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30 things you might not know about Stonehenge

Posted:
18 November 2016
Posted By:
English Heritage
Categories:
History Uncovered
Stonehenge

Stonehenge is one of the most iconic sites in the world, but also still one of the most mysterious. To mark 30 years since Stonehenge and Avebury were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we’ve picked out 30 facts about Stonehenge that you might not have known – including English Heritage’s role in protecting this megalithic monument.

1. Stonehenge World Heritage Site is huge

The Stonehenge part of the World Heritage Site covers 2,600 hectares (6,500 acres) of chalk downland and arable fields. It’s an area seven-and-a-half times as big as Central Park in New York City.

The circular bank and ditch around Stonehenge itself encloses an area of over 10,000 square metres.

2. The average Stonehenge sarsen weighs 25 tons

The largest stone, the Heel Stone, weighs about 30 tons.

Visitors demonstrating the force needed to move one of Stonehenge sarsen stones | Stonehenge English Heritage

Visitors demonstrating the force needed to move one of Stonehenge sarsen stones.

To give people an idea of how massive the Stonehenge stones actually are, there’s a replica sarsen stone behind the visitor centre in the outdoor gallery. It’s an exact copy of a freestanding upright from one of the iconic trilithons that form an inner horseshoe at Stonehenge.

We scanned the stone using a laser as part of a wider survey in 2011, then used the 3D data to create this huge replica. It wasn’t possible to use a real sarsen stone as there are none of the size used at Stonehenge left anywhere, and most natural sarsen spreads are protected by law today.

More things to see and do at Stonehenge

3. Some of the stones are even bigger than they look

2.13m of Stone 56, the tallest standing stone on the site, is buried underground – in total it measures 8.71 metres from base to tip.

4. The bluestones travelled 240km to Wiltshire from South Wales

They were brought from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales, probably largely by boat.

5. Around 180 generations have passed since the stones were erected at Stonehenge…

6. …but people were living at the site long before Stonehenge was built

The reconstructed head on display in the visitor centre is based on a real man. His skeleton was excavated in 1864 from a long barrow near Winterbourne Stoke roundabout.

Reconstructed head at Stonehenge

The history and significance of Stonehenge, the landscape, and its people are explored in the visitor centre – which is where you can see this reconstruction.

Radiocarbon dating has shown that he died between 3,630 and 3,360BC – around 500 years before the first earthwork enclosure was built at Stonehenge.

7. The five Neolithic Houses are based on real dwellings

The five structures were built based on archaeological evidence of houses found at Durrington Walls. Each one had a chalk floor, a hearth and stake-built walls. Some had evidence of furniture and of chalk cob walls.

The Neolithic huts at Stonehenge are based on archaeological evidence found at nearby Durrington Walls

The Neolithic huts at Stonehenge are based on archaeological evidence found at nearby Durrington Walls

Radiocarbon dating has shown that these houses were inhabited for about 50-100 years in around 2,500 BC, exactly the time that the sarsen stones were being erected at Stonehenge.

The closeness of the dates raises the distinct possibility that the people who occupied the houses at Durrington were involved in the construction of the sarsen stone settings and in celebrations at Stonehenge.

8. You can see 15 minutes of someone’s life 5,500 years ago in the main exhibition

In front of a tool-box displaying the Early Neolithic toolkit, there is what looks like a lump of grey flint with a single detached flake. If you look carefully, you can see that it is in fact many individual flakes fitted back together.

About 5,500 years ago, someone present during the construction of the ditches at the Stonehenge Cursus, crouched in the ditch and expertly hammered (‘knapped’) a flint model. This was how every flint tool began life: the flint-knapper would strike the nodule carefully to make the shape of the axe, scraper or arrowhead. Flakes or long narrow blades of flint would be struck off – which could also be used as sharp cutting tools. The whole process of knapping probably took about 15 minutes.

This time, nothing was used – the nodule was completely destroyed and every flake was recovered when the ditch was excavated in 1992. You can see it in detail online here.

9. Women and children were at Stonehenge too

Recent analysis of the cremations buried at Stonehenge has found that men, women and children were buried here in the late Neolithic period, between about 3000 and 2500 BC.

This beautiful grape cup is on loan to the Stonehenge visitor centre from Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

This beautiful grape cup is on loan to the Stonehenge visitor centre from Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

Several high status women were buried in round barrows near Stonehenge nearly 3,000 years ago. One was held in particularly high regard by her community because she was buried with precious objects.

Amongst her grave goods was this exquisite little cup, which may once have held a light and been used in the funeral rites. It’s one of 250 objects on display that were discovered within the World Heritage Site, that are predominantly on loan to the Stonehenge visitor centre from Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Museum.

10. Stonehenge was bought at an auction in 1915

It was purchased for £6,600 by local business man Cecil Chubb, who (reportedly) came to the auction to buy some dining chairs.

