One of the biggest advances ever in understanding Stonehenge in its landscape – this year’s Stonehenge Riverside Project (SRP) dig beside the Avon has produced some astounding results. The highlight is the discovery of a new stone circle and henge, called Bluestonehenge by the SRP’s leader, Professor Mike Parker Pearson, and Mike was kind enough to present his findings to the Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Society in Devizes recently. This is my report on what he had to say. I was privileged to play a very small amateur part in the dig, so I’ve added my own observations if I think they can supplement Mike’s story.
The new Bluestonehenge (BH) occupies a site close beside the river Avon in the hamlet of West Amesbury, at the end of the inferred Avenue route. The Avenue, which had never been properly explored at its far end, crosses a small field as it approaches the Avon, in a sheltered and fertile shallow valley, watered by a small spring.
Anyone who is familiar with the rather bracing conditions to be found up on the chalky, dry and exposed shoulder where Stonehenge is sited can’t fail to notice the polarising differences between the two sites. Although the stone ring in BH sits on a small spit or tongue of natural chalk – which probably marked the site on the river bank as a natural landing point – the surrounding subsoil is mostly sticky periglacial clay, making digging conditions rather difficult.
Only part of the henge site was accessible to the excavation team, as a property boundary crosses it, and the remaining land is river bank with carefully protected fishing rights. Some of the original henge bank and ditch has been lost to the river, but the stone circle is largely intact, and a little more than a third of it was excavated, giving a high degree of confidence in the conclusions.
Last year’s SRP excavations (2008) included a short exploration at West Amesbury to locate the end of the Avenue. Extensive geophysics surveys – resistivity, magnetic, radar – showed nothing, but a long narrow trench was dug across the field close to the river. By good fortune, the trench showed two segments of a circular ditch: the henge ditch. If the dig had been a few yards further away from the river, then the ditch would have been missed, and probably the Avenue ditches too, because they don’t reach quite as far as the henge.
The original henge bank had disappeared, eroded back into the ditch. But the discovery forced a re-examination of the geophysics records, and with hindsight it was possible to see four anomalies within the ditch, arranged in such a way that they could be on a circle. Perhaps they were the remains of sarsens forming a stone setting within a henge?
No further excavation was possible at that time, but 2009′s SRP dig was designed to explore this exciting possibility.
Test pits over a wide area showed two main areas of flint finds. Most of the finds were either Mesolithic or Bronze Age, showing that the site seemed not to be inhabited by Neolithic people. Many Early Mesolithic flints were found on the tongue of chalk showing that this area had been used extensively, possibly since the time that the Car Park posts were erected at Stonehenge (8000BC). This is important in itself, as it indicates that the Stonehenge area must have been highly significant while the Mesolithic people who erected the posts were living in the valley, near fresh water.
The major trench at BH showed that the henge ditch is 25m in diameter, with a 30m diameter bank. The Avenue ditches almost meet the henge bank but fall short. Finds from the Avenue and the henge ditches show that they’re likely contemporary, dug at the same time. Last year’s dig uncovered an antler at the bottom of a ditch segment that dated to around 2400BC. The henge/Avenue dates inferred from flint finds have yet to be confirmed by the radiocarbon dating from this year’s organic finds.
The four anomalies – the possible sarsen holes – were a big disappointment. They turned out to be dense distributions of flint nodules in the natural spur of chalk, a result of natural weathering causing a “deflation horizon”. They were simply a natural phenomenon, but they played their part in the big discovery by contributing to the expectations of the site.
A narrow trench across the Avenue line and further away from the Avon revealed the Avenue ditches, as well as a mass of mediaeval activity. In fact, it was difficult to disentangle all the mediaeval land boundaries and pits from the prehistoric targets. But eventually the two Avenue ditches, about 18m apart, became clear, and the eastern ditch was particularly fruitful. It showed a line of stake holes in the bottom of the ditch, the remains of a length of palisade. The palisade does not seem to have extended all the way to the terminus of the ditch. In the same area as the stakes, one lucky excavator found the most incredibly perfect and delicate oblique ripple-flaked arrowhead. It was pointing up the Avenue towards Stonehenge, and must have been a deliberate deposit.
Within the henge
The archaeological sequence within the henge was complicated. Apart from the inevitable mediaeval disturbance, some Late Bronze Age post pipes cut into the filled henge ditch and intersected with the bottom of what was to prove a bluestone hole. The dating was provided by post-Deverel Rimbury pottery which was in use around 1000BC. At least one of the post holes was massive – the photo shows an excavator removing material from a still deepening post pipe. The significance of these posts is that the Bronze Age people must have known of the presence of something highly important from the past – the posts were erected right at the edge of the earlier stone circle.
