The Destruction of The Sanctuary

“The Overton-hill, from time immemorial, the country people have a high notion of it. It was (alas, it was!) a very few years ago, crown’d with a most beautiful temple of the Druids. They still call it the sanctuary…..” – William Stukeley, 1743.

The Star Chambered Barrow
Standing outside West Kennet Long Barrow it’s hard not to be drawn to the view of the top of Silbury, which although not the same height, certainly is at a similar level. There must be an intended relationship here between the two sites but Silbury, now unstable after archaeological digs of the last few hundred years, retains its mysteries. In the 17th century the antiquarian John Aubrey had drawn the long barrow with the chamber capstones and the facade seemingly aligned on the Sanctuary on the skyline of the distant Overton Hill. In 1724 William Stukeley described the barrow as “pointing to the dragon’s head on Overton-hill”. In fact the West Kennet long barrow points almost due east-west and misses the Sanctuary, but nevertheless, the barrow forecourt does look toward it and suggests a correlation between Silbury, the Sanctuary and the long barrow.

West Kennet Long Barrow – Stukeley

John North proposes that with the blocking stones of the facade removed the five chambers within the eastern end of the long barrow were aligned toward five significant stars by two flanking stones that purposefully limited lines of sight from within the chambers. North continues that the ditches of the West Kennet long barrow appear to have been cut in six sections, rather than one continuous ditch either side as one would expect, with deliberate changes in direction at set points. North suggests that the ditches could have provided viewing platforms at right angles to the barrow, although he adds caution in the fact that the ditches have been far from fully excavated. He goes on to propose that looking from the southern ditch across the barrow c.3600 BC Neolithic man would have witnessed the star Arcturus dip down to touch the tomb, rest there for about half an hour, then rise up again. Some four and a half hours after that, viewed from the northern ditch across the barrow, Sirius would have risen over the tomb then fallen again. Vega mimicked the behaviour of Arcturus over the barrow, descending into the tomb before rising again. A fourth star, Rigel, completed the astral display by following Sirius in the southern sky, rising out of the tomb then quickly falling back in. Of course seasonal limits would vary from star to star for viewing this phenomena but three could be seen on every clear night from about a fortnight before the autumnal equinox and a month prior to the winter solstice. North calculates that the period between the mid point of Arcturus’ visit to the tomb and the mid point of Vega’s visit on the same night would be about six hours. Insufficient investigation has been carried out at East Kennet long barrow to ascertain if a similar phenomena occurs but the tomb does align with Rigel rising. [1] The Sanctuary was our next port of call before returning back to Avebury, so we left West Kennet Long Barrow and headed for The Ridgeway and Overton Hill.

A Last View of the Sanctuary before its destruction

The Dragon’s Head
After walking alongside then crossing the river Kennet, skirting around the perimeter of a wheat field, we joined the ancient trackway of The Ridgeway and made our way sharply uphill towards Overton Hill. As the trackway levelled off at the top of the hill we noticed several barrows on our right, appropriately named Seven Barrows in Aubrey’s day. We saw more barrows on the other side of the busy A4, Bath – Marlborough Road, as the trackway continued northwards but we departed The Ridgeway here and turned left into the English Heritage enclosure of the prehistoric site of The Sanctuary; now just concentric rings of low lying concrete blocks. The Sanctuary is thought to have been constructed c.2400 BC, about a thousand years after the West Kennet Long Barrow but around the same time that the barrow went out of use as a tomb and was sealed. The latest wisdom is that the construction of Sibury was completed, in its current form, between 2400 and 2300 BC. [2]

It would appear the stone rings of The Sanctuary, the closure of West Kennet Long Barrow, the construction of the great mound of Silbury and the Avebury Avenues all appear to be contemporaneous; all within a couple of hundred years of each other, forming a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age complex. The closure and sealing of the long barrows would appear to indicate a change in religious practice, but not necessarily the complete termination of its utilisation, taking the Avebury complex into a new phase linked through the Kennet and Beckhampton Avenues. As we have seen above the West Kennet long barrow forecourt was targeted toward the barrow complex at Overton Hill, or Seven Barrow hill as it was formerly known. The megalithic monuments of the Sanctuary, Silbury and the Kennet long barrows all share intervisibility; from one you can see the others, but for the most part the Avenues are concealed from Silbury. No one is really sure of the significance of this intervisibility and concealment between megalithic monuments but it is becoming increasingly recognised as an important design feature in determining their position in the prehistoric landscape.

For example, although scholars still debate the purpose of Cursus monuments it is significant that at least eight long barrows are targeted on the now obliterated barrow, Amesbury 42, at the eastern end of the Stonehenge Cursus, now lying under a bridleway, the oldest of the eight alignments directed toward Rigel. [3] Furthermore, of the thirty nine extant or destroyed earthen long barrows on Cranbourne Chase the course of the Dorset Cursus would have been visible from at least fourteen with nine of those directly associated with the Cursus; two incorporated within its course and seven aligned on its terminals. [4] Were they laid out like this to facilitate movement of the ancestor spirits between the tombs?

The Avebury complex as envisaged by Stukeley

There is not much to see at The Sanctuary today, just those concentric concrete rings and the standard English Heritage information boards. Said to be large enough to contain the outer ring of stones at Stonehenge, the later structure at The Sanctuary was the site of a stone circle that formed the terminus of the West Kennet Avenue, linking it to Avebury stone circles. From here we could see the West and East Kennet long barrows and just peeping up behind Waden Hill was the top of Silbury.

Waden Hill is an important feature of the Avebury complex, although often not recognised as such, used by prehistoric man to great effect in his games of visibility and concealment. Waden Hill shrouds Silbury from the West Kennet Avenue and The Sanctuary, just the top of the man made mound being visible from Overton Hill. The infant river Kennet, also known here as the Winterbourne, trickles along the western side of Waden Hill which once had nine Bronze Age round barrows on it but now only one remains on the north end. Stukeley sketched a barrow on the south end but there are no traces of it on the ground now. The site was excavated when a sewer was being put in, which uncovered molluscan evidence indicating that the barrow had been constructed in an established grazed downland. [5] Ploughing has removed many of the barrows that once existed in the Avebury area such as the cemetery on Waden Hill; crop marks providing evidence of their former existence. A similar barrow cemetery existed on Windmill Hill and also at Folly Hill between the Longstones and Silbury Hill.

William Stukeley’s findings at Avebury were published in 1743 in his “Abury, A Temple of the British Druids“. In 1723 he recorded that he saw the site at Overton Hill, as the head of a huge serpent, Beckampton being the tail, referring to it as the “hakpen”, or the “serpent’s head”, although he claimed the country people called it the “Sanctuary”. It was composed of two concentric ovals, the outer containing 40 and the inner 18 stones, 130ft and 45ft diameters respectively, standing on what is still called Mill Field.

A year later it was gone; Stukeley records the destruction of these rings in the winter of 1724:

“Farmer Green took away the stones and Farmer Griffin ploughed up the field……… order to clear the ground for ploughing and so gain a little dirty profit”.