General view of Stonehenge looking south west, showing stones of the outer circle propped with timbers. May 1919. © Historic England Archive

General view of Stonehenge looking south west, showing stones of the outer circle propped with timbers. May 1919. © Historic England Archive

Three years later Chubb gave the monument to the nation, to be cared for by the then Ministry of Works. A series of major restorations and excavations took place from 1919 to 1929, and another major programme between 1958 – 1964.

There has been extensive work over recent years so that now Stonehenge sits within a restored landscape, which gives a sense of its original setting.

11. The first guidebook claimed Stonehenge survived Noah’s flood

It was written by Henry Browne and published in 1823, based on a Biblical view of history.

The guidebook regarded Stonehenge as one of the few ancient structures that survived the Old Testament flood. You can see it in the exhibition at the visitor centre, and has kindly been lent by Julian Richards.

12. The first excavations were carried out at Stonehenge in 1620

The Duke of Buckingham undertook an excavation in the centre of the monument prompted by a visit from King James I. Unfortunately we know little about what was found.

13. In 1802 an archaeologist left a bottle of port under the Slaughter Stone.

In 1923, William Hawley was investigating the Slaughter Stone, a large fallen sarsen near the entrance to Stonehenge.

Underneath, he discovered a bottle of port, kindly left there by the antiquarian William Cunnington in 1802 for future excavators. Disappointingly, the cork had decayed and nearly all the contents had gone.

14. The first aerial photograph of Stonehenge was taken 110 years ago

It was shot from a military air balloon in 1906 by Lieutenant Phillip Henry Sharpe of the Royal Engineers’ Balloon Section.

stonehenge-from-above

A modern hot air balloon over Stonehenge

This year, we flew another hot air balloon to take photos of Stonehenge from above and celebrate 30 years of World Heritage status.

15. There are about 115 prehistoric axe-head carvings on the stones

They date from around 1800–1700 BC, but until 2011 (when the first complete 3D laser scan of the stones was done) we only knew about 44 of them.

Details which would normally be invisible to the naked eye were revealed, including tool marks made 4,500 years ago when the stones were being shaped and erected. There were also scores of carvings which were added when Stonehenge was already 700 years old.

16. Cow jaws were prized objects for our ancestors

This cow’s jaw was probably several hundred years old when it was placed on the floor of the Stonehenge ditch. (It has been radiocarbon dated to a period before the ditch was dug.)

cow's jaw

A cow’s jaw is one of the many items on display in the permanent exhibition

Its good condition shows that it might have been carefully kept by generations of people. Cattle were very important to Neolithic people and this relic could have been a family or tribal totem.

17. About 1,500 Roman objects have been found at Stonehenge

Coins, pins, jewellery and fragments of pottery are just some of the objects found. These weren’t just left behind by Roman tourists, they are thought to have been left by people visiting Stonehenge as a shrine – large pits were also dug inside the monument at this time.

18. Stonehenge isn’t just a stone circle

The Stonehenge half of the World Heritage Site includes over 700 known archaeological features, including find spots. These include over 180 scheduled monuments – henges, timber structures, enclosures and many burial mounds.

This interactive map of the Stonehenge landscape explains how the area developed.

19. Stonehenge has been repaired

An entire trilithon fell down in 1797, and in 1900 one of the upright sarsens of the outer circle fell down, along with its lintel.

Stone 57 being re-erected, from the north-east, 1958 © Historic England Archive

Stone 57 being re-erected, from the north-east, 1958 © Historic England Archive

This prompted a new survey of the stones, and the straightening of Stone 56 in 1901, which was deemed to lean a dangerous angle. This was the first of many restorations at the monument, including the re-erection of the entire fallen trilithon in 1958.

20. The old A344 road was removed in 2013

Removing the old visitor facilities and closing the A344 road (which ran right next to the monument) in 2013, radically improved the setting of Stonehenge by removing modern clutter and has reconnected the monument to its ancient landscape and avenue.

The road had probably been in place since the early 18th century and was one of many tracks that converged on the monument, a landmark in the middle of the expansive Salisbury Plain.

21. Daily access to the stone circle was changed in 1978

The decision was taken in order to protect the fragile archaeology and stones. A previous scheme to surface the area with gravel was unsightly and caused damage to the stones.

These days, the ground around and inside the monument is carefully managed. You can still get inside though; Stone Circle visits for limited numbers of people at a time take place outside normal visitor hours and can be booked online.

22. 50,000 school children visit Stonehenge for free each year

We have received 500 thank you letters so far this year.

school trip

A school trip visiting Stonehenge

Once a year we even allow school children to take over! Friday 18 November is Kids In Museums Takeover Day, where young people from local secondary schools join our staff and volunteers to give tours and demonstrations around the Stone Circle, in the exhibitions and in the Neolithic Houses.

Find out more about school visits here

23. There are 30 World Heritage Sites in the UK

Stonehenge is just one of them – others include Hadrian’s Wall (which is celebrating its own UNESCO 30th anniversary in 2017), Ironbridge Gorge, and the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape. Read the full list here.

24. 154 people volunteer at Stonehenge

They’re instrumental in bringing the past to life for over 1.3million visitors each year.

this hutties!