Elsewhere, excavation uncovered patches of flint-cobbled surfaces at the bottom of the henge ditch, so that people could stand in the clayey bottom. Nearby was found the butt of a greenstone axehead.
Where the ditch had been recut in the Bronze Age, it had narrowly missed the bottom of the original ditch terminal. And that allowed Mike’s team to discover an important “structured deposit” of a flint-worker’s hammerstone, shaped antler tool, a series of struck flints, and the sacrum of a cow. (Cattle remains are often found in ditch terminals.) But the most interesting find was almost missed – the vestigial remains a “burnt organic container” – was it a basket, or a bowl? And what did it contain? Maybe time and expert investigation will tell.
The stone ring
There’s no doubt the finally-revealed stone holes – the hoped-for target of the dig – contained bluestones. There were only four pieces of sarsen found within the henge, and they were river-worn. The nine stone holes uncovered showed the characteristic proportions and dimensions of their counterparts at Stonehenge, though perhaps were dug a little deeper, probably because of the softer clay subsoil.
The interpretation of the stone holes changed dramatically during the dig. An early count showed only four holes in the trenches, and an aerial shot I was able to get from a flight overhead allowed me to calculate a circle containing about 10 stones. This was similar to the directors’ estimate, but within a few days the diggers appeared to discover intermediate stoneholes, and suddenly the estimate shot up to around 24 or 25 stones. These were erected on a circle of almost exactly 10m diameter across the ditch centreline.
Each stonehole excavated differed slightly, showing that it was likely that different gangs erected each stone. One showed a nest of packing stones, carefully placed around and under the bluestone, while the next revealed a pad of alluvial clay, compressed into the underlying chalk. The pad retained a perfect imprint of the bottom of the original stone.
The packing stones gave rise to a mystery. Each hole had an extraction ramp, showing the angle at which the stone was withdrawn. Each stone was extracted whole, for there were no bluestone fragments. And yet the nest of packing stones was virtually complete, which would have been impossible if the stone had simply been dragged up the extraction ramp. The photo shows a nest of packing stones, lower right, with the excavator standing in the angled extraction ramp, below the edge of the packing stones.
So how was it done?
The answer the team came up with was the use of an A-frame. Their hypothesis is that the stones were physically lifted up from the holes by attaching ropes to the peak of the A-frame, and then hauling the frame more upright. This would allow the stone to clear the packing, and then be withdrawn by hand along the extraction ramp.
This was a clever solution to the problem, but gives rise to another question. Why was so much care expended on removing the stones?
Repurposing the stones
It was at this point in the excavation that Mike made his momentous announcement. He often gave a progress report at the start of the day’s dig, and on this occasion he really caught his audience’s attention. The gist of the theory was that the 24 bluestones from BH were carefully removed, and then dragged up what is now the Avenue to be reused in the later designs of Stonehenge.
This is a seductive idea, because of the arithmetic. Mike excavated Aubrey Hole 7 last year to remove the buried cremated remains that had been deposited there since 1935. He discovered the characteristic crushing of the bottom chalk indicating a standing stone. This had been observed by the original excavator in 1920, but he’d been overruled by others. In addition, the proportions and dimensions of the Aubrey Holes all show the same characteristics of known bluestone holes. So the deduction is that there were 56 bluestones dating from the earliest Phase 1 in around 3000BC.
When you add the 24 stones transported from BH, they total 80 stones, which is too close for coincidence to the usual estimates of 79-80 for the bluestones in the later settings. It appears that the BH ring had been desanctified, the stones carefully removed and consolidated with the existing stones at Stonehenge, to re-launch the monument. At the same time, or soon after, the bluestones were joined by the massive sarsens to create the monument we know today.
This completely rewrites the history of not just Stonehenge, but a much enlarged Stonehenge ritual landscape. Mike summed up the significance of this revelation with the words that I can still clearly hear in my mind: “It’s not quite Tutankhamun’s tomb, but…”
Not only do we have an astounding new theory that closely links two separate monuments over a period of around 500 years, but a double slice of luck should enable definite confirmation. Not only was an antler found directly under the bottom of one of the original holes (incontrovertible dating for the date of erection), but another antler was found near the top of an extraction ramp, most likely confirming when the stone was removed. So, when the RC dates are in, they should provide reliable dating for both start and end dates of the BH ring. And these can be compared with corresponding dates at the Stonehenge site.
Shapes and sizes
The comparison may be a lot tighter than simple dates. An intriguing consequence of the imprints left behind in the bottom of the bluestone holes is that they can be accurately modelled in 3D using a laser scanning technique. And if the shape of the original stones can be retrieved, then they can be compared with existing stones at Stonehenge.
