'How grand! How wonderful! How incomprehensible!' exclaimed Richard Colt Hoare, the early 19th century aristocrat and antiquarian, of Stonehenge. Another, more famous and earlier antiquarian, William Stukeley, described Wiltshire's other great stone circle, Avebury, as 'stupendous', even comparing it to the pyramids of Egypt. A third Wiltshire monument--Silbury Hill, one of the world's largest man-made mounds-has similarly been a magnet for superlatives: in the 17th century, Stukeley remarked that it was 'astonishing' and 'magnificent'.
Today, Wiltshire has the highest concentration of prehistoric World Heritage monuments on the planet. But why does this county in southwest England boast such an extraordinary concentration of monumental Stone Age culture in such a relatively small area?
New research suggests that during the Stone Age, the Wiltshire landscape looked very different to how it does today. More than 500 square kilometres of countryside was littered with hundreds of thousands of strange rocks, now known as sarsen stones. This vast mass of boulders was useful from a purely constructional viewpoint: without this resource, Stonehenge and Avebury simply couldn't have been built, at least not on the scale that they were. But the research is revealing that these rocks were also important in another, much more spiritual way.
To prehistoric people, fascinated by the land from both economic and religious perspectives, the presence of all those rocks would have been a mystery crying out for an explanation. The boulder-strewn landscape was not only completely unlike any other in Britain, it was also fundamentally inexplicable. The rocks bore no obvious relationship to the underlying geology. They sat strewn across grass-covered fields or open woodland, often lying in groups or in long procession-like lines. Beneath them was simply a layer of soil and, a few metres down, natural chalk or gravel.
Just as modern humans seek explanations for the things they see in the natural world, so, too, did our pre-scientific and prehistoric forebears--but how did they explain the origin of these mysterious rocks? Now, long-hidden evidence is shedding new light on the probable significance of Stonehenge and Wiltshire's other prehistoric World Heritage sites, suggesting that the rocks weren't just used for building stone circles, but had other, less obvious, and perhaps more telling, uses.
Recent excavations at Silbury, the 40-metre-high, 4,400-year-old man-made hill 26 kilometres north of Stonehenge, have shown that hundreds of sarsens were deliberately included in the matrix of the monument, almost certainly not for purely constructional purposes. As the sarsens were 50 per cent heavier than the chalk rubble used as the primary building material, it would have been much more difficult and time-consuming to haul them up the side of the hill while it was under construction.
Sarsens were included in two specific construction phases: relatively early on, and during the later period when the main part of the mound was constructed. During the latter phase, the sarsens were included in discrete groups within the hill's chalk rubble matrix. Only 40 or so were found in the recent excavations of a small section, so it's likely that there were hundreds in total.
What's more, recently re-examined photographs taken during excavations in the 1960s clearly show three more groups of sarsens in the matrix of the upper part of the monument. Their presence and potential importance seem to have been ignored by the excavators 40 years ago--presumably because they were looking for evidence of structures, and scattered rocks weren't perceived as being relevant.
Because the prehistoric builders of Silbury Hill had deliberately chosen to include sarsens, rather than restricting themselves to the lighter chalk rubble, archaeologists have concluded that their inclusion must have been symbolic rather then purely functional. …