The Age of Stonehenge

By Pearson, Mike Parker; Cleal, Ros et al. | Antiquity, September 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Age of Stonehenge

Pearson, Mike Parker, Cleal, Ros, Marshall, Peter, Needham, Stuart, Pollard, Josh, Richards, Colin, Ruggles, Clive, Sheridan, Alison, Thomas, Julian, Tilley, Chris, Welham, Kate, Chamberlaini, Andrew, Chenery, Carolyn, Evans, Jane, Knusel, Chris, Linford, Neil, Martine, Louise, Montgomery, Janet, Paynel, Andy, Richards, Mike, Antiquity

Stonehenge is the icon of British prehistory, and continues to inspire ingenious investigations and interpretations. A current campaign of research, being waged by probably the strongest archaeological team ever assembled, is focused not just on the monument, bur on its landscape, its hinterland and the monuments within it. The campaign is still in progress, but the story so far is well worth reporting. Revisiting records of 100 years ago the authors demonstrate that the ambiguous dating of the trilithons, the grand centrepiece of Stonehenge, was based on samples taken from the wrong context, and can now be settled ar 2600-2400 cal BC. This means that the trilithons are contemporary with Durrington Walls, near neighbour and Britain's largest henge monument. These two monuments, different but complementary, now predate the earliest Beaker burials in Britain -- including the famous Amesbury Archer and Boscombe Bowmen, but may already have been receiving Beaker pottery. All this contributes to a new vision of massive monumental development in a period of high European intellectual mobility ....

Keywords: Stonehenge, Durrington Walls, Amesbury Archer, stratigraphy, radiocarbon dating, Beakers


The current Stonehenge campaign has three components: the re-examination of the monument and its context, the exploration of the landscape ('The Stonehenge Riverside Project', SRP; Figure 1) and a study of the impact and meaning of the Beaker culture ('The Beaker People Project', BPP). Much of the success of this campaign will depend on dating, since only with reliable and precise dates can the sequence of one of Europe's most complex prehistoric landscapes be reduced to a comprehensible narrative.


Re-dating Stonehenge

The date ofStonehenge remains a matter of dispute (cf. Atkinson 1952; Figure 2). While the earliest phase (Phase 1) is closely dated to 3015-2935 cal BC, (1) the Aubrey Holes (tentatively assigned to Phase 1), the postholes, cremation burials and other human remains (assigned to Phase 2) and the first bluestone setting (Phase 3i) all remain undated. There is no agreement amongst archaeologists as to whether the sarsen stones (Phase 3ii) were erected as early as 2600-2500 cal BC,(2) in the period after 2550 cal BC, (3) or later around 2300 cal BC, or even at the end of the millennium. (4) This is perhaps surprising, given the success of the 1994 dating programme which produced three of the four accepted radiocarbon dates from contexts associated with the erection of the sarsen circle and the trilithons (Figures 3 & 6).(5)


The problem of dating the sarsen stones is due not to an absence of satisfactory radiocarbon determinations but to the disparity between the two dates from the ramp used for the great trilithon (6) and those from two of the stone holes. The samples from the fill of the ramp provide an estimate for the construction of the great trilithon of 2440-2100 cal BC,(7) and the other two dates (from Sarsen Circle Stone 1 [UB-3821] and for Trilithon Stone 53/54 [OXA-4840]) provide an estimate for its construction of 2620-2480 cal BC. (8)



The discrepancy between these two sets of dates poses a conundrum. How can the great trilithon, dated to 2440-2100 cal BC, be later than the sarsen circle which encloses it? Was the circle incomplete or even partially dismantled to allow builders to erect this enormous structure within the monument? (9) Or should the earlier two dates be dismissed, since these derive from antler picks that might have been ancient when deposited? Yet the process for selecting radiocarbon samples that would date their contexts of deposition was extremely rigorous, (10) so there is nothing to be gained by questioning their suitability. Instead, our attention turns to reinterpretation of the excavations which were conducted half a century to a century ago.

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