How was Stonehenge Built? - A Masterclass Guide with Archaeologist and Author Mike Pitts
Updated: Jun 20
Stonehenge is a fascinating historical mystery.
How was it built?
Why was it built?
These are the intriguing questions that have repeatedly drop-kicked the brains of even the most brainy people.
Well, here at Imagining History we wanted, nay demanded, an answer! So, who better to ask than Mike Pitts, archaeologist and author of 'How to Build Stonehenge'?
No one, that's who!
So, if you, like us, want to have a better idea of how and why Stonehenge was built, then check out this interview RIGHT FREAK'N NOW!!!
(Apologies for the overuse of caps and aggressive language, think I had too many coffees this morning).
Imagining History - Hi Mike, our readers are fascinated with Stonehenge. But for those who have never ever even heard of Stonehenge, could you give us a brief summation?
Mike Pitts - It’s the most famous ancient stone circle in the world, and the only one in which the stones are carved and jointed into each other. What we see now was raised around 2500BC – 4,500 years ago – but it was the last major structure on the site following centuries of rebuilding. Many archaeologists think it all began with a simple, perfect circle of small stones around 5,000 years ago (personally I would say 5,200 years ago, but there’s a lot that archaeologists disagree on!).
So, here's a big question - I'm ready for a big answer! - why was Stonehenge built? Do we know for certain? Or are there several theories and we can just pick our favourite?
Because it’s so old and was long forgotten about before we have any written descriptions, we can never really know why Stonehenge was built: but we can make some informed guesses. First, it’s important to remember that it had a long history, and during that time its meanings and purposes may have changed. For example, for the first five centuries, one aspect of the site was as a cemetery.
People buried cremated remains there, and it looks as if it was the largest such cemetery in Britain at the time. We don’t know how many were buried because early excavation records are not very good, and much of the site has not yet been excavated at all – but my best guess on current evidence is around 250. That happened before the big Stonehenge we see today was built. And when it was, burial stopped. Except, on current evidence, for one man. His body was buried without being cremated, and he had been murdered… shot at from close range with flint-tipped arrows. It’s a very unusual burial, and sadly we can never know why he died.
But it seems fair to say that things were different when he died, from when Stonehenge began five centuries before.
Even in the beginning when Stonehenge was relatively small, it would have taken many people to build. So part of Stonehenge was a political and social project of getting people together from quite a large area to work on a common cause. Perhaps it was a way for scattered people (the population then would have been quite low, much smaller than today) to meet and socialise, or perhaps – and it could have been both these things – it was a chance for a few people to show their power and authority by organising things. Stonehenge is close to the river Avon, which flows out to sea at Christchurch on the south coast. It might have been a major travel route in the centre of southern England at the time, and perhaps a border between different people or territories. Stonehenge could have been a focus for distant gatherings from across southern Britain, at least.
Thanks to new ancient DNA research, we now know that very soon after the final, big Stonehenge was built, there were big changes afoot across the UK. People arrived from the continent bringing with them many new things – the first metal (gold and copper, both rare), different ways of making stone tools, new pottery styles, and very different ways of burying the dead. At that time in Britain, whatever people did with their dead often left no trace for archaeologists to find. But the new people dug often quite deep graves just for one person, a very different approach to funerals from before, and one that we may guess reflected different beliefs. They quite probably spoke different languages. As if those changes weren’t enough in themselves, the people bringing them soon came to dominate: within just a few generations, the genome of the people already here, who built Stonehenge, had all but disappeared.
Now, these changes had been taking place across Europe for some time and were quite late to arrive in Britain. It’s possible that people in Britain heard about what was happening on the continent, and were afraid – no one likes change. They might have responded by doubling down at Stonehenge, where they could re-affirm the old ways, honour the old ancestors and, perhaps, tell themselves they were safe from whatever was happening across the Channel.
