Stonehenge

By Burl, Aubrey | History Today, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Stonehenge


Burl, Aubrey, History Today


HOW DID THE STONES GET THERE?

Aubrey Burl explains how the myth of the stones transported from south Wales to Salisbury Plain arose, and why it is wrong.

HISTORY IS FULL OF ENJOYABLE myths but Stonehenge has too many. They mutate. Hardly had modern scholars got rid of the pre-Roman druids than those soothsayers reappeared in the guise of 3rd-millennium BCE astronomer-priests who are said to have designed the great circle as a celestial computer for the prediction of eclipses.

There are other common fallacies. The Greek explorer, Pytheas of Marseilles, who provided the first written account of Britain when he visited the islands c.300 BCE, is sometimes said to have visited Stonehenge. In fact, he landed near the splendid circle of Callanish in the Outer Hebrides 500 miles to the north. Just as mistakenly, Stonehenge is described as a British stone circle though it is not this at all, but rather an imitation in stone of a lintelled timber ring, with architectural influences from Brittany.

Perhaps the most persistent of these myths is that men ferried scores of enchanted Welsh stones hundreds of miles. Returning across the Irish Sea from the Wicklow mountains to their home in southern Britain some time after 3000 BCE, a group of gold- and copper-prospectors are said to have steered towards the landmark of the Preseli mountain range in south-west Wales. Regarding the Preselis as magical and their bluestones life-enhancing, the crews felt compelled to plunder them one by one for an intended megalithic sanctuary on Salisbury Plain. The romance has been repeated so many times in so many books that it has almost become fact.

But there is no substance to the story. The early third millennium BCE, when the great monument of Stonehenge was begun, was a premetal age which had little contact between Wales and Ireland. That came only with the discovery of Irish copper ores around 2500 BCE. Even then, there is no evidence for prospectors from mainland Britain visiting Ireland. What Irish gold or copper did reach Bronze-Age Wessex probably arrived in the form of ready-made axes and lunulae manufactured in Ireland and carried overseas by Irish traders.

The story of the transportation of the stones from Preseli is less than eighty years old. There is an alternative possible explanation, namely that glaciation was responsible for the appearance of the stones on Salisbury Plain. This is often discounted as many geologists argue that there is no proof of Pleistocene glaciation (from the era of the last Ice Age, which ended around 8000 BCE) on Salisbury Plain, and therefore there was no glaciation there at all. However, Geoffrey Kellaway, who in 1971 was one of the first to support the idea of glaciation, suggested in 1991 that the ice ages of the much earlier Pliocene Epoch (5.4 million to 1.6 million years ago) provided a more likely candidate for the event that transported the stones to the region.

Stonehenge consists of two kinds of stone: sarsen (Tertiary sandstone) and bluestone (various grades of dolerite, an igneous rock and other varieties of stone). The massive vertical pillars that one thinks of as archetypically Stonehenge are sarsens that originate from the Marlborough Downs eighteen miles to the north. There has been little controversy about them. As long ago as the seventeenth century the architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) wrote, in a book published in 1655,

   the same kind of Stone whereof this Antiquity consists, may be found,
   especially about Aibury in North-Wiltshire, not many miles distant from it,
   where are not onley Quarries of the like stone, but also stones of far
   greater dimensions then any at Stoneheng, may be had.

He said nothing about the properties or source of the smaller bluestones. Perceptively, though, he did mock at a myth. `For, as for that ridiculous Fable, of Merlins transporting the stones out of Ireland by Magick, it is an idle conceit'. …

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