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From the Archive: Historical interpretations of Stonehenge in the Media

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Authored by Izzy Arevalo
Published on 21st February, 2024 16 min read

From the Archive: Historical interpretations of Stonehenge in the Media

Stonehenge is shrouded in mystery and has occupied the minds of academics for hundreds of years. Historians have grappled with countless questions surrounding the megalithic structure—it's intended function, the construction methods used to create the monument, and the period in which it was built. Tracking the development of the portrayal of Stonehenge in the media demonstrates how archaeological understandings of the site have developed over time. Media articles have been, and will always be, an excellent way to engage the general public in archaeological discoveries. Numerous breakthroughs about Stonehenge were made throughout the twentieth century. It is no surprise, therefore, that many newspapers reported on these findings, often supporting alternative, and sometimes conflicting, theories. This multitude of perspectives can induce bewilderment. Yet analysing articles about Stonehenge can also serve to enhance our understanding of the site.

The Illustrated London News owned many influential publications during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This article utilises British Online Archives’ collections The Sphere, 1900–1964 and The Tatler, 1901–1965 to track the development of knowledge on Stonehenge.

Dating allows archaeologists to place artefacts, events, or other archaeological discoveries in chronological order. The dating of sites is crucial to their interpretation. Contemporary archaeologists have access to a variety of tools, such as radiocarbon dating and stratigraphy, which provide an estimate of the date of a site or artefact. Historical investigations have found that Stonehenge underwent construction in four phases over the course of thousands of years.[1] Consequently, dating the site has proved trickier than in other cases.

A solar investigation designed to date Stonehenge occurred from 21–26 June 1901.[2] It was conducted by Sir Norman Lockyer on the two longest days of the year. The Sphere reported on this ground breaking investigation. Lockyer believed that using the sun would allow him to give an accurate date for Stonehenge. The findings pointed to the middle Bronze Age, specifically 1680 BCE. Despite Lockyer’s optimism, this estimate has since been proved incorrect. 

British Online Archives, The Sphere, 1900–1964, "The Age of Stonehenge by P. H.", image 26.

The Sphere produced another article on 4 January 1902. This comparing Lockyer’s experiment with existing archaeological evidence. The latter body of scholarship suggested that Stonehenge was built in c.2000 BCE and could not have been constructed in the Bronze age because there was a distinct lack of bronze or iron tools found at the site. Interestingly, modern dating places the construction during the early Bronze Age. The article in The Sphere criticised the notion of Stonehenge being associated with druids or having post-Roman origins and referred to these ideas as "old and vague." [3] Unlike the article published in 1901 there was not much evidence put forward to justify this new date. Thus, making a judgment on their conclusions is challenging. That said, the dating of Stonehenge at 2000 BCE is not too far off modern suggestions that the stones were lifted in 2500 BCE.[4] Articles from the early twentieth century contained no indication that the construction of Stonehenge was gradual. It was assumed, rather, that it was constructed in one go. Going by the evidence presented in the articles, it would have been difficult to land on an accurate estimation of the date of Stonehenge. 

British Online Archives, The Sphere, 1900–1964, "The Age of Stonehenge by P. H.", image 27.

Today, it is believed that construction began in c.3000 BCE, during the Neolithic period. While this date is vastly different from Lockyer’s solar investigation of 1901, it does demonstrate the progression of archaeological knowledge. Modern estimations utilise a range of techniques to date the site rather than relying on just one, such as solar investigation. Academics have therefore been able to estimate the date of each phase of construction of Stonehenge:

c.3000 BCE: The circular earthworks were dug and cemented with 56 timber posts. There was also the possible arrival of the bluestones from Wales.
c.2500 BCE: The first stones were raised, with the 80 sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs creating two circular structures and the bluestones creating a double arch between them.
c.2300–2200 BCE: The bluestones were rearranged to form an inner circle and the avenue connected Stonehenge to the River Avon.
c.1901 CE: Start of the conservation at Stonehenge.[5]

Having ascertained that the site was built in phases, archaeologists could begin to consider the importance of the land around Stonehenge as well as the structure itself. 

Reason for Stonehenge
In the early twentieth century there were numerous suggestions as to what Stonehenge was used for. One idea that was once prominent is that Stonehenge acted as a form of calendar. The people who built Stonehenge would have been farmers and herders and understanding the timing of seasons would have been of great importance to these communities. Thus, having a way to calculate the seasons may have helped farmers nearby to harvest effectively. While this is a plausible suggestion, modern archaeologists argue that this was only a subsidiary reason for the monument. 

