There’s a medieval legend that the origin of Stonehenge can be traced to Merlin. The wizard of Arthurian fame transported a stone circle from Ireland back to England and rebuilt it as the mysterious monument that still stands today, the story goes.
It now seems that this fanciful story may contain a grain of truth. The earliest monoliths raised at Stonehenge may have indeed originally stood in a circle somewhere else – in Wales, though, not Ireland.
Of course, mythological sorcerers had nothing to do with this lapidary transplant. Nor did it occur anytime close to the Middle Ages. It had been already been known that Stonehenge’s monoliths originated in Wales.
But now the theory has been refined: What apparently happened is that some of the first farmers in Britain built a stone circle in the mountains of south Wales some 5,400 years ago, or 3,400 B.C.E. Then, a few centuries later, they decided for reasons still unclear to migrate. As one does, they packed up their belongings, including these monumental monoliths, and dragged them for 280 kilometers to Salisbury Plain, where they rebuilt the site we now know as Stonehenge.
Archaeologists on Friday reported the discovery of this “original” Stonehenge in Wales in the journal Antiquity. The finding suggests a solution to the longstanding mystery of why the oldest monoliths at Stonehenge originated in such a distant region – a fact already recognized by scholars a century ago. It also offers new insight into the movement of Neolithic peoples in Britain and on the function of Stonehenge and other similar prehistoric circles found across the country, the researchers say.
Digging holes to find holes
The massive, iconic trilithons that most of us recall when we think of Stonehenge were in fact made from local sandstone and added in a later stage of the monument, probably around 2,500 B.C.E. But in its initial phase, dating to just after 3,000 B.C.E., the site housed smaller monoliths named “bluestones” by scholars. They were made of spotted dolerite, a volcanic rock not found in the chalk plateau that is Salisbury Plain.
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Back in the 1920s, the geologist Herbert Thomas traced the origin of the bluestones to quarries in the Preseli Hills, a mountainous region in southwest Wales, and ever since researchers have been puzzling over how and why Neolithic people would carry these imposing stones over such a great distance.
Now, the team led by Prof. Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist from University College London, has excavated a previously known prehistoric monument named Waun Mawn in the Preseli Hills. The archaeologists found that the paltry four monoliths that still stood in the open at the site were in fact once part of a massive stone circle – one of the oldest and largest found in Britain. During the 2017-2018 dig they uncovered empty sockets along the projected arc of the circle at Waun Mawn. These pits still held the imprint of the boulders that had stood in them for centuries and also contained smaller “packing stones” which were used by the builders to keep the monoliths upright.
Using radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence, a technique which tells us when certain minerals were last exposed to sunlight, the researchers dated the Waun Mawn circle to around 3,400 B.C.E. – that is, some 400 years before the earliest phase of Stonehenge.
The Preseli region was densely inhabited at that time, but after 3000 B.C.E. settlement ceases almost completely, Parker Pearson notes.
“It’s as if they just vanished,” he says, adding that the most plausible explanation is that most of the inhabitants migrated eastward, apparently taking their sacred stones with them.
A 2018 study of cremated remains found at Stonehenge had already suggested that at least some of the people who were buried there hailed from Wales. Isotope analysis of the burnt fragments showed that 15 percent of the locals were recent arrivals from western Britain and had only spent their final years in the Salisbury area.
The study of the circle unearthed in the Preseli Hills offers new evidence of this migration and its direct link to the construction of Stonehenge.
There are multiple correlations between the dismantled circle of Waun Mawn to the later one at Stonehenge, Parker Pearson and colleagues report. The Welsh site had a diameter of 110 meters, the same as the ditch that encloses Stonehenge, and the entrances of both monuments are aligned with the summer solstice sunrise. Stone chippings found in one of the empty sockets at Waun Mawn match the type of rock used for the bluestones of Stonehenge.
That same pit in Wales also holds the imprint of a monolith with a very distinguishable pentagonal cross section, which matches the shape of one of the bluestones at Stonehenge.
