STONEHENGE: WINTER SOLSTICE 2020

Winter Solstice sunset and sunrise to be live streamed from Stonehenge

Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic English Heritage has cancelled the Winter Solstice gathering at Stonehenge this year in the interests of public health.

Instead, the Winter Solstice sunset and sunrise will instead be live-streamed from the stones on the evening of 20 December and the morning of the 21 December. It will be free to watch on the English Heritage social media channels, FacebookYouTube or Twitter pages.

Sunset is at 16:01 GMT on Sunday 20th December.

Sunrise is at 08:09 GMT on Monday 21st December.

The events be live for about 45 minutes before and after.

The Christmas Star
The winter solstice marks the point in the year that the Earth’s North Pole is tilted furthest away from the sun resulting in the shortest hours of daylight in the northern hemisphere.

This year will see the occurrence of the two astronomical events on the longest night of the year; the peak of a meteor shower coincides with an extremely rare conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.

On 21 December, the Ursid meteor shower will see up to 10 ‘shooting stars’ an hour from the northeast direction of the sky where the North Star appears. This will be the final meteor shower of 2020.

In a different part of the night’s sky, Jupiter and Saturn will appear just 0.1 degree apart – roughly equivalent to one fifth of the moon’s diameter.

The convergence of the two gas giants, known as the Great Conjunction, will be the closest the two planets have appeared together since 1623. Both planets will appear to the naked eye as a single bright entity, leading some to refer to it as a ‘Christmas Star’ due to its timing.

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Stop the Stonehenge Tunnel: Sign the Petition

Shockingly, against all advice, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has given permission for the A303 Stonehenge Tunnel scheme to go ahead.

“The decision by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to drive a chasm through Stonehenge World Heritage Site will send shock waves around the world, not least because the independent Examining Authority recommended it be refused permission. The decision goes against the advice of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, it will undermine the UK’s legal commitment to address Climate Change and is contrary to the advice of many experienced archaeologists.

All is not lost yet; there is now a six-week period in which the decision can be challenged in the High Court.

Stonehenge Alliance are running a petition to stop the Tunnel: Sign the petition

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Stonehenge Tunnel Approved

The controversial plan to construct a two-mile (3.2km) road tunnel near Stonehenge has been approved by the Transport Secretary.

The tunnel will take the congested A303, which currently runs within a few hundred metres of the ancient monument, out of sight and return the Stonehenge landscape to greenfield.

The decision to build the £1.7bn tunnel through a World Heritage Site goes against the recommendations of planning officials who had recommended that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps withhold consent, warning it would cause “permanent, irreversible harm” to the World Heritage site.

However, the Department for Transport considered that the benefits far “outweighed any harm.”

English Heritage, the nominated guardians of such monuments, welcomed the decision claiming it would “restore the ancient landscape” around the monument. But you can’t put back an “ancient” landscape; once its gone it is no longer ancient.

In 2019 the plan was condemned by UNESCO, the very organisation that preserves World Heritage Sites.

Archaeologists had voiced their opposition to the plan from its inception due to its potential impact on the area.

In June, a ring of at least 20 large shafts within the ancient Stonehenge landscape were discovered within a short distance from the monument, demonstrating the archaeology still undiscovered in the Stonehenge environment.

But Highways England said that the shafts were all “well outside the scheme boundary” and no closer than 500 metres from the planned road upgrade.

Preparatory work is due to begin next spring with the five-year construction phase expected to start by 2023.

There is now a six-week period in which the decision can be challenged in the High Court.

Good idea or bad idea; will the A303 tunnel enhance the visitor experience to Stonehenge without harming the undiscovered archaeology that lies beneath?


Source:
Stonehenge A303 tunnel plan approved by transport secretary – BBC News Wiltshire 12 November 2020

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The Discovery of Lascaux Cave Paintings

Eighty years ago on the 12th September 1940 four teenagers followed their dog down a narrow hole to discover a stunning underground gallery of prehistoric artwork.

