10-Minute Talks: The origins of Stonehenge

by Professor Michael Parker Pearson FBA

17 Feb 2021

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Professor Mike Parker Pearson FBA investigates the origins of Stonehenge.


Hello, I'm Mike Parker Pearson. I'm a Professor of Archaeology at University College London. I'm also a Fellow of the British Academy. I've been researching Stonehenge for the last 20 years. In the last nine years, we've had a really exciting investigation of the origins of Stonehenge.

Where did it come from? To look for the answers to that we need to think about its stones. Now, it's 5,000 years old. Built across the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age. The Stone Age at this time is what we call the Neolithic, the time of farming. It was around 3,000 BC that the first stage of it was built, the first of five stages in all. The second stage was when the great sarsens went up. If you go to Stonehenge, those are the ones that you see. They're the ones that have the lintels on top of them. These are stage two around 2,500 BC.

We've just found out where they came from and it's 15 miles away. So that's quite a long way to bring some really big rocks. We think that they're from a place called West Woods, not far from the great circle at Avebury. It's the first stage of Stonehenge that really intrigues me because we now think that the stones that were put up then were not the sarsens, but stones that we call bluestones, stones that have an unusual origin a long way away. They're arranged in Stonehenge today. You can go and see them, especially if you get access to go inside the monument. Although they're called bluestones they're actually a whole series of different kinds of rocks. There's dolerites and rhyolites. These are types of volcanic rock. The dolerites are divided between plain ones and spotted. Some of them have little white spots in the rock.

We've been working with geologists who've actually been able to find out precisely where some of these different types came from. It's a very long way away. It's the Preseli Hills of west Wales, 140 miles as the crow flies, but in any route you take is probably going to take at least 180 miles. So that's what? 240 kilometres or so? Now, of course they're not particularly big, but they still weigh three or slightly more tons. Whereas that's the weight at which the sarsens start, but it's a lot further to move them. Our geologists have pinpointed some of the sources.

What we've also found is that the area of the Preseli Hills wasn't some kind of backwater in the Neolithic. It was a veritable ceremonial centre. Not only were there Neolithic monumental tombs, dolmens, like the one at Pentre Ifan, but there were also Neolithic enclosures and where the quarries were close to was the remains of a former stone circle. It's called Waun Mawn, you can see it in the centre of this plan here. When we visited the site there were just four stones in an arc. We wondered whether maybe this had once been a Neolithic stone circle, most of its stones being transported to Salisbury Plain to form the first stage of Stonehenge.

We began our excavations here and we discovered that as well as the four stones, there are a whole series of other features and some of them turned out to be the holes for standing stones that had been taken away in prehistory. What we discovered was this was no ordinary stone circle. This was the largest in Wales. In fact, the third largest in the whole of Britain - 110 metres in diameter. It also had an entrance pointing towards midsummer sunrise and we were able to date it using radiocarbon and thermoluminescence dating methods. The date somewhere around 3,400 BC.

What was more amazing was that when we looked at it and compared its plan to that of Stonehenge, we realised that they had exactly the same diameter. Stonehenge's ditch - 110 metres, Waun Mawn stone circle - 110 metres. It looks as though the people that put up Stonehenge had actually even remembered the measurements when they moved all those stones.

Now, of course, one of the big questions is how did they do it? Archaeologists have generally thought that they took them by sea but it's quite a tricky thing to load a three-ton pillar into a log boat or a skin boat or whatever. I think it's far more likely that they brought them over land as far as possible. They would have had to cross water at some point, across the Severn Estuary or further up, perhaps north of Gloucester somewhere. That makes a lot more sense, I think, because not just the quarries, but the stone circle itself - they're on the north side of the Preseli Hills so you'd have to drag them over a mountain before you even started your journey.

The second fascinating question is why did they do it? We're not entirely sure but I think one of the fascinating possibilities is that people may have actually abandoned their homelands at that time and moved eastwards. We've discovered there's something of a gap in the archaeological record after 3,000 BC. For the next 2,000 years there's no evidence to speak of of any human habitation or presence in the Preseli region of north Pembrokeshire.

If that's the case, and more research will be needed, it's another possibility that there's a second political reason for doing this. Might this have been an active unification to bring two different tribal groups within Britain together? Not only were they moving what must have been their ancestral symbols of identity, but also merging together different communities in a shared origin and a shared purpose.

All of this, of course, is speculation for future study. That's something I'm going to be looking at in the years to come. I hope you've enjoyed this. Thank you very much for listening.

This talk originally took place on 17 Feb 2021, part of the series The British Academy 10-Minute Talks, where the world’s leading professors explain the latest thinking in the humanities and social sciences in just 10 minutes. 10-Minute Talks are screened each Wednesday, 13:00-13:10, on YouTube and available on Apple Podcasts. Subscribe to the British Academy 10-Minute Talks here.

Further reading

National Geographic introduction to Stonehenge." Is Stonehenge a rebuilt Welsh stone circle?", blog for the British Academy by Mike Parker Pearson.

"The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales", journal article by Mike Parker Pearson.

"The Battle of Stonehenge: what to know about the controversial £1.7bn tunnel project", article in The Week.

"Stonehenge first stood in Wales: how archaeologists proved parts of the 5,000 year-old stone circle were imported," article in The Conversation.

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