It is well known that the bluestones used at Stonehenge were brought from the Preseli Hills in Wales, 150 miles (240 km) away. But the 12th century historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth, tells a slightly different story. According to an ancient myth, the wizard Merlin led a force of 15,000 men to Ireland where they captured a magical stone circle called the Giants’ Dance. Merlin transported the stones to Salisbury Plain where they were re-erected as a memorial to the dead. Intriguingly, in the 12th century, part of Wales was considered Irish territory. Could the myth be true?
A report published in the journal ‘Antiquity’, the peer-reviewed journal of world archaeology, tells a remarkable story.
As part of their ‘Stones of Stonehenge’ project, archaeologists led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson of University College London have excavated various sites in the Preseli Hills in search of the bluestone quarries. At the Waun Mawn site the team made an unexpected discovery – a circle of holes which would originally have been the foundations of a stone circle. Only four monoliths still remain at the site, but excavations have revealed that they were originally part of a wider circle of 30-50 stones. The diameter of the circle was 360ft (110m) and the stones were aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise. Scientific dating of charcoal and sediment from the holes reveal that the stones were erected around 3400 BC.
This date was confirmed in 2015 when Parker Pearson found a cache of carbonised hazelnut shells at a nearby site. These were the charred remains of a Neolithic snack from the quarry workers’ campfires and were radiocarbon-dated to 3300 BC. This means that the circle had been laid out almost four centuries before the first phase of Stonehenge was constructed around 3000 BC.
In the Neolithic this region of Wales was a densely settled area, but activity seems to have ceased around 3000 BC. Says Parker Pearson “It’s as if they just vanished. Maybe most of the people migrated, taking their stones – their ancestral identities – with them”.
At this point the story takes an intriguing turn. It so happens that the circle at Waun Mawn has exactly the same diameter as the outer circular ditch at Stonehenge, which would also have held upright bluestones. This ditch is also aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise. Moreover, analysis of the remains of people buried at Stonehenge at the time the first circle was laid out shows that some of them were from western Britain, possibly Wales.
The new discovery suggests that the ancient people of the Preseli region might have migrated and taken their bluestones with them, as a sign of their ancestral identity. The stones were then re-erected at Stonehenge. Parker Pearson believes that this explains why the bluestones – thought to be the first monoliths erected at Stonehenge – were brought from so far away, while most circles are constructed within a short distance of their quarries.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that the base of one of the bluestones at Stonehenge has an unusual cross-section. Computerised tests show that this pattern precisely matches one of the holes left at Waun Mawn, fitting, says Parker Pearson, “like a key in a lock”. This suggests that the monolith began its life as part of the stone circle in the Preseli Hills before being moved.
Prof. Parker Pearson acknowledges that this discovery raises far more questions than it answers, and the ‘Stones of Stonehenge’ project will continue to explore the mysteries surrounding Britain’s most famous monument. Even after 5,000 years, Stonehenge clearly still has more secrets to reveal.
Text Alun Harvey
Photos BBC News / The Guardian websites