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Stonehenge is one of the most famous and mysterious ruins in the world today. An ancient megalith, or stone monument, Stonehenge has fascinated scientists and ordinary people for over eight hundred years. People have created many myths and stories through the ages about it. From hundreds of theories about and much research into Stonehenge, scientists believe they have finally discovered the answers to many of its mysteries, such as how, why, and by whom it was built. Three separate cultures, the Windmill Hill, Beaker and Wessex peoples, are believed to have built Stonehenge for both astrological and ceremonial purposes over a period of more than five hundred years.
The monument consists of 162 stones and is about 30 metres across. The stones are called menhirs. Some are sandstone, and others are blue stone. The ruins of the magnificent circular stone structure stand inside a bank and ditch arrangement. Scientists have named the outer ring of stones, the sarsen circle. Inside that circle is another circle, of bluestones, and then a sarsen horseshoe. The innermost structure is a horseshoe of bluestones. All of this is around the Altar Stone, a bluestone that is situated near the back of the inner horseshoe.
Stonehenge is sited some eight miles to the north of the town of Salisbury in southern England and about eighty miles from London. The Stonehenge of today is a mere shadow of the much larger structure that existed 3,500 years ago. Due to natural weathering and human destruction, onlyabout half of the original stones remain.
Begun in approximately 3,000 BC, Stonehenge is thought to have been built in three stages. Each stage took several centuries, and we may now never know why each stage abruptly ended. All the three stages have names; Stonehenge I, Stonehenge II and Stonehenge III are the labels archaeologists have given these periods of construction. Most modern scientists who have studied Stonehenge agree on the peoples who built each stage. The Windmill Hill culture built Stonehenge I. They were primitive hunters and gathers, who were only just beginning to farm. The Beaker Peoples, who came from mainland Europe as the Neolithic Era was nearing an end, built Stonehenge II. The Wessex peoples from the Early Bronze Age who, at the time, were one of the most advanced cultures in that area built Stonehenge III.
The name "Stonehenge" came from the Saxons. Originally, they called it Stanhenge. Stan is Old English for stone, and henge means "to hang." There are several theories as to the origin of this unusual name. The most likely of which is that the stones seemed to hang in the air. The Normans wrote the first surviving reference to Stonehenge after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Henry of Huntingdon wrote, "No one can understand how such great stones have been lifted so high, or why they were put here" in 1130 AD. Those words are just as true today as they were almost a thousand years ago, although some discoveries have been made. In the 1620s, English architect Indigo Jones studied Stonehenge at King James I's orders. This was the first scientific study ever done on this megalith. Though it is not completely certain what Jones discovered, we know he incorrectly concluded that the Romans built it after their invasion of England. Formal excavation and restoration began only during the 20th century and so much remains to be discovered.