History

Stonehenge First Built in Wales, Study Claims

Stonehenge may have stood in Wales hundreds of years before it was dismantled and transported to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

Stonehenge may have stood in Wales hundreds of years before it was dismantled and transported to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, a new research into megalithic bluestone quarries suggests.

The study, published in the current issue of the journal Antiquity, indicates that two quarries in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire, in southwest Wales, are the source of Stonehenge's bluestones. Carbon dating revealed such stones were dug out at least 500 years before Stonehenge was built - suggesting they were first used in a local monument that was later dismantled and dragged off to England.

The very large standing stones at Stonehenge are sarsen, a local sandstone. The smaller ones, known as bluestones, consist of volcanic and igneous rocks, the most common of which are called dolerite and rhyolite.

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Geologists have known since the 1920s that the bluestones were brought to Stonehenge from somewhere in the Preseli Hills, around 140 miles from Stonehenge. But the outcrops of Carn Goedog were only recently identified as the main source of Stonehenge's dolerite and Craig Rhos-y-felin as the source for the rhyolite bluestones.

The new research focused specifically on the Craig Rhos-y-felin outcrops.

A team of scientists from University London College, University of Manchester, Bournemouth University, University of Southampton, National Museum Wales, and Dyfed Archaeological Trust, excavated the site in a five-year dig.

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They found a series of holes cut into the rocky outcrops that match Stonehenge's bluestones in size and shape.

They concluded that the special formation of the rock, which forms natural pillars, allowed the prehistoric quarry-workers to detach each megalith with a minimum of effort.

"They only had to insert wooden wedges into the cracks between the pillars and then let the Welsh rain do the rest by swelling the wood to ease each pillar off the rock face," Josh Pollard, at the University of Southampton, said.

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"The quarry-workers then lowered the thin pillars onto platforms of earth and stone, a sort of ‘loading bay' from where the huge stones could be dragged away along trackways leading out of each quarry," Pollard added.

Radiocarbon-dating of burnt hazelnuts and charcoal from the quarry-workers' campfires showed surprising results.

"We have dates of around 3400 B.C. for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 B.C. for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn't get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 B.C.," Mike Parker Pearson, director of the project and professor of British later prehistory at University College London said.

The dating suggests Stonehenge was basically a second-hand monument from Wales.

"It could have taken those Neolithic stone-draggers nearly 500 years to get them to Stonehenge, but that's pretty improbable in my view," Parker Pearson said.

He believes the "first Stonehenge" was right in Wales; the monument was then dismantled and dragged off to Salisbury Plain.

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According to the researchers, it is possible the bluestones were brought by communities migrating eastwards and settling on Salisbury Plain.

"The motivation for moving the bluestones such a distance was probably related to their significance as symbols of identity," they wrote.

Parker Pearson noted that each of the 80 monoliths weighed less than 2 tons, so teams of people or oxen could have managed to transport them.

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"We know from examples in India and elsewhere in Asia that single stones this size can even be carried on wooden lattices by groups of 60 – they didn't even have to drag them if they didn't want to," Parker Pearson said.

He believes the bluestones were erected at Stonehenge around 2900 B.C., long before the giant sarsens were put up around 2500 B.C.

"Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery," Parker Pearson said.

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According to Kate Welham, of Bournemouth University, the ruins of a dismantled monument are likely to lie somewhere between the two megalith quarries. The team has been using geophysical surveys, trial excavations and aerial photographic analysis to try identify the likely location.

"We think we have the most likely spot. The results are very promising. We may find something big in 2016," Welham said.

The research has already raised controversy. According to geologist John Downes and geomorphologists Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and Brian John, no traces of a Neolithic quarry can be found at Craig Rhos-y-felin.

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"There is nothing that might qualify as a quarry floor or working surface," they wrote in Quaternary Newsletter.

On the contrary, they believe the different landforms and sediments are natural features.

"All the features referred to by the archaeologists as proto-orthostats, hammer stones, wedges, sliding striations, pillars, props, fulcrums and railway tracks, are more convincingly interpreted as entirely natural features associated with multiple late-glacial and Holocene rock face collapses," they concluded.

The Craig Rhos-y-felin site.

A row of huge stones stood some 4,000 years ago just two miles from Stonehenge, dwarfing the iconic stone circle. Dubbed "Superhenge," the site is five times bigger than the iconic stone circle and lies buried three feet beneath a thick, grassy bank at a Stone-Age enclosure known as Durrington Walls.

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"We're looking at one of the largest stone monuments in Europe and it has been under our noses for something like 4,000 years," Vince Gaffney, chair in Landscape Archaeology and Geomatics at the University of Birmingham, said. "We don't think there's anything quite like this anywhere else in the world. This is completely new and the scale is extraordinary," he said. Gaffney announced the finding at the opening of the ongoing British Science Festival.

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Image: Artist reconstruction of the standing stones at Durrington Walls.

Lesser known than Stonehenge, Durrington Walls was the site of a large Neolithic settlement and later a henge enclosure measuring 1,600 feet in diameter. It is surrounded by a ditch up to 57 feet wide and an outer bank about 131 feet wide and three feet high. The henge, thought to have been built around 4,500 years ago, surrounds several smaller enclosures and timber circles, yet no one had imagined it concealed the massive stone structure, as shown by the yellow circles in the picture.

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Image: The route of the stone row (yellow circles) at Durrington Walls.

The massive prehistoric site was identified by the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes international team, led by Birmingham and Bradford Universities and Austria's Ludwig Boltzmann Institute. The five-year project, which is the largest geophysical survey ever undertaken, used advanced geophysical technologies such as powerful ground-penetrating radar, which can detect buried features to a depth of up to 13 feet.

Image: Running the radar near Stonehenge.

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The remote sensing technologies revealed evidence of a row made up of 90 standing stones, some of which may have originally stood up to 15 feet high.

Image: Green circles show the position of the stone row.

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At some point, the stones were deliberately pushed over and covered with a huge bank of earth and chalk, under which they still lie. "In the east up to 30 stones, measuring up to size of 15 feet, have survived below the bank whereas elsewhere the stones are fragmentary or represented by massive foundation pits," co-director Wolfgang Neubauer of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology, said.

Image: A rendition of the superhenge after the stones were pushed over and buried under a bank of earth and chalk.

The archaeologists concluded that the huge stones were part of a C-shaped Neolithic arena that faced directly towards the Avon River. The finding, according to co-director Gaffney, has significant implications for our understanding of Stonehenge and its landscape setting. "Not only does this new evidence demonstrate a completely unexpected phase of monumental architecture at one of the greatest ceremonial sites in prehistoric Europe, the new stone row could well be contemporary with the famous Stonehenge sarsen circle or even earlier," Gaffney said.

Image: A rendition of the Durrington Wall's horseshoe.

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It's not yet clear whether or not the buried stones will be excavated. "Archaeological excavations may play an important role in proving these findings. We will await any academic proposals and consider them," an English Heritage spokesman told The Guardian.

Image: The buried stones.

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Previous intensive study of the area around Stonehenge had led archaeologists to believe that only the enigmatic stone circle and a smaller henge at the end of the Stonehenge Avenue had significant stone structures. The new findings show Stonehenge wasn't standing in splendid isolation on the edge of Salisbury Plain. On the contrary, it was the center of a large and rich ceremonial landscape. "Everything written previously about the Stonehenge landscape and the ancient monuments within it will need to be re-written," Paul Garwood, the principal prehistorian on the project at the University of Birmingham, said.

Image: A close up of stone circle at Stonehenge.