A really new stage in Stonehenge history?

I went to the annual meeting of the Stonehenge Riverside Project in English Heritage’s Bristol offices last week, and very interesting it was.

The SRP is behind much of the fieldwork that has taken place in the Stonehenge world heritage site over the past few years: that includes the work at Durrington Walls (including the neolithic “village”), the discovery of “Bluestonehenge”, the excavation of the Aubrey Hole containing the reburied human cremations at Stonehenge itself, and much else.

Excavation really has ended now, and the meeting was about last year’s fieldwork, continuing research and how the whole project is to be completed and published. This is the largest Stonehenge research project ever conducted, and with the new opportunities offered by the latest in archaeological sciences, the prospects for a greater understanding of the history and early meanings of Stonehenge really are exciting.

For an earlier generation of archaeologists, this stage of work was too often treated as the least interesting or urgent. Focus would often shift to excavating at another site before what we now call “post-excavation” was finished – or even started. The reasons for this are complex, but undoubtedly part of the problem was that in another era, the relatively few archaeologists knew each other well, visited each other’s digs and sometimes felt that was enough: in other words – despite what they said or even wrote into excavation manuals telling other people what to do – they felt no compelling duty to make the full results of their excavations available to everyone.

Unfortunately Stonehenge was one of many sites to suffer in this way. As is now becoming well known, descriptions of important excavations there in the 1950s and 60s directed by Richard Atkinson, were until recently limited almost entirely to his popular book published in 1956 [1]. It is beautifully written, but the short appendices added in 1960 and 1979 [2] did little to reflect the fact that Atkinson had been uncovering further substantial  information in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1964 – and only the first, small dig in 1950 had been fully published at all [3].

The scale of the resultant misunderstandings resulting from this only began to become apparent with the publication of all 20th century excavations at Stonehenge in 1995 [4]. Amongst many problems, was the standard history of the monument, divided into three phases. This had been enshrined by Atkinson in the official guidebooks – but it was never openly debated by archaeologists, as only Atkinson had access to the evidence. We can now see that he built on ideas of his early colleague at Stonehenge, Stuart Piggott, and especially on the earlier excavations there by William Hawley: his book implied otherwise (and indeed had nothing but spleen for Hawley), but only a little that came from Atkinson’s excavations fundamentally informed the three phases into which the 1995 study tried to squeeze the full evidence.

Now, as we learnt last week in Bristol, we have another rewriting of Stonehenge’s early history, based on information from new excavations and further analysis of old records. The difference from previous attempts is that this time all the evidence seems to fit. In the past there have always been odd things – such as radiocarbon dates or supposedly stratified artefacts of a particular date in the wrong place – that we had to leave aside if the theoretical history was to work. And not only does it all fit, but to me it feels right. It has the right complexity, the right richness in the story that Stonehenge demands. It is in many ways quite different from the accepted models. And it comes none too soon, as English Heritage really gets into gear with preparing the timeline for the new visitor centre’s displays and guides.

The proper description of this history (in “stages”, not “phases”) is billed as a possible future paper in Antiquity (perhaps this year, perhaps later) by Tim Darvill, Pete Marshall, Mike Parker Pearson and Geoff Wainwright. It is very pleasing to see that the small 2008 dig inside Stonehenge by Darvill and Wainwright, at first hailed as proving the arrival of bluestones at Stonehenge in 2300BC (something everyone now seems to agree was misleading), has come to play a pivotal role in the new history [5]. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt the publication in any way, and what follows excludes detail where some of the most interesting ideas lie. But Parker Pearson has recently published references to the “new Stonehenge” [6, 7] which I can distil now without adding anything I heard at the meeting. Of course this remains to be peer-reviewed and debated, and (like Atkinson’s model before) it comes here without the evidence. Some of this will undoubtedly change: even in Parker Pearson’s two new essays [6, 7] there are small differences in the dates (there’s most detail in the Encyclopaedia Britannica piece – the other is written by Marc Aronson – but I’ve put just about all the key points in here). But I really think this outline is going to be core to a new generation of Stonehenge studies, and that’s big stuff.

First stage: 3000–2935BC

Aubrey Hole and ditch

Circular ditch and bank ring some 100m in diameter, with the main access to the north-east and a narrower entrance to the south, enclosing 56 pits (the Aubrey Holes) which hold standing Welsh bluestones. Human cremation burial occurs in and around the Aubrey Holes and the ditch and bank. Most of these burials are of adult males, and the practice continues till at least 2300BC; as I pointed out in Hengeworld [8], they constitute the largest known cemetery of its type. The timber posts across the main entrance to the enclosure may also belong to this stage.

