New Light on Stonehenge

The first dig in 44 years inside the stone circle changed our view of why—and even when—the monument was built

Carved sarsens-enormous blocks of hard sandstone-were used to build the towering trilithons that dominate the landscape of Salisbury Plain in southern England. But archaeologists Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright believe the smaller so-called bluestones hold the key to unraveling Stonehenge's mystery. (Michael Freeman)
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The two men have spent the last six years surveying the Preseli Mountains, trying to ascertain why Neolithic people might have believed the stones had mystical properties. Most were quarried at a site known as Carn Menyn, a series of rocky outcrops of white-spotted dolerite. “It’s a very special area,” says Wainwright, himself a Welshman. “Approaching Carn Menyn from the south you go up and up, then all of a sudden you see this rampart composed of natural pillars of stone.” Clearly, Carn Menyn inspired the ancients. Gors Fawr, a collection of 16 upright bluestones arranged in a circle, sits at the bottom of a Carn Menyn hill.

But Darvill and Wainwright say the real turning point came in 2006, when the pair looked beyond Carn Menyn’s rock formations and began studying some springs around the base of the crags, many of which had been altered to create “enhanced springheads”—natural spouts had been dammed up with short walls to create pools where the water emerged from the rock. More important, some of the springheads were adorned with prehistoric art.

“This is very unusual,” says Wainwright. “You get springs that have funny things done to them in the Roman and Iron Age periods, but to see it done in the prehistoric period is rare, so we knew we were on to something.” In his history of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth noted that the medicinal powers of Stonehenge’s stones were stimulated by pouring water over them for the sick to bathe in. Indeed, many of the springs and wells in southwest Wales are still believed to have healing powers and are used in this way by local adherents to traditional practices. As Wainwright recalls, “The pieces of the puzzle came together when Tim and I looked at each other and said, ‘It’s got to be about healing.’”

Once the archaeologists concluded that the ancients had endowed the Carn Menyn rocks with mystical properties, “franchising” them to Stonehenge made sense. “Its intrinsic power would seem to be locked into the material from which it was made and, short of visiting Carn Menyn, which might not have been always feasible, the next best step would have been to create a shrine from the powerful substance, the stone from Carn Menyn itself,” says Timothy Insoll, an archaeologist at the University of Manchester. He has documented similar behavior in northern Ghana, where boulders from the Tonna’ab earth shrine—similarly invested with curative properties—have been taken to affiliated shrines at new locations.

Evidence that people made healing pilgrimages to Stonehenge also comes from human remains found in the area, most spectacularly from the richest Neolithic grave ever found in the British Isles. It belonged to the “Amesbury Archer”—a man between 35 and 45 years old who was buried about five miles from Stonehenge between 2400 and 2200 B.C. with nearly 100 possessions, including an impressive collection of flint arrowheads, copper knives and gold earrings.

The bones of the Amesbury Archer tell a story of a sick, injured traveler coming to Stonehenge from as far away as the Swiss or German Alps. The Archer’s kneecap was infected and he suffered from an abscessed tooth so nasty that it had destroyed part of his jawbone. He would have been desperate for relief, says Wessex Archaeology’s Jacqueline McKinley.

Just 15 feet from where the Amesbury Archer was buried, archaeologists discovered another set of human remains, these of a younger man perhaps 20 to 25 years old. Bone abnormalities shared by both men suggest they could have been related —a father aided by his son, perhaps. Had they come to Stonehenge together in search of its healing powers?

Remarkably, although Stonehenge is one of the most famous monuments in the world, definitive data about it are scarce. In part, this is because of the reluctance of English Heritage, the site’s custodian, to permit excavations. Current chronologies are based largely on excavations done in the 1920s, buttressed by work done in the ’50s and ’60s. “But none of these excavations were particularly well recorded,” says Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology and one of the few people to have led excavations at Stonehenge in recent decades. “We are still unsure of the detail of the chronology and nature of the various structures that once stood on the site.”

To strengthen their case for Stonehenge as a prehistoric Lourdes, Darvill and Wainwright needed to establish that chronology with greater certainty. Had the bluestones been erected by the time the Amesbury Archer made his pilgrimage to the megaliths? Establishing the timing of Stonehenge’s construction could also shed light on what made this site so special: with so many henges across Britain, why was this one chosen to receive the benedictions of the bluestones? Such questions could be answered only by an excavation within Stonehenge itself.

Darvill and Wainwright were well placed for such a project. Wainwright had been English Heritage’s chief archaeologist for several years. In 2005, Darvill had worked with the organization on a plan for research at the monument— “Stonehenge World Heritage Site: An Archaeological Research Framework”—which made the case for small-scale, targeted excavations. Following these guidelines, Darvill and Wainwright requested official permission for the archaeological equivalent of keyhole surgery in order to study part of the first bluestone setting on the site.


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