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Stonehenge: A Riddle in Giant Stones

In a broad grassland in southern England stands one of the oldest and most mysterious monuments in the world, a huge stone circle known as Stonehenge.

© Eurasia/robertharding/Getty Images Stonehenge

By Jan Adkins, Cricket Media

In a broad grassland in southern England stands one of the oldest and most mysterious monuments in the world, a huge stone circle known as Stonehenge.

Stonehenge is not alone: there are ancient stone rings all over Great Britain, Ireland, and France. Early people began building Stonehenge about 5,000 years ago, adding to it and changing it over time. But why? And how?

How Did They Build It?

Stonehenge would cover half a football field. The tallest stone is about 27 feet (8 meters) high, and some of the stones weigh many tons. We don’t know much about the stone-age people who built this mysterious circle, but they must have been great inventors, finding a way to move huge stones long distances, tip them up, shape them, and lift the heavy capstones. And their work has endured for thousands of years.

The first ring at Stonehenge was a simple mound with a ditch and wooden posts, made around 3000 BCE. Later, around 2600 or 2400 BCE, about the same time the Egyptians were building pyramids, the people of Stonehenge replaced their wood ring with a circle of 80 large gray stones called bluestones (they look blue when wet), brought from the distant Preseli Mountains in Wales. Some of the stones weigh 4 tons (3,600 kilograms), and it would have been a huge task to move them, probably with sledges, log rollers, and boats, 240 miles (380 kilometers) to Stonehenge.

So why did they go to so much trouble? There are plenty of big rocks close by—why did they drag those particular stones all the way from Wales? Archaeologists now think they may have found an answer. The Welsh mountains the stones come from have many natural water springs, and some old legends say that drinking from them will cure sickness. Ancient carvings have been found around some. Perhaps the builders of Stonehenge wanted some of the stones of the Welsh mountain to make their own place of healing. Interestingly, even long after Stonehenge was a deserted ruin, some local people believed that wetting the bluestones would bring good health.

© nicolamargaret/Getty Images Sunset at the Stonehenge, United Kingdom

Sunrise, Sunset

Later generations moved the bluestones around and added the ring of huge white arches (called trilithons), made of tough local sandstone-. But the circles always kept a special pattern aligned with the sun.

If you stand on one side of the circle, the largest stones exactly frame the setting sun only on the shortest day of the year, called the winter solstice (around December 21). Six months later, if you stand at the opposite side of the circle and watch the dawn, the stones frame the rising sun on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice (June 21).

How did the builders know how to set the stones in exactly the right direction, so they lined up with the solstices? They probably first tracked the sun using smaller stones or stakes over many years. Then they placed the giant stones only after the small stones showed where to put them.

This arrangement has led some to believe that Stonehenge may have been a huge calendar, or a religious place for people who worshipped the sun. Recent excavations at Durrington Walls, not far from Stonehenge, have found a wood circle built around the same time, linked to Stonehenge by a broad avenue. People might have visited these circles at midsummer and midwinter. Many urn burials have also been found around Stonehenge, suggesting that it may have been a special place for funerals, or a “house” for the dead or the ancestors.

The people who built Stonehenge left no books or written records—only their stones, and clues buried in the earth. We do know that Stonehenge—or whatever they called it—wasn’t a fortress, or a castle. Most likely it has been used in many different ways by different peoples over the years. Its builders knew a surprising amount about engineering and the heavens—but we may never know exactly what Stonehenge meant to them, or why they made it. And what is it to us? A riddle, a challenge, a window to the past—and, perhaps, a reminder to build well.

© Image Hans Elbers/Moment/Getty Images





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Kids Magazine: Stonehenge: A Riddle in Giant Stones
Stonehenge: A Riddle in Giant Stones
In a broad grassland in southern England stands one of the oldest and most mysterious monuments in the world, a huge stone circle known as Stonehenge.
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