He added, “…..The loss of this work I did not lament alone; but all the neighbours (except the person that gain’d the little dirty profit) were heartily griev’d for it. It had a beauty that touch’d them far beyond those much greater circles in Abury town.” [6]

Aubrey’s drawings of the Avebury monuments unveil the presence of stones which had disappeared by the time Stukeley was to study the site; testament to the period between the two men’s visits as one of major destruction to the monument and the Avebury prehistoric complex. For example, at the time of his visits in the 17th century, Aubrey records that there were 20 stones in the Southern Inner Circle at Avebury whereas Stukeley found only 5 still standing barely 60 years later.

The Temple Rediscovered
And that’s how The Sanctuary remained; once a proud megalithic circle now reduced to a flat field, largely forgotten until 200 years later when excavated by the Cunnington’s in 1930 who managed to locate the site from Stukeley’s sketches and writings. Local archaeologists Maud and Ben Cunnington determined that the first stage of activity at the site consisted of six concentric rings of timbers erected around 3,000 BC, probably as a series of three increasingly large timber structures, which may have supported a thatched roof, which has been suggested as originally the observatory of an astronomer-priest.

The timber circles at the Sanctuary were eventually superseded around 2,400 BC by the two concentric stone circles, at this time the axis was realigned 10 degrees to the west where three stone pillars were set radially on the outer circumference, appearing to form an entrance that joined a short avenue that would later be extended to lead downhill and onto Avebury; the West Kennet Avenue.

Plan of the Sanctuary

In her report on the 1930 excavations Mrs Cunnington records that only one burial was found at the site. This consisted of the crouched skeleton, always termed a youth but possibly a young girl of some 14 or 15 years of age in a shallow grave on the eastern side of ring C immediately behind the one single-post hole, lying head to the south, feet to the north, looking towards the east and facing the mid-year sunrise. A beaker was placed between her legs. The body must have almost touched the inner face of the stone at the time of burial, if the stone was already standing, as the grave and the stone hole cut into one another. Cunnington thought it hardly possible that the burial was made before the stone hole was dug, suggesting that it seemed probable that it was made at the time the stone was erected, otherwise the risk of bringing down the stone would have been considerable had the grave been dug later. The bones of the skeleton were nearly all broken, probably due to a certain amount of disturbance caused when the stone fell.

Cunnington saw much in common with the solitary burial found at Woodhenge, a small grave found lying on the line of midsummer sunrise that she suspected was a murdered infant, suggesting they may have been of a similar dedicatory nature and speculated that these elaborate series of wooden circles were not erected primarily as burial places.

Four postholes were found flanking a single recumbent stone at The Sanctuary. Cunnington suggested this solitary stone on the south western side corresponds to the solitary stone at Woodhenge. Calculations have shown that from the centre of the Sanctuary this stone is aligned to the major southern moonset. Just inside the inner ring two much heavier posts were aligned to a north west entrance whose sides are aligned to the mid summer sun. These lunar and solar alignments add further weight to the argument for a ritual interpretation of the site.

Both Woodhenge and The Sanctuary were purchased by the Cunnington’s and given to nation.
The only other human remains the Cunnington’s found at The Sanctuary were three pieces of a lower jaw scattered in stone hole 16 of ring C, interpreted as evidence of funerary practices and ancestor rites with so few antlers and animal bones having been found at The Sanctuary that is considered to be a place of ritual and not a domestic dwelling. These increasingly large timber structures, which may have supported a thatch roofed mortuary house where corpses were kept either before or after ritual treatment at Avebury. The Sanctuary may have been a central ossuary serving the nearby Kennet long barrows, Adam’s Grave further south and the Devil’s Den to the north east; “Rituals connected with death seem likely there.” [7]

Yet debate continues over whether The Sanctuary was roofed or not. Certain mollusc shells were found in the excavations which belonged to snail species found in marshy areas, perhaps lending weight to the theory that the structure was thatched with reeds at some point gathered from the nearby river Kennet. [8]

Mike Pitts and Josh Pollard carried out a small scale excavation at The Sanctuary in 1999 which found a 50cm (20 inches) step on the bottom of one of the double post holes. This step turned out to be Neolithic pit fill, hard-packed chalk. On removal of the fill there was still a step, half the height of the original, which also turned out to be prehistoric packing. Only the deepest pit at the eastern end of the hole had evidence for a timber, in the form of a dark pipe 25cm (10 inches) across. Pitts and Pollard concluded that if each pit held a post, these were later removed with only the last timber was left to rot in place. They could not envisage how this continual replacement could have occurred beneath a heavy thatched roof confirming the growing feeling amongst archaeologists that these sites were displays of free-standing posts. Pitts see this as indication of a continual process; one phase, not several. [9]

Although modern thinking amongst archaeologists is that these concentric rings of The Sanctuary may have held free-standing posts, Maud Cunnington did initially speculate that Woodhenge also held free standing posts and recent surveys at Stanton Drew have revealed huge concentric circles of post holes, the diameter considered too large to have supported a roofed structure; the function of these timber rings remains obscure. In some cases the gaps between the timbers were so close that a man could not pass between them.

Woodhenge reconstructed

Timber thatched temples or not, perhaps it is the concentric rings, or possibly the solitary burial, or maybe the fact that both sites are described by the same excavator in Maud Cunnington, but The Sanctuary today certainly feels and looks similar to what we see at Woodhenge with its low level concrete stumps just a couple of miles north east of Stonehenge. Yet, the location of Woodhenge does not feel like it was significantly placed in the landscape; perhaps it originally functioned as a ritual temple to Durrington Walls, although evidence of an interlinking avenue has not been found.

The lofty elevation of Overton Hill, the hill of the Seven barrows, adjacent to The Ridgeway, with its long views toward the Kennet long barrows, Silbury looking over Waden Hill with just the slightest glimpse of the West Kennet Avenue snaking away northward on its journey to the great henge of Avebury, shows the Avebury monuments as a once prehistoric ritual complex constructed in the Early Bronze Age marking a permanent change in the function of the Neolithic megalithic monuments of the area. How grand it would have been if the stones had not been ripped out in modern times.


  1. John North, Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos, Harper Collins, 1996, pp. 74-84.
  2. Jim Leary and David Field, The Story of Silbury Hill, English Heritage, 2010.
  3. North, op. cit. p.184.
  4. Chris Tilley, A Phenoenology of Landscape, Berg, 1994, pp. 170-201.
  5. Archaeology in the Avebury Area. Wessex Arch. Rpt. No 8, 1996.
  6. Aubrey Burl, Prehistoric Avebury, Yale University Press, 2nd Edition, 2002, p.133.
  7. Aubrey Burl, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale University Press, 2000, pp.313-315.
  8. Aubrey Burl, Prehistoric Avebury, Yale University Press, 2nd Edition, 2002, p.136.
  9. Mike Pitts, Hengeworld, Arrow, 2001, p.242 – 245
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News Round Up September

Race against time before Iron Age hillfort is lost to the sea
Excavations in 2019 revealed one of the largest Iron Age Roundhouses ever discovered in the region but the site at Dinas Dinlle is slowing falling into the ocean.  Archaeologists are continuing excavations at the site that has lost about a third of its area to the sea since 1900.

