4. Sources and Destinations

Oral tradition and early histories, what in Britain we call folklore but in any other situation would be regarded as ethnography, records quite plainly that the reason the stones were brought such a distance was because they were known for their healing properties. The earliest written version is to be found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain set down in the early 12th century AD. When King Ambrosius challenges Merlin the magician/prophet as to why so much effort should be expended obtaining the stones to build a great monument, Merlin retorts 'what I am suggesting has nothing ludicrous about it. These stones are connected with certain secret religious rites and they have various properties which are medicinally important ... There is not a single stone among them which hasn't some medicinal virtue' (Monmouth 1136/1966, 196). Two connections between the story and reality that could not have been known in the 12th century unless carried down the centuries through oral tradition add credibility to this explanation. First is that the stones were brought to Salisbury Plain from the far west of the British Isles: Hibernia/Ireland is mentioned in the story, while in actuality the bluestones came from the west of Wales (Monmouth 1136/1966, 196-7; cf. Piggott 1941). Second, the story is clear that if the stones 'are placed in position round this site, in the way in which they are erected over there, they will stand for ever' (Monmouth 1136/1966, 196); we now know that the bluestones are indeed arranged at Stonehenge as a micocosm of their homeland.

So far as archaeological context goes there are two areas for attention: the Preseli Hills as the source of the stones, and Stonehenge as their destination. Research by Geoff Wainwright and the present author in the Preselis under the banner of the SPACES project has revealed a wealth of structures and activity broadly contemporary with the extraction and use of the bluestones (Darvill and Wainwright 2002). At Carn Menyn, the highest point on the Carn Meini ridge, the outcrops of spotted dolerite are enclosed by a boulder wall. Broken pillarstones of the same shape and form as the Stonehenge pillars lie around about. There are circles and oval settings of bluestones comparable in shape and size to the settings at Stonehenge within sight of the principal outcrops (Darvill and Wainwright 2003a), and we have recently identified a possible henge monument, later part-covered by a passage grave, on the western end of Carn Meini. The whole eastern Preseli ridge is fringed by small panels of simple rock art in the form of cup-marked stones (Darvill and Wainwright 2003b), and some of these are in direct association with elaborated springheads that, in a few cases, reputedly have healing powers. Just 8.5km to the west is a causewayed enclosure with two main phases of use, radiocarbon dated to around 3650 cal BC and 3000-2600 cal BC (Darvill et al. 2006; 2007).

The Stonehenge Bluestones were by no means the only rocks in the area that were considered important. The Group XXIII granodiorites and dolerites provided the raw material for large axes, battle axes, axe hammers, and mace heads, although no specific extraction sites have yet been identified (Shotton 1972). Group VIII silicified tuff (rhyolite) was worked in situ at Carn Alw on the north side of the Preseli ridge, while erratic boulders of the same stone were made into axes and other implements at Glandy Cross and Llanfyrnach to the south (David and Williams 1995). Most recently, about a dozen quarries for the extraction of a light-coloured meta-mudstone have been found around the edge of the dolerite dykes on Carn Meini, together with flaking floors and mauls, but to date no products have been identified (Darvill et al. 2006). Altogether it is clear that north Pembrokeshire was a busy place during the fourth and third millennium cal BC, and that extracting and working stone was a central part of what went on.

At the other end of the Bluestone Trail, at Stonehenge, the context of the bluestones is also important. As already noted, they appear to have been used and reused throughout Phase 3 of the monument but they are always arranged as two roughly concentric rings, closely set in the Q and R holes at first, but more widely spaced as the Bluestone Oval/Horseshoe and Bluestone Circle sometime later. In these later manifestations at least the outer setting comprises a mix of different lithologies, represented mainly as natural boulders and blocks, while the stones of the inner setting are carefully dressed spotted dolerite pillars graded in height, with the tallest to the south-west sector flanking the line of sight to a position on the horizon where the midwinter sun sets. Towering over the inner setting were the five great sarsen trilithons, made perhaps from stones selected for their size and mass (Fig. 5); elsewhere I have suggested that perhaps they were set up to represent guardian deities, possibly even the forerunners of what during the second millennium cal BC became recognised as the Divine Twins across much of Bronze Age Europe (Darvill 2006, 144-6). Enclosing all these central settings is the Sarsen Circle of 30 uprights and joining lintels. Given that Stone 11 is half the width and one-third the height of all the others, it is tempting to see this component of the structure as some kind of time-indicating device (Lucas 2005, 71-7) in which each upright represents one day in a lunar month, 29.5 being the average number of solar days between full moons (Hawkins 1973, 183).