Hall of the Bulls

The boys had discovered a complex of caves at Lascaux in the Vézère Valley of the Dordogne region of southwestern France. French archaeologist Henri-Édouard-Prosper Breuil, the first to study the artwork, estimated the paintings to date from between 15,000 BC to 17,000 BC and recognised them as some of the finest examples of Upper Paleolithic period art.

The Lascaux cave system consists of a main cavern 66 feet wide and 16 feet high. The walls of the cavern are decorated with prehistoric art of animals, human figures and abstract signs, totalling nearly 2,000 figures. Some 600 are painted and drawn animals in excellent detail with nearly 1,500 engravings etched into the cave walls.

Depictions of horses form the majority of the artwork with 90 paintings of stags and also cattle, bison, felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and one human. The archaeological record shows that these paintings reflect the fauna which would have been known to humans in this area in the Palaeolithic era.

The entrance quickly leads into the main chamber of the cave, the Hall of the Bulls, showing the famous four large bulls, or aurochs, which appear to be in motion towering above fleeing horses and deer. One of the bulls is 17 feet long, the largest animal discovered so far in cave art.

The Great Bull

The Hall of the Bulls leads into the Axial Gallery, a dead-end passage termed the ‘Sistine Chapel of Prehistory’ as the ceiling is covered with art dominated by a circle of red aurochs.

Doubling back and taking the second exit from the Hall of the Bulls you come to the lateral Passageway with mainly engravings and some paintings of a variety of animals. The lateral Passageway leads into the Nave where a panel features a large black cow. Opposite, a freeze shows five deer swimming. Further is the Chamber of Felines with engravings of lions dominating the room. A branch off the cave, the chamber known as The Shaft (of the Dead Man) shows a wounded bison, a woolly rhinoceros, a bird on a stick (?), and the only human depicted in the Lascaux complex.

Shaft of the Dead Man

The bird-head man with an erect phallus, has been described as a shaman in a state of ecstasy in ritual stance, performing a magico-religious ceremony to bring a successful hunt. Another mysterious figure is depicted with panther skin, a deer’s tail, a bison’s hump, two horns, and a male member.

Having been undisturbed for over 17,000 years the cave was opened for public viewing in 1948. Yet within just a few years after its opening an algae growth was noticed on the cave walls in 1955 causing damage to the paintings. The use of high-powered lights and the presence of too many visitors bringing with them carbon dioxide, heat and humidity was identified as disturbing the unique environment within the cave causing irreversible damage to the prehistoric artwork.

The Panel of the Black Cow, The Nave

Subsequently the cave was closed to the public in 1963, yet despite the closure, fungi have continued to spread throughout the cave. It appears unlikely that visitors will ever be permitted to the cave again.

Recognising its importance to prehistory, the Lascaux cave and several other decorated caves of the Vézère Valley were protected by addition to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 1979. Yet even with the protection afforded of a UNESCO site the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux are in real danger of being lost to future generations after black mould was reported spreading through the cave in the 2000’s. Since 2008, with the elimination of the human presence the black spots appear to fading.

However, the public can see copies of the prehistoric artwork and visit a replica of the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery sections, in a modern gallery known as Lascaux II constructed 200 metres from the original cave complex and opened to the public in 1983.

Visitors can also see a complete replica of the caves at the Lascaux International Centre for Parietal Art (also called Lascaux 4).

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Mitchell’s Fold: Prehistoric Monument or Modern Hoax?

Situated just inside the English border with Wales in the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Mitchell’s Fold stone circle is part of a complex of prehistoric monuments in the landscape near Priest Weston, Montgomery.

IMGP0012

Sited on a dramatic moorland setting on the flat plateau of Stapeley Common near the village called White Grit at an altitude of just over 305m (1,000 ft) on a saddle between the hills of Stapeley to the north and Corndon to the south.