>> BBC News Wales 07 September 2021

Bronze Age coffin found on Golf course to be displayed
A further two years of preservation work will be required on the 10ft (3m) long Bronze Age relic, containing the remains of a man holding an axe, uncovered during work on a pond in July 2018, before it is exhibited at the Lincoln Collection Museum.
>> BBC News Lincolnshire 10 September 2021

New viewing tower opens at Sutton Hoo
A new 17m (56ft) high viewing tower at an Anglo-Saxon burial ground has officially opened as part of a £4m revamp of the site at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge in Suffolk
>> BBC News Suffolk 16 September 2021

Human bones found in Gloucestershire date back to Bronze Age
Human remains discovered by a dog walker near the River Severn in Longney, Gloucestershire, in March have been found to be more than 4,000 years old. Carbon dating established that they dated from between 2340BC and 2140BC.
>> BBC News Gloucestershire 17 September 2021

Iron Age and Roman artefacts found at site of A120 Little Hadham bypass
The archaeologists discovered the foundations of Iron Age houses dating back to 300BC, along with Roman remains dating to the 1st and 4th centuries AD. The finds resulted from archaeological digs at the site of the A120 Little Hadham bypass in Hertfordshire.
>> BBC News Beds, Herts & Bucks 17 September 2021

PM urged to abandon Stonehenge tunnel plans
Following last months High Court success when Stonehenge Alliance campaigners won a battle to prevent the A303 improvement scheme in Wiltshire, campaigners have written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling on him to abandon plans to build a tunnel under Stonehenge. We await his response.
>> BBC News Wilsthire 21 September 2021

Stonehenge: English Heritage to repair cracked lintels
Cracks and holes in the stones which form Stonehenge are to be repaired for the first time in more than 60 years. Work is taking place after laser scans showed the lintel stones, joints and concrete mortar that balance them across the vertical stones have eroded.
>> BBC News Wilshire 14 September 2021


Trethevy Quoit: Recent Work
The Megalithic Portal features a talk by Andy Jones providing a summary of investigations undertaken at Trethevy Quoit, Cornwall in 2019 and their wider context. The talk reviews the findings from the archaeological investigation of the field in which the portal dolman is set and places them within current knowledge of Cornish chamber tombs and portal dolmens.
>> Trethevy Quoit: In Light of Recent Work – The Megalithic Portal 09 Setember 2021

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High Court rules Stonehenge tunnel scheme ‘unlawful’

A High Court judge has ruled that the decision to approve the controversial Stonehenge tunnel scheme on the the A303 was “unlawful”.

Ignoring advice from Planning Inspectorate officials that said the proposed dual carriageway in a short tunnel would cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the Unesco World Heritage Site the government gave the go-ahead regardless in November 2020.

Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) challenged the decision by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to back the £1.7 billion scheme to overhaul eight miles of the A303, including the two-mile tunnel.

UNESCO had warned that Stonehenge’s status as a world heritage site would be in danger if plans for a tunnel underneath it were not altered, favouring a longer tunnel with portals well away from the Neolithic monument on Salisbury Plain.

Accordingly the judge found the Secretary of State accepted that the road scheme would have caused permanent and irreversible harm to the World Heritage Site but had unlawfully failed to consider less damaging ways of relieving the existing A303.

In a ruling on 30th July Mr Justice Holgate found the decision was “unlawful” on two grounds:

  • There was a “material error of law” in the decision-making process because there was no evidence of the impact on each individual asset at the historic site.
  • The Transport Secretary failed to consider alternative schemes, in accordance with the World Heritage Convention and common law.

In describing the relevant circumstances of the case as wholly exceptional, the Judge said:

“In this case the relative merits of the alternative tunnel options compared to the western cutting and portals were an obviously material consideration which the (Transport Secretary) was required to assess.

“It was irrational not to do so.”

The Secretary of State has the right to appeal the ruling and propose an alternative scheme.

The outcome allows the government opportunity to show it is serious about preserving the Nation’s heritage and, in respecting this rare landscape, take the A303 completely out of the World Heritage Site.

>> Stonehenge tunnel campaigners win court battle – BBC News Wiltshire 31 July 2021

Highways England has said plans for a road tunnel near Stonehenge will continue despite opponents winning a High Court battle last week.
The government-owned company said it would proceed with handing out construction contracts for the scheme.

The project would overhaul an eight-mile (12.8km) stretch of the A303 and include a tunnel where it passes closest to Stonehenge

>> Stonehenge tunnel: Highways England says plans are continuing – BBC News Wiltshire 05 August 2021

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Was Stonehenge a Roofed Temple?

Regardless of the archaeological studies of recent years Stonehenge remains an enigma. It is this mystery which maintains the endless fascination with this Neolithic monument. That it was a temple aligned to the midsummer – midwinter solstice is without doubt but questions remain, not least how the smaller bluestones got to Salibury Plain, 140 miles from their origin in south-west Wales; but more importantly why? Then there is the argument as to whether the monument was ever finished, as we see it today as incomplete with many stones missing, particularly from the arc of the south-west sector.

Then there is the mystery of the Altar Stone, now lying embedded in the ground under the lintel (Stone 156) that once spanned the top of the Great Trilithon (Stones 55 & 56), the tallest surviving structure at Stonehenge. Was the Altar Stone originally horizontal like an altar, or vertical and knocked over when the Great Trilithon collapsed? When did the Great Trilithon collapse; was it as a result of deliberate wrecking in antiquity?

Fallen lintel (Stone 156) from the Great Trilithon

On the eastern face of this massive lintel (Stone 156) as it now lies, (presumably the lower face) a deep mortise hole is visible closely matching in size to the large tenon at the top of Stone 56. Shallower depressions are visible on the western (upper) face which are often interpreted as the beginnings of mortise holes that were started on the wrong side of the lintel (156). It is claimed that having made this mistake the builders turned it over and made them on the opposite face instead.

But what if the Neolithic architecture of Stonehenge wanted depressions on both sides of the lintel?

The deep mortises underneath lintel 156 were to securely locate the stone horizontally across the two once upright sarsens of the Great Trilithon (Stones 55 & 56) spanning the axis of the monument. Depressions on the top face suggest they were made to locate a structure on top of the Great Trilithon, perhaps another trilithon arrangement.

In a passage in his ” Historia Anglorum” (c.1130 AD) Henry of Huntingdon provided the earliest account that we have of the monument in its English name:

“The second marvel is at Stonehenge, where stones of amazing bigness
are raised in manner of gateways, so that gateways appear erected
over gateways ; nor can any one find out by what contrivance stones
so great have been raised to such a height, or for what reason they have
been erected in that place.”

Roman Aqueduct in Segovia; Did Henry of Huntingdon see similar architecture at Stonehenge?

Henry’s “Gateways upon Gateways” clearly suggests another structure was on top of the lintels at Stonehenge when he wrote in the 12th century.

