Ah, Stonehenge. This ancient rock monument has attracted the fascination of archaeologists and historians ever since John Aubrey gave it a once-over back in the 17th century.
And it doesn’t take long to list some of the biggest questions we’ve always had about it. Where did these rocks come from? How did they get there? Who put them together like this? And, perhaps most curious of all, why?
Well, it’s taken a lot longer to answer these questions than it has to ask them, but Mike Parker Pearson and his associates have nailed down a very important piece of the puzzle that will make it a lot easier to answer the questions that remain.
His newest article in the archaeology journal Antiquity shows compelling evidence that we’ve finally got a fix on the origin of the Stonehenge rocks, which are the key to its greatest mysteries.
1. But Pearson’s team didn’t just pull the answer out of thin air.
No, the general origins of many of Stonehenge’s rocks have been known for a while now. In fact, the monument’s larger stones, composed of a sandstone known as sarsen, can be traced to a 20-mile radius of Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge is located.
And even the smaller “bluestone,” types found there weren’t a total mystery. Even back in the ’20s, those could be traced to the Preseli Mountains in western Wales. But the recent discoveries are a little more specific.
2. Thanks to the discovery of ancient bluestone quarries like this one in 2011, now we know exactly where the stones are from.
The most dominant bluestone types in Stonehenge are spotted dolerite, which can be found in Carn Goedog, and what’s called “rhyolite with fabric,” which is the star of the show at Craig Rhos-y-felin. It’s through this Welsh site that we learn exactly how the megaliths, or giant stones used for making monuments, found themselves in Stonehenge.
3. So what’s so special about the quarry at Craig Rhos-y-felin?
Well, if you take a look at the marked area in this 1954 photo from Stonehenge…
4. You might notice that it’s a match for the rock marked “11” in this photo.
This confirms that the rhyolite found here is the same type as in Stonehenge, which means that a significant part of the monument was brought from 140 miles away. And when you consider when it happened (between 3100 and 2920 BC) that’s quite an amazing feat.
5. This dig site shows evidence of human interaction from as early as 8550 BC.
There’s no evidence of any quarrying from that time, but some later Neolithic activity from between 3620 and 3360 BC shows that quarrying had taken place. Considering Pearson’s team found a hearth, 11 lbs. of burnt stones, some flint and rhyolite flakes, our ancient Welsh friends seemed quite busy indeed.
6. And Pearson’s team were able to find enough ancient hazelnut shells and wood samples for accurate carbon dating.
But they found something really interesting when they started looking at the Bronze Age activity…
7. This monolith was found on a man-made platform made of rocks with a stone slab in front of it.
This shows that people in Wales were definitely quarrying megaliths large enough to be included in Stonehenge. What’s more, these features date between 2140 and 1950 BC, meaning that quarrying activities continued here even after the removal of the bluestones used for the famous monument between 3500 and 3120 BC.
And we might not have known about this activity if the monolith pictured hadn’t been damaged during the quarrying process and left behind.
8. Speaking of the Stonehenge bluestones, that recess marks where they used to be.
The rhyolite found around the recess is the closest possible match for the “rhyolite with fabric” clippings taken from Stonehenge. Also, the slab in front of the monolith in the previous picture has the kind of scrape marks consistent with dragging a large stone like a megalith over it.
9. So how did they remove the megaliths?
There’s no physical evidence to suggest that the stones were extracted using fire or stone tools, but Pearson suggests that neither of those methods would have been needed. Because the rocks in this location break into pillars naturally, as pictured here, those in charge of the quarry would only need to exploit the natural fissures in the rock. They probably did this by hammering in wooden wedges.
10. And then there was the matter of transportation.
Earlier theories of travel posit that the rocks were taken by sea because they were believed to weigh about four tons. However, thanks to some more precise laser scanned images we now know that the megalithsweighed less than two tons. There are documented instances in India, China and Japan of people carrying objects with the megalith’s dimensions using rows of poles. Using this method, about 60 people could move a megalith with relative ease, even through uneven terrain.
The updated weight, plus the fact that the other routes either involve climbing a mountain or risking travel in open water, leads Pearson to conclude that the bluestone traveled by the overland route marked in red.
11. And finally, we come to the question of why Stonehenge was constructed.
This has yet to be fully answered, but there are a couple of strong possibilities. One is that it was built to promote political unification or peace in the region. Since the quarrying, transportation and erection of Stonehenge occurred in a time of increased similarity in the region’s material cultures, it’s possible that the communities of the time were leaning towards unification.
Also, the quarrying began either during or shortly after an evident conflict in Gloucestershire, so the monument could have also served as an elaborate peace treaty. The possibility that the stones were transferred to each community on the way to where Stonehenge now stands is closely linked with this explanation.
12. Another possibility is that the Welsh community that quarried the rocks brought the stones with them because of their ancestral significance.
The stones would then have been the banner of a migrating community, with each stone representingtheir dead ancestors. Since earlier bluestone monuments in this region were built for ancestral and funereal purposes, this is a strong explanation for why such distant stones ended up in Salisbury Plain.