Is Stonehenge original or restored?

Stonehenge as painted by John Constable by 1835 from his 1820 sketch (PD-EXP)

Naturally, Stonehenge has experienced weathering and collapse due to the passage of time. But even if we disregard those changes, there is no way that Stonehenge can be regarded as a preserved “snapshot” of its original form.

Stonehenge was not designed and built to the current layout. The design we see today is the result of several phases of construction and alteration from 3500 to 5000 years ago, followed by modern disruption and renovation.

Ancient changes

The first construction comprised the circular bank and ditch, and 56 large pits just inside them. The bank was later reduced in height. Lots of postholes were then dug, apparently for some type of timber construction. The large pits and the ditch were for a while used for cremation burials.

Five hundred years later, two concentric stone crescents were built. These were around two metres high, about the right height to support the roof of a timber shelter (although there is no evidence of this). The so-called altar stone was added, and the north-east entrance across the ditch and bank was widened to align it with the summer solstice sunrise.

Older holes were backfilled and some stones removed. Several stones were added outside of the bank and ditch. Some of these stones had their own mini banks and ditches built around them. Earth mounds were built nearby, and a parallel pair of ditches and banks was built leading to the Avon river.

Over the next few hundred years, the really massive stones were erected. An inner horseshoe comprised five trilithons (pairs of stones supporting a top-stone). An outer ring comprised dozens of stones, linked with lintel stones on top. Or at least it would have, if it was completed. We have no evidence of its completion, and there aren’t enough stones left on site to account for it being complete. I reckon the outer “ring” was actually another horseshoe which enclosed but “mirrored” the massive inner horseshoe.

Over the next 800 years, the layout was repeatedly tweaked. The altar stone was re-positioned. Some of the older stones that had been removed appear to have been trimmed and re-erected, to make the crescent into more of a circle, and later some of that circle was removed to leave a horseshoe matching that of the massive trilithons.

Modern changes

The site has been repeatedly worked over by archaeologists and other scientists, starting with John Aubrey in 1666 who mapped the site and identified the outer pits which are now named after him. Around 1740, William Stukeley excavated many of the surrounding barrows.

The south-west trilithon collapsed in 1797.

During the 1800s, William Cunnington and Richard Colt Hoare excavated around the stones, and Charles Darwin investigated how fast the remains sink into the earth.

On 31 December 1900 during a storm, one of the huge uprights fell.

In 1901 William Gowland straightened one of the stones that was about to fall. He concreted it into the ground about half a metre from its previous position, and also conducted detailed excavations. Six more stones were concreted in 1919 and 1920, and their lintels precisely placed. Photos from the time show extensive timber supports and large cranes in use.

From 1919 to 1926, William Hawley together with Robert Newall excavated the ditch, the base of six stones, and “portions of most of the features of the site” including some of the Aubrey Holes from which they removed some cremated remains. In 1935 these were re-interred. Harvey’s work has been described as “over-vigorous by today’s standards”.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Hawley’s work was re-excavated by Atkinson, Piggott and Stone. In 1958, three of the standing stones were straightened and re-erected in concrete, including the stone that was felled by the storm in 1900. In 1963, a stone of the Sarsen Circle was re-erected in concrete after it fell, and three further stones were straightened and concreted.

In the 1960s, postholes and a ditch were found on the site of the current car park, perhaps as old as 8000 BC. In the 1970s, Richard Atkinson and John Evans were re-excavating an old trench when they found the skeleton of an archer from 2300 BC.

From 1979 to date, trenches have been dug for electrical cables and sewage pipes, and concurrent archaeological investigations were conducted, as they were when a tar footpath was laid to bring day visitors inside the ditch.

From 2003 to 2008 there were several digs. Fragments of the original bluestone pillars were retrieved. Some of the Aubrey holes were re-excavated, and the cremated remains that Hawley had investigated in 1920 were again removed.

In addition, roads were built around the site. At one time, cottages and a cafe were built to the east, but these have been demolished. The visitor centre and a tunnel were built to the north. During the first world war, an aerodrome was built on the fields to the west.

Over the years, some graffiti has been carved into the rocks, starting with ancient dagger and axe carvings, and in more modern times including a few name carvings.

So, is Stonehenge original or restored?

There was never “one” original stonehenge, because it changed over the centuries as it was adapted by generation after generation.

In modern times, it has been dug and re-dug, straightened and stabilised, re-creating the monument as we assume it may have been. Like an orthodontist straightening a mouthful of teeth, the stones of Stonehenge have been re-aligned and concreted into place.

The work of the past 100 years has served to manufacture a tourist destination, rebuilding the monument as it “ought” to look. Much of what Stonehenge’s visitors see and touch is what has been moved into position over the past century.

Stonehenge is very much a living monument, and the changes of the past hundred years are one more phase of the many changes it has experienced to date. The rocks are big enough, solid enough, and enduring enough that its allure will continue through what will no doubt be many more changes in the future.

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