Stonehenge is not the only prehistoric monument that has been moved - but it is still unique

Stonehenge is not the only prehistoric monument that has been moved - but it is still unique


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I led the team of researchers that discovered that Stonehenge was most likely to have been originally built in Pembrokeshire, Wales, before it was taken apart and transported some 180 miles to Wiltshire, England. It may sound like an impossible task without modern technology, but it wouldn’t have been the first time prehistoric Europeans managed to move a monument.

Archaeologists are increasingly discovering megaliths across the continent – albeit a small number so far – that were previously put up in earlier monuments.

Other ‘second-hand’ monuments

The best example of such a structure outside the UK is La Table des Marchand, a Neolithic tomb in Brittany, France, built around 4000BC. The enormous, 65-ton capstone on top of its chamber is a broken fragment of a menhir, a standing stone, brought from 10km away. The original menhir may be 300 years (or more) older than the tomb. Another fragment of this same menhir was incorporated into a tomb at Gavrinis, 5km away. This menhir, originally weighing over 100 tons, is actually one of the largest blocks of stone that we know of to have been moved and set up by Neolithic people.

La Table des Marchand. Myrabella/wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Another example of a standing stone reused in a megalithic monument is an anthropomorphic menhir – a standing stone carved in the form of a human figure - incorporated as the capstone of another tomb at Déhus on Guernsey. Another megalithic tomb, La Motte de la Jacquille in western France, is built of dressed stones that have been rearranged into a new tomb but it is not known if they came from a different location or were an earlier version of the tomb rebuilt on the same spot.

Archaeologists have known for many years that some of Stonehenge’s bluestones (the shorter stones in the monument) were reused . Two are lintels reused as standing stones, and two others have vertical grooves that show they were part of a wall of interlocking standing stones. Until now it was thought that these were evidence of reuse just within Stonehenge which was first built around 2900BC and rebuilt circa 2500BC (at this point, large local sandstones known as “sarsen” were erected). It was then rebuilt again in around 2400BC and 2200BC.

However, we identified the actual quarries in Pembrokeshire, Wales (around 3400BC and 3200BC) that the bluestones came from. This is a period before prehistoric people were building stone circles (normally dating from 3000BC onwards) so we also think it is very likely that the bluestones originally formed a rather different type of monument from a stone circle.

People in western Britain and Ireland at this time were building Neolithic stone tombs known as passage tombs – Newgrange in Ireland is the best known example. So it is just possible that there is a dismantled passage tomb somewhere near the bluestone quarries. That’s what we will be looking for in 2016.

Newgrange, Ireland

Stonehenge – an unusual distance

An interesting outcome from a recent conference in Redondo, Portugal, on prehistoric megaliths and “second-hand monuments” is that – while some megalithic stones for monuments in Portugal and elsewhere were brought as far as 8km from their sources – the vast majority of Neolithic stone monuments throughout Western Europe were built less than 2km to 3km away from their stone quarries. So Stonehenge is a major exception to this rule, as its bluestones were dragged around 290km. This makes it unique for prehistoric Europe.

How the stones were moved from Wales to Stonehenge is something of a mystery but our excavations at one of the Welsh quarries reveals that the trackway leading from the outcrop was too narrow for rollers to have been used. Instead, we think that monoliths were loaded onto wooden sledges and dragged over logs and branches laid rail-like in front of the sledge.

Some archaeologists have speculated that Stonehenge’s bluestones must have been thought to have had special properties – as musical “gongs” or healing stones – for them to have been sought out from so far away.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England. 2014. Diego Delso , Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

But we think it is far more likely that the bluestones were derived from quarries in close proximity to each other – within 2km to 3km – and brought together to build a local monument in Pembrokeshire. Scientific analysis of strontium isotopes in the teeth of people buried in the Stonehenge area reveals that many of them have values consistent with growing up in western Britain. So the stones may have been brought by people migrating from Wales, bringing their ancestral monument as a symbol of their history and identity. Strontium isotope analysis is currently being carried out on the people actually buried at Stonehenge when the bluestones were erected, and we await the results to see if they show a similar picture.