Stonehenge is often referred to as a Sun Temple. “Sun worshippers” would, and still do, gather on the winter and summer solstices to worship the sun or earth. The way the sunrays strike the stones on these days creates a rare view within. It is highly likely that this site meant a lot to Neolithic people and was used, as it is today, to celebrate this phenomenon. Spirituality has always been a go to explanation for archaeologists. The idea that Neolithic people had spiritual belief systems and engaged in rituals helps us to understand the importance of the megalithic site. 

Today, there are multiple other suggestions circulating amongst scholars, such as the belief that the site functioned as an observatory. Perhaps even more captivating, however, is the notion that the structure could have been a place of pilgrimage similar to, say, Lourdes in France: a place where people came to be healed. This hypothesis was inspired by the idea of the bluestones being magical owing to their supposed levitation and their transportation.[6] But with evidence of cremations and burials it seems more likely that Stonehenge was used as a funerary ground. Despite this evidence, others favour the notion of it being a ritual site or temple, which stands as the most prevalent explanation.[7] In light of modern knowledge that the site was built over millennia there is a general understanding that it has served various functions across different time periods. It is believed that the landscape around Stonehenge has also held significant meaning, such as during the Mesolithic period 8500–7000 BCE, when a totem pole was erected nearby.[8] Given the importance of the landscape, it is no surprise that multiple structures were built in the area.

Taking a broader perspective and so examining Neolithic sites around Stonehenge, such as Durrington Walls and Woodhenge, allows us to spot intriguing connections. Research has been conducted into the idea that these henges represented the sun and the moon or life and death.[9] Feasting occurred at the Neolithic settlement near Durrington walls during the mid-winter. Therefore, it is likely that the winter and summer solicits were celebrated in this area.[10] Sites like Woodhenge were only discovered in the mid-1920s, providing academics with more evidence to work with. This stands in stark contrast to the state of knowledge in 1901 when historians were at a disadvantage as they lacked awareness of the connections between these sites. While many scholars and commentators have settled on the idea of a sun temple, it is widely accepted that we may never know the real reason for the construction of Stonehenge and its significance within Neolithic societies.

British Online Archives, The Sphere, 1900–1964, "The Age of Stonehenge by P. H.", image 26.

Stone Transportation
One of the biggest mysteries of Stonehenge is how the stones were moved. There is, of course, the pervasive idea that aliens helped move them. Unsurprisingly, most academics have gravitated towards various ideas such as rollers or sledges, or that glaciers dislodged the stones and transported them nearer to the Salisbury Plains. In 1902 it was thought that if the stones came from glaciers, then they would have probably arrived from the north. Discoveries made on the original location of these stones have changed our perspective on how they were moved. It is believed that the sarsens stones were quarried twenty-five miles from the site, while the blues tones are from two hundred miles away in the Preseli Hills in Wales.[11] 

British Online Archives, The Sphere, 1900–1964, "The Age of Stonehenge by P. H.", image 27.

The glacial theory is now unpopular because of the coincidence of having the correct number of stones to create the structure. It is reasonable to assume, however, that people decided upon the size of Stonehenge with reference to the materials they had to work with, rather than sourcing the correct stones after prior planning. 

Today, there are two suggestions for the route taken to transport the bluestones. The first suggestion is that the stones were transported via water, following a route down the Afon Nyfer, around the southern tip of Wales through the Bristol channel, and then down the River Avon. Another suggestion is that the stones were transported by land, through southern Wales, and then across the Bristol channel and down the River Avon.[12] There are a number of theories that are similar to those outlined in 1900. On land, the use of sledges  or rollers made from trees and oxen could have sped-up transportation. Hauling the stones with only human strength would have taken far longer than with animals. Once on the water, the stones would have been transported using rafts, probably with a fleet of boats pulling them.[13]

William Gowland was a mining engineer who started to argue for the preservation of Stonehenge in 1900. In 1901 the restoration of the site began.[14] Shan Bullock’s article “Stonehenge in Chains”, published in The Tatler, outlines his views on the restoration work. 

