Uncovering the Secrets of Prehistoric Henges

Though fewer than 100 henges remain throughout Britain and Ireland today, it’s believed that many more once existed. Prehistoric Britain was a time often represented as an era or mystery and intrigue.

The Neolithic era, dating from roughly 4100-2500 BC saw cultural and social developments in Britain. Major changes were happening, including the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes to largely sedentary communities based on the foundations of agricultural practices.

The time was also one in which people were deeply connected to their spiritual beliefs and symbolic of this was the construction of many megalithic structures. One such type of structure that gained particular prominence in the British Isles were henges. 


Some of these ancient henges, incorporating earthwork, and in many cases the addition of wood or stone elements, can still be seen today. The ancient henges built by the people of Neolithic Britain have sparked mystery and debate as to their specific purpose and demonstrate a unique understanding of the environment and cycles of the natural world. 

While today, it is believed that fewer than one hundred Neolithic henges still remain, it has been theorised that they were once created in relatively large numbers across the British countryside. Evidence of ancient henges has been found distributed as widely as from south of England all the way to the Orkneys. 

Henges, More than Just a Circle 

While there has been some level of variation in the ancient henges found across Britain, there are key elements that are present in most examples. The circular shape is a core requirement for henges.

Henges also share the common feature of a ring bank around the outside of the henge and ring ditch that encircles the interior diameter of the henge.

Knowlton church which is inside a henge
The Knowlton Circles are a cluster of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments near Knowlton. There are four enclosures, three are of normal henge form

Most, although not all henges, then have either wooden or stone pillars arranged in circle pattern, with this feature being perhaps the most recognisable feature of henges. Some henge structures are more elaborate than others with multiple rings, ditches and wooden or stone pillars.

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Henges also include causeways or pathways that allow access into the middle of the henge, sometimes more than one causeway was constructed, although the exact purpose for these passageways has not been conclusively determined.

The henges across Britain vary in size, however, as their classing as megalithic structures may suggest, most were incredibly large features in the landscape. Some of Britain’s ancient henges measure twenty metres in diameter, while larger structures can stretch more than a hundred metres in diameter. 

The Henge that Named all Henges

Interestingly the term ‘henge’, used to describe these monuments, came many years after the time when henges were being constructed around the countryside. The original names by which these monuments were known in Neolithic times has largely been lost to history.

Instead, the classifying of these monuments as henges originates with Stonehenge. The wider term henge is quite simply an etymological back formation of Stonehenge that was applied to similar monuments. 

Drone shot of stonehenge
The earliest phase of construction at Stonehenge was a circular ditch and bank, known as a henge

The naming of Stonehenge is believed to have originated in Saxon times. The tenth century glossary created by the English abbot and writer Ælfric of Eynsham, lists the term henge-cliff, meaning stone or precipice.

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This has given rise to the belief that a monument near Salisbury, listed in the eleventh century as Stanheng or Stanenges, was likely Stonehenge. Interestingly, while Stonehenge is commonly grouped as part of Britain’s henges and is arguably the most famous Neolithic structure in Britain.

The main ditch of the monument is external to the main bank, meaning it isn’t considered a true henge. Ironically, despite the close association many people make with henges incorporating stone pillars, and the etymological origins of the word henge likely referencing stone, for monuments to be considered true henges they do not have to incorporate stone or wood pillars. Rather, the requirements for henges are earthwork structures in which an outer bank encircles an inner circular ditch. 

Ancient Burials 

While it is widely believed that henges held cultural or religious importance for the early tribes of Britain, the exact purpose behind their construction and use has always sparked keen discussion. The discovery of bodies buried at sites supports the idea of henges as places of spiritual and ritualistic importance.

Avebury henge
Avebury henge, with its encompassing stone circles, stands as one of prehistoric Britain’s most impressive wonders. Constructed and modified during the Neolithic era, approximately from 2850 BC to 2200 BC

At England’s most famous henge-like monument, Stonehenge, the remains of fifty-eight bodies of people from the Neolithic period were discovered in 1919. The bodies are believed to have been cremated, placed in containers made of organic materials, possibly leather, and buried in circular pits at the monument site.

At the neighbouring site of Avebury Henge, further human remains were found, and this gave rise to the idea that the site possibly acted as a place of ancestor worship. 

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Making the mystery of Stonehenge even more complicated, modern analysis has found that a number of the individuals whose remains were found at the site weren’t from the local area but lived as far away as west Wales.

German Teenager

Hailing even further from the ancient site, the remains of a teenager found at Stonehenge indicate that the child grew up near the Mediterranean Sea, while an individual that grew up in the German foothills also found his final resting place at Stonehenge. The famous henge monuments in Wiltshire are not the only ones to have come to be the final resting place of Neolithic people.

Maumbury Rings Neolithic henge in Dorset
Maumbury Rings, Dorchester, Dorset, England. is a substantial Neolithic henge. During the Roman era, Maumbury Rings underwent modifications that transformed it into an amphitheatre

A henge monument dating back 4000 years in Warwickshire was revealed to have had the well preserved remains of five people buried at the site. The henge site has only been investigated within the last decade, after it was discovered during an archeological investigation conducted before the site was to be developed for an area of new housing.

Read More: Ancient Trackways: Walking in the Footsteps of Neolithic People

While the site is considerably smaller and less assuming than Avebury and Stonehenge, it does share the common characteristic of being the place of ancient burials. However the bodies at the Warwickshire site may have been placed at the henge some time after the construction of the henge had been completed. 

The Sun, the Stars, and the Moon

Henges around Britain have also been found to have strong links with astronomy. For a number of years, the possible link between Stonehenge and ancient astronomy has been explored.