Nearby there are also two other stone circles, a long barrow and numerous cairns; the Hoarstones stone circle is just to the north-east across Black Marsh, comprising 38 doleritic stones, all  under 1 metre tall with the largest at the centre, framed against the dramatic setting of Corndon Hill in the background. Two mounds of uncertain date lie to the north.  Immediately west of White Grit was the site of the destroyed stone circle of Whetstones, its larger stones incorporated in to a boundary wall in the 19th century.

Mitchell’s Fold lies on the line of the south-west to north-east ridgeway following the spine of Stapeley Hill, said to be the old coach route from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth which may follow the line of a prehistoric trackway.

Nearby was the important Bronze Age axe factory at Cwm Mawr, where distinctive picrite Group XII Bronze Age battle axes and axe hammers were produced and traded extensively across Wales and England. The exact site of the quarry at Cwm Mawr is unknown but said to be at an unnamed little hill north-west of the village of Hyssington immediately south of Corndon Hill. Excavations by the Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust in 2007 proved inconclusive.

Constructed from dolerite stones from nearby Stapeley Hill, forming a rough circle 30m across, during the Early Bronze Age, Mitchell’s Fold is thought have once had as many as 30 stones. Sadly the circle has been badly damaged and today only 15 stones remain; as recently as 1995 a local farmer pulled the stones out with a mechanical digger.

Today Mitchell’s Fold is a designated Scheduled Ancient Monument which as a whole includes the stone circle, an outlier standing stone, a cairn base, portions of two field banks and a area of ridge and furrow, today protected by the guardianship of English Heritage.

At nearly 2m high, the tallest stone is said to have been one of a pair forming an entrance to the circle. Antiquarians claimed a third stone formed a lintel over the two portal stones forming a trilithon setting, such as witnessed at Stonehenge. There may also have been a central stone, described as an “altar”; probing suggests that there may be a central stone under the turf. Most of the stones in the circle stand less than half a metre high and some are recumbent.

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Across the border in Powys, Mid Wales, is Corndon Hill, at 513m (1,683 ft) it draws the eye and provides a dramatic backdrop to Mitchell’s Fold. Corndon is covered with Bronze Age burial cairns and must have been a prehistoric funerary complex.

Facts and Fictions
It is said that during a time of famine, a fairy provided a magic cow that produced an endless supply of milk. One night an evil witch milked her into a sieve. When the cow realised the trick, she vanished. The witch was turned to stone and a circle of stones was erected around her, to ensure that she could not escape.

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A very recent tradition constructed to promote Shropshire tourism suggests that this is the site where King Arthur drew the sword from the stone to prove him as the rightful heir to the throne.

The date of Mitchell’s Fold stone circle has been called into question in modern times when aerial photography revealed mediaeval ridge-and-furrow plough-marks that not only go up to the ring, but also go straight through it indicating the circle was constructed later than the plough marks and may not be prehistoric at all.

There is also no written record of the stone circle before the 19th century, which, when considered with the plough marks, has led to claims that Mitchell’s Fold is an historical hoax constructed in the 18th century by Druid Temple enthusiasts.

 

Credits:
YouTube video by Bald Man
Photographs by the author
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Provenancing the stones of Stonehenge

Standing on Salisbury Plain like a megalithic cathedral in the centre of a huge prehistoric cemetery the ancient monument of Stonehenge has been a puzzle since Roman times: What is it? Why is it here? Where did the stones come from?

The answers to some of these questions seem unattainable even in our high-tech age and we will probably never know what purpose Stonehenge was meant to serve, yet scientists are homing in on the source of the stones.

Stonehenge sarsens and the smaller bluestones

Almost one hundred years ago the source of the bluestones, the smaller stones at Stonehenge, was first hypothesised by British geologist Herbert Henry Thomas in his seminal paper “The source of the stones of Stonehenge” (1923) as the Mynydd Preseli region of north Pembrokeshire in south west Wales.