He stated that “hideous scaffolding poles” scattered the sight to support the monument. Despite being vital for the structure of the site, it is clear that not everyone was impressed with the new restoration programme. In 1901, landowner and British army officer, Sir Edmund Antrobus, started restoration work to lift the fallen trilithic.[15] Since this work did include scaffolding, the visual impact of the monument would have been hindered. Yet when tourists visited the site they would ignore the barrier and go right up to the stones. Stonehenge is not the safest monument and it has been known for some stones to fall over, hence the need for barriers. In 1900 a gale blew the trilithic off and this incident ignited Gowland’s debate with respect to restoration.[16] In the Victorian era visitors to Stonehenge used to chip off parts of the stones to take home with them. This trend likewise prompted restoration work. Prior to this restoration work it was not common for historical sites to be under construction.

British Online Archives, The Tatler, 1901–1965, "Stonehenge in Chains by Shan F. Bullock", image 28.

Throughout history there have been significant shifts in the approach to safeguarding historical sites. Over time, restoration has turned into conservation. Restoration is the process of returning artefacts back to their original condition. Conservation, on the other hand, aims at preserving the artefact in its current condition. Currently, Stonehenge is under the protection of English Heritage and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both organisations continue to invest money to ensure the survival of the site. Many of the works completed in the past have become outdated. For instance, the mortar used in the 1960s was not breathable and has since been replaced.[17] With the advent of laser scanning technology, conservationists now have the means to identify cracks in the stones and address potential issues before they become irreparable. These technological advances have meant that Stonehenge receives the proper care it needs, thus ensuring its preservation for future generations.[18] 

It is evident that our understandings of Stonehenge — especially with regard to the site’s original purpose and its construction — have undergone significant changes over the past century. The methods used to restore and conserve this monument have also changed considerably. Yet there are still many mysteries that surround the monument. Articles in the media have helped to raise awareness of the site, attracting visitors from around the globe. Of course, more detailed information about the site will also be found in academic papers and books. Mass media can help to raise awareness, however, by engaging the public in one of history's most significant mysteries. This in turn contributes to ongoing research and thus the preservation of the site. The progression of archaeological knowledge is clear when comparing the literature of the past with that produced today. Looking into the past can help us to understand where restoration and conservation went wrong, ultimately improving modern research and conservation techniques. Who knows what we may uncover about the site in the years to come? 

If you enjoyed this article and the images it features, British Online Archives hosts extensive archives drawn from publications that were owned by The Illustrated London News. These collections can be accessed via the links below:

Britannia and Eve, 1926–1957

The Bystander, 1903–1940

The Graphic, 1869–1932

The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1874–1970

Illustrated War News, 1914–1918 & 1939

London Life, 1965–1966

The Sketch, 1893–1958

The Sphere, 1900–1964

The Tatler, 1901–1965

 [1] English Heritage Editors, “A Timeline of Stonehenge,” English Heritage, accessed 25 July 2023,

[2] British Online Archives, The Sphere, 1900–1964, "The Age of Stonehenge by P. H.", available at, images 26–27; British Online Archives, The Sphere, 1900–1964, “The Attempt to Solve the Age of Stonehenge by P. H.”, available at, image 16.

[3] British Online Archives, The Sphere, 1900–1964, "The Age of Stonehenge by P. H.", available at, image 27.

[4] English Heritage Editors, “A Timeline of Stonehenge”.

[5] English Heritage Editors, “A Timeline of Stonehenge”.

[6] James Owens, “Scientists Try to Crack Stonehenge’s Prehistoric Puzzles”, National Geographic, 4 May 2021,

[7] James Owens, “Scientists Try to Crack Stonehenge’s Prehistoric Puzzles”. 

[8] English Heritage Editors, “A Timeline of Stonehenge”.

[9] English Heritage Editors, “Understanding Stonehenge,” English Heritage, accessed 2 August 2023,

[10] English Heritage Editors, “Understanding Stonehenge”.

[11] James Owens, “Scientists Try to Crack Stonehenge’s Prehistoric Puzzles”.

[12] English Heritage Editors , “Building Stonehenge,” English Heritage, accessed 2 August 2023,

[13] James Owens, “Scientists Try to Crack Stonehenge’s Prehistoric Puzzles”.

[14] English Heritage Editors, “A Timeline of Stonehenge”. 

[15] English Heritage Editors, “A Timeline of Stonehenge”. 

[16] Nora McGreevy, “Stonehenge Is Undergoing Repairs for the First Time in Decades,”, 15 September 2021,

[17] Nora McGreevy, “Stonehenge Is Undergoing Repairs for the First Time in Decades”.

[18] Nora McGreevy, “Stonehenge Is Undergoing Repairs for the First Time in Decades”.

Authored by Izzy Arevalo

Izzy Arevalo

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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