Drawing on the now lost 4th century BC account of Hecataeus, the 1st century BC Greek historian Diodorus Siculus described a temple in the British Isles dedicated to Apollo:

“And there is also on the island both a magnificent
sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple which is adorned with
many votive offerings and is spherical in shape”

If Hecataeus is referring to Stonehenge, and its far from certain that he was, the description of a “spherical temple” certainly implies the monument was covered with a roof. This is not as far fetched as it at first appears, after all the nearby Woodhenge is often depicted as a roofed structure with its concentric circles of postholes.

The roofed temple at Woodhenge

We know from the first accounts of Stonehenge by antiquarians in the 17th century it was denude of any covering by then and this is how it is depicted in the earliest illustrations from the 14th century, such as the Scala Mundi (1340 AD) and the well known scene of Merlin constructing Stonehenge found in Wace’s Roman de Brut (Egerton MS 3028) dated 1338-1340 AD. However, we can be fairly certain that a wooden structure supporting a thatched roof would have rotted away quite quickly once the monument was abandoned soon after 1500 BC.

Architects and Stonehenge
It seems very likely that the 17th century architect Sir Christopher Wren visited Stonehenge regularly, indeed he was born in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, only about 15 miles away from the monument. The southern edge of Stone 52 has the name “Wren” scratched on its face and is thought to have been carved by the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral himself. There is similar graffiti on Stone 23 in the outer sarsen circle. Wren may have envisaged a roof on Stonehenge and this may well have inspired him in his design of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral which has the same diameter as the sarsen circle.

St Paul’s is on the site of a Roman temple at Ludgate Hill in London dedicated to the hunter goddess Diana where a stone circle is said to have stood beforehand. The Pagan temple was destroyed in 597 AD, when the first Christian church was constructed on Ludgate Hill by the Saxon King Aethelbert of Kent.

The Dome of St Paul’s Cathedral

After the original cathedral was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 Wren was commissioned to design a new construction. He had originally planned St Paul’s as a large dome but the commissioners preference was for a plan in the form of a cross. The result was a compromise between the two that we see today with the dome centred over the crossing.

In 1675 when construction of the present St. Paul’s cathedral began, Wren is said to have discovered the remains of the old pagan temple in the foundations. Perhaps the dimensions of the dome and Stonehenge preserve the sacred dimensions of the original stone circle on Ludgate Hill.

A Roofed Temple
After carefully examining and analysing the remains of the monument on Salisbury Plain with the eyes of a Landscape architect rather than as an archaeologist Sarah Ewbank believes Stonehenge once had a roof enclosing a large oval hall overlooked by galleries.

Drawing on her expertise of forty years experience in patterns and construction Ewbank argues that the entire Stonehenge site was constructed and laid out using a single consistent unit of measurement, which she calls the BAUNT (Bronze Age Unit) as evidence that our ancestors were far more advanced than they are typically portrayed in our Hi-Tech world today. Galleries were constructed on top of the stone structure that supported a thatched roof as a Neolithic temple she asserts.

Ewbank is that convinced that Stonehenge was a Neolithic temple with a thatched roof that she has made scale models to test her theory and published her findings in the book Stonehenge: Temple Cipher Roof in A4 full colour format, 155 pages, with over 350 illustrations.

Ewbank points out that the diameter of Stonehenge is almost exactly the same as Shakespeare’s Globe, a similarly thatched building which is unquestionably the right size for an enclosed public venue as several millennia later the human voice can carry to every member of the audience within. As a temple to view astronomical events it certainly makes sense that these phenomena could be observed at Stonehenge through openings in the roof space like an observatory.

How Stonehenge may have looked as a roofed temple according to Landscape architect Sarah Ewbank.

Putting aside the depressions in the upper face of Stone 156, no evidence of this structure has survived into modern times in the ruined temple on Salisbury Plain. However, instead of creating a design from scratch, Ewbank worked with the remains of the original design of the four concentric formations of stones which make up Stonehenge: an outer and an inner circle, a horseshoe and an oval.

None of these features is complete today but archaeological investigations have turned up indications of where the missing stones once stood, suggesting the outer ring consisted of 30 pillars of sarsen stones, each about four metres high, which would have supported the upper structure of the temple.

Construction techniques at Stonehenge

Ewbank argues that we see the same common building form across the ancient world, bringing our attention to other famous historic buildings, such as the Parthenon in Athens, whose roofs are supported by similar columns. It’s believed that these pillars were all originally capped by horizontally placed stones known as lintels. At Stonehenge the sarsen and lintels are interlocked by mortise and tenon joints; the only stone circle constructed this way. Ewbank argues that these would not have been necessary unless they were supporting something, such as the load of a roof.

Of course not everyone will agree with Ewbank but she certainly presents a plausible argument.

Further reading:

Mail online 02 July 2021 – Architect’s concept that Stonehenge rocks were base for Neolithic temple brought to life in models | Daily Mail Online

Stonehenge: Temple Cipher Roof – Sarah Ewbank

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Solstice at Stonehenge 2021

Following the extension of Government restrictions to 19 July owing to the resurgence of COVID-19 Delta variant English Heritage has cancelled the planned Summer Solstice celebrations at Stonehenge 2021 for the second year running. In 2020 English Heritage cancelled both last year’s Summer and Winter Solstice celebrations due to the pandemic.

Summer Solstice gathereings at Stonehenge have increased in numbers over the years to now regularly exceed 30,000 people. Step 3 of the government roadmap currently limits numbers at outdoor gatherings to 4,000.

The night is long
The beads of time pass slow,
Tired eyes on the sunrise,
Waiting for the eastern glow.

As with last year English Heritage will again provide free online accessibility for those wishing to watch the Solstice sunset and sunrise remotely by the English Heritage Facebook page where they will be hosting the live stream event. Last year’s event was watched by more than three million people.

For those looking for an alternative location to experience the Summer solstice should also be aware there is no extended or overnight opening of National Trust facilities at Avebury for the solstice weekend.

The overwhelming message is to watch the solstice from the safety of your own home.

UPDATE 21/06/21

English Heritage pulled the live feed of the solstice sunrise at 04.52 over safety fears after people disregarded advice not to travel to the monument and welcomed the sunrise at the stones. Footage showed hundreds of people inside the stone circle and thousands of us online were left watching pre-recorded footage. Thanks for ruining a special event.

Police and security were seemingly powerless to stop the invasion and simply watched on. Odd how on one open access visit I was reprimanded by an EH security guard for touching one of the sarsens, but on solstice it seems you can do whatever you like.

Hugh Newman of Megalithomania recorded the event and questions the “so-called COVID restrictions“. Wake up man, it’s real, it’s here, people are dying.

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The Quest for the Origins of Stonehenge – complete PDF

All 3 parts posted 3-5 April as one complete article

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The Quest for the Origins of Stonehenge – Part III

Continued from Part II: Provenancing the Stones

The View from the Otherside of the River
It would appear that from its very inception, the Stonehenge Riverside Project (SRP) had a predetermined objective that a sceptic might be tempted to think that the archaeological finds have been made to fit that very plan.