A second stone circle (Bluestonehenge) is built beside the river Avon. This consists of some 25 Welsh bluestones in a ring about 10m across, and is perhaps used for cremating and preparing the bodies whose remains are taken to Stonehenge.

Second stage: 2640–2480BC

Sarsens and bluestones in Q&R Holes

At least 75 large sarsen stones from the Avebury area, about 20 miles (32km) to the north, are dressed at Stonehenge. They are then arranged at the centre of the earthwork circle in a horseshoe-plan setting of five tall trilithons (two uprights and a lintel, like a pi) surrounded by a ring of 30 uprights linked by curved lintels. Between the trilithons and the sarsen circle is an arc of bluestones, standing in pits known as the Q and R Holes. These bluestones may have been taken from the Aubrey Holes, and possibly also from Bluestonehenge.

At this time, if not before, the four sarsen Station Stones are erected near the Aubrey Hole ring. Two of the Station Stones (those now missing) are then partially covered by low mounds (the South and the North Barrow). The South Barrow is raised over the floor of a 10mx11m D-shaped building immediately east of the southern entrance into the enclosure. From this entrance a route marked by timber posts leads towards the centre of the site. Three large sarsens form a facade across the north-eastern entrance (of which the Slaughter Stone alone survives); beyond them stands the Heelstone within a circular ring ditch.

At Durrington Walls, two sets of concentric oak circles are built within a large settlement. Nine square-planned houses have been excavated out of what may have been 1,000 such dwellings, in what was perhaps the Stonehenge builders’ camp. Close by stands a third group of concentric oak rings, known as Woodhenge.

Third stage: 2470–2280BC

The Avenue

The Avenue earthwork (two parallel sets of ditches and banks defining a wide passageway), almost 2 miles (3km) long, is dug from Stonehenge to the river Avon, where it meets a small henge (a bank and ditch ring) dug at the site of Bluestonehenge after the stones are removed.

At Durrington Walls, the ruins of the village are enclosed by the bank and ditch of Britain’s largest henge enclosure. An earthwork avenue 560 feet (170m) long is built to connect the larger set of concentric oak circles (the Southern Circle) and the river Avon. The Southern Circle has decayed by the end of this stage.

The Durrington avenue is aligned on the summer solstice sunset, while the Southern Circle faces the winter solstice sunrise. At Stonehenge, both the summer solstice sunrise, and the winter solstice sunset, can be viewed along the Avenue and through the centre of the monument.

The Amesbury Archer is buried the other side of the river Avon.

Fourth stage: 2280–2030BC

Bluestone oval and circle

The bluestones are rearranged to form a circle between the trilithons and the outer sarsen ring, and an oval within the trilithons.

Fifth and sixth stages: 2030–1520BC


Z Hole 16 in 1953 (English Heritage/NMR)

A ring of pits known as the Z Holes is dug outside the sarsen circle, and apparently some time later a ring of pits beyond this known as the Y Holes (these are poorly dated and understood).


1 Atkinson, RJC 1956. Stonehenge. Hamish Hamilton

2 Atkinson, RJC 1979. Stonehenge (revised ed). Penguin

3 Atkinson, RJC, Piggott, S & Stone, JFS 1952, The excavations of two additional holes at Stonehenge, and new evidence for the date of the monument. Antiquaries Journal, 32, 14–20

4 Cleal, RMJ, Walker, KE & Montague, R 1995, Stonehenge in its Landscape : Twentieth-Century Excavations. English Heritage

5 Pitts, M 2009. A year at Stonehenge. Antiquity 2009, 184–94

6 Parker Pearson, M 2010. Stonehenge, in Encyclopaedia Britannica.

7 Aronson, M with Parker Pearson, M 2010. If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge. National Geographic

8 Pitts, M 2001. Hengeworld. Century

6 thoughts on “A really new stage in Stonehenge history?

  1. This is fascinating – thanks very much for posting it Mike.

    Is the view that the act of enclosure with a bank and ditch was done to memorialise something that had once stood there and was being (or had already been) removed, substantially modified or specifically highlighted (eg the ditch around the Heelstone)?

    I’m wondering because you imply West Amesbury henge post-dates the removal of the bluestone circle on the river bank.

    Also, is the view now that the Q&R bluestones were standing contemporaneously with the Trilithons and Sarsen Circle, I’d understood the Q&R holes pre-dated them, even if only slightly, based on the stone hole for one of the Sarsen uprights cutting into them?

    I’m intrigued by the North Barrow apparently being overlain by the inner bank of the enclosure – was that discussed in any detail?

