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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Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from its original form and updated to include new information for Smithsonian’s Mysteries of the Ancient World bookazine published in Fall 2009.

The druids arrived around 4 p.m. Under a warm afternoon sun, the group of eight walked slowly to the beat of a single drum, from the visitors entrance toward the looming, majestic stone monument. With the pounding of the drum growing louder, the retinue approached the outer circle of massive stone trilithons—each made up of two huge pillars capped by a stone lintel—and passed through them to the inner circle. Here they were greeted by Timothy Darvill, now 51, professor of archaeology at Bournemouth University, and Geoffrey Wainwright, now 72, president of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

For two weeks, the pair had been leading the first excavation in 44 years of the inner circle of Stonehenge—the best-known and most mysterious megalithic monument in the world. Now it was time to refill the pit they had dug. The Druids had come to offer their blessings, as they had done 14 days earlier before the first shovel went into the ground. “At the beginning we warned the spirits of the land that this would be happening and not to feel invaded,” said one of their number who gave his name only as Frank. “Now we’re offering a big thank-you to the ancestors who we asked to give up knowledge to our generation.”

The Druids tossed seven grains of wheat into the pit, one for each continent, and offered a prayer to provide food for the world’s hungry. The gesture seemed fitting, given the nature of the excavation; while other experts have speculated that Stonehenge was a prehistoric observatory or a royal burial ground, Darvill and Wainwright are intent on proving it was primarily a sacred place of healing, where the sick came to be cured and the injured and infirm restored.

Darvill and Wainwright’s theory rests, almost literally, on bluestones—unexceptional igneous rocks, such as dolerite and rhyolite—so called because they take on a bluish hue when wet or cut. Over the centuries, legends have endowed these stones with mystical properties. The British poet Layamon, inspired by the folkloric accounts of 12th-century cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth, wrote in A.D. 1215:

The stones are great;
And magic power they have;
Men that are sick;
Fare to that stone;
And they wash that stone;
And with that water bathe away their sickness.

We now know that Stonehenge was in the making for at least 400 years. The first phase, built around 3000 B.C., was a simple circular earthwork enclosure similar to many “henges” (sacred enclosures typically comprising a circular bank and a ditch) found throughout the British Isles. Around 2800 B.C., timber posts were erected within the enclosure. Again, such posts are not unusual—Woodhenge, for example, which once consisted of tall posts arranged in a series of six concentric oval rings, lies only a few miles to the east.

Archaeologists have long believed that Stonehenge began to take on its modern form two centuries later, when large stones were brought to the site in the third and final stage of its construction. The first to be put in place were the 80 or so bluestones, which were arranged in a double circle with an entrance facing northeast. “Their arrival is when Stonehenge was transformed from a quite ordinary and typical monument into something unusual,” says Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology, a nonprofit organization based in Salisbury.

The importance of the bluestones is underscored by the immense effort involved in moving them a long distance—some were as long as ten feet and weighed four tons. Geological studies in the 1920s determined that they came from the Preseli Mountains in southwest Wales, 140 miles from Stonehenge. Some geologists have argued that glaciers moved the stones, but most experts now believe that humans undertook the momentous task.

The most likely route would have required traversing some 250 miles—with the stones floated on rafts, then pulled overland by teams of men and oxen or rolled on logs—along the south coast of Wales, crossing the Avon River near Bristol and then heading southeast to the Salisbury Plain. Alternatively, the stones may have come by boat around Land’s End and along the south coast of England before heading upriver and finally overland to Stonehenge. Whatever the route and method, the immensity of the undertaking—requiring thousands of man-hours and sophisticated logistics—has convinced Darvill and Wainwright that the bluestones must have been considered extraordinary. After all, Stonehenge’s sarsens—enormous blocks of hard sandstone used to build the towering trilithons—were quarried and collected from the Marlborough Downs a mere 20 miles to the north.


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