It’s also possible that the bluestones were put up somewhere on Salisbury Plain before they arrived at Stonehenge. For example, one of the bluestones never quite made it to Stonehenge and was dug out in 1801 from the top layer of a Neolithic burial mound called Boles Barrow, near Warminster , also in Wiltshire.

Bluestones at Carn Menyn in Wales ( )

Although this tomb was first built around 3700BC, it seems to have gone through modifications, of which adding a layer of large stones (mostly local sarsen stones and this one bluestone) happened at the end of its use. So we don’t know precisely when it got there but it may have been set up as a burial marker before the rest of the bluestones were erected at Stonehenge.

Rebuilding tombs and other megalithic structures as second-hand monuments is only now turning out to be recognised in various parts of western Europe as archaeologists start to look more closely at the detailed aspects of construction. Simple expediency of finding suitable stone does not explain sites such as Stonehenge and the Table des Marchand – they were most likely incorporating aspects of the past which had rich historical resonance for them.

Featured Image: The famous Stonehenge monument in Wiltshire, England. Howard Ignatius/ Flickr

The article ‘ Stonehenge isn’t the only prehistoric monument that’s been moved – but it’s still unique ’ by Mike Parker Pearson was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.


Sourcing the Sarsens

Last month we brought you the latest thinking on how scientific techniques are helping to pin down the origins of the Stonehenge bluestones. Now new research has located the most likely source of the monument’s larger sarsen stones. Carly Hilts reports.

Towering above modern visitors, the Stonehenge sarsens must be among the most immediately recognisable constructions in the world. Some 52 of an estimated 80 sarsens (a type of rock technically known as silcrete) remain in situ, making up most of the Neolithic monument’s key features: all 15 stones of the central horseshoe of trilithons, 33 uprights and lintels in the outer circle, and outlying elements such as the Heel Stone, the Slaughter Stone, and two of the Station Stones. Measuring up to 9m tall and with the heaviest weighing around 30 tonnes, the sarsens would have been an imposing addition to Salisbury Plain when they were erected c.2500 BC, during the second phase of Stonehenge’s development. Until recently, however, it was not known where these mighty megaliths had been sourced from.

That is not the case for all elements of Stonehenge: previous scientific analysis has established that the monument’s smaller ‘bluestones’ (all of them rock types that are ‘exotic’ to Salisbury Plain, such as rhyolites and dolerites) have impressively far-reaching origins, having been quarried at various locations in the Preseli Hills in west Wales, 200km away (see CA 366 and 345). The sandstone Altar Stone, meanwhile, has been linked to east Wales. The sarsens, however, have received far less geological attention – it has long been assumed that they had been sourced rather closer to home (not least due to the difficulty of transporting such massive stones long distances), but this theory has never been investigated in detail.

Since the 16th century the Marlborough Downs, 30km north of Stonehenge, have been mooted as a plausible location, but other areas have potential too: sarsen has also been used to construct megalithic monuments in Kent, Dorset, and Oxfordshire. But now a cutting-edge combination of geochemical and statistical analysis may have pinned down a much more precise location. Recently published in Scientific Advances, the British Academy-funded study was led by University of Brighton geomorphologist Professor David Nash, and co-authored by English Heritage prehistorian Susan Greaney and colleagues from UCL and the universities of Bournemouth, Brighton, and Reading. Their results have proven illuminating.

The researchers began by carrying out non-invasive X-ray fluorescence analysis on all of the 52 surviving sarsens, selecting their flattest, least lichen-covered surfaces to take five readings from each. (For more on how this and the other techniques used in the study work, see ‘Science Notes’ in CA 367) This generated 260 analyses for 34 chemical elements within the make-up of the stones, revealing that 50 of them shared a strikingly similar geochemistry. These results suggest that the vast majority of the sarsens, whether upright or lintel, and across the disparate structural parts of the monument, have a common origin. Intriguingly, though, two stones were distinctively different, both from each other and from the rest of the sarsens. These are upright 26 and lintel 160 – of which, more anon.

