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STONEHENGE, prehistoric ritual monument, situated on Salisbury Plain, north of Salisbury, England, and dating from the late Stone and early Bronze ages (c. 3000–1000 BC). It is the most celebrated of the megalithic monuments of England. Stonehenge is surrounded by a circular ditch, 104 m (340 ft) in diameter and 1.5 m (5 ft) deep, within which is a bank and a ring of 56 pits known as Aubrey holes (after their discoverer, the British antiquarian John Aubrey). At the northeast end a break in the ditch affords access to a ditch-bordered avenue that extends in a generally northeastward direction to the Avon River. The avenue is 23 m (75 ft) wide and nearly 3 km (2 mi) long.
The monument itself consists of four concentric ranges of stones. The outermost range is a circle, 30 m (100 ft) in diameter, of large, linteled, sandstone blocks called sarsen stones. Within this circle is a circle of smaller blue stones consisting mainly of spotted dolerite, with four specimens each of rhyolite and of volcanic ash. The latter circle enclosed a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of five linteled pairs of large sarsen stones. Within this arrangement is a smaller horseshoe-shaped range of blue stones enclosing a slab of micaceous sandstone known as the Altar Stone. Near the entrance to the avenue lies the so-called Slaughter Stone, a sarsen stone that may originally have stood upright.
Grouped around the main structure are a number of barrows, some of which contain chips of a blue stone similar to that found in the concentric ranges. The blue stones are from the north flank of the Prescelly Mountains in Wales. The Altar Stone is believed to have come from the region near Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire.
Stonehenge was desecrated sometime between 55 BC and AD 410 by the Romans, who tore down a number of the upright stones. In addition, two uprights and a lintel west of the Altar Stone fell in January 1797, and two other stones, an upright and its lintel, fell in 1900. In 1958 these five stones were raised, giving the monument the approximate appearance it had during the Roman occupation. On some of the fallen stones shallow carvings were found (1953) depicting bronze axheads of a type used in Britain between 1600 and 1400 BC and a hilted dagger of a type used in Mycenae, Greece, between 1600 and 1500 BC.
The outer bank, the ditch, and the Aubrey holes encircling the main construction date probably from the late Stone Age or early Bronze Age (c. 2000 BC). The main structure is dated between the early Bronze Age and the end of the Iron Age. The sarsen stones are dated from the carvings at about 1500 BC.
Parts of Stonehenge undoubtedly were built by a people who had widespread European trade connections and who established their principal settlements in the area between 1600 and 1300 BC. Although Stonehenge is related basically to the circular stone or wooden temples that were constructed in Britain during the Bronze Age, it is structurally unique among European prehistoric monuments.
The function of Stonehenge has long been a matter of conjecture. In 1964 the American astronomer Gerald S. Hawkins (1928– ) reported findings obtained by supplying a computer with measurements taken at Stonehenge together with astronomical information based on celestial positions in 1500 BC when Stonehenge was in use. According to Hawkins the Stonehenge complex could have been used to predict the summer and winter solstices, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and eclipses of both the sun and moon. Moreover, a variety of other information pertaining to the sun and moon could also be predicted with remarkable accuracy. Hawkins concluded that Stonehenge functioned as a means of predicting the positions of the sun and moon relative to the earth, and thereby the seasons, and perhaps also as a simple daily calendar.