This walking path links Britain’s two greatest prehistoric sites, Avebury and Stonehenge, and is as epic as the Inca Trail
The Great Stones Way is one of those ideas so obvious it seems amazing that no one has thought of it before: a 38-mile walking trail to link England’s two greatest prehistoric sites, Avebury and Stonehenge, crossing a landscape covered with Neolithic monuments.
The Great Stones Way is a route using existing paths through the Wiltshire Downs, starting just south of Swindon and ending up at Old Sarum, on the outskirts of Salisbury. As long-distance trails go, this one is quite short, making it perfect for an energetic long weekend, or for more leisurely exploration over a week.
What’s the attraction?
Walking the Great Stones Way takes you on a journey through a landscape steeped in history, allowing you to discover the extraordinary sights our ancestors have left us. These include Iron Age hill forts with commanding views such as Barbury Castle and Old Sarum, while optional loops take you past the Neolithic henges and stone circles at the combined UNESCO World Heritage Site of Avebury and Stonehenge. There is also the option to finish the walk at Salisbury’s majestic medieval cathedral. The first part of the trail heads south through the rolling open chalk downland landscape of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
“I can’t help thinking how much better it is to arrive at Stonehenge on foot. The comparison that comes to mind, and which I know well, is the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The experience of trekking to both sites is immeasurably richer, not just because you’ve “earned it”, but because both sets of ruins are only properly understood in the context of the sacred landscape that surrounds them.”
Stonehenge Guided Tours is proud to offer a Contours walking holiday following the ‘Great Stones Way’ Please visit our Stonehenge tour website for full details
A major new archaeological find of causewayed enclosures and artifacts near Britain’s famous Stonehenge site is about to “rewrite” the history of the area and of northwestern Europe’s early inhabited history.
Built 5,650 years ago—more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge—one of the enclosures appears to have been a major ceremonial gathering place.
The major enclosure’s precise original function remains a mystery, but the scant available evidence suggests that it was used for a mixture of ceremonial, religious, political, and mortuary roles.
According to a press release issued by a construction consultancy company involved with an unrelated new building project at the site, archaeologists have “discovered important new sites that rewrite the Stonehenge landscape” and which “predate the construction of Stonehenge itself.”
The remains, found at Larkhill and Bulford, were unearthed during excavations ahead of the construction of new British Army family accommodation.
About 70 enclosures of the type found are known across England and Europe, the press release continued.
The structure is one of the “earliest built structures in the British landscape,” and was used “for temporary settlement, as ceremonial gathering places, to manage and exchange animals, including the first domesticated cattle and sheep and for ritual activity.”
The Larkhill enclosure has produced freshly broken pottery, dumps of worked flint and even a large stone saddle quern used to turn grain into flour. The Neolithic period saw the first use of domesticated crops and this find provides evidence of this.
The Greater Cursus, an earthwork nearly 1.8 miles in length, is the longest structure. It connects and divides parts of the landscape, and separates the Larkhill causewayed enclosure from the place that became Stonehenge.
“The people who built the causewayed enclosure are the ancestors of the builders of Stonehenge and were shaping the landscape into which the stone circle was placed,” the press release continued.
“Their work shows that this was a special landscape even before Stonehenge was constructed. People were already living and working within what we now call the Stonehenge landscape and they were building the structures that would culminate in the Stonehenge complex of stones and earthworks.
University of Adelaide research has for the first time statistically proven that the earliest standing stone monuments of Britain, the great circles, were constructed specifically in line with the movements of the Sun and Moon, 5000 years ago.
The Callanish Stones were erected in the late Neolithic era. They are an arrangement of standing stones placed in a cruciform pattern with a central stone circle 13 metres (43 feet) in diameter, situated near the village of Callanish on the west coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. Image credit: Gail Higginbottom & Roger Clay / RCAHMS.
The research, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, details the use of innovative 2-D and 3-D technology to construct quantitative tests of the patterns of alignment of the standing stones.
“Nobody before this has ever statistically determined that a single stone circle was constructed with astronomical phenomena in mind — it was all supposition,” says project leader and University of Adelaide Visiting Research Fellow Dr. Gail Higginbottom, who is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian National University.
Examining the oldest great stone circles built in Scotland (Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis, and Stenness, Isle of Orkney — both predating Stonehenge’s standing stones by about 500 years), the researchers found a great concentration of alignments towards the Sun and Moon at different times of their cycles. And 2000 years later in Scotland, much simpler monuments were still being built that had at least one of the same astronomical alignments found at the great circles.
The stones, however, are not just connected with the Sun and the Moon. The researchers discovered a complex relationship between the alignment of the stones, the surrounding landscape and horizon, and the movements of the Sun and the Moon across that landscape.
“This research is finally proof that the ancient Britons connected the Earth to the sky with their earliest standing stones, and that this practice continued in the same way for 2000 years,” says Dr. Higginbottom.
Examining sites in detail, it was found that about half the sites were surrounded by one landscape pattern and the other half by the complete reverse.
