all you need to know
About 4,500 years ago, a structure of huge stones aligned with solar patterns was erected on Salisbury Plain in England by a civilization without metal tools, horses or wheels. Many mysteries of how and why the megalithic structure of Stonehenge was built remain unanswered.
But recent discoveries thanks to new technology are providing new clues to these lingering puzzles, even as the site itself, located around 90 miles west of central London, faces the looming threat of modern development.
In 1922, National Geographic published its first photograph of Stonehenge, a black and white aerial image of the site using the latest technology of the time: the airplane. For a century we have covered the prehistoric site, reporting on evolving research into its age, formation and use.
Our coverage continues to be revolutionary. National Geographic’s August 2022 cover features the site and stories within the confines of the issue. National Geographic Explorer and photographer Martin Edström created an immersive 3D model of the site using photogrammetry. Using a drone, he and his team took 7,000 images of the site from all angles and turned them into a high-resolution digital replica. You can find a Stonehenge AR experience here.
Stonehenge is made up of blocks that weigh over 45 tons and stand up to 24 feet high. The monument is not only notable for its size, but for its ceremonial design – the first 1,600 feet of the avenue of Stonehenge are built on the axis of the sunrise of the summer solstice and the sunset of the winter solstice. Whether this alignment was built for sun worship, calendar observance, or other purposes remains a mystery.
Over time, Stonehenge has been attributed to Druids, Romans, Vikings, Saxons and even King Arthur’s court magician, Merlin. But the people who actually built the site left no written language or legend – only bones, shards, stones and antler tools.
According to a 12th century legend by the chronicler and clergyman Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Stonehenge monoliths were quarried from a stone circle in Ireland after a great battle and transported by magic and ship to where they stand today.
He was right in a way – we now know that, of the hundreds of stone circles in Britain, Stonehenge is the only one whose stones, weighing an average of two tonnes each, were brought from far away, according to National Geographic Explorer and Archaeologist Mike Parker Person.
New tools, including X-ray fluorescence spectrometry and ICP-MS laser ablation, have helped geologists Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer identify four outcrops in Preseli Hills, Wales, where the Stonehenge monoliths originated. This means the stones traveled approximately 175 miles to their current location.
In Belgium, researcher Christophe Snoeck has pioneered a technique to recover isotopes from cremated remains to reveal where an individual lived during their last decade of life, revealing more than ever those buried at Stonehenge . He learned that nearly half of the people buried at the structure’s beginning lived miles from the site, and was even able to determine the type of wood burned for the cremation – trees not found near Stonehenge.
Experts say Stonehenge required an enormous amount of timber for its construction, not only for the palisades of logs driven into the ground, but also for the builders to drag 20-tonne stones on wooden sleds, possibly for miles wooden tracks, as well as giant scaffolding. mount the stones on the spot.
The ten square mile area of Stonehenge includes avenues, settlements, some 350 burial sites and healing centers. This symbol of prehistory contrasts sharply with its modern neighbor, the A303 motorway, which most of the millions of annual visitors use to view the structure.
Notoriously shackled by heavy traffic and strewn with potholes, the narrow road plays host to rumbling trucks that can disrupt the peace at the Stonehenge site. To alleviate these problems, a two-mile-long four-lane tunnel was proposed to bypass Stonehenge, drawing fire from archaeologists and sparking protests. For now, the $2.2 billion project is on hold after a UK High Court ruling last year.
How to visit
The summer solstice is the most popular time to visit Stonehenge. During the summer solstice, the sun rises behind the Heel Stone and its first rays shine through the heart of Stonehenge. Archaeological excavations have revealed that it may once have had a partner stone, with the two stones framing the sunrise. This is one of the few occasions when the Inner Circle is open to the public.
Rotating 180 degrees to face southwest, during the winter solstice the sun would originally have set between the two uprights of the tallest trilith, but the effect has been lost since half of the trilith has fallen at some point in the millennia since its construction.
Stonehenge is open year-round, and timed Stonehenge tickets can be booked in advance for guaranteed entry. A walkway surrounds the famous circle, but due to conservation issues the public is generally not allowed inside the ring. However, many compensations await you. The landmark is surrounded by a vast expanse of fields, perfect hiking country dotted with associated earthworks, cemeteries and other monuments.
How to get there
There is a regular train service from London, Bristol/Bath and Southampton to Salisbury, located 12 miles from Stonehenge. A bus service is also available via Salisbury Reds. From there, take a taxi or hop on the wheelchair-accessible bus to the Stonehenge Visitor Center. Finally, a 1.5 mile (25 minute) walk leads to the circle. For those unable to walk, a free bus service runs between the handicapped accessible car park and Stonehenge.
Click here for more information on transportation.
Where to stay
A variety of hotels and bed and breakfasts are available in Wiltshire, and several campsites are located within 10 miles of Stonehenge.
National Geographic Travel editor-in-chief Allie Yang contributed to this article.