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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

(13km/8m N of Salisbury)
Britain's best-known prehistoric site, consisting of circles of huge *standing stones on Salisbury plain. Several pairs still have massive horizontal lintel stones on top of them. The name is recorded in literature from the 12C and is thought to relate to the idea of stones 'hanging' in the air.

Stonehenge seems to have been in continuous human use from about 3100 BC to 1100 BC. The earliest features are the ditch and bank surrounding the area, and the 56 pits inside the ditch which were first described by *Aubrey in the 17C and so are called the Aubrey holes; their original purpose is uncertain but they were later used for burial.

The next stage, probably connected with the *Beaker folk, saw the creation of the earthwork approach known as the avenue and the erection of a double circle of standing stones; it was at this period that the sun became of significance, because the avenue and the circles are aligned with the position of sunrise at the summer solstice. Further circles and horseshoes of even larger stones were added later, with the curving lintels fitting on the standing stones with a precision more characteristic of carpentry. The largest stones and their lintels were erected in about 2000 BC.

The precise purpose of Stonehenge is unknown, and is anyway likely to have changed during almost two millennia of use; but clearly there was some element of either sun worship or astronomical calculation. The popular link with the *Druids is unhistoric, since the *Celts arrived in Britain centuries after Stonehenge was abandoned. An even greater mystery than how these vast stones were raised into position has been how they reached this site.

The larger stones, known as sarsens (the term for that particular variety of sandstone), are found naturally as huge boulders in an area about 32km/20m to the north – a distance over which it is just possible to imagine them being brought on rollers. But the smaller blue stones have been shown to come from the Preseli Hills in Wales. Since 1921 the accepted theory has been that they were somehow transported by man. The easy solution, that they were brought to the Salisbury plain in a glacier, was until recently rejected by geologists as impossible. But in 1991 new evidence was found suggesting that this may, after all, be the answer.

A recent tradition is for large numbers of itinerant young people – usually described as hippies, New Age travellers and ravers – to converge on Stonehenge for the summer solstice. The police, charged with protecting the monument and the local environment, mount expensive campaigns to prevent their even reaching its vicinity. The confrontation degenerated in 1985 into violence between the travellers and more than 800 police, in what became known as the Battle of the Beanfield.

In 1994 English Heritage and the National Trust blocked a Department of Transport scheme to widen the A303, which passes just to the south of Stonehenge. Instead the traffic will pass through a sunken cutting, restoring to Stonehenge some much needed quiet and mystery.

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