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Amesbury, Wiltshire SP4 7DE, United Kingdom

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Associated with the site of Avebury, some 40 kilometres away, the megalithic monument of Stonehenge is the most famous prehistoric vestige in Great Britain. It is isolated in Salisbury Plain, in the south-west of England. The evocative name Stonehenge means “the hanging stones”. It consists of a set of two concentric circles of stones with a monumental appearance and mysterious origins.

This conglomerate of raised stones dates back to around 3,000 years BC (i.e. a construction that predates the Egyptian pyramids) but the history of Stonehenge could be much older still. According to archaeologists, it was occupied by man as early as the Mesolithic period (-10,000 years) and was used on a large scale as a burial site with the construction of stone circles with a diameter of about 100 metres. The Stonehenge monument is part of a much larger architectural ensemble. Intensified research and the emergence of new techniques at the beginning of the 21st century have made it possible to identify dozens of other similar buildings or monuments within a radius of 10 km².

Stonehenge was built in several phases between the late Neolithic period and the British Bronze Age. Its functions have long been uncertain, so many theories have been attached to the site. These include a sacred sanctuary, a high place of pagan worship, a solar temple, an assembly centre, a site of human sacrifice or executions. Other stories suggest an astronomical function, given the perfect alignment of the Stonehenge site with the rising sun of the summer solstice (a celestial phenomenon corresponding to the shortest day of the year) and the setting of the winter solstice (coinciding with the longest day of the year). With the advancement of technology and science, there is every reason to believe that Stonehenge has taken on the role of a vast cemetery due to the large number of human burials and thousands of animal bones found in various locations. During the Bronze Age, in addition to housing burials and various places of worship to honour ancestors, Stonehenge would have had an important commercial function as a place to trade crafts or raw materials. Then the site began to lose its influence and was finally abandoned in the early Middle Ages. Although many stones have fallen or disappeared over time, Stonehenge hides many unexplored monuments, ditches, mounds, cromlechs and burial mounds. There is no doubt that this area contains the oldest human constructions in Western Europe and is one of the most prominent prehistoric sites in the world.