A volunteer demonstrates some ancient domestic skills in one of the Neolithic huts

From welcoming visitors to explaining life in the Neolithic houses and running education sessions, they’re a key part of the Stonehenge team.

25. Rooks recognise the Stonehenge staff

The rooks are very territorial, and see off any seagulls which stray towards the monument from the fields on the other side of the A303. They also recognise faces, and will spot someone who feeds them on a regular basis from around 100m away.

jackdaw-3-andre-pattenden

Many of our staff at Stonehenge have become expert bird watchers and know many of our feathered friends by name!

It’s not just rooks though. Eight pairs of jackdaws and 14 other types of bird can be seen at the monument on a fairly regular basis. These include buzzards, starlings, pied wagtails, carrion crows, kestrel, goldfinch, wheatear, swallows, larks, corn bunting, wood pigeon, and the occasional red kite or bustard. One of the starlings tells us that there are tawny owls there at night, as he is able to perfectly mimic their call.

26. 25,335 rock cakes were eaten at Stonehenge last year

…and they were washed down with 60,500 mugs of hot chocolate.

rockcakes

 

27. 200 Rainbows, Brownies and Guides sang happy birthday to Her Majesty the Queen at Stonehenge this year

HM the QUeen

Beacons were lit up and down the country for HM the Queen’s 90th birthday

28. 75,000 take home a Stonehenge guidebook each year

The guidebook is written by archaeologist Julian Richards and discusses the key questions of when, how and why Stonehenge may have been built, and who might have built it. The latest understanding of the site and landscape are explored, with timelines, maps, diagrams, photographs and reconstruction drawings.

Guidebook sales contribute to securing Stonehenge’s future, so thank you if you’ve bought one! (Copies are £4.99 and available in multiple languages – you can get one from Stonehenge itself, or online here)

29. 1 or 2 people are proposed to at Stonehenge each month

30. In 2015 (our first year as a charity) 34,889 people joined English Heritage at Stonehenge.

We rely on the support of visitors and Members to be able to protect over 400 historic places in our care. For you it means unlimited access to our sites, free or discounted entry to our events and lots of great days out.

For us, it means that we can continue to bring history to life where it actually happened, research and tell the stories of England (and involve you in doing it!) and make sure our historic sites and artefacts are expertly cared for so that they can be enjoyed by future generations.

Find out more about joining English Heritage or buying a 9 or 16-day Overseas Visitor Pass

Find out more about visiting Stonehenge

Stonehenge is open every day, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The only way to guarantee entrance at the time and day of your choosing is to book your entrance ticket in advance.

Plan your visit here

If you can’t tell a sarsen from a solstice, here’s a useful glossary to Stonehenge

The Stonehenge World Heritage Site includes parts of Amesbury and Larkhill, and the villages of West Amesbury, Normanton, Wilsford and Lake in the Woodford Valley.

Ownership and management are shared between English Heritage, the National Trust, the Ministry of Defence, the RSPB, Wiltshire Council, farmers and householders. But that’s not all – many other organisations are actively involved and work in partnership with us.

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  1. Wow what an interesting facts about Stonehenge. I did enjoyed my trip and saw the Megalithic stones closer last September.. What a great experience walking around it with school children, tourist and different people so thrilled to see the stones.

  2. Could the Cows jaw bones be a percussive instrument?

  3. Hi Rob, I’ve asked Susan Greaney (one of our Senior Properties Historians) for her thoughts and she says that: “although it’s not outside the realms of possibility, there is no evidence for the cattle jaw bones being used as for percussion. The fact that other parts of the skull such as the horns as well as other animal bones were deposited in the ditch suggests that they had some other meaning for prehistoric people.” Hope that helps.

  4. I am sure that reading what English Heritage stands for in its objectives which are truely noble it can be safely relied on to resist any attempt to approve any new road project which in any way infringes on disturbing the whole complex. More and more reports seem to indicate that the current government has a favoured scheme to make a short tunnel to relieve trfic congestion. As a world heritage site such a plan for short term gain would be a disaster for this site. The only tunnel permissable might be one of some 5 miles to avoid ant diturbance to the site. Should such a short tunnel scheme go ahead current and future generationswill surely ask that qustion. ‘But who on earth could possibly allow such a scheme to have been approved?’ Can we find a list of names of those involved in advising the government and find out what their advice is before the closing date for comments on the short tunnel scheme at the beginning of March 2017. Like this we shall be able to write our thanks to those who worked to keep the World Heritage Site free from ignorant vandalism.

  5. The National Trust, Historic England and English Heritage Trust believe a fully bored tunnel of at least 2.9km could have significant benefits to the site overall, allowing a substantial section of the existing road to be removed, providing improvements to monument setting, tranquillity and allowing better access for both people and wildlife to this special landscape. We welcome Highways England’s proposal for an A303 tunnel at Stonehenge – it will remove the worst of the road from the World Heritage Site. However, we do have concerns about certain elements. You can find more details here.