Secrets of Stonehenge
In a lecture by project director Mike Parker Pearson entitled The Stonehenge Riverside Project - Recent Results delivered to Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Society at Devizes on Saturday, 10th October, 2009, he described how during this summer a team of archaeologists discovered the site of a small stone circle just over a mile from Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain which could rewrite the history of the famous megalithic monument in the wider context as we know it.
Excavations carried out during the summer are proving to be one of the most significant prehistoric finds in decades. The discovery of this new stone circle is being cited as possible confirmation of the Stonehenge Riverside Project’s theory that the River Avon linked the ‘domain of the living’, the upstream Neolithic village of Durrington Walls marked by its wooden henge and timber houses with the stones of Stonehenge and surrounding area as the ‘domain of the dead’ , expanding on the theory that the sites of Stonehenge and Durrington Walls were linked by the River Avon.
The Stonehenge Riverside Project excavation last year included a short exploration to locate the end of the Avenue, the linear ditch and bank that leads from Stonehenge, to the River Avon at West Amesbury, a 2.8km (1¾-mile) long processional route constructed at the end of the Neolithic period. The theory included the romantic proposal of a mid-winter ceremony started on the solstice sunrise at Durrington, the land of the living, the remains of the ancestors would then be taken downstream to be deposited at Stonehenge, the realm of the dead, with the setting of the solstice sun.
The route of the Avenue linking Stonehenge to the Avon, essential to Parker Pearson's theory, had never been properly explored at its junction with the river where it crosses a small field. Parker Pearson suspected there could be something near the Avon to mark the terminus of the Avenue processional pathway to Stonehenge but extensive geophysics surveys carried put in 2008 failed to indicate anything significant. So a long narrow trench was dug across the field nearby the Avon which showed two segments of a circular ditch, believed to be a henge ditch, although the original outer bank had long disappeared. Four anomalies were found within the ditch, arranged in such a way that they could be on a circle, it was speculated that they could be the remains of sarsens set within a henge, the Avenue terminus marker. In the Time Team Stonehenge Special screened on 1st June 2009 speculation as to the whereabouts of these sarsens suggested their possible use in the construction of a local river crossing, however, further excavation was not possible at that time, but in September this year the Riverside Project returned and carried out further investigations at this location.
This summer a major trench was cut at the site and the excavations showed that the four anomalies found last year, the suspected sarsen holes, turned out to be dense distributions of flint nodules in the natural spur of chalk, a result of natural weathering proving a big disappointment to the team. However, the excavations proved far from a waste of time; a further trench was cut across the suspected line of the Avenue, which although not apparent at this time revealed two ditches, suggesting a continuation of the Avenue, although somewhat narrower than the Stonehenge end. Further along the Avenue, by the river, the eastern ditch revealed a later line of stake holes suspected of being the remains of a length of a possible Bronze Age palisade, however, this does not seem to have extended all the way to the terminus of the ditch. At the Stonehenge end of the Avenue post-holes are absent, although it seems likely there was something there as Stukeley was reminded by his companion Roger Gale in 1740 that he had failed to include these in his work on the monument. No trace of these postholes in the Stonehenge end of the Avenue seem detectable today, however, as many stone circles possess such a feature of a processional way lined with paired stones, considered male and female, it would not seem unreasonable to suggest that it could have looked something like Avebury's West Kennet Avenue.
Although the Project team had discovered the end of the Avenue the ditches stopped short of the henge bank. A radar survey carried out showed the circular outline of a ‘new’ henge on the land adjacent to the River Avon, within which the Project team went on to unearth the site of a small 10m diameter stone circle complete with 25m diameter henge ditch and 30m diameter bank, occupying a position close to the river Avon marking the Avenue terminus. On excavating roughly less than half the circle, only the northeast quadrant of the circle and a small part of its west side were excavated, they uncovered nine stone holes, all possessing the same dimensions and characteristics as their bluestone counterparts at Stonehenge, displaying the imprints of heavy stones, which weighed an estimated average of up to four tons each. These stones have been identified as bluestones based on the identical characteristics with the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge.
Having excavated about 40% of the circle and given the arrangement and curvature of the circle, the maximum number of stones in the circle was estimated at 25 and mirrored the early phase of Stonehenge bluestone construction of around 5,000 years ago. It is not considered that the sockets would have held wooden posts, the dimensions of the holes are too wide and too shallow for them and too small to have supported sarsens. The imprints of the stones’ bases and the shapes of the sockets from which they were withdrawn compare favorably with the dimensions of the bluestones in at Stonehenge. Parker Pearson calls this stone circle Bluestonehenge.
Owing to the absence of broken bluestone fragments (only two bluestone fragments were found, both of spotted dolerite) at the Bluestonehenge site the stones appear to have been extracted whole and not broken up as was the Medieval practice. This concept is supported by the packing being found still intact in of the excavated stone two holes. One stonehole still exhibited flint packing and an adjacent hole that showed a completely different packing style based on a pad of clay. The packing is usually lost when the stone is pulled out its socket: how could the packing still be in place for stones weighing around 4 tons? The stones from Bluestonehenge can only have been removed in a controlled straight vertical lift. The Project team have suggested the use of an A-frame as the solution: the stones being physically raised up from their sockets by attaching ropes to an A-frame, and then pulling the frame further upright would allow the stone to clear the packing, and then be withdrawn by hand along the extraction ramp.