The so called “bluestones” of Stonehenge is a collective term (unsatisfactorily) used to describe all the non-sarsen stones used in the construction of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

Thomas argued that the dolerite stones likely came from Carn Meini and Cerrig Marchogion and the rhyolitic stones from Carn Alw. Thomas’s theory remained unchallenged for over 80 years.

But now, owing to modern scientific advances, this most enigmatic of ancient monuments is starting to reveal its secrets.

The latest issues of the two most popular Archaeology magazines in the country both feature articles on the source of the stones of Stonehenge.

The Science of Stonehenge is the issue title on the cover of the latest edition of Current Archaeology magazine (Issue 366).

It seems the long puzzle of where the Stonehenge bluestones came from is now closing in with scientific advances allowing the scientists to pinpoint the most likely outcrops where they were first quarried with ever-greater accuracy.

An extract from the feature article Provenancing the Stones features on the Current Archaeology website.

Thomas recognised the source of some of the bluestones after he noticed the iconic white/pink spots found in the majority of the Stonehenge dolerites (the material of the most-common bluestone orthostat, and second most-common debitage) was also present in the rocks of Mynydd Preseli area in west Wales.

However, these spots vary macroscopically in size and colour between outcrops on the Preseli hills. Advances in the last ten years by Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins applying new mineralogical, petrographical, and geochemical techniques in the study of the bluestones suggests that the outcrops at Carn Goedog were the origin of most of the spotted bluestone orthostats at Stonehenge.

Carn Goedog

Further examination of the spots between different dolerites, both at Stonehenge and in the Preseli, can be used to further refine their provenance and identify further potential quarry sites.

A further mystery at Stonehenge is the presence of many thousands of pieces of buried debris (debitage), the so-called “Stonehenge Layer” found in the stone circle and scattered throughout the Stonehenge landscape.

Recent studies of samples of debitage have compared favourably to rhyolitic rocks near Pont Saeson, on the northern slopes of the Mynydd Preseli. Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson and his team identified a potential Neolithic quarry site at Craig Rhos-y-felin as the likely source of some of rhyolitic rocks at Stonehenge.

Craig Rhos-y-felin

However, although this rock-type (now designated Rhyolite Group C) is highly abundant as debitage, it only seems to match one of the buried orthostats at Stonehenge. It seems the most likely explanation of the abundance of this type of debitage is that there were other Rhyolite Group C orthostats, now totally lost, robbed or chipped away by souvenir hunters, with only the debitage as evidence of their former presence.

Sarsen Sourcing
The cover of the latest issue of British Archaeology magazine (Issue 174 September/October 2020) features a knobbly, unworked sarsen lying in woodland, with the cover story “New: Where Stonehenge came from”.

In an exclusive feature for British Archaeology magazine, the research team claims to have shown that the sarsens, all the large stones at Stonehenge, were brought by the monument’s builders from the Marlborough Downs 20 miles to the north, identifying an area at West Woods, not proposed before, as the likely source.

The larger stones at Stonehenge comprising the huge trilithons of the central horseshoe, the uprights and lintels of the outer circle and outliers such as the heel stone, the slaughter stone and the station stones are known as “sarsens”, weighing typically 20 tonnes and up to 7 metres tall.

The name is said to have derived from the local term “saracen stone” used to identify them as relics of a non-christian age. The hard silcrete rock is found scattered naturally across southern England and also used for the stone settings at Avebury, 2o miles north of Stonehenge. Often ignored, the sarsens may hold as many secrets as the bluestones.

The first monument at Stonehenge was envisaged as a circular earthwork enclosure, constructed around 3,000 BC. An outer ditch was cut and the chalk rubble removed used to form an inner bank (the opposite to a henge bank and ditch), known as a counterscarp. Around the perimeter of this bank was a ring of 56 holes holding timber posts. The monument was used as a cremation cemetery for several hundred years until around 2,500 BC the monument was transformed by the introduction of the massive sarsen stones and the smaller bluestones.