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  • One of the most incredible monuments of prehistory; the mystical and artistic side of the place; the impressive size of the stones
  • The complex and successful interweaving of the stone blocks (a total of 165 monoliths made up the site); the physical feat of transporting, placing and assembling the stones of this timeless site (stages were carried out in three phases and at three different periods in history according to the majority of specialists)
  • The monumental trilithons (sets of two vertical sarsen stones surmounted by a third horizontal stone nested with symmetry)
  • Massive blocks of stone precisely arranged to form two circles of several tens of monoliths (large sarsen circle and bluestone circle)
  • The Stonehenge Visitor Centre and its 300 archaeological artefacts used or buried at Stonehenge (jewellery, pottery, tools, boat fragments, prehistoric objects…); the permanent and temporary collections in the museum space; the skeleton of the Stonehenge Archer (dated -2,300 years BC)
  • Visible remains of the Neolithic Durrington Walls 2 kilometres north-east of Stonehenge (this was a large walled urban centre in Neolithic times)
  • The pre-Stonehenge burial mounds (West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill sites); the remains of Neolithic roads or avenues aligned with the rising (Durrington Walls site) and setting sun (Stonehenge site); the 500,000 human and animal fragments found there
  • The reproduction of Neolithic houses from materials used at the time (visible in the Amesbury History Centre, a museum located in the small town of Amesbury)
  • The location of the Stonehenge site in the heart of a region rich in prehistoric and archaeological heritage; the numerous surrounding footpaths; the accessibility for people with reduced mobility
  • In total, Great Britain is said to contain 900 stone circles scattered throughout its territory, of which Stonehenge forms the most remarkable site from an architectural point of view. According to some archaeologists, it is likely that these stone circles could correspond to cosmological clocks that would have enabled man to move from a society based on hunting and gathering to an advanced society based on agriculture and animal husbandry. In addition, a large number of burial structures (in the form of more sophisticated circular burial mounds) were built on the nearby Salisbury Plain. These mark the transition from the end of the Stone Age to the beginning of the Bronze Age (coinciding with the metal era).
  • For a long time, specialists thought that the founders of Stonehenge were a people of hunter-gatherers affiliated with the native British. However, the latest studies and research provide new elements on the identity of the site’s builders. In reality, they were farmers from the European continent who settled in the region around 8,000 years ago (around 3,000 years before the megalithic monument of Stonehenge was built). Migrating with their own culture, these people were responsible for the construction of the first megalithic tombs in Britain and their descendants built Stonehenge much later.
  • According to Professor Umberto Albarella (Archaeological Department of the University of Sheffield), the workers mobilised in the pharaonic construction of Stonehenge were far from being slaves. They gathered every winter season with their livestock to participate in the construction of this great collective project. These prehistoric men would have live near the site of Durrington Walls (which formed one of the largest inhabited villages in the world) and in the nearby forest of Blick Mead (in which tens of thousands of tools were discovered, the greatest density ever found in Europe). They mastered navigation as a means of transport and hunted aurochs extensively. This animal, now extinct, was a massive herbivore two to three times the size of a cow. Aurochs bones have been found in various places at Stonehenge and Blick Mead (the populations seem to have devoted an important cult to this bovine animal, which was an important source of food).
  • The stone monument of Stonehenge symbolises the very place where the dead were buried during the Neolithic period. It was also perfectly aligned with the setting sun. Another site comparable to Stonehenge, called Woodhenge, is about 2 kilometres away. Its structure was quite similar to its predecessor except that it was built of wood and had the particularity of being aligned with the rising sun. According to Mike Parker Pearson, the archaeologist in charge of the Stonehenge excavations, this place was used to celebrate life (great feasts were organised). The sites of Woodhenge and Stonehenge were linked by a processional route along a river that served as a symbolic passage between the realm of the living and the dead. It is estimated that 10% of the total population of Britain may have participated in these processions and ceremonies each year (participation was an act of faith as we understand it today).
  • If we are to believe a legend fuelled by the monk Geoffroy of Monmouth in the 12th century, the remains of King Arthur’s father (Uther Pendragon) lie on Salisbury Plain. This king of Brittany, in conflict with the Saxons, would have had his son Arthur educated by the historical and legendary character of The Enchanter Merlin (a magician in Celtic mythology) on the site of Stonehenge. Another medieval account likens Stonehenge’s stones to a “giant’s circle”, assuming that these stone circles would actually be huge petrified dancers. Later, in the 17th century, it was John Aubrey who suggested that the Stonehenge site corresponded to Druidic temples. There is no scientific basis for this hypothesis, but it remains firmly rooted in the public imagination.
  • Some of the stones used in the construction of Stonehenge come from the region. These are sarsen stones, each weighing between 25 and 40 tonnes and reaching heights of up to 7 metres. They are quarried approximately 30 kilometres north from the Stonehenge site in the Marlborough Downs hills (North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). According to archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson, logs and ropes were used on a large scale to slide, pull and hoist the stones over very long distances. An operation of this magnitude had never before been undertaken in the history of civilisation and required considerable natural and human resources.
  • Recent studies show that other, lighter blocks of stone would have been brought from a much more distant quarry in South West Wales. Known as bluestones and resembling tombstones, they weigh just over 2 tonnes on average and come from the Preseli Hills site, 240 kilometres from Stonehenge. They were transported without the use of a wheel and in the absence of metal tools at the time (it is assumed that they were transported by boat). These bluestones would have been moved several times during the construction phases of the site. They would develop virtues and curative properties in contact with water.
  • In the centre of the circular monument, the megalithic site protects a series of small horseshoe stones. These discoveries reinforce the mystery and admiration surrounding the ingenuity of the builders, all the more so when we know that the vanished Stonehenge civilization is said to have woven links with the megalithic site of Carnac, in Brittany (a vast alignment of menhirs in the north-west of France).
  • Based on a new series of surveys, some specialists claim that the Stonehenge site was built using the Pythagorean theorem (2,000 years before the birth of the famous Greek mathematician).
  • At the height of Stonehenge’s construction, when the monument still had all its stones (over 150 entities in total), the site would have developed an astonishing acoustic quality. Three-dimensional replicas indicate that Stonehenge produced a sound dynamic close to that of contemporary cinemas. However, it is impossible to say whether this result was a deliberate intention of the founders or simply the result of chance.
  • An annual festival was held for 10 years in Stonehenge on the day of the summer solstice between 1974 and 1984. It brought together thousands of alternative culture enthusiasts (including many hippies) and hosted free concerts. Since it was banned by the British government, a symbolic gathering has always been held at Stonehenge on 21 June each year.
  • A motorway project involving the construction of a tunnel 200 metres from the site of Stonehenge could result in the destruction of around 500,000 archaeological artefacts.
  • Remember to book your visit to the Stonehenge site and, depending on the season or time of day, to bring warm clothing, as the site is particularly exposed to the wind.
  • The late afternoon lends itself particularly well to the visit, as the sunset rays highlight the beauty of this 5,000-year-old site.
  • If you have enough time in front of you, you can combine this visit with the prehistoric site of Avebury (a huge cromlech predating the Stonehenge site), The Salisbury Museum (archaeological collections) or the discovery of the Roman city of Bath (an hour’s drive away).

Where to eat

  • Cafe Mondo
    (British coffee)
  • The Black Horse
    (very pleasant pub)
  • La Lupa
    (attentive kitchen)

Where to go out

  • Old Sarum
    (fascinating and ancestral ruins)
  • Salisbury Cathedral
    (superb Anglican cathedral)
  • Hawk Conservancy Trust
    (demonstration of birds of prey)

Where to sleep

  • Stonehenge Campsite &...
    (all rest camping)
  • Fairlawn House
    (charming place)
  • Rollestone Manor
    (stylish manor house)

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