“These chosen surroundings would have influenced the way the Sun and Moon were seen, particularly in the timing of their rising and setting at special times, like when the Moon appears at its most northerly position on the horizon, which only happens every 18.6 years,” Dr Higginbottom says.
“For example, at 50 percent of the sites, the northern horizon is relatively higher and closer than the southern and the summer solstice Sun rises out of the highest peak in the north. At the other 50 percent of sites, the southern horizon is higher and closer than the northern, with the winter solstice Sun rising out of these highest horizons.
“These people chose to erect these great stones very precisely within the landscape and in relation to the astronomy they knew. They invested a tremendous amount of effort and work to do so. It tells us about their strong connection with their environment, and how important it must have been to them, for their culture and for their culture’s survival.”
Stonehenge is perhaps the world’s most famous prehistoric monument. It was built in several stages: the first monument was an early henge monument, built about 5,000 years ago, and the unique stone circle was erected in the late Neolithic period about 2500 BC. In the early Bronze Age many burial mounds were built nearby. Today, along with Avebury, it forms the heart of a World Heritage Site, with a unique concentration of prehistoric monuments.
At various times and in different (mostly Northern European) cultures, the solstice has gone by different names, such as Yule, Midwinter, and Jól. Nowadays, the solstice gets overshadowed by its more commercial and religious winter relatives: Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa; but plenty of people still celebrate the winter solstice in its own right.
If you’ve ever wondered what the solstice is, or why it matters, here’s the lowdown.
What is it?
The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. From June to December, the days shorten and shorten until the solstice. After the winter solstice, days gradually grow longer again (yay!), which brings warmer temperatures. On the actual solstice, the North Pole gets zero energy from the sun — that is, no sunlight at all.
In the summer, we celebrate the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. (In the Southern Hemisphere, everything is flip-flopped — they’re celebrating the summer solstice in December.)
When is it?
Each year, the winter solstice falls on either December 21 or 22. This year, it takes place Tuesday, December 22 at 4:48 UTC (December 21 at 11:48 p.m. EST).
But I noticed the sun started setting later before the solstice…
An astute observation! Depending on where you live, the shortest day of the year doesn’t necessarily fall on the day with the earliest sunset or the latest sunrise. This has to do with what’s called “true solar noon,” the time when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. In early December, solar noon is about ten minutes earlier than it is when we hit the solstice. Thus, depending on the latitude where you live, the sunset may actually be slightly later on the solstice than it was earlier in the month. The closer you live to the Arctic, the more closely the earliest sunset and the winter solstice will match up.
What about the latest sunrise?
Unless you live in the Arctic Circle, the latest sunrise usually arrives in early January, which makes sense, knowing that solar noon moves later in the day starting in early December. There’s a variation in solar noon and noon on the clock, because of the tilt of the earth’s axis and the earth’s not-quite-circular orbit around the sun.
How long have we known about the solstice?
Our earliest ancestors tracked the seasons and years by changes in the sky: the movement of the sun, stars, and moon. Stonehenge is one of the most famous monuments in the world built to observe and celebrate our trek around the sun. Nowadays, 3,000 to 5,000 people visit Stonehenge to watch the sunrise on the winter solstice and up to 30,000 visit for the summer solstice.
A great article by Professor of Archaeology, UCL – Mike Parker Pearson:
I led the team of researchers that discovered that Stonehenge was most likely to have been originally built in Pembrokeshire, Wales, before it was taken apart and transported some 180 miles to Wiltshire, England. It may sound like an impossible task without modern technology, but it wouldn’t have been the first time prehistoric Europeans managed to move a monument.
Archaeologists are increasingly discovering megaliths across the continent – albeit a small number so far – that were previously put up in earlier monuments.
Other ‘second-hand’ monuments
The best example of such a structure outside the UK is La Table des Marchand, a Neolithic tomb in Brittany, France, built around 4000BC. The enormous, 65-ton capstone on top of its chamber is a broken fragment of a menhir, a standing stone, brought from 10km away. The original menhir may be 300 years (or more) older than the tomb. Another fragment of this same menhir was incorporated into a tomb at Gavrinis, 5km away. This menhir, originally weighing over 100 tons, is actually one of the largest blocks of stone that we know of to have been moved and set up by Neolithic people.
Another example of a standing stone reused in a megalithic monument is an anthropomorphic menhir – a standing stone carved in the form of a human figure – incorporated as the capstone of another tomb at Déhus on Guernsey. Another megalithic tomb, La Motte de la Jacquille in western France, is built of dressed stones that have been rearranged into a new tomb but it is not known if they came from a different location or were an earlier version of the tomb rebuilt on the same spot.
Archaeologists have known for many years that some of Stonehenge’s bluestones (the shorter stones in the monument) were reused. Two are lintels reused as standing stones, and two others have vertical grooves that show they were part of a wall of interlocking standing stones. Until now it was thought that these were evidence of reuse just within Stonehenge which was first built around 2900BC and rebuilt circa 2500BC (at this point, large local sandstones known as “sarsen” were erected). It was then rebuilt again in around 2400BC and 2200BC.