The Stonehenge sequence has been revised recently by Mike Parker Pearson et al, suggesting that the ring of 56 pits, known as the Aubrey Holes, first contained bluestones, not timber posts at all, as the first stone setting at the monument.

The Heel Stone

However, it is possible the first stone setting at Stonehenge was the unworked, knobbly, sarsens known as the Station Stones and the Heel Stone. These stones are completely different in appearance to the finely worked sarsens of the the huge trilithons of the central horseshoe and the uprights and lintels forming the outer circle. It has been suggested that the Heel Stone was raised up from a pit close to its current position. These old sarsens were probably on the site long before the transportation of the sarsens from Marlborough Downs to construct the trilithons. Furthermore, the Station Stones appear to hold a relationship to the Mesolithic post holes found in the car park of the old visitor centre.

from: The Astronomical Significance of Stonehenge, C. A. Newham

The sarsen stones used in these megalithic monuments are said to have originated from Marlborough Downs, but their exact origin remained a mystery. Until now.

Using geochemical data scientists have found that 50 of the 52 sarsens at Stonehenge share a consistent chemistry and therefore there is a high probability that they originated from a common source area.

Stonehenge sarsens

On comparing the geochemical signature of a core extracted from Stone 58 at Stonehenge 60 years ago with equivalent data for sarsens from across southern Britain, they have identified West Woods, on Marlborough Downs, as the most probable source area for the majority of sarsens at the monument.

 

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The Source of Stonehenge Sarsens

Archaeologists have discovered the source of Stonehenge’s sarsen stones in a Wiltshire woodland.

The sarsens weighing typically 20 tonnes and up to 7 metres tall, constitute the huge trilithons of the central horseshoe, the uprights and lintels of the outer circle and outliers such as the heel stone, the slaughter stone and the station stones.

The stones in West Woods, on the edge of modern-day Marlborough, are found to be exact match for majority of the Stonehenge sarsens is 15 miles (24km) to the North of the famous megalithic monument on Salisbury Plain. Their movement required a considerable effort by Neolithic Man.

The sarsen sample was returned to Stonehenge in 2019

Research, made possible after a piece of one of the stones taken away as a souvenir 60 years ago was recovered, concludes that 50 of the 52 sarsen stones at Stonehenge were probably sourced from West Woods.

Future research will try to pinpoint the specific sarsen extraction pits in the woods,

 

Source:
>> BBC News Wiltshire 29 July 2020
>> Origins of the sarsen megaliths at StonehengeScience Advances  29 Jul 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 31

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Stonehenge Tunnel Delayed

The recent discovery of a 1.2 mile-wide (2km) circle of at least 20 shafts measuring more than 10m (30ft) in diameter and 5m (15ft) in depth centred on Durrington Walls has delayed the decision on whether to build a £2.4bn road tunnel through the Stonehenge World Heritage site.

It is thought the shafts form the largest prehistoric monument ever discovered in Britain and may have served as a boundary to a sacred area.

Highways England claims the proposed tunnel would remove the sight and sound of traffic from the frequently congested A303 route running past the ancient monument on Salisbury Plain.

Yet, the controversial road scheme is strongly opposed by archaeologists who would prefer the A303 improvement to be routed outside of the World Heritage Site altogether.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was due to make his decision by this Friday but has pushed back the announcement to November to allow for “further consultation”.

The discovery of the Durrington Shafts demonstrates how little we understand this rare prehistoric landscape.

 

>> BBC News Wiltshire 16 July 2020

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Iron Age mystery at Wendover

Preparatory work ahead of the construction of the HS2 high-speed rail link that will connect London to Birmingham has unearthed a a number of finds near Wendover in Buckinghamshire ranging from the Neolithic Age to the Medieval period with evidence of continuous domestic occupation during the Bronze to Iron Ages (3000BC to AD43).

