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Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration(1880-1960)

Stonehenge is one of the most well-known and well-studied prehistoric megalithic monuments, located on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, southern England.

Scholars determined that Stonehenge was built and used over a very long period of time (roughly 3000-1500 BCE), with many additions and alterations made to the site during three distinct phases of construction and renovation.

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The monument is made up of a number of large upright standing stones (menhirs) surrounded by a circular ditch (or henge) with 56 burial pits on the inside.

Many archaeologists believe the stones replaced an earlier timber structure on the site that served as a mortuary chapel for corpses awaiting burial.

The large sarcen (sandstone) menhirs, many of which are still standing today, were built around the year 2000 BCE and were arranged in a circle to form a complete ring with a continuous set of lintel stones.

Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration
Farm waggons near the site, c. 1885.

Although there are numerous other prehistoric stone circles scattered around the world, Stonehenge is unique in that the builders shaped the massive stones with notches/joints in mortise-and-tenon fashion so that the monumental lintel stones fit nearly into slots carved on the tops of the giant uprights.

Five trilithons (two upright stones sharing a lintel) are arranged in a horseshoe shape within the sarsen circle. The tallest is about 25 feet tall.

In a later phase, bluestones (so named because they take on a bluish tone when wet) were added, and a large altar stone was placed near the center of the circle.

The bluestones were transported to the site by water and overland dragging from Wales (about 190 miles away), while the sandstones were dragged from about 15 miles away.

Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration
A group of men with a cart in front of Stonehenge. (Photo credit: English Heritage).

Stonehenge was clearly of great importance to the prehistoric peoples of the region, as evidenced by the efforts required to build, maintain, and renovate it over thousands of years.

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However, interpretations of Stonehenge’s function and purpose have varied widely, if not wildly, over centuries of scholarship.

A number of scholars now agree that Stonehenge was built primarily, if not originally, as a massive observatory for charting the seasons by indicating the summer and winter solstices. The midsummer sun rises over one stone, and several others are aligned with the midwinter sunset.

The archaeoastronomical aspect of Stonehenge has received the most attention in late-twentieth-century technology-based scholarship, though other theories about Stonehenge (as a site of ancient Druid rituals, a territorial marker, and a solar temple for the worship of the sun God) have been proposed.

Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration
This horse and carriage image was shared with English Heritage by the descendants of Isabel, Maud, and Robert Routh who can be seen in the photograph.

The modern story of Stonehenge restorations begins in 1880, when the site was surveyed by William Flinders-Petrie, who also established the stone numbering system that is still in use today.

Simon Banton made the first documented intervention to prevent stone collapse at Stonehenge in 1881. The Inspector of Ancient Monuments determined in 1893 that several stones were in danger of falling, and he was later proven correct when stone 22 collapsed on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1900.

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In 1901, William Gowland oversaw the monument’s first major restoration, which included the straightening and concrete setting of sarsen stone number 56, which was in danger of falling. He moved the stone about half a meter from its original position while straightening it.

Gowland also took advantage of the opportunity to excavate the monument further in what was the most scientific dig to date, revealing more about the erection of the stones than the previous 100 years of work had.

Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration

William Hawley, who had excavated nearby Old Sarum during the 1920 restoration, excavated the base of six stones and the outer ditch. He also discovered a bottle of port in the Slaughter Stone socket left by Cunnington, assisted in the rediscovery of Aubrey’s pits within the bank, and discovered the Y and Z Holes, which are concentric circular holes outside the Sarsen Circle.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Richard Atkinson, Stuart Piggott, and John F. S. Stone re-excavated much of Hawley’s work and discovered the carved axes and daggers on the Sarsen Stones. Atkinson’s work contributed to a better understanding of the monument’s three major phases of construction.

Three of the standing sarsens were re-erected and set in concrete bases in 1958, restoring the stones once more. The last restoration took place in 1963, after stone 23 of the Sarsen Circle collapsed. It was re-erected, and the opportunity to concrete three more stones was taken.

Before and after restoration. 1901.

Later archaeologists, such as Christopher Chippindale of the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Brian Edwards of the University of the West of England, campaigned to inform the public about the various restorations, and in 2004 English Heritage included photographs of the work in progress in its book Stonehenge: A History in Photographs.

The lack of written records, as with other examples of prehistoric architectural forms, makes it difficult to do anything other than speculate about the purpose and function.

The logical assumption is that Stonehenge served some religious or ritual function, but the precise nature of this will undoubtedly be explored by future generations of scholars and enthusiasts.

Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration
Sarsen mauls and flint hammerstones excavated during the restorations.
Restorations on Stonehenge. 1958.
Restorations on Stonehenge. 1958.
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Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration
Restorations on Stonehenge. 1958.
Lifting Bluestone 36 with block and tackle.
Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration
Bluestone lintel 36 being cleaned after excavation. The presence of finely tooled mortices indicates that it was re-used from an earlier bluestone Trilithon. 1954. (Photo credit: Historic England Archive).
Lintel 158 is hoisted into position on top of the restored west trilithon.
Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration
Lintel 158 is hoisted onto its perch atop the restored west trilithon. The borrowed RAF ‘Babarazon aircraft crane could lift up to 60 tons — approaching its limits with the huge stone uprights.
During the spring of 1958 the whole area was screened down with timbers in a herringbone fashion to the chalk, to prevent the heavy machinery damaging the fragile ground surface. With the west trilithon stones to be re-erected having previously been lifted aside, a broad swath of ground is clearly visible in this photograph.


Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration
Mr T. A. Bailey, senior engineer, examining the lintels over stones 19, 20 and 1 of the outer circle. These stones were not moved by (Professor) Atkinson but had been straightened by Professor Hawley in 1920. These stones mark the entrance to Stonehenge. The archaeologist Stuart Piggott can also be seen in the photograph, on his knees smoking a pipe. (Photo credit: Historic England Archive).
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A contemporary newspaper depiction of the 1920 restoration.
Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration
Bluestone 66, excavated in 1953. This spotted dolerite bluestone 66 is now a ground-level stump underneath the southern corner of fallen Stone 55b.
Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration
Periglacial stripes of the upper Avenue looking east. These gullies created by ice or meltwater may have played a part in the original decision to position Stonehenge at this location.


Cuttings C41 and C42 across Segment 98 of the henge ditch. Two antlers found at the bottom of C42 (seen in this image) gave calibrated radiocarbon dates of 3340-2910 cal BC. (Photo credit: Historic England Archive).
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Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration
A site meeting, Professor Atkinson is in the foreground here, seated to the right.
Stone 23 of the outer sarsen circle, which collapsed in December 1900, being lifted prior to its re-erection. (Photo credit: Historic England Archive).
Old Photographs of Stonehenge’s History and Restoration
Bluestone 69 of the Bluestone Horseshoe being removed to allow a crane access to lift fallen Trilithon stones 57 and 58. This stone was replaced after the re-erection of the Trilithon. 1958. (Photo credit: Historic England Archive).


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Restoration on Stonehenge. 1958.
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