Last year the Riverside Project team excavated Aubrey Hole 7 to allow further analysis of the cremation remains interred in 1935. During this excavation they discovered the distinctive crushing of the chalk in the bottom of the stone hole indicating it once held a standing stone and damage to the hole as the stone was dragged out. It is claimed the 56 Aubrey holes all held bluestones and may have been in place during the earlier stages of Stonehenge construction but had since been removed and relocated. The proportions and dimensions of the Aubrey Holes apparently all portray the same characteristics of known bluestone holes which is also typical to the stone holes of Bluestonehenge. Following removal from the Aubrey holes the bluestones were reused in later stages of Stonehenge and may have once occupied the Q and R holes in a double concentric circle, possibly braced by lintels, although it is speculated that the circles were not completed and consequently sometimes referred to as the Bluestone Crescent.
The date at which the bluestones first arrived at Stonehenge is not known, or whether all the bluestones arrived at the same time, however, it is estimated that after about 150 years or so, the bluestones were removed from the Q and R holes and the site was cleared for the major construction of Stonehenge with the erection of the Great Sarsen Circle and the Trilithon Horsehoe sourced from the nearby Marlborough Downs. The accepted radiocarbon dates for this phase are 2440-2100 BC. The bluestones were all removed from the henge. About 200 hundred years later the bluestones returned to Stonehenge and were constructed into the Bluestone Circle and Bluestone Horshoe. The whereabouts of the bluestones during their absence from Stonehenge has opened the door of speculation for many, including Parker Pearson.
Doing some basic maths, Parker Pearson didn't take long in coming up with a theory for the whereabouts of the missing bluestones from the Avenue terminus circle. He suggests that Bluestonehenge was dismantled with all the stones removed and dragged up the course of the Avenue and redeployed at Stonehenge following the construction of the Great Sarsen Circle and the Trilithon Horsehoe. Rudimentary dating for the dismantling of Bluestonehenge so far indicates this was approximately 2200 BC – the correct period for the major Stonehenge rebuild.
We can only guess to what happened to the bluestones during this period of rebuilding of Stonehenge, approximately 350 years or so. These bluestones may have been reused in the vicinity or simply stashed to be re-used in the construction of the final phase of Stonehenge. All that remains of Bluestonehenge now are the stones holes set on a ramped mount. This window of opportunity has allowed Parker Pearson to speculate that during major reconstruction work when Stonehenge was transformed, the 56 bluestones that occupied the Aubrey hole together with the 25 from Bluestonehenge, achieve the usual estimate of around 80 - 82 bluestones, re-erected within the bluestone circle and horsehoe. The Bluestone Circle has been radiocarbon dated 2,280-2,030.
Parker Pearson may well be on to something here as in the bluestone horseshoe in the centre of Stonehenge, the deeply grooved bluestone 68 is kidney shaped at the base (like a bum), which it is claimed, perfectly matches the imprint of one of the stone holes at Bluestonehenge. It is estimated that the bluestones at Stonehenge may have been re-arranged possibly as many as four times over about a 400 year period between 2,400 and 2,000 BC. There may have been plans for a fifth arrangement in the Y and Z holes that was never completed.
We know from grooving on the bluestones that they were reworked from an earlier, possibly lintelled blusestone circle – perhaps the circle at the Avenue terminus near the Avon was one such circle, perhaps the West end of the Stonehenge Cursus another. But for whatever reason it would seem all the bluestones were de-consecrated, removed and relocated and then later joined by the massive sarsens to create the monument whose ruins we are familiar with in modern times.
If it can be determined that the Bluestonehenge circle was dismantled the same time work started on the Stonehenge reconstruction, it would suggest a correlation between the sites as one major bluestone complex possibly linked by a processional way. The two bluestone circles may have stood in close proximity for hundreds of years, although we do not have evidence for a complete Avenue joining the two; the earliest evidence for the Avenue was about 500 metres at the Stonehenge end, when the axis was re-aligned with the mid summer sunrise around the time the bluestones stood at the centre of the henge in the Q and R holes.
The Project team are trying to date when Bluestonehenge was constructed by examination of the fill in the pits. It was established through the 2008 excavations that the outer henge was probably built around 2400 BC but arrowheads from Bluestonehenge indicate that it is likely to be much earlier, dating to around 3000 BC, possibly contemporary with the first stages of Stonehenge.
2008's excavations also found an antler at the bottom of a ditch that was subsequently dated to around 2400BC, however the age of flint finds from the henge and Avenue are yet to be confirmed by radiocarbon dating of the organic material which will clarify the sequence of events and within the next few months should provide more precise dates, which will then determine whether the circle was built at the same time that the other 56 bluestones were erected at Stonehenge.
The discovery of charcoal at Bluestonehenge has led to suggestions that it could have been the burning site for the cremation burials of Stonehenge, underlining the affinity between the two sites with the remains being placed in the Aubrey holes, as excavated previously by the Riverside Project, further underlining the special, perhaps spiritual, qualities of the bluestones.
The majority of the 4 ton bluestones are made of Preseli Spotted Dolerite, an igneous rock harder than granite, found in the Preseli Mountains in Pembrokeshire, South Wales. The bluestones must have possessed some special quality to the builders of Stonehenge, enough for them to have selected them from various sites in Wales and transported them to the site – so strong was this belief in the spiritual qualities of the bluestone that it can be no freak of glaciation that they arrived on Salisbury Plain. It has been argued that the stones were transported from Wales by glaciers but comprehensive geological studies have shown that there is absolutely no evidence for a glaciation in Wiltshire that could have transported these rocks and delivered them very conveniently onto the doorstep of Stonehenge.
Most of Bluestonehenge remains unexcavated, the 2009 excavation now back-filled, preserved for future research. Full details are expected to be officially published in February 2010.
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