That plan was seemingly conceived in the 1990’s when Parker Pearson worked with the archaeologist Ramilisonina from Madagascar to develop a new interpretation of the ritual landscape around Stonehenge. In Madagascar stone is used for sacred purposes to construct tombs and monuments for the dead, and belongs to the world of the ancestors. Whereas wood is used to make houses and belongs to the realm of the living. The concept has been influential on Parker Pearson’s interpretation of the findings of the two project teams discussed above. Is it feasible that the culture of Neolithic Wessex can be identified with modern Madagascar?

The notion that the inhabitants of Durrington Walls were the same people who constructed Stonehenge is certainly possible but unfounded and unprovable. That the two sites were connected by an Avenue with bluestones at each terminus joined by the River Avon in a grand ceremonial route, a rite of passage, for a huge mid-winter festival to honour the ancestors is a lovely idea but does the evidence actually support this?

There are issues with this chronology. As Julian Richards says, “it is not possible to be living at Durrington Walls (around 2500BC), make the journey to Stonehenge via the Avenue (constructed later between 2400 and 2300BC) and for your cremated remains to be buried at Stonehenge where the majority of burials date to before 2600BC.

Aubrey Hole excavation

SRP excavated one single Aubrey Hole and determined that all 56 holes originally held bluestones in the first stone setting at the monument. However, Julian Richards, one of the excavators of Aubrey Hole 7, is not convinced it held a bluestone. Richards comments as one who closely examined the crushed chalk at the base of the hole that “the evidence was not quite as conclusive as Mike Parker Pearson states”. Richards was not alone in his doubts; other archaeologists who saw the base of the hole were not convinced of the “apparent” stone impression either. Richards also questions the profiles of the 34 excavated Aubrey Holes which vary considerably in size and shape; if they all served the same purpose should they not be more consistent? There also remains the issue of the lack of stone in the lower fills of the Aubrey Holes, consistent with the lack of stone chips in the lower fills of the ditch, which Richards suggests indicates they were dug before stone arrived at the site. It seems the matter will only be resolved by excavating an undisturbed Aubrey Hole.

Then we have the henge monument at West Amesbury encompassing a circle of bluestones (Bluestonehenge) envisaged as holding 24-26 bluestones, combined with 56 in the Aubrey Holes providing the total number of 80-82 bluestones in the final Stonehenge setting. SRP had hoped the construction of Bluestonehenge would be contemporary with the first bluestone setting in the 56 Aubrey Holes in 3000–2920 BC but evidence is lacking and the date uncertain. However, firmer dating evidence was obtained for the dismantling of Bluestonehenge which occurred around the same time as the digging of the Avenue ditches and rearrangement of the bluestones into a setting at Stonehenge using all 80 or so in a double arc or circle in Stage 3, around 2400-2300 BC.

Artists impression of Bluestonehenge by the River Avon

Yet, there was no evidence of bluestones standing in the stone circle at West Amesbury; no bluestone chips in the stoneholes whatsoever. The conclusion was made based simply on the size of the holes that bore a close resemblance to known bluestone holes at Stonehenge. This assumption has a significant bearing on the proposed stoneholes at Waun Mawn, as we will see later. Dating evidence for the construction and dismantling of the proposed bluestone circle by the river Avon is not secure but it fits the overall scheme; dates that don’t fit are rejected and those that do are selected even if obtained from fewer samples. Note that at Waun Mawn only seven dates were accepted from 43 samples subjected to radiocarbon dating.

A similar strategy was employed once the source of some of the bluestones at Stonehenge were matched to locations in the Preseli Hills. But dating evidence, hazel nuts from a camp fire, which may not be linked to stone extraction from the site at all, returned dates several hundred years before the envisaged first stone setting at Stonehenge. This dating had to be made to fit the grand scheme so the bluestones had to have been employed somewhere else for the period. Where were those bluestones for several hundred of years before being moved to Salisbury Plain?

Thus, the quest moves to Waun Mawn as a potential bluestone circle located close to the proposed quarry sites that was robbed of its stones in antiquity and moved to Salisbury Plain. There are many concerns with this neat little proposal in which everything falls nicely into place:

  • Firstly, it is not certain that Waun Mawn was a stone circle at all, only ten possible stoneholes of uneven spacing have so far been uncovered. Only four stones survive at Waun Mawn, all unspotted dolerite, only one of these upright; were they ever all standing? We can also question why these four bluestones were not taken to Stonehenge and left behind in Wales?
  • If the claimed similarities between Stonehenge and Waun Mawn is evidence of migration by people from south-west Wales to Salisbury Plain who took their stones – “their ancestral identities” – with them, why were these four bluestones (relics of ancestors) left at Waun Mawn?
  • Much has been made of the diameter of the putative stone circle at Waun Mawn, which at 110m is said to be the same as the ditch that encloses Stonehenge. Yet we are told that the first stone setting at Stonehenge was bluestones standing in the Aubrey Holes, a circle which has a diameter of 87m. For this argument to hold water shouldn’t we be comparing two identical features, i.e. stone circle to stone circle or ditch to ditch, not two dissimilar features such as ditch to stone circle.
  • The claim that no other stone circle bears this similarity in size is therefore also flawed, but at 110m the suggested stone circle at Waun Mawn is closer to Stanton Drew at 113m rather than the Aubrey Hole circle at 87m, the first stone setting at Stonehenge according to SRP.
  • It is claimed that both Stonehenge and Waun Mawn are aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise; a large gap in the proposed stone settings at the north east of Waun Mawn is claimed to target the midsummer sunrise like a gunsight. The gap in these stone settings at this point is so large it could target many things; is it actually an entrance?
  • SRP argued that the Stonehenge axis aligns with periglacial fissures uncovered in the Avenue which happen to align with the midwinter- midsummer solstice. This they argue is the reason for the monument being sited at this precise location on Salisbury Plain. If Stonehenge is modelled on Waun Mawn we should expect to find a similar feature there, but none has been reported. If this is the reason for the Stonehenge axial alignment what is the reason for the Waun Mawn alignment, and as mentioned above, if there is one which is far from certain? If the claimed Waun Mawn alignment to the midsummer sunrise is correct then serious consideration must be given to the suggested chronological sequence of the two monuments.
  • But what really lets down the overall hypothesis is the size of the stoneholes at Waun Mawn. The stoneholes at Waun Mawn are smaller than recognised bluestone holes in the Stonehenge environs. Most of the stoneholes at Waun Mawn comprised shallow pits 0.80–1.20m diameter × 0.30–0.50m deep. [ANTIQUITY 2021 Vol. 95 (379):pp.85–103] These are substantially shallower than bluestone holes from the Stonehenge environs:
  • Regardless of the absence of lithic evidence, the size of the stoneholes at Bluestonehenge was used to determine the monument once held bluestones. At Bluestonehenge the average stonehole measured 1.5 diameter x 1.12m deep [ANTIQUITY 90 352 (2016): 991–1008]
  • “It is important to note that the profiles, depths and diameters of the Aubrey Holes (averaging 1.10m in maximum diameter and 0.88m deep; Cleal et al. 1995: Table 10, Figures 51–5) are indistinguishable from those of known bluestone sockets of later phases (averaging 1.12m in maximum diameter and 0.96m deep;” [ANTIQUITY 83 (2009): 23–39]
  • By the evidence of the size of the claimed stoneholes at Waun Mawn alone we must reject the suggestion that it was once a stone circle that held bluestones of similar size to Stonehenge.