Other than the two outliers, then, where did the sarsens come from? In order to compare their geochemistry to individual outcrops, the team would need to examine the interior of a stone – and carrying out destructive testing on an upstanding part of Stonehenge was out of the question. But then came a surprising breakthrough.

THE CORE OF THE MATTER

It all began with a break-up, more than half a century ago. In 1958, ambitious plans were afoot to re-erect a toppled trilithon – uprights 57 and 58, and lintel 158 – which had collapsed in 1797. During this initiative, though, fractures were discovered running through Stone 58, and to fix the fragile sarsen and prevent future falls, three horizontal channels were carefully drilled through its entire thickness. The work was undertaken by Van Moppes, a Basingstoke-based company more usually engaged in cutting diamonds. Into the three channels went strong metal ties, secured with boltheads, and the surface holes were filled in with plugs of sarsen. The stone was secure – but what happened to the cores of sarsen that had been extracted during this process?

The cores were long presumed to have been lost – but, in 2018, one returned from an unexpected source, completing a journey that dwarfed the miles travelled by the bluestones: it had spent the intervening decades in the USA. It transpired that Robert Phillips, a former Van Moppes employee who had been involved in the 1958 restoration, had been given one of the cores he had drilled as a souvenir. The stone cylinder had been proudly displayed in his office until Robert retired and emigrated to America, after which it travelled with him in various moves to New York, Illinois, California, and Florida – but, with his 90th birthday approaching, Robert wanted to reunite the core with its mother monument. To fulfil this wish, one of his sons brought it thousands of miles back to the UK to present to English Heritage (see CA 352).

The publicity stemming from this donation led to the identification of a 0.18m section of a second, broken core rather closer to Stonehenge – in the collections of the Salisbury Museum. The location of the rest of this example and the third core remain unknown, but the return of the more-complete Phillips core represented a truly exciting prospect, offering a unique opportunity to examine the interior of a Stonehenge sarsen.

UP TO THE DOWNS

The second phase of research focused on the recovered core. This measured 1.08m long and 25mm in diameter, and was preserved in a plastic tube. Even with this protection, though, it had broken into six pieces, some of them probably reflecting the original cracks in the stone. Permission was given to sample the smallest of these pieces, and the stone was carefully cut in half lengthways. One of the resulting semicylinders was kept by English Heritage, while the other was cut into thirds, which were subjected to petrological, mineralogical, and geochemical analysis. Statistical analyses of the X-ray fluorescence studies at Stonehenge had already suggested that Stone 58 was chemically representative of the majority of sarsens at the monument. So where did it come from?

Sarsen is found in scatters across southern Britain, in the form of boulders resting mainly on underlying chalk. Today, no known boulders reach the size of the Stonehenge megaliths, but the deposits have been depleted over the centuries: the stone was not only favoured by prehistoric monument-builders, but also featured in the construction of Roman villas, medieval churches, and later roads and farm buildings.

To help pinpoint the Stonehenge source, the project team examined the chemical ‘fingerprints’ of boulders at 20 representative concentrations in a wide area that stretched from Norfolk in the east to Devon in the west. The study also took in sites in Suffolk, Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Hampshire, and Dorset, but the greatest concentration fell within Wiltshire, including six sites in the Marlborough Downs. Within these 20 locations, stones were selected at random and 100g samples taken (with the permission of the landowners) – these were then subjected to the same analysis as the Phillips core. The results were striking: all the sites outside the Marlborough Downs proved a poor match for the Stonehenge sarsens, and key trace elements also enabled the team to discount five of the locations within the Downs.

