A tantalizing new theory suggests that Stonehenge was not originally constructed in southern England. Instead, recent archaeological work has suggested that the "bluestones" were initially placed in the mountains of Wales, before they were dismantled and rebuilt as Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. The new findings were reported in the journal Antiquity this week.
Scientists have been steadily chipping away at the mysteries surrounding the 5,000-year-old monument. In recent years, geological work has shown that Stonehenge’s bluestones came from a quarry some 200 kilometers (124 miles) away in the Preseli Hills, west Wales. It’s also emerged that some of the settlers who lived near Stonehenge’s current location in southern England most likely came from the hills of west Wales around 3000 BCE.
This curious link between the prehistoric henge and Preseli Hills came to a head when archaeologists took a second look at a large stone circle, known as Waun Mawn, found a short journey from the Welsh quarry in Preseli Hills.
“We suspected that there had to have been an original circle in Preseli where the stones were put up first. And there it was on the hill of Waun Mawn, less than 3 miles from the quarries,” Professor Mike Parker Pearson, lead study author from University College London, told IFLScience.
“As an arc of four standing stones, it had been originally recorded by archaeologists 100 years ago but thereafter was ignored or thought not to be the remains of a circle. Nobody had guessed it might have anything to do with the bluestones and Stonehenge.”
The researchers had also previously suspected that Stonehenge was first built in Wales but they were never certain where the original site was located. Even mythology hints at the idea that Stonehenge originally came from a distant land. The oldest story of Stonehenge’s origins comes from the 12th-century legend of the wizard Merlin taking an army to Ireland to capture a magical stone circle, the Giants’ Dance, and rebuild it as Stonehenge.
For this new study, their work highlights some significant links between Stonehenge and Waun Mawn. Firstly, chippings from Waun Mawn show that it was made with the same rock type as Stonehenge's bluestones. Secondly, the Waun Mawn had a diameter of 110 meters (360 feet), the same as that of the ditch that encloses Stonehenge. Finally, both monuments were aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise.
It’s uncertain why prehistoric peoples might have gone to such a huge effort to move the henge all this distance, but the researchers suspect people took their bluestones – a key symbol of their ancestral identities – with them as they migrated to southern England. Whatever the reason, it appears to be an extremely rare example of an ancient culture picking up their prized monument and moving it to a new home.
“It's pretty well unique,” said Professor Pearson. “Bringing the bluestones is still a very special thing, hardly matched anywhere and a big part of what makes Stonehenge unique.”
Correction 15/02/2012: The first paragraph of this article has been amended to stress that the new study refers to Stonehenge's smaller bluestones, not its larger sarsen stones.