    The story of Stonehenge and Waun Mawn is told in the journal Antiquity but if you thought it would be any more scientific than the BBC television program The Lost Stone Circle Revealed, then think again.

    Parker Pearson said: “I have been leading projects at Stonehenge since 2003 and this is the culmination of twenty years of research. It’s one of the most important discoveries I’ve ever made.”

This is not a major discovery by any means; it is a supposition painting a romantic image of a people migrating from their homelands bringing their stones, representative of their ancestors, with them in an attempt to solve the mysteries of Stonehenge. But there is one significant element missing: firm evidence.

Finding Bigfoot is more convincing.

Michael J Allen et al, Stonehenge’s Avenue and ‘Bluestonehenge’, ANTIQUITY 90 352 (2016): 991–1008.
Richard Atkinson, Stonehenge, Penguin, 1979.
Timothy Darvill et al, Stonehenge Remodelled, ANTIQUITY 86 (2012): 1021–1040
David J Nash et al, Origins of the sarsen megaliths at Stonehenge, Science Advances, 2020; 6.
Mike Parker Pearson, Who was buried at Stonehenge? ANTIQUITY 83 (2009): 23–39.
Mike Parker Pearson et al, The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales, Antiquity 2021 Vol. 95 (379): pp. 85–103.
Mike Parker Pearson, et al, The Origins of Stonehenge: On the Track of the bluestones. Archaeology International 2017, No. 20: pp. 52–57.
Mike Parker Pearson, et al, Waun Mawn stone circle: the Welsh origins of Stonehenge: Interim report of the 2018 season
M Parker Pearson and Ramilisonina, Stonehenge for the ancestors: the stones pass on the message, Antiquity , Volume 72, Issue 276 , June 1998 , pp. 308 – 326
M Parker Pearson and Ramilisonina, Stonehenge for the ancestors: Part Two
Antiquity , Volume 72 , Issue 278 , December 1998 , pp. 855 – 856
M Parker Pearson, et al, Materializing Stonehenge – The Stonehenge Riverside Project and New Discoveries, July 2006, Journal of Material Culture 11(1-2):227-261.
M Parker Pearson, Stonehenge: Exploring the greatest Stone Age mystery, Simon & Schuster, 2012.
M Parker Pearson et al, Stonehenge: Making Sense of a Prehistoric Mystery, CBA, 2015
Stuart Piggott, The Sources of Geoffrey of Monmouth. II: The Stonehenge Story, ANTIQUITY 1941 Vol. 15, (305).
Julian Richards, Stonehenge: The Story So Far, Historic England, 2017.
Christie Willis et al, The Dead of Stonehenge, ANTIQUITY 90 350 (2016): 337–356
Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, ed. & trans. Lewis Thorpe, Penguin, 1973.

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The Quest for the Origins of Stonehenge – Part II

Continued from Part I: The Quest Begins

Provenancing the Stones
Beyond the Stonehenge Riverside Project the team took on further research as The Stones of Stonehenge Project (SOS) once again directed by Professor Mike Parker Pearson (now UCL Institute of Archaeology), to explore the origin of the stones used in the construction of Stonehenge: sourcing the huge sarsens and the bluestones using geological analysis to pinpoint the precise locations.

After matching source material to core samples taken from a limited number of sarsens at Stonehenge in 1958 researchers have identified West Woods, 15 miles (25km) north of the monument on the edge of Wiltshire’s Marlborough Downs as the exact origin of the sarsen stones. Yet, the sarsens fail to excite many people and the real interest is in the bluestones.

Modern science has managed to pinpoint the exact source of some of the bluestones owing to advances in technology since Herbert Thomas’s day. Dr Richard Bevins (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales) and Dr Rob Ixer (UCL and University of Leicester) have now identified the outcrops of Carn Goedog (near Carn Meyn) as the main source of Stonehenge’s ‘spotted dolerite’ bluestones and Craig Rhos-y-felin as a source for one of the ‘rhyolite’ bluestones, oddly abundant in the debitage at Stonehenge but absent as a standing stone.

Craig Rhos-y-felin

At Craig Rhos-y-felin the SOS team claimed to have found traces of prehistoric stone extraction along with a prepared but abandoned megalith and a stone hole within which another was apparently extracted. Continuing investigations claimed to have uncovered evidence of further megalith quarrying in the Preselis at Carn Goedog, identifying this site as a source for spotted dolerite bluestones, not Carn Menyn as originally claimed by Thomas. However, it is debatable whether there is any direct evidence of quarrying at either site.

The dating of Craig Rhos-y-felin was obtained from radiocarbon testing of charcoal from a fire claimed to be the quarry-men’s camp revealed a date several hundred years before the construction of the first stone setting at Stonehenge. Parker Pearson said, “We have dates of around 3400 BC for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 BC for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn’t get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 BC”.

Carn Goedog

This anomaly of several hundred years before SRP’s revised dating for the Stonehenge sequence with the first bluestone settings in the Aubrey Holes raises the question of where the bluestones stood for up to 500 years or so after quarrying but before their arrival on Salisbury Plain?

As noted above (Part I), the bluestones at Stonehenge show clear signs of reworking from a previous setting; lintels with mortices and pillars with tenons removed; deep grooves and projections. However, the chalk under Stonehenge has been described as “swiss cheese” owing to the amount of stoneholes and postholes from over a thousand years of continuous reworking of the megalith arrangements making positive identification of stone settings extremely problematic.

In summary, we have a 5oo year gap from quarrying and second hand bluestones used at Stonehenge; Parker Pearson argues that the bluestones must have been set somewhere else before arriving on Salisbury Plain. In his search for the first Bluestone Circle Parker Pearson appears to have been influenced by a 900 year old myth which tells how the monument was moved to south-west England.

The Magic Numbers
Around 1136 AD Geoffrey of Monmouth completed his account of the history of the kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae). In his book Geoffrey claimed that around the time of King Arthur, the prophet of Vortigern known as Merlin brought the Giants Ring stone circle from mount Killaraus in Ireland to England as a memorial to the British nobles murdered by the Saxons at a peace conference. Merlin says that no one of this age could raise these stones of such vast magnitude that the giants of old brought from Africa and placed them in Ireland when they inhabited that country. Uther Pendragon, the brother of Aurelius Ambrosius the king, is despatched to Ireland with 15,000 men to bring back the Giants Ring. After defeating the Irish and moving the stone circle with Merlin’s magic it was reconstructed near the convent at Ambrius where the murdered British nobles had been buried. Later, both Aurelius and Uther are buried in the Giants Ring. When King Arthur is mortally wounded in his last battle with Modred he is taken not to the Giants Ring to be buried alongside his kinsfolk as might be expected but to the Isle of Avallon to be cured of his wounds by Morgan and her sisters. After the passing of Arthur the crown passed to his kinsman Constantine who was “buried close by Uther Pendragon within the structure of stones, which was set up with wonderful art not far from Salisbury, and called in the English tongue, Stonehenge.”