It turns out that there is a strong candidate for a match. This photograph from English Heritage shows the bluestone 68 at Stonehenge which has a strongly defined groove, and it’s possible that this groove matches a similar grooved base to one of the stones from the west of BH.
If such a connection can be made, then it’s unquestionable proof that the two sets of stones were integrated into the new design at Stonehenge.
Another intriguing possibility that will be much harder to prove is that the ring at BH was lintelled. Stonehenge possesses two lintelled bluestones, and Mike thinks that it’s just possible that they could also have been used as lintels at BH, in which case the theme for the unique design we see at Stonehenge today could have been inspired by the lost ring beside the Avon.
But where might the inspiration for BH have sprung from?
There is a strong association between Stonehenge and Wales and the West Country. Whether the bluestones were transported by glaciers or human agency, they incontrovertibly originated from Wales. In addition, strontium analysis of animal remains found in the Stonehenge landscape show they came from the west.
The earliest Neolithic finds in the British Isles come from Ireland, and pottery styles show that Early Neolithic culture spread all the way along the west coast from the Scottish Isles in the north, to Paignton in Devon and to France. Wales has an impressive collection of 4th millennium tombs that show an active Early Neolithic culture. And it also has a proto-Stonehenge, near Bangor.
Although Mike didn’t mention it by name, I think he must have been referring to Llandegai 1, a henge outside Bangor that is the most closely aligned in the British Isles with the Stonehenge design. With dates of 3,200 BC from ditch material and 3,350 BC from a cremation, it’s possibly the earliest dated henge yet found. Its bank is within the ditch, as at Stonehenge, and it’s described as having been the site of a large Neolithic ceremonial centre which sounds very similar to the Stonehenge complex – for instance, it had a cursus, and many cremation burials were found in the henge, as at Stonehenge. Its excavator described it as “a natural meeting place of land and sea routes”, and he associated the early usage of the site with axe-trading. (Perhaps the greenstone axe found at BH came from here?) And Stonehenge is of course at the nexus of major overland routes, like the Ridgeway and Harroway, and the Avon river route to the sea.
So it’s possible that Llandegai provided the jumping-off point for a migration of the Welsh Neolithic culture and cattle towards the east that ended in a similar settlement on the easy grazing of Salisbury Plain. And what more natural than to import the familiar religious designs that reassured the new settlers that this was their new home from home? But it will take a lot more research using techniques like strontium analysis before proving this theory of origination.
Human agency, or glaciation?
The two monuments at Stonehenge and BH both show an impressive collection of bluestones. We know they came from Wales, but how did they arrive? While acknowledging that current research is casting new light on glaciation, Mike still prefers the idea of human agency. He referred to the latest article in British Archaeology from Rob Ixer, that relocates the source of many of the stones away from Carn Meini, the traditional source, preferring Carn Goedog, for instance for the source of the spotted dolerites, because of a closer chemical match.
Mike’s opinion gained from his glaciation experts is that potential bluestone-carrying glaciations would have come no closer than about 50 miles, dropping their load in the area of Somerset and Gloucestershire. So what evidence is there for bluestones in that area?
There we find Stanton Drew, a massive henge that incorporates stones of varied geology that have been imported from many miles away. But there isn’t a single bluestone there. Mike feels that if glaciations were a factor, then bluestones would inevitably have been used at Stanton Drew. They haven’t – and that destroys the credibility of the glacier-borne theory.
So did the Neolithic people transport the stones by water or land? For Mike, they’d have done anything to avoid the uncertainties of a water route. In short, he believes that – “it’s the labour that counts” – and that work gangs would have competed eagerly for the prestige of the heaviest stones or the greatest distance.
The dimensions of BH are simple: the stone circle is 10m in diameter, the henge ditch is 25m, and the bank is 30m (midline to midline). There are some small variations in these figures, because of the inevitable irregularities introduced by construction, but it seems that there was a basic multiple of five underlying all the dimensions.
At this point, I have to suspend my disbelief. Mike claims the basic unit of length that was used by the designers was (in current terms) 5 metres, and this length corresponds very closely to what in traditional English measure is a rod (or a pole, or a perch.) Mike’s advisors propose that this basic prehistoric measure of length is 15 “long feet” (a multiple of 5 again) where a long foot is 1.056 English feet.
The proof appears to be evident in the design at Stonehenge. The Aubrey Holes are spaced one rod apart. For comparison purposes, the BH ring is only two rods in diameter, so it’s tiny. I didn’t collect all the details, but the rod underlies the entire Stonehenge design: the Aubrey Holes have a diameter of 9 rods, the bank 10 rods, the ditch 11 rods, and the counterscarp 12 rods. In the lintelled ring, each lintel is 10 long feet (two thirds of a rod) while the trilithon horseshoe is constructed on a spacing pattern of multiples of 5 rods. Each trilithon lintel is one rod in length.