Most of the bluestones were probably initially arranged on the inside perimeter of the ditch and bank that enclose Stonehenge, Parker Pearson says. They were later moved and rearranged as the site developed through the centuries and 43 of the estimated initial 80 survive at the monument, the archaeologist tells Haaretz. Of the original ring all that remains are the sockets, named Aubrey holes after John Aubrey, a 17th century scholar who first identified them.
By the way, it was in the Aubrey holes that most of the oldest human remains at Stonehenge were found, which has led Parker Pearson to theorize that the site, at least in its earliest incarnation, functioned as a burial ground.
Don’t forget great-grandpa!
The megalithic local sandstones that were raised later, around 2,500 B.C.E., to give Stonehenge the form we are familiar with today could weigh up to 30 tons, but the smaller bluestones were still no joke to move around, especially over long distances. They weighed between one and four tons (something between a compact car and a light truck) and, at a time when the wheel hadn’t reached Britain yet, the migrating population probably transported the stones using wooden sledges pulled by human hands or animals, Parker Pearson says.
“Moving these stones over such a long distance would have been a huge project, involving masses of people and years’ worth of preparation,” he notes.
We don’t know what prompted the mass migration from Wales around 3,000 B.C.E., though Parker Pearson theorizes the locals may have been responding to climate change or other environmental pressures, such as a drop in the productivity of their lands.
But the fact that these migrants invested so many resources in carrying their monoliths with them instead of just carving out new ones out of local stone (as their descendants would later do on a much grander scale) tells us something about the importance and function of these enigmatic monuments.
“These were clearly their most sacred assets, representing their deepest identities,” Parker Pearson says. The monoliths most likely were raised as a form of ancestor cult, representing the deceased forbears that were called upon to protect the living and their lands, he says. For this reason they could not be left behind but had to be transplanted to the new home of the migrants, the archaeologist theorizes.
This land is mine
The purpose of Stonehenge, and other monuments like it, has long been debated. It has been variably interpreted as a cultic site, a primitive calendar, and a healing spot whose stones were believed to have curative properties.
It is of course possible that the monument had multiple functions or that these changed in the course of its long history. But it does seem that in recent years the idea of interpreting such sites as places for ancestor worship has been gaining particular traction among scholars.
Circles or enclosures made of stone monoliths are a common feature of many Neolithic cultures throughout the millennia, emerging just as hunter-gatherer societies turned to farming and a sedentary existence. They are found across Britain, continental Europe and the Middle East, perhaps most famously at the 11,500-year-old site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. Here too, at what researchers have dubbed the world’s oldest temple, the combination of stone monoliths and burials has been interpreted as a hallmark of ancestor cults.
The basic idea is that with the emergence of agriculture and sedentarism, human ancestral spirits supplanted the animistic pantheons of hunter gatherers. This may have happened, if it did, because ancient farmers called upon the skills and protection of their predecessors for the success of their labors or because they relied on their ancestral connections to lay claim to the lands upon which they toiled.
After all, scholars argue, if modern nations, including Israelis and Palestinians, can invoke the presence of their distant ancestors in a particular region as evidence of their rightful claim to the land, why shouldn’t have Neolithic farmers done the same?
United we stone
Whatever the symbolism behind these ancestor cults, they seem to have been central to the belief systems of everyone from the ancient shamans of Göbekli Tepe to the proto-Druids of Stonehenge. But there is one final, interesting twist to the story about the two linked British stone circles.
It is estimated that the original site at Waun Mawn held a maximum of 50 monoliths, while, as mentioned, the first phase of Stonehenge included some 80 bluestones. This means that the numbers don’t add up and at least some of these stones must have come from elsewhere in the Preseli Hills, perhaps contributed by different tribes that united in the great migration eastward, Parker Pearson suggests.
“My guess is that Waun Mawn was not the only stone circle that contributed to Stonehenge,” he says. “Maybe there are more in Preseli waiting to be found. Who knows? Someone will be lucky enough to find them.”