Not to be outdone by the recent discoveries on Orkney, Stonehenge – one of the world’s most famous stone circles – has thrown up a whole new story about its origins… and its original face.
(1100 words, a ten-minute read)
It was the end of the archeology ‘dig season’ of 2018. Strong winds and heavy rain had blown for weeks across the exposed face of the hillside on the west coast of Wales. Everyone was ready to call it a day and go home – an action that would doom the last attempt by Professor Mike Parker Pearson of University College London to show that there was a much deeper link between this saturated hillside and far-away Stonehenge than anything dreamt of, before…
One of the dig team called out – a large stone had been found, not far beneath the surface. Professor Parker Pearson set off across the mud, holding his breath…holding on to the possibility that it might be a Bluestone, or even better, a ‘socket that had held a known tooth’.
If you’ve visited the famous Stonehenge stone circle in Wiltshire, you may recall that the Neolithic monument, 5,000 years old, actually comprises two rings. The outer circle consists of 15 of the larger Sarsen stones, familiar to us from images of the site. Each of the Sarsen stones average 13 feet in height, and an astonishing 7 feet wide. The average weight is 25 tons, though the largest, the Heel Stone, weighs about 30 tons. The Sarsen stones are connected with matching overhead lintels. Recent developments in geochemical techniques have placed the origin of the Sarsens at West Woods near Marlborough, 20 miles from the stone circle.
But within the mighty ring of Sarsen stones is a secondary circle of smaller ones – the main topic of this post. Within these, in the centre of both circles was originally a third group of free-standing trilithons, each comprising two vertical Sarsens joined by a lintel. The whole monument is oriented towards the sunrise on the Summer solstice, the longest day and shortest night, and a time of immense cultural importance for the people who constructed the Neolithic stone circle, using only stone tools and manpower.
The two different outer stone circles have long been a puzzle. The types of stone quarried for the Sarsen stones is quite different from that used for the inner circle. The latter has a blue hue and hence their name: Bluestones. Decades ago, geologists located similar stone outcrops in the Preseli Hills (see map) in the far west of Pembrokeshire, the last bit of Wales before the Irish Sea. But that’s a long way from Wiltshire, and the prospect of moving the massive stones 150 miles east begs the question: why on Earth would anyone do that? Wiltshire is not short of its own durable stone…
Professor Parker Pearson had a theory… actually, he had two, but he wasn’t telling many about the second, which was more of a slim possibility. His first theory was that the long-accepted origin of the Bluestones, whilst being the Preseli Hills, wasn’t the hilltop outcrop at Carn Menyn that had first been assumed. Part of his reasoning was that nothing else related to Neolithic ritual and burial activity was to be found nearby – yet Pembrokeshire is famous for such sites.
The professor is a world authority on the prehistory of Britain and Western Europe from the Neolithic to the Iron Age. He is also one of the authorities on the archeology of ‘death and burial’ during this period; a topic that unites and divides in seemingly equal measure. For the whole spring and summer of 2018, his team excavated two sites a few miles from the rejected Carn Menyn. At first, the work went well, with a high chance of success. But, as the season wore on, conflicting evidence suggested that nothing conclusive could be found – much to the dismay of the locals, who were great supporters of the work; and the potential revelations they would bring about the location’s link to the ancient past.
With the dig-season running out, Professor Parker Pearson turned his attention to a nearby boggy field, Waun Mawn, the site of four small monoliths and well known to the locals. But a full excavation, there, had never been carried out. It was the last possibility. Pearson’s exhausted team dug in for days, fighting the wind and rain… then the cry went up… a new and large stone had been found.
The results are astonishing. The original circle at Waun Mawn comprised a full stone circle of between 30 and 50 large stones. The circle is the third largest in the UK, even bigger than Long Meg, in Cumbria. The stones were of a blue hue… and one of them had socket hole with no stone; and that socket matched one of the stones at Stonehenge, exactly. The socket had found its ‘tooth’ – 160 miles away. All of this had been protected by the Welsh peat for 5000 years.
The full story almost needs a stiff whisky to absorb… The Bluestone circle at Stonehenge was the original circle, transported by the tribe from Preseli who migrated to Wiltshire, taking their most treasured object with them. The massive Sarsen stone circle was added, later, at a time when the makers had perfected their art… but they never abandoned their beloved original circle…. which is still there for us all to see and feel – the inner ring of Stonehenge.
All of this is the subject of an excellent BBC documentary, available for the next ten months on the BBC’s iPlayer service, presented by Professor Alice Roberts.
And there my narrative was due to end, but then, preparing the blog post from last Thursday on the new findings from Orkney, I saw footage of Professor Parker Pearson walking with Neil Oliver at the intact 5,000 year old village of Skara Brae.
Last week’s blog discussed the findings that Orkney was the place of origin of all the British stone circles, whose journey took them (predominantly) down the west coast of the British Isles… culminating at Stonehenge in what is now Wiltshire, where the last of their Bluestone masterworks was given its new and final home, set within the most magnificent stone circle ever created.
And you have to ask, assuming they survived, what did these remarkable people build next? But that’s for another day… not that I have the answer, mind you. But I’m watching the people who might have, very closely…
Professor Parker Pearson is the co-author of an interim report on the dig at Waun Mawn. The link to the PDF is here.
If you want to follow the Silent Eye’s workshop on the trail of the Picts and Sacred Orkney, here are the other parts of that series:
The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:
©Stephen Tanham, 2021.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.