Stonehenge, located on England’s Salisbury Plain, is one of the world’s most recognizable ancient monuments. It is shrouded in mystery because its builders left no written records, but archaeologists and other scientists believe the site has at various times served as a burial ground, a solar observatory, a place for pagan and religious gatherings, a place of torture and execution, and a place of healing.
Iconic though it may be, Stonehenge is not unique, and neither is it the oldest monument of its kind. There are more than 150 circular ditched enclosures in central Europe alone, and the earliest known solar observatory – Germany’s Goseck Circle – predates Stonehenge by more than 2,000 years. (Coincidentally, Stonehenge and Goseck Circle are located at virtually identical latitude.)
You may be surprised to know that Stonehenge was privately owned as recently as the early 20th century! Cecil Chubb, a wealthy barrister, bought it on a whim at an auction for £6,600 (less than $10,000) in 1915. Word has it he planned to give the monument to his wife as a birthday present, but she angrily rejected it because she wanted curtains and a set of dining room chairs instead. Three years later, Chubb donated it to public ownership by deed of gift, on the condition that locals be allowed to visit the site free of charge – a condition that is honored to this day.
Many visitors to Stonehenge marvel at how its imposing 25-ton monoliths have withstood the test of time. They apparently do not know Stonehenge has undergone numerous reconstructions and restorations through the years, including a major overhaul in the mid-20th century. Many of the largest stones had toppled to the ground and the site was a total mess. Construction crews used heavy equipment to lift the stones back into position, and some were even set in concrete.
This is not to say today’s Stonehenge is fake. The Ministry of Works simply decided a restored Stonehenge would be easier for visitors to understand and appreciate. At least the stones are real, as opposed to the plaster bones that make up most dinosaur skeletons in museums. In both cases, however, the overriding goal is to provide an accurate visual depiction of an ancient wonder.