Stonehenge’s construction some 5,000 years ago is widely considered one of the most impressive feats of engineering in the Neolithic world. Now, new evidence suggests that the English monument actually dates back to an even earlier time—and an entirely different location.
The findings, published in the journal Antiquity, indicate that prehistoric people first erected a near-identical monument containing at least some of the same towering stones in Wales. Only later did they move the stone circle to its current location in southwestern England, roughly 150 miles away.
“I’ve been researching Stonehenge for 20 years now and this really is the most exciting thing we’ve ever found,” lead author Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at University College London, tells the Guardian’s Dalya Alberge.
Researchers had already known that ancient Britons mined the famous 6- to 10-foot-tall “bluestones” of Stonehenge in the Preseli hills of what’s now Pembrokeshire on the Wales coast. British geologist Herbert Thomas first suggested the hills as the likely source of the stones around a century ago, and more recent research has narrowed the location down.
In 2015, Pearson’s team found carbonized hazelnut shells believed to be remains from the miners’ meals while surveying rocky outcrops near the Preseli quarries. Radiocarbon dating of the shells suggested that the stones were mined almost 400 years before Stonehenge was built. (Other larger stones used to construct Stonehenge originated in the West Woods of Wiltshire, a site 15 miles away from the monument, as Steven Morris reported for the Guardian last year.)
Previous studies have theorized that the bluestones were probably used in some way prior to their transport to Stonehenge’s current location. The new research finds that the remains of a stone circle just three miles away from the ancient quarry, at a site known as Waun Mawn, is a near-perfect match. Its 360-foot diameter is identical to the original layout of Stonehenge, which people reshaped over the millennia. And, like the famous monument, the circle is oriented in a way that perfectly highlights the summer solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset.
Pearson’s team excavated Waun Mawn in 2017 and 2018, reports Andrew Curry for Science magazine. The site features four remaining bluestones similar to the ones at Stonehenge. The team also found pits that formed sockets where the Stonehenge megaliths would have fit.
National Museums of Scotland archaeologist Alison Sheridan, who was not involved in the research, tells Science that the new findings point to economic and social connections in the region surrounding the Irish Sea during the fourth millennium B.C.
“People and ideas and objects were moving over long distances, and the movement clearly had to do with the way society expressed power,” she adds. “Uprooting stones is a classic example.”
Pearson says that people were farming in the Preseli Hills area for millennia prior to the dismantling of the Waun Mawn circle around 3000 B.C. But human activity seems to decline after that time. The scholars are unsure why people left the region but say it’s possible that migrants departing for what’s now England could have brought the stones with them for cultural and religious reasons.
“They’re bringing ancestral symbols as an act of unification,” Pearson tells Science.
BBC News reports that analysis of the remains of people buried at Stonehenge suggests that some of them may have been from what is now Wales. Still, Pearson points out that only a few of the stones at Stonehenge can be directly tied to Waun Mawn, and it’s likely that others came from various older monuments.
“With an estimated 80 bluestones put up on Salisbury Plain at Stonehenge and nearby Bluestonehenge, my guess is that Waun Mawn was not the only stone circle that contributed to Stonehenge,” he says in a statement. “Maybe there are more in Preseli waiting to be found. Who knows? Someone will be lucky enough to find them.”
The archaeological team’s research forms the basis for a new documentary, “Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed,” being broadcast on BBC Two today.