How Old is Stonehenge and Who Built It?

Laura Mackenzie

3 mins

05 Jul 2018

Stonehenge is undoubtedly the UK’s most famous prehistoric landmark. Created by a people who left no written records, the monument is shrouded in mystery and the questions of how and why it was built remain unanswered and are the subject of endless debate and fascination.

What is known for sure, however, is that Stonehenge is very, very old.

Prehistoric beginnings

Stonehenge went through various transformations and didn’t always look as it does today. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first stage of the monument – the circular earth bank and ditch that surrounds the stones – was constructed in about 3100 BC, while the first stones were raised at the site between 2400 and 2200 BC.

Over the next few hundred years, the stones were rearranged and new ones added, with the formation we know today being created between 1930 and 1600 BC.

Farm carts are seen travelling past Stonehenge in this photo from about 1885.

That wasn’t quite the end of the monument’s construction, however. Two concentric circles of pits surrounding the stone formation are believed to have been built in around 1600 BC. These circles, known as the “Y and Z Holes” are made up of 30 and 29 pits respectively.

It is not clear why these holes were built but it may have been for a rearrangement of the stones that was never completed.

Who built it?

The questions of who exactly built Stonehenge and why remain a mystery today despite extensive research on the monument. The lack of contemporary written records has led to wild theorising over who – or what – was responsible for its construction, with some even asserting that aliens or supernatural forces must have been involved.

Such claims gained some traction due to the fact that the 45-ton stones didn’t come from the site and that no one is quite sure how they got there.

Bill Bailey went on a quest to uncover the secrets of Stonehenge. Find out if he was successful in the documentary Bill Bailey’s Stonehenge on HistoryHit.TV. Watch Now

Stone Age Britons didn’t have access to wheels and pulleys and, given that some of the slabs of rock are believed to have come from a quarry near the Welsh town of Maenclochog, nearly 200 miles away, the question of how they were transported to the site of Stonehenge remains one of the monument’s biggest mysteries.

Scientists have demonstrated, however, that it is possible to move stones of that size some distance using conventional methods of the time (though no one has attempted moving such a stone from Maenclochog to the site of Stonehenge near Amesbury in Wiltshire or across an equivalent distance).

Popular theories for how the slabs were transported include sleds run along platforms greased with animal fat or tracks of logs along which the slabs were rolled.

If not aliens, then who?

It has also been theorised that aliens built the pyramids. Find out what space archaeology is helping to uncover about Ancient Egypt in the documentary Egypt: What Lies Beneath on HistoryHit.TV. Watch Now

Another popular theory in history attributed the construction of Stonehenge to the druids, high-ranking Celts who were best remembered as religious leaders or priests. This theory was first propagated in around 1640 by John Aubrey, who carried out the first academic survey of the site, and popularised by William Stukeley, who pioneered archaeological investigation of the site some years later.

The druids theory has since been roundly debunked, however, due to the fact that Celtic society only came into being after 300 BC – long after Stonehenge was built.

It is likely that we will never know why those Stone Age Britons built the monument. Cremated bone remains excavated from the site suggest it served as a burial ground at the beginning of its history, though it is not clear if that was the primary reason for its construction. Other theories commonly put the monument as having either religious or astronomical associations but there is little consensus amongst experts.