Figure 5

Figure 5: South-eastern trilithon at Stonehenge, Wiltshire. (Photograph: Timothy Darvill)

Throughout its later life Stonehenge appears to have been more or less continually re-modelled and changed, perhaps to reflect ever more sophisticated and nuanced links between its architecture, the beliefs and knowledge that gave it meaning, and its use by those who travelled from near and far to engage with it. We cannot assume that all the identifiable components had the same meaning; indeed their different forms and the variety of materials represented would strongly suggest otherwise. Stone that was initially brought because of its intrinsic significance may well have acquired additional layers of meaning as time went by, shown for example by the fact that the spotted dolerite pillars of the Bluestone Horseshoe appear to resemble axes, and carvings of axes were also added to some of the sarsen pillars (Darvill 2006, 130). For Chris Tilley the axe motif visible in the Breton menhirs signified part of a developing conceptual distinction between humanity and the land, the wilful transformation and dominance over nature and natural forces (2004, 85-6). In British later prehistory the axe is sometimes associated with healing deities (Ross 1967, 185).

Finally, it is worth saying just a little about the later history of Stonehenge. Unlike Avebury, for example, the stone circles survive remarkably well (Ashbee 1998). Only the so-called Slaughter Stone appears to have been deliberately felled and attempts made to break it up and bury it. All of the sarsen trilithons are still present, although parts now lie fallen on the ground. Only five of the uprights in the sarsen circle and 22 of the lintels are missing, most of these being in the south-west sector. Writing in the early 17th century John Aubrey records that stones were taken away for the construction of a bridge (quoted in Long 1876, 76), and this and other minor robbing could easily account for these losses. The greatest impact seems to have been among the bluestones: 35 out of about 80 are completely missing and about 20 survive only as stumps.

Breaking up the bluestones began fairly early, perhaps in the late third millennium cal BC, and there are numerous flakes and chips in what has become known as the Stonehenge Layer right across the interior of the monument (Atkinson 1979, 63-4). Colonel Hawley was astonished to find that bluestone fragments exceeded sarsen by a factor of four to one in the areas he sampled between 1921 and 1926 (Hawley 1921; 1922; 1923; 1924; 1925, 21-2; 1926; 1928). A piece of spotted dolerite was found in the ditch of the Heelstone in 1979, perhaps part of a shaped monolith (Pitts 1982, fig. 25), and more than a dozen pieces of bluestone have been found in the surrounding landscape (see Stone 1948; 1950; Pitts 1982, 125-6; and Thorpe et al. 1991 for lists). Deliberate placement of bluestone chips and fragments with burials, perhaps to help sustain life, are recorded with the Beaker burial in the ditch at Stonehenge and nearby at Amesbury 4 (Engleheart 1932) and Amesbury 51 (Ashbee 1978), while unstratified pieces have been found at three local round barrows: Winterbourne Stoke 28 (Cunnington 1929, 226), Winterbourne Stoke 29 (Cunnington 1884, 143), and Wilsford 35-36e (Hoare 1812, 206).

Beyond the Stonehenge Landscape there are pieces of bluestone scattered across central southern England and these are often assumed to have come direct from the Preseli Hills as part of the 'axe-trade'. In fact most can be more economically explained as souvenirs from the break-up of Stonehenge. The large fragment found by William Cunnington inside the long barrow known as Boles Barrow some 19km to the north-west of Stonehenge is often cited as evidence for the early arrival of spotted dolerite in Wiltshire. As I have argued elsewhere, however, this piece most likely lay within a deliberate blocking deposit within the chamber, a practice common across Britain in the late third millennium cal BC and wholly consistent with the early destruction of Stonehenge (Darvill 2006, 126). The same might apply to the fragment of Group XIII stone in the upper fill of Middle Ditch segment IB at Windmill Hill, which was described by Isobel Smith as 'difficult to interpret as part of an axe' (1979, 19; see also Smith 1965, 114 and Whittle et al. 1999, 340). A piece of rhyolite similar to that in the Bluestone Circle at Stonehenge was found on the top of Silbury Hill during excavations in 1969 (Atkinson 1970, 314; Whittle 1997, 21), and a piece of spotted dolerite found near the West Kennet long barrow (Williams-Thorpe et al. 2004, 373) was perhaps lost en route to the ceremonies that must have accompanied the filling of the chamber at this well-known barrow.

At Stonehenge itself, there is abundant evidence for the manufacture of stone tools in sarsen, rhyolitic rock, and dolerite (Pitts 1982, 124; Cleal et al. 1995, 375-90). Two axe fragments in Group XIII rock and three of rhyolite are recorded among the material that has been petrologically sampled (Cleal et al. 1995, 377). Indeed, it might be that the localised distribution of spotted dolerite axes, battle axes, and mace heads that Olwen Williams-Thorpe and colleagues convincingly show cluster around Stonehenge and along the south coast between Christchurch at the mouth of the Avon and Exeter (2004, fig. 7) were made at Stonehenge from broken pillarstones rather than direct exports from the Preseli Hills. It can be suggested that by the later third and early second millennium cal BC, the significance of bluestone was not that it came from the Preseli Hills but that it was associated with Stonehenge. That, perhaps, is why stories of its power faded among communities living round the source outcrops in Wales but remained strong in Wiltshire where the tradition of breaking off pieces as talismans and to help cure ailments and broken skin persisted down into the 18th century and beyond. To misquote Bob Dylan 'everybody must get stones...'.


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