Stonehenge, from the Scala Mundi

It is easy to see why Geoffrey’s tale of the Giants Ring appeals to Mike Parker Pearson in his search for a lost bluestone circle as the original Stonehenge; the stone circle is brought from the west, in the Antiquity paper he states that this area of west Wales was considered Irish territory in Geoffrey’s day. The stone circle is set up at Ambrius, near Salisbury, clearly meant to be Amesbury; it is a burial ground for British nobles; the Giants Ring is called Stonehenge in English. The monument at Stonehenge seems to tick all the boxes.

Having convinced himself that the bluestones must have started their monument service as a stone circle in the Preseli Hills where it may have stood for possibly 500 years before being dismantled and transported to Salisbury Plain, Mike and the gang set off in search of a redundant site in south-west Wales, constructed around the same time as the quarry sites and then robbed of its stones around the time the first bluestones arrived at Stonehenge.

The ‘Stones of Stonehenge’ (SOS) project identified Waun Mawn in the Preseli Hills, south-west Wales, as a site of interest in 2010, but magnetometer and earth-resistance surveys in 2011 failed to locate any geophysical anomalies indicative of stoneholes. Waun Mawn is an arc of four bluestones, one upright at 1.6m high and three recumbent, all of unspotted dolerite. These stones are part of the Talfarn y Bwlch Stone complex, near Brynberian.

The quest for the lost bluestone circle took the Project team back to Waun Mawn in 2017, a site situated between the two sites identified as bluestone quarries at Craig Rhos-y-felin and Carn Goedog. They returned to Waun Mawn in 2018 and extended excavations beyond the arc of stones and revealed 12 further features. Six of these features were apparently empty holes for standing stones said to have been removed in antiquity confirming that they were once part of a former circle which at a diameter of 110 metres would have been the third largest stone circle in Britain, after Avebury in Wiltshire and Stanton Drew in Somerset, and also one of the earliest. By strange co-incidence the diameter of the Waun Mawn circle is the same as that of the ditch that encloses Stonehenge.

Waun Mawn trenches

However, the SOS team claimed that the six stoneholes and four surviving standing stones (ten potential stone settings in total) may have originally formed part of a circle of 30–50 stones, suggesting that other stone circles must have also been robbed of their bluestones to provide the 80 or so thought to have stood at Stonehenge in its full compliment. By contrast, only three unspotted dolerite bluestones survive at Stonehenge (stones 44, 45 & 62).

A large gap between the suggested stone settings in the northeast sector of the conjectured stone circle at Waun Mawn is envisaged as the entrance, said to be aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise, as at Stonehenge.

Furthermore, it is argued that one of the stoneholes (091) at Waun Mawn matches the pentagonal cross-section of one the bluestones (Stone 62) at Stonehenge. Sounds like Bluestonehenge again! A large flake of unspotted dolerite that is thought to have become detached from the stone during its erection or removal at Waun Mawn, is claimed to be of the same type of rock as that of Stone 62 at Stonehenge.

Waun Mawn excavated features

Dating Waun Mawn
Limited prehistoric artefacts have been recovered from Waun Mawn, none of which was datable. Radiocarbon dating was restricted to small samples (less than 4mm) of wood charcoal recovered by sediment flotation, which may be either intrusive or residual as a result of reworking by plants or animals, such as by ingestion and defecation.

Therefore to supplement radiocarbon dating of these samples, sediment from within the packing deposits that were considered to have been placed at the time of the stone’s erection, and from the in-fill of empty sockets, considered to have accumulated after the monoliths’ removal, was subjected to Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL), a technique which can be used to date when sediment was last exposed to light. 18 samples were subjected to OSL providing a date range from 6980 BC to AD 1900. Samples from within the secondary fills, suggests removal of the stones was before 2120 BC.

43 samples were subjected radiocarbon testing, 31 from stoneholes and the rest from other features. Most of these however were rejected as they fall outside the ranges provided by the OSL dating, leaving just seven dates, four of which are from stoneholes, ranging from the end of the Early Neolithic to Middle Neolithic leading to the proposal that the stone circle at Waun Mawn was erected in c.3400–3200 BC.

The Preseli region of Wales was an important and densely settled place in Neolithic Britain, as witnessed by the concentration of megalithic tombs and large enclosures Parker Pearson tells us. Yet, he goes on, evidence of activity in the thousand years after 3000 BC is almost non-existent. And you can guess where this is all leading.

Recent isotopic analysis of the remains of the people buried at Stonehenge removed from Aubrey Hole 7 by the SRP suggests that the first people to be buried there came from western Britain, very possibly west Wales, around the same time the bluestones arrived. Parker Pearson said: “It’s as if they just vanished. Maybe most of the people migrated, taking their stones – their ancestral identities – with them, to start again in this other special place.”

Continued in Part III: The View from the Otherside of the River

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The Quest for the Origins of Stonehenge

“The discovery of a dismantled stone circle—close to Stonehenge’s bluestone quarries in west Wales—raises the possibility that a 900-year-old legend about Stonehenge being built from an earlier stone circle contains a grain of truth. Radiocarbon and OSL dating of Waun Mawn indicate construction c. 3000 BC, shortly before the initial construction of Stonehenge. The identical diameters of Waun Mawn and the enclosing ditch of Stonehenge, and their orientations on the midsummer solstice sunrise, suggest that at least part of the Waun Mawn circle was brought from west Wales to Salisbury Plain. This interpretation complements recent isotope work that supports a hypothesis of migration of both people and animals from Wales to Stonehenge.” – Mike Parker Pearson et al, The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales, Antiquity 2021 Vol. 95 (379):pp.85–103.

Part I

The Quest Begins
Following the television program Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed first screened on BBC2 on 12th February, the story claiming to unveil a dramatic discovery linking Stonehenge to its original site 140 miles distant in Preseli, south-west Wales, has gone viral across news channels and social media. Reception has been mixed with some voices accusing the program, presented by respected anthropologist Alice Roberts, as parading myth as fact and not representing good science.

Alice Roberts and Mike Parker Pearson at Waun Mawn

The Stones of Stonehenge
The huge sarsen stones, weighing around 25 tons each, comprising today what remains of the outer circle and inner trilithon horseshoe, were sourced locally and brought from Marlborough Downs about 20 miles away. This alone was a massive effort, but apart from the challenge of the shear size of the stones it appears to be in common with most prehistoric stone circle construction that utilised local material. The arrival of the earliest sarsens at Stonehenge has been dated around 2600 BC. However, it is now claimed that the first stone setting at Stonehenge was actually the smaller bluestones, each estimated to weigh between 2-4 tons. The arrival of these bluestones, has puzzled archaeologists since the British geologist Herbert Thomas identified their source as the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales a hundred years ago.

