiltshire - were brought to the site and arranged in a circle.

Horizontal stones were placed on top, before the inner circle of the world-famous 'trilithons' – two vertical stones supporting a third horizontal stone - was raised.

In about 1,500 BC, more bluestones were erected just outside the outer circle and within the trilithons to give the familiar Stonehenge that can be seen today.

In 2016, researchers at UCL conducted an experiment to see how many people it would take to build Stonehenge.

Using logs and rope, they dragged a one-tonne slab of concrete - half as much as the lightest blue stone used in the monument's construction.

They concluded that it would have taken 40 to 50 people to shift the stones to the neolithic site, and more than 10 million hours of combined labour.

2. Where did the stones come from?

 

There are two main types of stone that make up the megaliths of Stonehenge - bluestone and sarsen stone.

Scientists have known that the bluestones originated in the Preseli Hills in north Pembrokeshire, Wales for a century.

In 1923, H. H. Thomas from NERC's British Geological Survey recognised the distinctive dark grey spotty rocks, known as spotted dolerites, during fieldwork at Carn Menyn.

However, in 2014, researchers from Museum Wales studied the mineral chemistry of the bluestones at the monument.

They found that at least 55 per cent of the dolerite bluestones actually came from a different location, known as Carn Goedog.

Three years prior, analysis alongside University of Leicester geologists revealed that the rhyolitic bluestones at Stonehenge originated from Craig Rhos-y-Felin.

These locations are both about 140 miles (225km) from the Wiltshire monument itself, and the way they were transported to Wiltshire remains a point of contention. 

The large standing stones at Stonehenge are made of local sandstone, but the smaller ones, known as 'bluestones', come from a quarry in south Wales (pictured)

The large standing stones at Stonehenge are made of local sandstone, but the smaller ones, known as 'bluestones', come from a quarry in south Wales (pictured)

Work on Stonehenge could have been used to show outsiders the power of the small community building it. The theory may explain why some of the Wiltshire site's stones were transported 140 miles (225km) from south Wales

Work on Stonehenge could have been used to show outsiders the power of the small community building it. The theory may explain why some of the Wiltshire site's stones were transported 140 miles (225km) from south Wales

Prior to these discoveries, it was thought that the stones could have been floated down the Bristol Channel on rafts.

However Dr Richard Bevins, the lead author, said the discovery made this unlikely as 'both of these outcrops lie on the northern side of the Preseli Hills.'

'The rocks would have had to be dragged up the hills, across the summits and back down again before they even reached the waterways,' he said.

Another theory was proposed in 2018 that the stones were moved to Wiltshire 500,000 years ago by a glacier.

Welsh scientist Brian John argued that a glacier carved its way across Wales and the ice picked up bluestones along the way.

He says that the stones were eventually dropped on the Salisbury Plain after the ice melted.

Another theory was proposed in 2018 that the stones were moved to Wiltshire 500,000 years ago by a glacier . Welsh scientist Brian John argued that a glacier carved its way across Wales and the ice picked up bluestones along the way (stock image)

Another theory was proposed in 2018 that the stones were moved to Wiltshire 500,000 years ago by a glacier . Welsh scientist Brian John argued that a glacier carved its way across Wales and the ice picked up bluestones along the way (stock image)

In 2021, experts from the University of St Andrews uncovered the remains of a stone circle from about 3,400 BC in the Preseli Hills.

Researchers claimed the 50 standing bluestones from the dismantled circle, called Waun Mawn, were moved to Wiltshire to create Stonehenge.

There were significant links between the neolithic sites that led researchers to conclude a link between them.

The Welsh circle has a diameter of 360 feet (110m) - the same as the ditch that encloses Stonehenge - and both are aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise.

Several of the monoliths at the World Heritage Site on Salisbury Plain are of the same rock type as those that still remain at the Welsh site.

Plus, one of the bluestones at Stonehenge has an unusual cross-section which matches one of the holes left at Waun Mawn.

The researchers suggest that the stones have been moved as the ancient people of the Preseli region migrated, as they took their monuments with them as a sign of their ancestral identity.

It could also explain why the bluestones were brought from so far away, while most circles are constructed within a short distance of their quarries.

Researchers claimed the 50 standing bluestones from the Waun Mawn (pictured) stone circle were moved to Wiltshire to create Stonehenge. The remaining stones are circled

Researchers claimed the 50 standing bluestones from the Waun Mawn (pictured) stone circle were moved to Wiltshire to create Stonehenge. The remaining stones are circled 

The Waun Mawn circle has a diameter of 360ft (110m), the same as the ditch that encloses Stonehenge. Both are aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise

The Waun Mawn circle has a diameter of 360ft (110m), the same as the ditch that encloses Stonehenge. Both are aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise

Experts suggest its bluestones could have been moved as the ancient people of the Preseli region migrated, even taking their monuments with them, as a sign of their ancestral identity, and re-erecting them at Stonehenge, 175 miles away

Experts suggest its bluestones could have been moved as the ancient people of the Preseli region migrated, even taking their monuments with them, as a sign of their ancestral identity, and re-erecting them at Stonehenge, 175 miles away

As for the sarsen stones, they are thought to have been transported from woodlands just 15 miles to the north of the site of Stonehenge.

Sarsen is a layer of sandstone that formed millions of years ago above the chalk layer on Salisbury Plain.

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