The remaining boulder concentration lay at West Woods, a 6km2 plateau in the south-east of the Marlborough Downs. Lying 220m above sea level and cut by two narrow valleys, this area was once thick with sarsen deposits, though most were removed from the mid-19th century onwards. Many large boulders remain, however, and the team’s samples yielded matches with all the immobile trace-element ratios from the Phillips core. It now appears that Stone 58 – and therefore the majority of the Stonehenge sarsens – comes from West Woods. The next step, the team suggests, would be to carry out archaeological investigations and more-detailed sampling in West Woods and the surrounding area, to narrow down precise source areas even more tightly – and perhaps even identify Neolithic extraction pits like the bluestone quarries that Mike Parker Pearson and his team have been investigating in Preseli (CA 313). Intriguingly, West Woods lies within an area of intense early Neolithic activity: it is close to Avebury, numerous long barrows, and the Knap Hill causewayed enclosure. Was it also an important extraction site?

ANSWERS AND QUESTIONS

If West Woods was the source of the Stonehenge sarsens, we do not yet know why this spot was chosen in an area with numerous sarsen clusters. Perhaps its proximity to Stonehenge played a role, though the far-flung bluestones demonstrate that practicality and ease of access were not the only considerations in supplying the monument’s stones. Might the West Wood boulders have been of particularly good size or quality?

Some aspects of the Stonehenge story are becoming clear, though. It now appears that the various sarsen elements of the monuments, whether the trilithon horseshoe, the outer circle, or the peripheral stones, were probably almost all sourced from the same area, and that they were perhaps erected at around the same time. Previous assumptions about the Heel Stone have also been revised thanks to the new study: due to its large size and undressed surface, it had been suggested that this stone had not been quarried and brought from elsewhere, but was a convenient natural sarsen in the immediate vicinity of Stonehenge that had been incorporated into the monument – in fact, the team’s analysis indicates that it, too, probably came from West Woods.

And what about the two anomalous sarsens, Stone 26 and Stone 160, which were found to have unique geochemistry within the monument? Interestingly, both stones occupy prominent positions at the northernmost points of their respective arrays – Stone 26 is the northernmost upright in the outer circle, while Stone 160 is the lintel of the northernmost trilithon. Is this a coincidence, or a sign of something more significant? In their closing discussion, the researchers wonder if multiple communities might have worked on the construction of Stonehenge – a similar theory has previously been suggested for the digging of the various segments of ditch surrounding the monument – perhaps each sourcing their materials from a different location. If this is the case, it is possible that some of the estimated 28 sarsens that are now missing may have shared a geochemical signature with the two outliers. For now, though, their source outcrops remain unknown – one more mystery for future Stonehenge studies to solve.

FURTHER INFORMATION

To read the full study, see ‘Origins of the sarsen megaliths at Stonehenge’ by D J Nash, T J R Ciborowski, J Stewart Ullyott, M Parker Pearson, T Darvill, S Greaney, G Maniatis, and K A Whitaker, Science Advances vol.6, no.31: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/31/eabc0133.

This article appeared in CA 367. Read more features in the magazine. Click here to subscribe.


4 Answers 4

The photograph in the OP is by R. J. C. Atkinson, January 1958 and its caption is:

STONEHENGE, Wiltshire. Re-erection of Trilithon lintel 158 by the 60 ton 'Brabazon Crane', the larger of two cranes used to lift stones. The lintel is being lowered and man-handled into its final resting position on upright stones 57 and 58

While Stonehenge definitely existed before 1954, with photographs going back to the 1867, it has not been simply left to the forces of nature over the past couple centuries, but instead has been subjected to further human activity such as stabilization and restoration efforts.

See RESEARCH REPORT SERIES no. 06-2014 STONEHENGE WORLD HERITAGE SITE LANDSCAPE PROJECT ‘RESTORING’ STONEHENGE 1881-1939 for historical photographs and an explanations of modern changes to the site in that period of time and later.

Numerous references, such as Stonehenge by Malone and Barnard confirm that:

In 1958 a 60-ton mobile crane was used to restore the stones that had fallen in 1797 and 1900

And according to the New Scientist article Concrete evidence:

virtually every stone was re-erected, straightened or embedded in concrete between 1901 and 1964.

. The first restoration project took place in 1901. A leaning stone was straightened and set in concrete, to prevent it falling.

More drastic renovations were carried out in the 1920s. Under the direction of Colonel William Hawley, a member of the Stonehenge Society, six stones were moved and re-erected.

