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Researching Stonehenge: the nation's most famous prehistoric monument


Stonehenge is the centrepiece of a fascinating archaeological landscape. On the anniversary of the site being given to the nation, we look back at some of the research The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has funded at and around this iconic monument.

A hundred years ago today on 26 October 1918, Wiltshire couple Cecil and Mary Chubb gave Stonehenge to the nation.

They had bought the site three years earlier but, apparently influenced by the Ancient Monuments Act of 1913, Cecil wrote to Sir Alfred Mond, the First Commissioner of Works, offering “this unique possession …to you…as a gift to be held for the nation.”

Since then Stonehenge has gone on to become one of the world's most famous, most iconic archaeological sites.

But it remains a fascinating mystery, and the AHRC has funded many investigations exploring the construction, purpose and use of the site.

Since 2005 the AHRC has funded five research projects on the Stonehenge site and its surrounding landscape including “Feeding Stonehenge” at the University of Sheffield and “Neolithic Pilgrimage?” at the University of Reading.

Stonehenge is not an isolated monument but part of a wider ritual landscape, and we funded archaeologists studying its relationship with nearby sites, including Avebury and Durrington Walls.

This major project included detailed, targeted, open area excavations aimed at understanding activities undertaken within and between the monuments, and a programme of test pitting to discern the links between them and the River Avon.

A programme of coring, test pitting and fieldwalking along the river and in the wider landscape investigated the environmental history of the area, testing hypotheses of natural and human environmental disturbance in areas where monument complexes developed.

At the heart of all of this monumental landscape were the people who built and used its sites, and another project, the AHRC-funded Living With Monuments, involved an ambitious fieldwork programme examining the record of settlement and related activities within the wider Stonehenge area.

The project explored how Neolithic people lived – where they lived – and the relationship between these people and the surrounding area's progressive monumentalisation.

But the human story of the stones continues today, and the site is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.

As part of attempts to improve their experience we recently funded a post-doctoral archaeological scientist to help English Heritage develop a public engagement programme.

This showed visitors how scientists have made discoveries about what Neolithic people ate through examination and molecular analysis of bones and artefacts excavated at the Stonehenge monumental complex.

Of course, many mysteries still remain and the is much still to discover. But the AHRC will continue to fund those helping us understand the origins of this incredible monument and the society that created it.

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