Think of Stonehenge and it immediately conjures up a number of strong visual images the huge, iconic sarsen stone trilithons, naked hippies at summer solstice, weird druid guys with big hoods and a legendary scene from This Is Spinal Tap.
But what did it actually look like in its day? Its widely assumed that Stonehenge once stood as a magnificent ‘complete’ monument, but we need to bear in mind that this cant actually be proved about half of the stones that should be present are missing, and many of the assumed stone sockets have never actually been recorded through excavation. Experts suggest that the monuments construction spanned anything from 1500 to 6500 years, and took place over at least three separate major phases. Which ought we to consider as Stonehenges quintessential era?
The first stage, around 3100 BC, we can comfortably discount as not representing the monument at its finest. Then it simply comprised an earthwork of ditches, pits and banks that may have contained a few standing timbers (although no trace of them has been found), but otherwise wouldnt have offered particularly striking viewing, relatively speaking. It was abandoned for about 1000 years before the next major phase of construction began.
The second stage, circa 2600 BC, was much more dramatic. It was then that some 82 giant bluestones were assumed to have been dragged, slid and floated 240 miles from the Preseli Mountains in south-west Wales to Gloucestershire, and then stood in pits (only some of which have been located) to form incomplete concentric rings around the site. At the same time, the north eastern entrance was also widened to precisely match the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, and a large sandstone Heelstone was erected at the entrance. The result would undoubtedly have been stunning to see, but still paled in comparison with what was to come next.
It was around 2400 BC that the greatest building project in ancient Britain really got going. 30 enormous Oligocene-Miocene sarsen stones were brought to the site, probably from a quarry about 25 miles away, and then erected in a 33-metre diameter trilithon horseshoe. Bluestones appear to have later been slotted within (a hint to their symbolic importance), before another, massive circle of shorter stone trilithons enclosed the whole thing, and a mysterious ring of pits was dug on the outer edge of the site. This was Stonehenge at its very finest an expansive, awe-inspiring construction. Yet, the heyday of the monument lasted for only around 500 years, until about 1900 BC. The next four millennia saw the structure fall into a long, slow period of disrepair and disuse, suffering theft, neglect and the withering effects of time and nature, until all that was left was the iconic bare bones of the structure, which today only hint at Stonehenges former magnificence.
Some other, more outlandish theories hexist as to the appearance of Stonehenge at its apogee (there are always outlandish theories at hand when it comes to Stonehenge). One recent suggestion, by inventor Bruce Bedlam, is that the monument actually comprised the stone pillars of an overarching timber building, which had a tiled roof and a glass cap, kind of like the Millennium Dome of its day. In terms of agonisingly protracted construction period, crazily elaborate design and general head-scratching puzzlement as to what, exactly, it was built for in the first place anyway, that seems like an appropriate analogy.