The origins of Stonehenge have long been a mystery. Now new discoveries show that the iconic monument may have started as a stone circle in Wales that was then dismantled and rebuilt 280 kilometres away at its current location on Salisbury plain. This is the conclusion of a team of archaeologists who uncovered the remains of what appears to be Britain’s third-largest stone circle, in the Preseli hills of west Wales.
Stonehenge was built in several different phases between about 3000 and 2000 BC, starting with a large circular ditch and bank together with a circle of 2-metre-high bluestones just inside. Later, these bluestones were moved, and bigger structures made from boulders known as sarsens were built.
In 2015, a team led by Mike Parker Pearson at University College London revealed that the bluestones were extracted from quarries in the Preseli hills, some 280 kilometres away in west Wales. The team then looked for evidence of stone monuments close to these quarries, as the Neolithic people who extracted Stonehenge’s bluestones might have constructed stone circles here too.
The archaeologists excavated at a site called Waun Mawn, which had four large stones seemingly placed in an arc. They uncovered evidence of a further six holes that each originally held a stone, indicating that there had once been a stone circle with a large diameter at the site.
“The arc did continue – that was a really important moment,” says Parker Pearson. Extrapolating from these positions, the team estimates that the completed circle probably had 30 to 50 stones, though arranged more haphazardly than the original bluestone circle at Stonehenge.
A number of strands of evidence suggest that stones from Waun Mawn formed part of the original stone circle at Stonehenge. Dating studies showed that the Waun Mawn stone circle was created between 3600 and 3200 BC, a few hundred years before the first stages of construction at Stonehenge, and the types of stone at the two sites match.
One of the stone holes at the Welsh site has an unusual pentagonal shape, similar in shape and size to that of bluestone 62 at Stonehenge. “It could have been in that hole. It’s not categorical proof, but it is really very suggestive,” says Parker Pearson.
The sizes of the two circles also match. “There are only two Neolithic monuments in Britain with the same diameter of 110 metres, and that’s the outer ditch of Stonehenge and the Waun Mawn diameter,” he says. Stonehenge is famous for aligning with the midsummer solstice sunrise, and the new evidence at Waun Mawn suggests it had this alignment too.
“It’s a really interesting study that shows some nice arguments for a link between both stone circles,” says David Nash at the University of Brighton, UK, who wasn’t involved with the excavations in Wales, but, who last year published a study identifying the origins of Stonehenge’s sarsens. For him, the clincher would be to conduct detailed geological analysis of stone fragments found at Waun Mawn to see if they are identical to those found at Stonehenge.
Others are less convinced. “They’ve got a ragbag of stones and I’m rather sceptical of it being a stone circle,” says Tim Darvill at Bournemouth University, UK, who has carried out many studies of Stonehenge.
Further excavations are planned at Waun Mawn to clarify the picture. But if Stonehenge was rebuilt from a Welsh stone circle, this could help explain why Neolithic people went to such lengths to construct the iconic megalithic monument. Studies of the isotopes in cremated remains of the earliest people interred at Stonehenge indicate that some of them probably came from west Wales. This has led Parker Pearson to conclude that Stonehenge was constructed to commemorate the ancestors of the original people who lived at Stonehenge.
The Welsh excavations also shed light on the earliest story of the monument’s origins from 1136, when the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote how Stonehenge was built from a dismantled stone circle in Ireland. It seems this tale had a grain of truth, says Parker Pearson.
Journal reference: Antiquity, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2020.239
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