Around 4,500 years ago, a structure of enormous stones aligned with solar patterns was erected in England’s Salisbury Plain by a civilization without metal tools, horsepower, or wheels. Many of the mysteries of how and why the megalithic structure of Stonehenge was built remain unanswered.
But recent discoveries via new technology are providing fresh clues to these enduring riddles, even as the site itself, located about 90 miles west of central London, faces the looming threat of modern development.
In 1922, National Geographic published its first photograph of Stonehenge, a black-and-white aerial image of the site with the cutting-edge technology of that time—the airplane. For a century, we have covered the prehistoric site, reporting on evolving research about its age, formation, and use.
Our coverage continues to be groundbreaking. National Geographic’s August 2022 cover features the site and stories within the issue push boundaries. National Geographic Explorer and photographer Martin Edström created an immersive 3D model of the site using photogrammetry. Using a drone, he and his team took 7,000 images of the site from all angles and processed them into a high-resolution digital replica. You can find a Stonehenge AR experience here.
Stonehenge is composed of blocks that weigh more than 45 tons and tower up to 24 feet high. The monument is not only notable for its size, but for its ceremonial design—the first 1,600 feet of the avenue from Stonehenge is built on the axis of the summer solstice sunrise and winter solstice sunset. Whether this alignment was constructed for sun worship, calendar keeping, or other purposes remains a mystery.
Over time, Stonehenge has been attributed to Druids, Romans, Vikings, Saxons, and even King Arthur’s court magician, Merlin. But the people who actually constructed the site left no written language or legend—only bones, potsherds, stone, and antler tools.
According to a 12th-century legend from chronicler and cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth, Stonehenge’s monoliths were taken from a stone circle in Ireland after a great battle and transported by magic and by boat to where they stand today.
He was correct in a way—we now know that, of the hundreds of stone circles in Britain, Stonehenge is the only one whose stones, averaging two tons each, were brought from a great distance, according to National Geographic Explorer and archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson.
New tools including x-ray fluorescence spectrometry and ICP-MS laser ablation have helped geologists Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer identify four outcroppings in Preseli Hills, Wales, where the monoliths in Stonehenge originated from. That means the stones traveled some 175 miles to where they stand today.
In Belgium, researcher Christophe Snoeck pioneered a technique to retrieve isotopes from cremated remains to reveal where an individual lived in their last decade of life—revealing more than ever before about those buried at Stonehenge. He learned nearly half of those buried in the structure’s early days lived miles from the site, and was even able to determine the kind of wood burned for cremation—trees not found near Stonehenge.
Experts say Stonehenge required an enormous amount of timber for its construction—not just for palisades of trunks driven into the ground, but also for builders to drag 20-ton stones on wooden sledges, on possibly miles of wooden tracks, as well as giant scaffolds to erect the stones on site.
The ten square mile area of Stonehenge includes avenues, settlements, some 350 burial grounds, and healing centers. This symbol of prehistory stands in stark contrast to its modern neighbor, the A303 highway, which most of the million annual visitors take to see the structure.
Notoriously fettered with heavy traffic and spotted with potholes, the narrow road hosts rumbling trucks that can disturb the peace at the Stonehenge site. To ease these issues, a two-mile-long, four-lane tunnel was proposed to bypass Stonehenge, drawing fire from archaeologists and sparking protests. For now, the $2.2 billion project is on hold after a ruling from Britain’s High Court last year.
How to visit
Summer solstice is the most popular time to visit Stonehenge. During the summer solstice, the sun rises behind the Heel Stone, and its first rays shine into the heart of Stonehenge. Archaeological excavations have found it may have once had a partner stone, the two stones framing the sunrise. This is one of the few occasions the inner circle is open to the public.
Turning 180 degrees to face southwest, during the winter solstice, the sun would originally have set between the two uprights of the tallest trilithon, but the effect has been lost since half the trilithon fell at some point in the millennia since its construction.
Stonehenge is open year-round, and timed tickets for Stonehenge can be booked in advance for guaranteed entry. A walkway surrounds the famed circle, but due to conservation concerns, the public is typically not allowed inside the ring. However, many compensations await. The landmark is surrounded by a vast expanse of fields, perfect walking country dotted with associated earthworks, burial grounds, and other monuments.
How to get there
There is regular train service from London, Bristol/Bath, and Southampton to Salisbury, located 12 miles from Stonehenge. Bus service is also available via Salisbury Reds. From there, take a taxi or hop on the wheelchair-accessible bus to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Finally, a 1.5-mile (25-minute) walk leads to the circle. For those who are unable to walk, a free bus service operates between the disabled access parking lot and Stonehenge.
Click here for more information on transportation.
Where to stay
National Geographic Travel editor Allie Yang contributed to this article.