John Constable’s poetic vision of Stonehenge, with its emphasis on the distressed and fallen stones, the ominous storm cloud, the arching rainbows and the shadow cast on stone by the seated visitor, suggests a sense of human transience in the face of a timeless but fragile monument. For Constable, Stonehenge ‘carries you back beyond all historical record into the obscurity of a totally unknown period.’
Geoffrey of Monmouth, on the other hand, found nothing obscure about Stonehenge, believing it to be a memorial for British leaders slain by the Saxon king Hengist. Built around 485 AD for the British king Aurelius Ambrosius, the stones were transported from Ireland and manoeuvred into position through the magic of Merlin. Later speculation saw the monument as Roman, Danish or a temple constructed by the Druids, and it was only in the 1950s that archaeology had the means to provide us with dates for its probable construction and the length of its use.
In 1901 William Gowland, while returning a stone to an upright position, conducted a small excavation around its base and drew conclusions about the methods of construction, suggesting a possible date of 1,800 BC. The first major excavation took place from 1919 to 1926 under the auspices of the Society of Antiquaries, following the nation’s acquisition of the monument. Conducted by Colonel William Hawley, the years of patient work were later criticised for their lack of conclusion and inadequate publication. The excavation was typical of its time and the necessary destruction an inevitable consequence. It was Hawley’s finds, subjected to radiocarbon dating in the 1950s and after, that give us a clearer understanding of the dating and timespan of Stonehenge.
Used as a ritual site for 1,400 years from the construction of the first encircling ditch in about 3,000 BC, the design of the stones matches similar wooden ‘henges’ nearby. The date of the lintelled megaliths is less precise, but they were built probably in one generation, between 2,600 and 2,300 BC. Although we know very little about the everyday lives of the people living in its shadow, we can find evidence of changes in their burial practices and thus in their possible beliefs; changes in the design of their stone tools and pottery; and the introduction of the first metals. The purposes and use of the monument still elude us, and these may well have changed over the period in which it functioned as the central focus of people’s lives. Work will continue and more evidence will be found and interpreted.
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide, Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007: An Introduction, by Greg Harris.