Mike claims that this produces an extremely simple construction method, that bypasses all the complicated geometrical constructions required by Anthony Johnson’s analysis, for instance. Mike is not proposing a universal measure, like Alexander Thom’s Megalithic Yard. Rather, he is proposing a local measure that persisted in the area of Salisbury Plain. Is it possible this measure ultimately become the English rod that, apparently, defined the length of the stick needed to control oxen at the plough?
Connection to Stonehenge
During the active phase of BH – assumed to be between 3000BC and its dismantling in around 2500BC – how did it relate to its bigger neighbour, Stonehenge? During this time there was no Avenue connecting the two, yet there had been some early logical connection through the common use of bluestones. Puzzlingly, Stonehenge went through a long period after 3000BC when it was used less – indeed, became partially overgrown – although it was still used for cremation burials.
Mike Parker Pearson believes that during this period BH had more of a connection with Coneybury Henge. Coneybury is close to a direct line between Stonehenge and the Avon site, and is high up on the chalkland, overlooking Stonehenge. It was excavated in 1980 by Julian Richards, who found a north eastern entrance, like Stonehenge’s, with wooden settings within, and the possibility of an east-west setting of bluestone-sized pits.
But the really intriguing characteristics of Coneybury are its dates. Outside the henge is a pit, called the Coneybury Anomaly, filled with early Neolithic pottery and a large deposit of animal bones, including a minimum of 10 cattle, plus several roe deer, two red deer and a pig. This pit may represent the remains of one major episode of feasting, carefully buried. The remains would have fed a lot of people, and the bones date to early in the 4th millennium BC. A series of dates from pits inside the henge and the primary ditch show that Coneybury was in active use from about 3300BC to 2450BC – in other words, completely spanning the dates when BH was in use.
It seems possible that Coneybury may have been the first point of contact for the earliest Neolithic settlers from the west. One way of settling this would be to test the teeth from the cattle buried in the Anomaly, using strontium analysis, to see if they originated from Wales. Mike is planning to carry out this test, and the results should be extremely interesting. But whatever the origin of the animals and people, it seems to have been an important component of the Stonehenge landscape at the same time as BH.
Coneybury is accessible from BH directly, with no more effort than using the Avenue route – both routes have to climb the King Barrow ridge. But Mike makes an interesting proposition for the route from Coneybury to Stonehenge: he thinks that it took a more southerly route, and used a coombe, or shallow valley to go west before approaching Stonehenge directly from the south. The southern entrance, marked by the diminutive sarsen stone 11, could be a recognition of the earlier approach route.
In the footsteps of the Gods
We may never know what was the transformational event or belief that prompted the dismantling of the bluestone ring at BH, and its re-erection at Stonehenge. But Mike Parker Pearson is sure that he knows how the change took place, and was marked.
After the careful removal of the bluestones from their BH setting, they were moved to Stonehenge along what we now know as the line of the Avenue. This route is the most direct and follows an economical line across the King Barrow ridge but, most significantly, it joins with the solstice sunrise line at the bottom of the final slope up to Stonehenge – the dramatic approach to the Heel Stone when the rising midsummer sun shines directly into the centre of the monument.
Mike Parker Pearson opened his talk with a discussion of this line, but it seems most relevant here. When a trench was opened up across this final part of the Avenue last year, Mike’s geomorphology experts pointed out that the two parallel ridge and ditches that mark the sunrise line are natural features (caused by periglacial erosion) which coincidentally are directly on the sunrise axis.
Mike surmises that this natural feature and its significant alignment must have been known to the Neolithic people, and this was a major reason for the siting of Stonehenge. This natural astronomical alignment was then enhanced by a circular cremation cemetery with a bluestone ring at the top of the rise.
When Stonehenge was redeveloped around 2500BC, it was natural to incorporate the new bluestones by using the original feature that had made the site special. The route by which they had been moved was commemorated by an extension of the Avenue banks and ditches all the way down to the circle by the river. And there a circular ditch and bank was dug to mark the place where the where the stones had originally stood.
Stonehenge’s key position in a ritual landscape appears to have been originally a recognition of the Sun or Sky gods, and this aspect was preserved through its history, until it was finally commemorated in the connection to its early partner site, Bluestonehenge.
Thus a continuity of memory was assured, a continuity that has allowed modern archaeologists to reveal even more of Stonehenge’s early history. There will inevitably be yet more exciting discoveries in the future.
All the text and photographs in this report are courtesy of Alex Down, apart from the illustration of Bluestonehenge which was created by Peter Dunn [see previous post on Bluestonehenge Press Release for details]. It surely goes without saying that I’m enormously grateful to Alex for all his hard work and dedication in enabling us all to read this account.