However, we identified the actual quarries in Pembrokeshire, Wales (around 3400BC and 3200BC) that the bluestones came from. This is a period before prehistoric people were building stone circles (normally dating from 3000BC onwards) so we also think it is very likely that the bluestones originally formed a rather different type of monument from a stone circle.
People in western Britain and Ireland at this time were building Neolithic stone tombs known as passage tombs – Newgrange in Ireland is the best known example. So it is just possible that there is a dismantled passage tomb somewhere near the bluestone quarries. That’s what we will be looking for in 2016.
Stonehenge – an unusual distance
An interesting outcome from a recent conference in Redondo, Portugal, on prehistoric megaliths and “second-hand monuments” is that – while some megalithic stones for monuments in Portugal and elsewhere were brought as far as 8km from their sources – the vast majority of Neolithic stone monuments throughout Western Europe were built less than 2km to 3km away from their stone quarries. So Stonehenge is a major exception to this rule, as its bluestones were dragged around 290km. This makes it unique for prehistoric Europe.
How the stones were moved from Wales to Stonehenge is something of a mystery but our excavations at one of the Welsh quarries reveals that the trackway leading from the outcrop was too narrow for rollers to have been used. Instead, we think that monoliths were loaded onto wooden sledges and dragged over logs and branches laid rail-like in front of the sledge.
Some archaeologists have speculated that Stonehenge’s bluestones must have been thought to have had special properties – as musical “gongs” or healing stones – for them to have been sought out from so far away.
But we think it is far more likely that the bluestones were derived from quarries in close proximity to each other – within 2km to 3km – and brought together to build a local monument in Pembrokeshire. Scientific analysis of strontium isotopes in the teeth of people buried in the Stonehenge area reveals that many of them have values consistent with growing up in western Britain. So the stones may have been brought by people migrating from Wales, bringing their ancestral monument as a symbol of their history and identity. Strontium isotope analysis is currently being carried out on the people actually buried at Stonehenge when the bluestones were erected, and we await the results to see if they show a similar picture.
It’s also possible that the bluestones were put up somewhere on Salisbury Plain before they arrived at Stonehenge. For example, one of the bluestones never quite made it to Stonehenge and was dug out in 1801 from the top layer of a Neolithic burial mound called Boles Barrow, near Warminster, also in Wiltshire.
Although this tomb was first built around 3700BC, it seems to have gone through modifications, of which adding a layer of large stones (mostly local sarsen stones and this one bluestone) happened at the end of its use. So we don’t know precisely when it got there but it may have been set up as a burial marker before the rest of the bluestones were erected at Stonehenge.
Rebuilding tombs and other megalithic structures as second-hand monuments is only now turning out to be recognised in various parts of western Europe as archaeologists start to look more closely at the detailed aspects of construction. Simple expediency of finding suitable stone does not explain sites such as Stonehenge and the Table des Marchand – they were most likely incorporating aspects of the past which had rich historical resonance for them.
The experience of visiting Stonehenge has been transformed and greatly improved. The time it takes to visit Stonehenge and the new visitor centre is also much longer, at around 2 hours which is at least twice as long as previous years.
The reason for this radical change is the building of a brand new visitor centre where you start your visit just over 1 mile from the Stonehenge monument. Before you parked adjacent to Stonehenge and walked directly into the monument using the old tunnel.
For such a visited monument, facilities before 2014 were an embarrassment. Just a small gift shop far too small for the numbers visiting, turnstiles and toilets in portable buildings and no exhibition or educational facilities. An audio guide provided was your only way of making sense of what you saw before you.
It is now possible to download the Stonehenge Audio Guide in advance: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/stonehenge-audio-tour/id771690237?mt=8
The old facilities and car parks have been demolished and grassed over. The new English Heritage visitor centre is a purpose built structure with topical exhibits and facilities so you can be orientated on what Stonehenge is all about and information about the Neolithic people that built Stonehenge and discoveries in the Wiltshire area
To get to Stonehenge itself you now take a small shuttle Land Rover ‘train’ for the 10 minute journey to the Stones themselves
Stonehenge Entrance Prices & Opening Times
From February 1st 2014 you have to pre-purchase tickets in advance from Stonehenge.
Advance booking is the only way to guarantee entry on the day and at the time of your choice.
Please visit the English Heritage website to book advance tickets: Stonehenge Official Ticketing Facility
English Heritage Members MUST also book in advance using the same link.
The reason for this is that you need to book your timed slot on the shuttle between the visitor centre and Stonehenge.
(Last admission time is 2 hours before the advertised closing time)
During normal opening hours you cannot walk up to the stones. The nearest you will get to the stones is about 15 yards, the monument is roped off by a low barrier.
However it is possible to walk up to and among the stones at Stonehenge outside public opening hours. These are called Special Access visits. During these sessions of one hour duration, only a handful of people are allowed into Stonehenge going beyond the barriers and walking amongst the stones.
The Special Access Visits are also immensely popular, demand far outstrips supply and they are often sold out many months in advance.
Please visit our Stonehenge Private Access Tour page or the English Heritage Special Access page
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