They had been burying their ancestors there for centuries, around the circle of small stones. When they built the new, big Stonehenge, they took down all the small stones, brought in new, much bigger ones – the jointed stones, most of what we see today – and then re-arranged the old small stones inside, as if they were being protected by the new ones. The stones they associated with the burials and the ancestors, the small stones, were now hidden and made safe inside the great new stone circle.
It didn’t last long, however, for soon the new peoples arrived – we sometimes know them as Beaker people after their decorated pots – and everything changed. It wasn’t long before stones started to fall over, and some of them seem to have been deliberately broken up. One of the first of the new immigrants we know of was buried just across the river Avon to the east. He was born in central Europe, and died a rich and powerful man; his grave contains one of the largest collections of pots, flint arrowheads, gold and copper from anywhere in northern Europe at the time (you can see them in The Salisbury Museum). Curiously, the man buried at Stonehenge I mentioned earlier died about 50 years after this man – and the arrowheads in his bones are of the type made and used by the new immigrants. Make of that what you will!
Am I correct in saying that there were two types of stones at Stonehenge, sarsen and bluestone slabs? Which is which and how do we tell the difference?
Yes. The smaller stones that came to the site first are all (or almost all, new research continues) from south-west Wales. We know them as bluestones. In fact, there are quite a few different sources within a fairly small area of Pembrokeshire, where geologists have been able to match Stonehenge megaliths with different rock outcrops, in one or two cases very precisely, where archaeologists think they have found evidence for prehistoric quarries.
The other stones, all the large ones, are more local and come from Wiltshire. But at least most of them still had to be brought from nearly 20 miles away to the north, from the Marlborough Downs. These are the sarsens, a very hard sandstone.
These sarsens and bluestone then, how big and heavy are we talking?
Few bluestones are more than 4 tons. Typical sarsens weigh 20 tons, and may go up to 40 tons.
OK, so here's the bit that confuses so many of us, how were these massive rocks successfully transported such long distances?
Though the bluestones had an exceptional journey to make – as much as 350km (220 miles) by the time you allow for all the twists and turns – it would have been relatively simple to move them, pulled by people on sledges overland, and carried on rafts or boats along deeper rivers and to cross the Severn estuary.
Moving the heavy sarsens would have been a different matter. Before they reached Stonehenge, where the full dressing would have taken place, they would have been even heavier than they are now. They would have been carried on large sledges pulled with heavy ropes by many people, and the combined weights would have been such that some form of wooden trackway would have been necessary.
This could have been carefully built, like a sort of railway, or just timbers thrown on the ground ahead of the sledge, but either way, a huge amount of wood would have been used.
Why were the stones positioned in a circle shape? Are there Stone Squares or Triangles out there?
Building in circles seems to have been a thing at these times. Occasionally rings are a bit irregular, or they can be oval, and rarely there are square arrangements – but usually within a circle.
How do we know so much about Stonehenge?
We’re helped by the fact that Stonehenge is still there – or much of it. We can study the stones and see how they were carved, for example, which for most of the buildings of the time we can’t – they were made of wood and mud and have just disappeared. Archaeologists have excavated a lot of the site, which brings up things scientists can work on. It also helps if we look at how and why people built stone monuments in more recent times in other parts of the world where records have been made, especially in Madagascar, India and Indonesia.
Finally, your book 'How to Build Stonehenge' is a vital read to teachers who will be teaching their students about Stonehenge this term, could you tell us a little more about the book?
The book focuses heavily on what it says – how it was built. By doing this, I think we get closer to the people who created Stonehenge more than any other book has. We’re thinking about what it was like to be there at the time, to see it come alive, to hear the stones being shaped and to experience the challenges and rewards. And of course, the reader gets to wonder how it was built, and perhaps find they have a better answer!
A massive thank you to Mike Pitts for expertly answering our questions!
You can say hello to Mike over on Twitter by clicking here.
And be sure to check out 'How to Build Stonehenge' on the Thames and Hudson website by clicking here.