    Not a criticism levelled at you particularly, just a general thing…. but sometimes I think articles about the phasing of Stonehenge ought to have an amount of whitespace between the 1st and 2nd stages to indicate the abandonment of the first causewayed enclosure, subsequent scrub encroachment (as indicated by woodland snail types appearing in the ditch) and its eventual clearance ready for the Sarsen phase.

    Otherwise it’s easy to overlook the idea, while reading a linear description like this, that the construction may have been carried out in intense bursts of activity separated by periods of use, then disuse and revival.

  2. There was always the risk that in posting this blog I’d prompt intelligent comments like these that might need in response ideas or data that currently await publication by Darvill, Marshall et al, but there you go! Sorry if it sounds like a cop out, but I should leave some of these points to them.

    You are right, there is a big time gap between the first bluestone circle and the big megalithic monument in the centre. Some of the postholes might have something to do with what was going on then, and also some of the peripheral stones like the Station Stones and stone 97, and some things buried in the ditch. If as it seems cremation burial continued through that time, then it looks as if most of the activity at the site left little in the way of constructional evidence, but people were there. Perhaps it works to think of the stages as major constructional events rather than as parts of a continuous narrative. The idea that at the end of phase/stage 1 scrub covered the site has long looked unlikely, even if parts of the ditch overgrew.

    On another point, it is interesting how a phenomenon appears to be documented, as you suggest, of earthwork enclosures memorialising older ritual sites; that fits with an old idea that the ditch-inside-bank character of henges was about keeping something in, rather than out.

    1. Not a cop out – I appreciate it’s difficult pre-publication and am glad of whatever info you can provide – some of the fourteen(!) presentations at the Devizes museum seminar on May 22nd had “no photography!” icons on them.

      Thanks for clarifying the scrub issue.

      I find it interesting how oral traditions and folklore have apparently preserved small nuggets of knowledge over 5000 years (eg bluestones first, brought from “Ireland”), and I wonder if any more will end up being supported by the results on the ground.

  3. Very interesting Mike with much food for thought. Thank you for your efforts carried out in your usual competent and informative way.
    Leaving Stonehenge aside for the moment, are there any plans to descend on Avebury in the near future do you know to carry out equally extensive work?

  4. Having done some very amateur work at the Bluestonehenge site last year, I was very impressed by the huge difference in character between the two sites eventually linked by the Avenue. Stonehenge is high, dry, bleak, and windswept. Bluestonehenge is low, well-watered by a nearby spring and the Avon of course, fertile and sheltered. It seemed to me that this a perfect example of the complementary pairing of opposites that I believe I can see many times in the monuments and their landscape. In particular, here, I hypothesize that the two sites could represent, inter alia, the male (Stonehenge) and female (Bluestonehenge) principles. This may explain why the burials at Stonehenge are almost exclusively male (60 out of 62 at the last analysis, I believe, and do we know the age of the other two?). I would further suggest that female cremations were carried out at Bluestonehenge and, rather than being buried, were cast on the waters of the adjacent Avon. Rivers have always carried stong female symbolism, and it seems quite possible that the water and earth are again two complimentary opposites for the disposal of the cremated remains. It’s for this reason that I think the cremation of the male bodies was probably carried out at Stonehenge. The Avenue, as you point out, was created much later.

    Of course, this would have been only have applied during the period from Stage 1 to Stage 2, when presumably a cultural change accompanied the consolidation of one or more different monuments with their bluestones into the later stages of Stonehenge.

    I was very intrigued by the removal of the stone ring at Bluestonehenge, having seen the undisturbed nests of packing stones that excavation revealed. The bluestones must have been lifted out almost vertically, and Mike Parker Pearson’s view was that A-frames would have been used. This made a lot of sense, and I did some calculations that showed approximately where the feet of the frames would have rested as the stones were lifted outwards. Without going into detail here, it seems that the digging of the ditch and bank would have thereby obscured all – or most – of the traces of the serious engineering involved in removing the stones. For instance, to resist the sideways pressure of several tonnes, the feet of the A-frame would have to be restrained by very heavy posts dug deep into ground. Perhaps some traces of these still exist, perhaps unexplained in the excavation records? To get even more speculative: suppose that the ditch was dug, not only as a commemorative act, as MPP suggests, but as a way of “cleaning” or rededicating the sanctity of the site? After all, the site had been home to a highly significant stone circle. Its careful removal would have left a probably untidy ring of highly functional but distinctly profane wooden posts – the restraining posts for the A-frames. What better way of leaving a perfect memory of the site than completely eliminating all traces of the rude mechanicals with a classic circular henge ditch and bank?

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