thinking about archaeology

Plinth box 5

Stonehenge. The four small standing stones (and one fallen) in a row across from the left, and the three slightly taller, carved pillars on the right (and two fallen, nearly hidden, behind) are bluestones. Some at least of these may once have stood in Aubrey Holes in 3000BC. All other stones are sarsen (M Pitts)

Stonehenge. The four small standing stones (and one fallen) in a row across from the left, and the three slightly taller, carved pillars on the right (and two fallen, nearly hidden, behind) are bluestones. Some at least of these may once have stood in Aubrey Holes in 3000BC. All other stones are sarsen (M Pitts)

Site: Stonehenge, Wiltshire

Date: 3000–2000BC

What it represents: The ultimate vision in religion, politics and technology in the last few centuries of stone age culture

The plinth stone: A piece of Welsh bluestone, once part of a standing stone

Provenance: Excavated in 1980

Material: Spotted dolerite originally from the Preseli hills in Pembrokeshire, one of the most distinctive and common types of stone used for the smaller megaliths at Stonehenge

Maximum dimension: 96mm

Weight: 200gm

Loaned by: M Pitts collection

As a direct result of Prince Charles’s visit to Stonehenge in 1979, I directed a small excavation close to the Heelstone, the lone megalith beside the road. A trench for a telephone exchange cable was stopped just short of a previously unknown pit that had once held a substantial stone, either as a twin for the Heelstone, or perhaps for the latter in an earlier position.

The following year I returned to excavate an adjacent strip of ground prior to the burying of a water pipe. Here we found important evidence for the dressing of megaliths in a wide variety of different rock types. We sieved for and retrieved every particle of stone from the undisturbed ground (now in Salisbury Museum), but where the soil had been disturbed, for example by the telephone trench, we reburied it all: the plinth stone is one of two (the other being sarsen) from this disturbed ground that I kept for demonstration purposes. It was used as a colour guide in the construction of “Foamhenge”, the full-scale polystyrene model made by Crawley Creatures for Stonehenge… Live, the Channel 5 broadcasts in 2005, and carries paint trials from that.

The large stones at Stonehenge are all sarsen, a hard sandstone probably from north Wiltshire. There are also 32 bluestones surviving on site, and may have been up to as many as 90. It had long been known that these smaller stones were not local, and in the 1920s it was shown they came from a small area of Pembrokeshire in south-west Wales, by an unknown route at least 300km long.

Such a journey for monumental stones is unparalleled outside the modern world. A few specialists argue that the stones were already on Salisbury Plain as a result of glacial action in the ice age, and not brought from Wales by people in the neolithic. This argument fails to address the apparent complete absence of bluestones, or other Welsh stones, in any context in Wiltshire beyond Stonehenge or associated prehistoric sites. Most archaeologists and geologists accept human transport as the only likely explanation.

The present arrangement of stones at Stonehenge is but the last – much depleted – in a succession of poorly understood and incompletely dated structures. Following the first major radiocarbon dating programme in the early 1990s, it had been accepted that the bluestones first arrived at Stonehenge around 2500–2400BC. In 2008, on the provisional evidence of an excavation near the centre of Stonehenge, it was proposed that this date should be revised to 2300BC.

Support is now growing for a theory that bluestones were on site from the very start of Stonehenge’s history, at 3000BC. At this time were dug the circular ditch and bank that surround all the stones, and just inside these a perfect circle of 56 pits we know as the Aubrey Holes. These pits have been variously interpreted as having held stones, posts or nothing, but in 2008 Mike Parker Pearson’s theory that they held the first bluestones (as originally proposed by their excavator in the 1920s) was supported by the re-excavation of Aubrey Hole 7 by him, Julian Richards and myself.

The suggestion is that the first Stonehenge consisted of a ring of 56 bluestones (which at that stage may or may not have been dressed), enclosed by the circular earthwork whose entrance was on the solar midsummer/midwinter axis. The stones became the focus for the burial of bags or boxes of human bones collected from cremation pyres. Study of the bones retrieved from Aubrey Hole 7 (where all those excavated in the 1920s had been reburied) suggests almost all of the people buried at Stonehenge were male. Such a cemetery is unique in northern Europe at this time.

R Cleal, K Walker & R Montague, 1995. Stonehenge in its Landscape: Twentieth Century Excavations. English Heritage
Mike Parker Pearson, Andrew Chamberlain, Mandy Jay & six others, 2009. Who was buried at Stonehenge? Antiquity 83, 23–39
Mike Pitts, 1982. On the road to Stonehenge: report on investigations beside the A344 in 1968, 1979 and 1980. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 48, 75–132
Mike Pitts, 2001. Hengeworld (2nd ed). Century
Julian Richards, 2007. Stonehenge: The Story so Far. English Heritage

See also my Stonehenge page

Excavation in 1980, looking east towards the Heelstone. showing stone debris from prehistoric stone dressing or destruction, possibly both, in the foreground. The width of undisturbed ground was constrained by a number of service trenches (M Pitts)

Excavation in 1980, looking east towards the Heelstone. showing stone debris from prehistoric stone dressing or destruction, possibly both, in the foreground. The width of undisturbed ground was constrained by a number of service trenches (M Pitts)

Excavating a newly-discovered cremation burial on the lip of Aubrey Hole 7 in 2008. This pit probably once held one of the original Stonehenge bluestones (M Pitts)

Excavating a newly-discovered cremation burial on the lip of Aubrey Hole 7 in 2008. This pit probably once held one of the original Stonehenge bluestones (M Pitts)

Dolerite outcrop on Carn Menyn in the Preselis (M Pitts)

Dolerite outcrop on Carn Menyn in the Preselis (M Pitts)

Tim Darvill examines a stone on Carn Menyn that might have made a Stonehenge megalith (M Pitts)

Tim Darvill examines a stone on Carn Menyn that might have made a Stonehenge megalith (M Pitts)

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