Cranes were used to reposition three more stones in 1958. One giant fallen lintel, or cross stone, was replaced. Then in 1964, four stones were repositioned to prevent them falling.

The 1920s ‘restoration’ was the most “vigorous”, says Christopher Chippindale of the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “The work in the 1920s under Colonel William Crawley is a sad story,”

For early descriptions of Stonehenge, see the 1740 Stonehenge: A Temple Restor'd to the British Druids and the 1747 Choir Gaure, Vulgarly Called Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain. Unfortunately Google Books omits many of the drawings in these books, but the 1747 is considered the earliest quantitatively accurate description.

Between pages 32 and 33 of the 1740 book, there is a drawing of Stonehenge dated August 1722, showing that it was reasonably similar then as now.


9 The Amesbury Archer

In a grave was found a gold earring which may be the oldest-known handmade gold object excavated in Britain. Extremely rare, these gold objects usually occurred in pairs.

The grave is one of the richest early Bronze Age burials ever discovered in Britain. The occupant is known as the Amesbury Archer and may possibly even have been the king of Stonehenge. A black wrist band used for archery and tools were discovered with him, along with an exquisite copper knife. Behind him was the tusk of a boar, a collection of flints, and a Beaker pot, a type of Bronze Age vessel.


Stonehenge Exhibition

You can visit the exhibition at the Stonehenge Visitor Center before or after you go to see the stone circle. The exhibition is not big, you can easily see it in around 30 minutes. In the first room, there is a 360-degree video of Stonehenge which the kids there were loving. We went through to the back room which was more informative. You will also see some interesting artifacts.

I liked the way they presented the information in the exhibit. Seeing that Stonehenge was built at the same time as the pyramids put things into perspective. I was also impressed that Stonehenge was continually being built over 1000 years. Compare that to the Duomo in Milan (about 600 years) and La Sagrada Familia (about 150 years).

Note: In addition to the exhibition, the Stonehenge Visitor Center also has a cafe, gift shop, and restrooms.


  • The archaeological site is near to the village of Pömmelte, 85 miles from Berlin
  • The woodhenge consists of seven rings of palisades, ditches and raised banks
  • The site was first discovered in 1991 thanks to aerial photography of the area
  • As well as astronomical observations, the site was used for ritual sacrifice
  • Previous excavations of the site found dismembered bodies of children and women, with some having suffered severe skull trauma and rib fractures

Published: 11:40 BST, 15 June 2021 | Updated: 18:14 BST, 15 June 2021

Archaeologists have discovered 130 homes at an Early Bronze Age monument, suggesting there was a community living around Germany's 'Stonehenge'.

The ancient archaeological site, in the village of Pömmelte, 85 miles from Berlin, is known as Ringheiligtum Pömmelte, German for 'Ring Sanctuary of Pömmelte'.

It consists of seven rings of palisades, ditches and raised banks that would once have held wooden posts. The site has been compared to Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

In the latest excavation of the site, a team including researchers from Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, found a residential area surrounding the monument.

It was always assumed it was a ritualistic site, but this is the first time they have discovered evidence of permanent occupation within the vicinity of the monument.

Archaeologists have discovered 130 homes at an Early Bronze Age monument, suggesting there was a community living around Germany's 'Stonehenge'

The site was first discovered in 1991 after an aeroplane flew overhead and dates back to the third millennium BCE, when it was used for astronomical observations as well as rituals including human sacrifice, according to archeologists.

Using aerial photography, researchers were able to detect the tell-tale signs of a long-buried monument - later finding evidence of the long-gone wooden poles.

Previous excavations of the site found dismembered bodies of children and women, with some having suffered severe skull trauma and rib fractures.

They were left 'in situ' and the injuries would have been either the cause of death or sustained very close to the time of death, researchers found.

