Though Stonehenge is one of the most studied monuments on Earth, we still know surprisingly little about it. We know it was erected between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, but the question of who built it and why remains anyone's guess. Depending on whom you ask, the mysterious circle of upright stones might be the handiwork of the wizard Merlin (of King Arthur fame), who used magic to transport the stones from Ireland, where giants had placed them. If that doesn't suit, there's always the theory that it's the remains of an ancient Roman temple, or perhaps the landing area for alien spacecraft. John Aubrey, who was the first to survey the site in the 1660s, believed -- wrongly so -- that it was built by the Celts as a religious center for Druid priests.
Today, most theories fall on one of two sides: that it either served as a holy site, or that it represents a scientific observatory. Interestingly, archaeologists have found that Stonehenge was not the only monument of its kind. Several other "henges" -- ring-shaped mounds with adjacent ditches -- have been found in the same area. One of them, aptly named Woodhenge, lies just two miles from its famous sister. Another, dubbed Bluestonehenge, was discovered just a mile away. And in 2010 archaeologists announced they'd found evidence of a Stonehenge twin barely half a mile away, suspected to have been made out of timber. The prevailing view is that these sites were sacred and used for ancestor worship.
Whatever the case, somebody surely went to a lot of trouble to construct Stonehenge. It's estimated the entire effort, from start to finish, was stretched out over a period of 1,000 years and took more than 20 million hours of labor. Given that the 80 bluestones came from Wales, some 145 miles away, and that the larger sandstone blocks, called sarsen stones, each weighed around 25 tons, I'd say that's not half bad [source: Owens].
On southern England's Salisbury plains, Neolithic people started to build a large ceremonial center -- what we know today as Stonehenge, one of the most famous sites of ancient civilization in the world. In one construction phase, Bronze Age builders carted 4-ton (3.6-metric ton) bluestones from Wales, 240 miles (386 kilometers) away. The incredible feat was probably accomplished using rollers, sledges and rafts to move the stones. In another phase, stones weighing up to 50 tons (45 metric tons) each were arranged in the circle we know today.
Historians believe ancient people used Stonehenge to celebrate the sun and as an observatory to mark seasonal changes. Other theories have revolved around its possibly being a burial site or some sort of healing site. No one knows with certainty what it was used for, however. The seasonal observatory theory is buttressed by the fact that Stonehenge is laid out to align itself with the shortest and the longest days of the year, which would have helped the people who built it plot the seasons [source: PBS].
The Neolithic people of the time would have moved in small nomadic settlements, keeping livestock, growing wheat and barley and making abundant use of the stone ax (the use of metal was just starting to spread, but it had not yet reached Britain) [source: PBS]. Though they have often been thought to be its builders, the Druids did not build Stonehenge, because they were not in Britain until after the great arrangement of stones was built.
And just how old is it? The age of Stonehenge has been at the center of much speculation, with researchers recently adding another 500 years onto their estimate of how long the large bluestone formations have been standing. Earlier estimates pegged the site as dating to 2500 B.C., but the extra five centuries since tacked on now give rise to the probable date of construction of 3000 B.C.
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