Stonehenge is the most important prehistoric monument in Britain, a national icon, symbolizing mystery, power and endurance. While the construction was started 5,000 years ago, the structure that we see today is the final of the three building stages, completed about 3,500 years ago. It is believed that Stonehenge was a temple where the ancient people worshiped earth deities, sun and moon, but also used it as an astronomical observatory for marking significant events on the prehistoric calendar. It might have also been the burial site for high-ranking citizens from of the prehistoric societies.
The first Stonehenge was a large earthwork, called Henge, consisting of a ditch, bank, and the Aubrey holes, all probably built around 3100 BC. The Aubrey holes are round pits in the chalk, forming a circle of about 284 feet in diameter. Excavations revealed cremated human bones in some of the chalk filling, but the holes themselves probably did not serve as graves, but were used for religious ceremonies. Shortly after this stage Stonehenge was abandoned, left untouched for over 1000 years.
The second, most dramatic stage of Stonehenge started around 2150 BC. Large bluestones, some weighing 4 tons, were transported to the site from Wales: dragged on rollers and sledges and carried on rafts on rivers, completing an astonishing journey of nearly 240 miles. Once at the site, the stones were set up in the center to form an incomplete double circle. Part of the Avenue was also built then, aligned with the midsummer sunrise.
The third stage of Stonehenge, about 2000 BC, saw the arrival of the Sarsen stones, brought from near Avebury, using sledges and ropes. Modern calculations show that it would have taken 500 men using leather ropes to pull one stone, with an extra 100 men needed to lay the huge rollers in front of the sledge. The stones were arranged in an outer circle, and inside the circle, five trilithons were placed in a horseshoe arrangement.
The final stage took place after 1500 BC when the bluestones were rearranged in the horseshoe and circle that we see today. The original number of stones in the bluestone circle was 60, but these have long since been removed or broken up.
Stonehenge is not the only ancient site in this area. Only 25 miles north is the Avebury complex, argued to be the most impressive of all remaining prehistoric earthworks in Europe. While Stonehenge was dedicated to the worship of the sun and moon, Avebury seems to have been dedicated to more human themes. The strong sexual symbolism along with symbolism of elaborate funeral celebrations, show the importance of the cycle of birth, life and death in Neolithic times.