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