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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And so, under an overcast sky blanketing Salisbury Plain and under the watchful eye of English Heritage personnel and media representatives from around the world, Darvill and Wainwright’s team began digging in March 2008. Over the previous weekend, the team had set up a temporary building that would serve as a base for operations and marked out the plot to be excavated. Next to the site’s parking lot a newly erected marquee broadcast a live video feed of the action—and offered a selection of souvenir T-shirts, one of which read, “Stonehenge Rocks.”

The trench that Darvill and Wainwright marked out for the excavation was surprisingly small: just 8 by 11 feet, and 2 to 6 feet deep in the southeastern sector of the stone circle. But the trench, wedged between a towering sarsen stone and two bluestones, was far from a random choice. In fact, a portion of it overlapped with the excavation carried out by archaeologist Richard Atkinson and colleagues in 1964 that had partially revealed (though not for the first time) one of the original bluestone sockets and gave reason to believe that another socket would be nearby. In addition, Bournemouth University researchers had conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey, providing further assurance that this would be a productive spot.

Wainwright had cautioned me that watching an archaeological dig was like watching paint dry. But while the work is indeed slow and methodical, it is also serene, even meditative. An avuncular figure with a white beard framing a smiling, ruddy face, Wainwright joined Bournemouth University students operating a large, clattering sieve, picking out everything of interest: bones, potsherds and fragments of sarsen and bluestone.

Some days a strong wind blew through the site, creating a small dust bowl. Other days brought rain, sleet and even snow. As material was excavated from the trench and sifted through the coarse sieve, it was ferried to the temporary building erected in the parking lot. Here other students and Debbie Costen, Darvill’s research assistant, put the material into a flotation tank, which caused any organic matter—such as carbonized plant remains that could be used for radiocarbon dating—to float to the surface.

By the end of the excavation, contours of postholes that once held timber poles and of bedrock-cut sockets for bluestones were visible. In addition, dozens of samples of organic material, including charred cereal grains and bone, had been collected, and 14 of these were selected for radiocarbon dating. Although it would not be possible to establish dates from the bluestone sockets themselves, their age could be inferred from the age of the recovered organic materials, which are older the deeper they are buried. Environmental archaeologist Mike Allen compared the positions and depths of the bluestone sockets with this chronology. Using these calculations, Darvill and Wainwright would later estimate that the first bluestones had been placed between 2400 and 2200 B.C.—two or three centuries later than the previous estimate of 2600 B.C.

That means the first bluestones were erected at Stonehenge around the time of the Amesbury Archer’s pilgrimage, lending credence to the theory that he came there to be healed.

Among other finds, the soil yielded two Roman coins dating to the late fourth century A.D. Similar coins have been found at Stonehenge before, but these were retrieved from cut pits and a shaft, indicating that Romans were reshaping and altering the monument long after such activities were supposed to have ended. “This is something that people haven’t really recognized before,” says Darvill. “The power of Stonehenge seems to have long outlasted its original purpose, and these new finds provide a strong link to the world of late antiquity that probably provided the stories picked up by Geoffrey of Monmouth just a few centuries later.”

As so often happens in archaeology, the new findings raise nearly as many questions as they answer. Charcoal recovered by Darvill and Wainwright—indicating the burning of pine wood in the vicinity—dates back to the eighth millennium B.C. Could the area have been a ritual center for hunter-gatherer communities some 6,000 years before the earthen henge was even dug? “The origins of Stonehenge probably lie back in the Mesolithic, and we need to reframe our questions for the next excavation to look back into that deeper time,” Darvill says.

The new radiocarbon dating also raises questions about a theory advanced by archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, who has long suggested that Stonehenge was a massive burial site and the stones were symbols of the dead—the final stop of an elaborate funeral procession by Neolithic mourners from nearby settlements. The oldest human remains found by Parker Pearson’s team date to around 3030 B.C., about the time the henge was first built but well before the arrival of the bluestones. That means, says Darvill, “the stones come after the burials and are not directly associated with them.”

Of course it’s entirely possible that Stonehenge was both—a great cemetery and a place of healing, as Darvill and Wainwright willingly admit. “Initially it seems to have been a place for the dead with cremations and memorials,” says Darvill, “but after about 2300 B.C. the emphasis changes and it is a focus for the living, a place where specialist healers and the health care professionals of their age looked after the bodies and souls of the sick and infirm.” English Heritage’s Amanda Chadburn also finds the dual-use theory plausible. “It’s such an important place that people want to be associated with it and buried in its vicinity,” she says, “but it could also be such a magical place that it was used for healing, too.”


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