The Neolithic wooden circle, dating to between 4,000 to 5,000 years old, is seen as further evidence of the site’s ritual importance over thousands of years [HS2]

The site at Wellwick Farm near Wendover in Buckinghamshire, has revealed:

  • A large Neolithic circular monument of wooden posts 65m (213 ft) in diameter and aligned with the winter solstice, “similar to Stonehenge”
  • A Roman era “high status” skeleton buried in an “expensive” lead coffin set within a square enclosure
  • A gold coin dating from about about 100BC (Iron Age) was found in a ditch near the funerary monument

Project archaeologist Dr Rachel Wood of Fusion JV said the team were surprised to discover a site with evidence of human activity spanning some 4,000 years, used over centuries as a funerary monument for the burial of specific, high status people as shown by the Roman era skeleton found in an expensive lead coffin.

Yet the biggest surprise was the discovery of an Iron Age skeleton lying face down with his hands bound behind his back, a suspected execution victim. Further analysis will hopefully explain the circumstances of the gruesome death of the 2,000-year-old adult male.

Source
>> Iron Age ‘mystery’ murder victim found in Wendover – BBC News, Beds, Herts & Bucks, 11 July 2020.

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The Source of the Altar Stone

The Altar Stone at Stonehenge is unique, no other stone at the monument on Salisbury Plain constitutes the same lithology; a greenish sandstone thought to be of Late Silurian-Devonian (‘Old Red Sandstone’) age.

The Altar Stone

It is classed as one of the bluestone group of lithologies, exotic to Salisbury Plain, most of which have been sourced to Mynydd Preseli, in west Wales. However, there is no Old Red Sandstone outcrop in the Preseli.

In 1923 HH Thomas proposed that the pale sage-green micaceous sandstone had a strong similarity to either sandstones from the Senni Formation, which outcrop between Kidwelly and Abergavenny in south Wales, or to sandstones from the Cosheston Subgroup from the shore of Milford Haven in west Wales.

The Stones of Stonehenge

Consequently, Milford Haven was suggested as the source of the Altar Stone. This location sat well with a proposed transport route established in the 1950’s by Richard Atkinson (Stonehenge, 1956) which argued that the bluestones were taken to Stonehenge by sea, being loaded into rafts at Milford Haven, sailed along the coast, then up the Bristol Channel into the river Avon, before a final land crossing to Salisbury Plain.

However, results of detailed petrographic examinations of the Altar Stone sandstone and sandstones from Old Red Sandstone outcrops in west Wales have called into question the Cosheston Subgroup source for the Altar Stone. Recently a source further to the east has been suggested.

As a result, it is argued in the latest issue of The Journal of Archaeological Science 120 (2020), that if the Altar Stone was not sourced at Milford Haven then the sea route for the bluestones looks increasingly unlikely, suggesting a totally land-based route was used following a natural route leading from west Wales and beyond the Severn estuary.

Alternative Transport Routes

The land route supports the identification of two bluestone quarries on the northern flanks of the Mynydd Preseli, at Craig Rhos-y-felin and Carn Goedog with the Altar Stone probably collected en route.

Many standing stones have been recorded at the eastern part of the Senni Formation area. The authors of the study point out that the Growing Stone (Cwrt y Gollen), a 4m-tall sandstone monolith beside the modern A40 road between Crickhowell and Abergavenny which compares well with the Altar Stone at Stonehenge.

The eastern section of the Senni Formation lies on a natural routeway which today is traced by the A40 road, following a route along the valleys which may have been significant in prehistory, raising the possibility that the Altar Stone was added to the assemblage of Preseli bluestones taken to Stonehenge around or shortly before 3000 BC.

 

Source:
Constraining the provenance of the Stonehenge ‘Altar Stone’: Evidence from automated mineralogy and U–Pb zircon age dating
Richard E. Bevins, Duncan Pirrie, Rob A. Ixer, Hugh O’Brien, Mike Parker Pearson, Matthew R. Power, Robin K. Shail.
Journal of Archaeological Science 120 (2020)

 

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