How to Build Stonehenge

Review by Susan Greaney.

This elegant new volume is the first book for over 60 years to focus specifically on how the world-famous Neolithic monument of Stonehenge was constructed. The narrative progresses through the step-by-step process of the extraction, transport, dressing, and erection of the stones that form the main phase of the monument, clearly setting out the evidence for each stage. Pitts deftly weaves together antiquarian accounts, anthropological records, the latest research, and his own personal insights. The result is a highly readable and conversational account, with an intimate tone that effortlessly draws you into the complexities of the archaeological debates.

One of the strengths of this volume are the many evocative photographs and descriptions, many of which were written by colonial administrators, of the way that large stones and trees have been moved in comparatively recent times by communities in Indonesia, India, Malaysia, and on the Polynesian island of Rapa Nui. These accounts help to illustrate the important point, repeated throughout the book, that a search for how Stonehenge was built does not need to be focused on the most efficient, least arduous, and speediest of solutions. For those who build megalithic monuments in other societies, the moving of a stone can be a grand occasion with many hundreds of participants, often dressed in special costumes and accompanied by music and dancing, with the event culminating in a large communal feast. This can fundamentally shift our perspective about the potential events that took place at Stonehenge.

The front cover features William Stukeley’s 1740 orthographic line-drawing of Stonehenge, depicting it as an over-idealised precise geometric monument and acting here as something like an architect’s blueprint. And this is where perhaps the approach adopted by Pitts has a slight drawback. Stonehenge wasn’t a monument that was built in one single burst of activity, designed by an architect and completed in one episode. It was a place that was created, remade, adjusted, and embellished over nearly 1,000 years, including an enclosed cremation cemetery of c.3000 BC, a possible timber phase, the sarsen stones being set up in c.2500 BC, and then the rearrangement of the bluestones in c.2300 BC. Of course, these various phases and shifts are explained and explored in the book, but perhaps are overshadowed by the otherwise enormously successful overall approach.

As Stonehenge experts are wont to do, this reviewer might quibble with some of Pitts’ conclusions (I am firmly in favour of a coastal route for the bluestones for example, rather than an overland one). However, having all the latest research and evidence clearly set out and discussed in one place has created an invaluable resource for those who wish to understand the fascinating and constantly changing story of Stonehenge.

How to Build Stonehenge, Mike Pitts, Thames & Hudson, Hardback, £20, ISBN 978-0500024195.