It consists of seven rings of palisades, ditches and raised banks that would once have held wooden posts. The site has been compared to Stonehenge in Wiltshire (pictured)


Related: Discover 22 of Europe’s most sacred sites

The monument is not only notable for its size, but for its ceremonial design. The first 1,600 feet of the avenue from Stonehenge is built on the axis of the summer solstice sunrise and winter solstice sunset—a phenomenon that has captivated travelers throughout the ages. Whether this alignment was constructed for sun worship, calendar keeping, or other purposes remains a mystery.

While Stonehenge may be the world’s most famous prehistoric megalithic monument, its circle of stones is not the largest. That distinction belongs to nearby Avebury, which is also home to the biggest prehistoric mound in Europe: Silbury Hill. The 130-foot-high mound is made up of half a million tons of chalk that was piled up around 2400 B.C.

Avebury’s circle consists of an enormous henge, an ancient earthwork embankment, and an adjacent ditch with a circumference of about half a mile that was cut by impressive causeways. Remnants of massive stones, interior circles, monuments, and avenues lined with pillar-like stones are also scattered across the countryside.

Sadly, many stones were destroyed throughout the centuries by residents of Avebury, which lies inside the henge. In an attack on pagan monuments, villagers began to topple and bury the ancient stones as early as the 14th century, and in the 18th century, many more were systematically broken up and destroyed. Archaeologist Alexander Keiller set some of this right by excavating and re-erecting stones in the 1930s, and founded an archaeological museum.

Today, more than a million people visit Stonehenge annually, and the summer solstice draws thousands.


Everything OK? Arabella Del Busso shares a video of herself crying – as she shares cryptic

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  • A core sample of the sarsens was taken in the 1950s during conservation work
  • The stones stand up to 9 metres tall and weigh up to 27 tonnes
  • Smaller stones at Stonehenge have been tracked to 250km away in Wales

Geochemical testing indicates that 50 of Stonehenge's 52 pale-grey sandstone megaliths, known as sarsens, share a common origin about 25 kilometres away at a site called West Woods on the edge of Wiltshire's Marlborough Downs, researchers said.

The sarsens were erected at Stonehenge around 2500 BC. The largest stands 9.1 metres tall. The heaviest weighs about 27.5 tonnes.

"The sarsen stones make up the iconic outer circle and central trilithon [two vertical stones supporting a horizontal stone] horseshoe at Stonehenge. They are enormous," said University of Brighton geomorphologist David Nash, who led the study published in the journal Science Advances.

"How they were moved to the site is still really the subject of speculation.

"Given the size of the stones, they must have either been dragged or moved on rollers to Stonehenge. We don't know the exact route but at least we now have a starting point and an endpoint."

Stonehenge's smaller bluestones previously were traced to Pembrokeshire in Wales 250km away, but the origin of the sarsens had defied identification.

A sarsen core sample, extracted during conservation work in the late 1950s when metal rods were inserted to stabilise a cracked megalith, provided crucial information.

It was given as a souvenir to a man named Robert Phillips who worked for the company involved in the conservation work and was on-site during drilling.

Mr Phillips took it with him with permission when he emigrated to the United States in 1977, living in New York, Illinois, California and finally Florida, Professor Nash said.

Mr Phillips decided to return it to the United Kingdom for research in 2018. He died this year.

The researchers analysed fragments of the sample — destructive testing being off-limits for megaliths at the site — to establish the geochemical fingerprint of the sarsen from which it was taken.

That fingerprint matched sandstone still at West Woods and all but two of the Stonehenge sarsens.

"I hope that what we have found out," Professor Nash said, "will allow people to understand more about the enormous endeavour involved in constructing Stonehenge."


How to get there

While limited parking is available, you can reduce your environmental impact by taking public transportation. Buses and trains offer regular service to Salisbury, which is located about 12 miles from Stonehenge. From there, take a taxi or hop on the Salisbury Reds bus (wheelchair accessible) to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Finally, a 1.5-mile (25-minute) walk leads to the circle. For those who are unable to walk, a free bus service operates between the disabled access parking lot and Stonehenge. Avebury is about 25 miles from Bath and 11 from Swindon—from which bus service is available. Trains also service Swindon and Pewesey (10 miles from Avebury).



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