In A Nutshell
Stonehenge is perhaps the most well known of all the stone circles that are still strewn across the British countryside. A henge is characterized by earthworks consisting of an inner ditch and an outer bank and can also contain either stone or timber circles. Henges can also be classified by the number of circles they have, as well as their size, shape, and number of entrances.
The Whole Bushel
Henges are perhaps the most well known of the megalithic monuments, thanks to the enduring popularity of Stonehenge. Dating back to around 3,000 B.C., henges such as Stonehenge are a largely British and Irish phenomenon.
By definition, a henge is an enclosure defined not by its standing stones, but by the positioning of the outer ditch and bank, as well as the purpose that can be deduced from such. Henges are enclosures that are surrounded by an inner ditch and an outer bank; structures that are built for strictly defensive purposes tend to have the opposite construction, with the ditch on the outside. It’s actually this formation of earthworks that defines a henge, rather than the standing stones that are so distinctive in places like Stonehenge.
There are two main types of henges, and these types are where the standing stones come in. Stone circles, or henges are, as their name suggests, defined by their standing stones that are placed around the inside border of the henge’s earthworks. Timber circles can be more difficult to identify, as wooden posts obviously haven’t survived the centuries as well as the standing stones. What have survived are the holes that ring the henges, showing where the massive posts were sunk into the ground at one time. Some henges—such as Stonehenge—are both stone and timber circles.
Most henges have two entrances and sometimes, less commonly, a single entrance. Often, entrances are aligned with sunrise and sunset on the solstices. Many are roughly 110 meters (360 ft) in diameter, give or take. There are some small henges that are less than 20 meters (65 ft) in diameter, though, and these are called mini-henges.
Within these broad types of stone circles are specific varieties with somewhat self-explanatory names: small, large regular, large irregular, concentric, and four-poster.
Timber circles can be further divided into categories based on how many ditches and banks there are. Some are singular, and some have multiple rings. Stanton Drew, Somerset has at least nine concentric timber circles in one monument. Because we have much less evidence as to how timber circles were constructed, the general hypothesis is that some may have supported cross-beams such as those seen in Stonehenge, while others were simply posts. Many—perhaps as many as 40 percent—of stone circles started out as timber circles and were gradually updated as available materials allowed.
Even within these broad definitions, many henges show individual variations. In some, such as Maumbury Rings, the ditches are split by deep shafts. Some henges have been so worn by centuries that they’ve been impossible to even find before aerial photography shows the patterns of circular ditches and banks from above.
There are also a variety of theories as to the different uses of these structures. It’s thought that those henges that are situated in valleys and along rivers had a different meaning than those at higher, more mountainous altitudes. Their alignment with solstice sunrises and sunsets clearly suggest a religious purpose, while surrounding burial grounds suggest a change in purpose as time went on. Some henges underwent massive changes; Maumbury Rings were converted into an amphitheater with the conquest of the Romans.