Stonehenge is Britain’s most important ancient monument and has been recognised as such throughout history. It’s certainly one of the UK’s most important tourist destinations and attracts about 900,000 visitors every year (*1) generating about 6.3 million pounds in direct revenue and as much as 22 million pounds in direct economic impact. And … people have been coming to Stonehenge for a very long time. There is some evidence to suggest that it was visited by Romans stationed in the region and the burial of a Saxon man on the site confirms that it was seen as a place of religious importance during both the dark and middle ages. The earliest known written reference appears in 937 AD with regard to a land deed from King Athelstan to Wilton Abbey which refers to ‘Stanheyeg’ . It next appears seventy years after the Norman invasion. Archdeacon Henry of Huntingdon referred to it at ‘Stanenges’ and recorded in his book ‘Historia Anglorum’, “No one can conceive how such great stones have been so raised aloft, or why they were built here”. Almost 1,000 years later historians, archaeologists and mathematicians are still working on the same puzzle.
Thanks to radiocarbon testing and the dedication of many archaeologists the age of the Stonehenge site can be calculated with a fair degree of accuracy. What is often overlooked is that the ancient monument we think of as Stonehenge would have actually been part of a much larger complex of social dwellings and burial cairns known as barrows. In particular these were long-barrows which are very much associated with the original Neolithic people who inhabited the island. Although this is archaeological speculation there is some evidence to suggest that the location was selected as it is one of the highest points in the area and therefore offered good lines-of site in all directions. This would have been of particular importance as most of the surrounding region was comprised of dense forest.
Although there may well have been people living in the region since the decline of the last ice age in 12,500 BC, the story of Stonehenge really begins in approximately 6,000 BC with the flooding of the land-bridge known as Doggerland that linked Britain to Europe. (With a name like that the middleclass Neolithic people of Kent were probably pleased to see it go.) Cut off from the pressure of human migrations from the continent and benefiting from rising temperatures, it is likely that these early settlers were able to establish relatively peaceful and stable social groups. Over the next 2,500 years they multiplied and spread across what is now Britain. By 4,500 BC it appears that a combination of human predation and dense reforestation forced the inhabitants to turn to early farming and animal management. Put another way, the trees had spread faster than the people. Clearing forest was a energy intensive and time consuming exercise making any open area a very valuable asset. It also meant an excess of cut timber which had two meaningful benefits – materials for building and fuel for fires. Areas selected for significant clearance and settlement usually had several factor in common. They were near fresh water, were often on raised ground, started from natural clearings expanding outwards and were on historic trade and social routes. The Stonehenge area is almost central to the source of three key rivers, The Thames, the Avon and the Seven Estuary. This would have placed it at the heart of Neolithic travel. (it is actual only two kilometres from the river Avon near Amesbury).
The first significant archaeological site to be constructed in the area is confusingly known as Robin Hood’s Ball although it has absolutely nothing to do with the mythical hero outlaw of the 11th century and is a classic case of fairly modern legends being linked to ancient sites. On some maps it was apparently marked as “Robin Hood’s Balls” which probably caused even more confusion as well as a lot of merriment. It is estimated that it was built around 4,000 AD.
By 3,700 AD it is fair to assume that the population of the region was expanding fast (more food equals more sex) and much of the woodland in the area had already been cleared. In approximately 3,630 AD construction began on a major earthwork now known as the Stonehenge Cursus which previous archaeologist once dismissed as: “just a Roman racetrack”. Located 400 metres north of the existing megaliths, this seems to mark the start of the Stonehenge complex.
From skull evidence found at Belas Knap, a Neolithic long barrow 80 kilometres to the northeast, it may have been about this time that the very first ‘Bell-Beaker” people arrived in the region having travelled from Iberia (Spain) and up the river Avon. The logic for this twofold. Firstly, the region appears to have benefited from sudden technological advances and secondly, construction takes on a distinctly circular form. Neolithic peoples are almost always associated with long-barrows and ‘horse-head’ shapes such as the Stonehenge Cursus. Beaker people built round-barrows and favoured circular developments such as Woodhenge and Stonehenge. (By the way this section of British history is still hotly disputed.)
Camping and Caravanning Club Site
Hudson’s Field, Castle Road, Salisbury
Wiltshire, England, SP1 3SA
+44 (0)1722 320 713
- Address: Stonehenge Centre, A344 Road, Amesbury, Wiltshire, England, UK, SP4 7DE
- GPS: 51.17888056,-1.826177778
- Phone: 0044 (0)8703 331 181
- Part of UK: England
- Sat Nav Postcode: SP4 7DE
- Entrance Fees: Yes (Pre-booking Essential)
- Disabled Access: Very Good
- Visibility from Road: Very Good
- Image Credits: Header Image: Paul Vincent