You cannot visit southern England or make a movie about Druids without a visit to Stonehenge. This prehistoric monument is sacred to Neopagans, features in Arthurian legend, and is one of England’s best loved tourist sites (it has attracted visitors since the Roman period). A recent archeological report, however, suggests that the origins of the stone circle may lie elsewhere, in the remains of a circle in the hills of Wales.
Scientists now suggest that this Welsh stone circle may have been dismantled and used in an early phase of Stonehenge’s construction.
The origins of the stone circle have always been shrouded in mystery. Whomever built Stonehenge left no written records and the structure itself is incomplete as some of the stones were appropriated and reused in the medieval and early modern periods. As a result, it is only through painstaking scientific analysis that Stonehenge’s story can be told and, even then, the motivations for its construction can only be guessed at.
The Stones of Stonehenge research project recently conducted a study at the Neolithic site Waun Mawn, in the Preseli Hills in Wales. In 2018 excavations there unearthed the remnants of a stone circle. The monument had been erected from stones retrieved from nearby bluestone quarries. Carbon dating of sediment and charcoal in the holes revealed that the now-missing stone circle was initially constructed around 3400 B.C.
Subsequent comparison between the sites at Waun Mawn and Stonehenge revealed a number of parallels. Both structures were aligned with the midsummer solstice sunrise and are of a comparable size–the diameter of Waun Mawn and that of the ditch that surrounds Stonehenge are both approximately 110 meters. In addition, an unusual cross-section in one of the Waun Mawn holes matches that of one of the bluestones at Stonehenge and, of course, the stones at Waun Man and some of the stones at Stonehenge are made of the same bluestone material.
In a recently published article in Antiquity, the scientists involved speculated that the stones from the Waun Mawn circle had been moved 175 miles to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, the site of Stonehenge. In 3400 B.C., when the Waun Mawn circle was built, the Preseli Hills were a densely inhabited part of Britain where intense quarrying and construction took place. Then, sometime around 3000 BCE, the inhabitants of the region uprooted themselves and disappeared. Mike Parker Pearson, a professor at University College London who oversees the Stones of Stonehenge project, told Heritage Daily, “It’s as if they just vanished. Maybe most of the people migrated, taking their stones…with them.”
Pearson Parker and his team are not the first to suggest that some of the stones of Stonehenge had been recycled from an earlier monument. In academic circles the theory of a dismantled circle was first raised in 1923 by the geologist Herbert Thomas who connected the bluestones to the Presli Hills. Academics weren’t the first to float this idea either. In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth, the author of the History of the Kings of Britain, speculated that the circle was built using stones from the Giant’s Dance circle at Mount Killaraus in Ireland. According to his legend, the circle was disassembled by the famous magician-turned-structural-engineer Merlin and moved to Salisbury Plain by a team of 15,000 men. Geoffrey’s story is pure legend: he anachronistically claims that Stonehenge was built to commemorate the slaughter of innocent Britons by supposedly treacherous Saxons, but there were no prehistoric Saxons. Elements of Geoffrey’s story, however, would turn out to contain a kernel of truth: the stones have been moved.
The construction of the monument at Stonehenge took place in a series of stages between 3100 B.C. and 1100 B.C. Originally the site may have featured a wooden circle built, but around 3100 B.C. the bluestones from Wales arrived at the site. (The other stones at Stonehenge are the huge sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs 20 miles away and a sandstone altar stone from southeast Wales). The bluestones may have served as grave markers as the cremated remains of men, women, and children were found in the series of circle shaped pits that enclose the area. Strontium analysis of the remains of these individuals conducted by a University of Oxford team revealed that they had not lived for very long in the vicinity of Stonehenge and had, instead, almost certainly migrated there from west Wales. The fact that, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s time, west Wales was considered to be Irish territory might help explain some elements of the legend.
The recent discovery is evidence of the importance of stone monuments to the identities and culture of the people who inhabited Waun Mawn and, later, Stonehenge. That the relocation of the group involved the cumbersome dismantling and movement of heavy bluestone blocks shows the integral role that these monuments played in Neolithic societies. Whereas later groups might consider building new structures, these stones were a part of identity. The Neolithic migrants from Wales, Pearson Parker and his team said, “brought their monument… as a physical manifestation of their ancestral identities” that they could recreate in their new home. It might also, as others have suggested, served as a unifying monument for different people.
This new evidence raises as many questions as it answers. What events, be they environmental, social, politic, or economic, drove the people of the Preseli Hills to migrate to Wiltshire? And how was it that Salisbury Plain, which had been an important site for communal gatherings and ceremonial rituals for thousands of years before the arrival of the Preseli Hills migrants, was “ripe for take-over”? We may know from where the first stones of Stonehenge came, but we still don’t know how Stonehenge came to be.