Parts of the Stonehenge monument are aligned in accordance with the sunset of the winter solstice and the sunrise of the summer solstice, giving rise to the idea that henges held importance during solstice rituals in pagan England. 

stonehenge at sunrise
Sarsen Stones Arrive (around 2500 BCE): The larger sarsen stones, which form the iconic outer circle and inner horseshoe of Stonehenge, were added.

The strong correlations between celestial phenomena and the placement and layout of Stonehenge has sparked the idea that the monument functioned as an ancient observatory. Elements of the ancient monument are even theorised to be positioned to track and align with moon cycles that take years to complete. 

The henges at the Thornborough Henge Monument site in North Yorkshire also appear to have astronomical influences. Elements of the layout of the henges at the site appear to mirror the stars in the Orion’s Belt constellation.

Read More: Menhirs Date From the Neolithic, But What are They?

Much like Stonehenge, the henges at Thornborough also appear to be purposefully positioned to align with the rising and setting of the sun in midsummer and midwinter. The stone and wood pillars and landmarks found within some henges, it has been posited, were aligned to measure the position of the sun as it rose and set.

It has also been theorised that henges were used to create ancient solar calendars to mark planting seasons and spiritual events. 

Ritualistic Funerals and Ancient Healing 

Henge sites are thought to have held deep significance to the people of Neolithic Britain and one school of thought as to their purpose was as a symbolic part of funeral practices.

The idea has been raised that henge sites  served as the place for elaborate and highly ritualistic funeral processions in which the journey between different elements and areas of these sites was representative of the journey from the world of the living to the realm of the dead. This idea is somewhat supported by the presence of human remains at many henge sites.

Part of the outer ditch of Avebury henge
Part of the outer ditch of Avebury henge

However, the presence of the bodies of those that appear to have travelled extensive distances to reach henge sites has given rise to an alternate school of thought – that henges were not sites for death but for healing.

The site being seen as a spiritual place with healing properties is argued to be a plausible explanation for the fact that a number of the bodies found at some sites showed evidence of traumatic deformities. 

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Although the exact purpose of these henges is unknown, a common consensus is that they were the site of ancient ritualistic events of some nature. As well as funerary or healing rituals, events including the dispensing of justice, sacrificial events and feasts have all been raised as possible activities that occurred at the henges of Britain. 

Where to See Henges Today 

While henges may date back thousands of years, there are some that can still be visited today. Avebury, Stonehenge and Woodhenge, located in Wiltshire are, of course, the most well known examples of Neolithic megalithic monuments that can still be observed.

Read More: The Forgotten Roman Roads

Other examples of ancient henges around the UK include Mayburgh Henge in Cumbria, and the Ring of Brodgar located on Orkney. 

Maumbury Rings - the eastern rampart.
Maumbury Rings – the eastern rampart. The Romans used it as an amphitheatre

Another henge site worth a visit is Maumbury Rings in Dorset. Originally constructed in the Neolithic Period, Maumbury Rings has a rich history. The henge was also used as a Roman amphitheatre and then again was modified for use as an artillery fort in the English Civil War. 

The Mysteries of Megalithic Monuments 

Henges form an incredible physical example of Neolithic construction. Questions as to the purpose of these awe-inspiring sites have given rise to theories of everything from sacrifices to healing powers as these places offer one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of Neolithic Britain.

While many henge sites are believed to have been lost to history, there are some examples that have endured through the ages and still capture the imagination of people throughout the modern world.

While the true purpose of henges may never be uncovered, these sites have become an incredible reminder of a world that once was. 

A Vast and Complicated History, Here’s an Overview:

Origins and Definition: A henge is a Neolithic or early Bronze Age monument, typically characterized by a circular or oval earthen bank with an internal ditch. Contrary to popular belief, not all henges contain standing stones. The name “henge” is a relatively modern term and its etymology is unclear.

Chronology: Henges were primarily constructed between 3000 BC and 2000 BC, during a period when communal construction of ceremonial architecture was prevalent across Britain.

Purpose: The exact purpose of henges remains a topic of scholarly debate. Given their design and the effort required for their construction, it’s evident that they had significant ceremonial or communal importance. They might have been used for seasonal rituals, astronomical observations, funerals, or social gatherings. Some researchers believe they were related to ancestor worship or were used as ceremonial procession routes.

Distribution: While henges are mainly associated with Britain, they can also be found in Ireland and other parts of the British Isles. They are scattered throughout the landscape, with notable concentrations in Wiltshire and Derbyshire.

Design and Features: Most henges feature a single bank and ditch, though some have multiple circuits. The ditch is almost always located inside the bank, which is an unusual configuration compared to other defensive structures, suggesting a more ceremonial than defensive function. Many henges also have entrance causeways that interrupt the circuit. Inside the earthworks, there can be various features such as stone circles, wooden posts, and central burials or pits.

Notable Henges

  • Avebury: Located in Wiltshire, Avebury is one of the largest and most complex henge monuments, encompassing a village. It contains the largest stone circle in Britain.
  • Durrington Walls: Near Stonehenge, this is one of the so-called ‘superhenges’ due to its enormous size. Recent evidence suggests that it once contained a circle of timber posts.
  • Maumbury Rings: Located in Dorchester, this henge was later adapted by the Romans for use as an amphitheater.

Later History: While the primary use of henges as ceremonial or communal spaces diminished after the Bronze Age, they didn’t vanish from the cultural landscape. In many cases, they continued to influence the layout and significance of the local environment. Some were repurposed in later periods for defense or other functions, while others remained as prominent landmarks, often shrouded in myth and folklore.

Modern Relevance: The discovery and study of henges have been crucial in shaping our understanding of Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain. These monuments offer insights into the social organization, beliefs, and technological capabilities of prehistoric communities. Today, they are considered invaluable archaeological and cultural assets and are often protected as heritage sites.