Fact File: The building of Stonehenge

Stonehenge had been a temple for a thousand years before the stones were erected. It is likely that timber settings stood before the stones were brought to the site.
Following the phasing proposed in the definitive excavation report on the 20th century excavations at Stonehenge by Ros Cleal, Karen Walker and Becky Montague, the first stone setting at Stonehenge was Phase 3i.
The Stone Circle viewed from outside. In the foreground you can see the ditch of the henge which predates the stones.The Stone Circle viewed from outside. In the foreground you can see the ditch of the henge which predates the stones.

Phase 3i

This was a double arc of bluestones in what are known as the Q and R holes. Richard Atkinson had previously thought that they had formed concentric circles but there is only evidence for an arc, perhaps with other settings where the arc was not continued. Apart from the bluestones there is a much larger sandstone from Wales at Stonehenge. Known as the Altar Stone, this stone probably came from near to Milford Haven on the coast to the south of the Preseli Hills, and it may have stood as a large standing stone in this phase. When this setting was built is not known for certain, nor when it was dismantled though a sherd of comb decorated beaker pottery was found in the backfilling of one of the stone holes (Q5).

Phase 3ii

The next arrangement of stones (Phase 3ii) was the great Sarsen Circle with a horseshoe shaped setting of even larger stones, the Trilithons, inside it. These settings, which form the classic image of Stonehenge, are thought to have been built at the same time and despite their names, both the Sarsen Circle and the Trilithons have trilithons, or horizontal stones, on top of them. The accepted radiocarbon dates for this phase are 2440-2100 BC.

Phase 3iii

It is quite possible, but not proven, that the bluestones that stood in the Phase 3i Q and R holes were taken down at this time and rearranged into a new setting that stood within the Phase 3ii sarsen settings. This phase of bluestones, known as phase 3iii, is very poorly documented and its arrangement is not known. It is thought, however, that it may well have incorporated the bluestone trilithons, stones from which were reused in the later Phase 3iv settings.

Phase 3iv

The bluestones were rearranged again in Phase 3iv. A circle of single bluestones, the Bluestone Circle, was set up between the Sarsen Circle and the Trilithons. It is also thought that an oval setting of bluestones was built within the horseshoe shape of the Sarsen Trilithons. It seems likely that the Altar Stone was moved to stand within this Bluestone Oval. The bluestones trilithons that are thought to have been used in Phase 3iii are found reused in both the Bluestone Circle and the Bluestone Oval. It is thought that further bluestones could have been introduced at this time. The Avenue that extends between the River Avon and Stonehenge may have been have been built at this time. The Bluestone Circle is dated to 2280-1930 BC.

Phase 3v

Phase 3v saw the arrangement of the bluestones that stands today. Part of the northern arc of the Phase 3iv Bluestone Circle was removed, creating a horseshoe shaped setting known as the Bluestone Horseshoe. This echoes the shape of the sarsen Trilithons. The Bluestone Horseshoe is dated to 2270-1930 BC.

Phase 3vi

The final phase of stone settings, Phase 3vi, is represented by the Y and Z holes. These were dug in concentric circles outside the Sarsen Circle but they never held stones. It is possible that it was intended to reposition the existing bluestones in the Y and Z holes or to bring in new bluestones, but this did not take place. The e Y and Z holes date to early in the 2nd millennium.

for more information visit the English Heritage Stonehenge Website