Thomas identified a site called Carn Menyn in the Preselis as the source of the spotted dolerite bluestones at Stonehenge. His discovery led some to look anew at Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century tale of the Kings of Britain which claimed Stonehenge was brought from Ireland during the days of King Arthur, including Stuart Piggott who excavated at Stonehenge alongside Richard Atkinson in the 1950’s.

Perhaps Thomas was correct in postulating their use in an earlier stone circle as some of the bluestones present at Stonehenge today display clear evidence of previous working which may support claims of an earlier bluestone circle somewhere. Two spotted dolerite lintels (Stones 36 and 150) in the bluestone circle appear to have been reused from an earlier structure and three stones (Stones 67, 70, and possibly 69) from the bluestone horseshoe (or oval) display evidence of reworked tenons at their tops, while the tongue and groove on stones 66 and 68 suggests they were once joined.

Bluestone 68

Thomas’s sampling was limited and he only spent one day in the Preseli Hills. It is now known that there are at least 20 different types of volcanic and igneous rocks, including dolerites (spotted and unspotted), rhyolites, sandstones and tuffs, that constitute the “bluestone group” of stones, an unsatisfactory generic term used to describe all non-sarsen stones at Stonehenge. The task of identification is compounded by the fact that many of the original stones are now missing and some reduced to mere stumps while the sad remnants of others are hidden beneath the Stonehenge turf; a mere 43 survive at the monument today, no doubt the result of robbing and breaking by souvenir hunters over thousands of years.

Tales from the Riverbank
The quest for the origins of Stonehenge started with The Stonehenge Riverside Project (SRP), directed by Mike Parker Pearson, (then of Sheffield University), carrying out research in the Stonehenge landscape between 2003-2009. The SRP carried out fieldwork at key sites including Durrington Walls, the Cursus, and the Stonehenge Avenue to test the hypothesis that Stonehenge was a stone monument dedicated to the dead and Durrington Walls made from timber was for the living.

Stonehenge – Durrington Walls

Following extensive work at Durrington Walls, a large Neolithic settlement 2 miles from Stonehenge linked to the river Avon by a paved avenue aligned to the midsummer sunset, SRP moved onto Stonehenge in 2008 and re-opened Aubrey Hole 7, purposefully targeting this pit as it contained all the human remains from previous excavations at Stonehenge that had been reburied in 1935. Studies of the human remains from the Aubrey Hole, totalling at least 52 cremation burials, led the team to conclude that Stonehenge is effectively Britain’s largest third millennium BC cemetery. Controversially the human remains have still not been returned to Stonehenge, the sacred place where they were meant to be, despite legal challenges by the Stonehenge Druids. After excavating just the one pit SRP re-aligned the date of the first monument at Stonehenge back by 500 years to around 3000 BC seeing bluestones standing in all 56 Aubrey Holes, the first stone setting.

In 2009 the project team discovered a henge monument by the River Avon at the terminus of the Stonehenge Avenue. At the centre of this so-called West Amesbury henge were 9 stoneholes in an arc, imagined as holding 24-26 bluestones in a full circle (at least half now missing, eroded by the river Avon). These stoneholes were closely comparable with bluestone holes at Stonehenge, indeed the imprint of one is claimed to be very similar to the distinctively indented cross-section of Bluestone 68 at Stonehenge (illustrated above). Hence the monument was speculatively named “Bluestonehenge”, although no lithic evidence was found at the site to support the notion of a bluestone circle; not a chip, not a flake.

SRP hoped the construction of this putative bluestonestone circle was contemporary with the proposed date for the arrival of the bluestones at Stonehenge standing in the 56 Aubrey Holes in 3000–2920 BC. But there was a lack of secure dating evidence for the construction. The stone circle was probably dismantled 2480–2230 BC, roughly contemporary with construction of the Avenue.

Conveniently, 56 in the Aubrey holes and 24-26 at Bluestonehenge provides the ultimate number of bluestones considered by Richard Atkinson in the final setting at Stonehenge of around 80. However the final number of bluestones is far from certain. Excavations by Atkinson (1954) and Darvill & Wainwright (2008) across the Bluestone Circle found the spacing of stumps under the turf to be very close, suggesting, if continuous, that a complete circle may have been filled in like a wall. However, figures are typically given as between 40-60 for the Bluestone Circle and around 24 in the Bluestone Horseshoe. It should be noted that the Bluestone Horseshoe was originally closed at both ends forming an oval, but 4 or 5 stones were ripped out to leave 19 in an open horseshoe; where did these bluestones go?

Stonehenge Avenue excavation

Excavation by SRP across the line of the Avenue revealed deep periglacial fissures underlying the first 500m from the monument that aligned with Stonehenge’s solstitial axis (midwinter sunset–midsummer sunrise). Parker Pearson concluded that Stonehenge was built at this precise location in the prehistoric landscape because of this alignment, an immense project that unified the ancient Britons.

Continued in Part II: Provenancing the Stones

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The Story of the Lost Bluestone Circle

A dramatic discovery links Stonehenge to its original site – in Wales says the Guardian with a feature claiming finds at Waun Mawn in Preseli supports the theory that the Stonehenge bluestones first stood in circle in Wales before being transported 140 miles to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England.

Merlin and The Giants Dance

The story of the stones of Stonehenge coming from the west was first written by Geoffrey of Monmouth 900 years ago. Geoffrey claimed the stones of the Giants Dance had been moved by Merlin’s magic from Ireland and erected on Salisbury Plain as a monument to the British nobles slaughtered by the Saxons. Geoffrey’s story was dismissed as pure myth.

However, in 1923 Herbert H Thomas first proposed that the bluestones used in the construction of Stonehenge were identical to rocks in the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, Wales. 

The bluestones at Stonehenge display clear evidence of having stood in trilithon settings with lintels like a smaller version of the giant sarsens. 

Geologists have identified close matches with types of bluestone now at Stonehenge with potential quarry sites at Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin in the Preselis.

Mike Parker Pearson, professor of British later prehistory at University College London is convinced that “somewhere near the quarries there is the first Stonehenge and that what we’re seeing at Stonehenge is a second-hand monument”.

For the last few seasons Parker Pearson and his team have carried archaeological studies at a Neolithic stone circle in Wales known as “Waun Mawn” has revealed features suggesting that Geoffrey’s 12th-century legend may not be a total fantasy after all.

Waun Mawn location

Waun Mawn has several similarities to Stonehenge: it has a diameter of 110 metres, identical to the ditch that encloses Stonehenge and is aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise, again just like Stonehenge.

Although only four unspotted bluestones have survived at Waun Mawn a series of buried stone-holes that follow the circle’s outline has been unearthed, with shapes that can be linked to Stonehenge’s bluestone pillars.

Mike Parker Pearson,, told the Guardian: “I’ve been researching Stonehenge for 20 years now and this really is the most exciting thing we’ve ever found.

The story of one man’s quest for the lost bluestone circle is told tonight on BBC2 at 09:00 pm with Alice Roberts who says it is “an astonishing discovery that is going to have us rewriting the prehistory books.” 

See Also:
>> Stonehenge: Did the stone circle originally stand in Wales? – BBC Wales 12 February 2021

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