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Stonehenge - another perspective

Updated Friday 7th November 2008

Not everyone agrees with Darvill and Wainwright's latest theory about the purpose of Stonehenge. Olwen Williams-Thorpe offers her perspective.

Timewatch has always had an interest in new areas of research and in examining topics which inspire debate. Stonehenge in particular prompted lively comments on our Timewatch forum. Here Dr. Olwen Williams-Thorpe, an archaeological scientist, presents her own perspective on Darvill and Wainwright's theory as explored by the Timewatch Stonehenge programme.

The central theme of the program was the hypothesis that Stonehenge was a prehistoric ‘healing’ centre. The perceived power of the site, we were told, was due to the ‘bluestones’, which had been quarried in the Carn Menyn area of Preseli (South Wales), an outcrop chosen because of the special ‘healing’ springs found there.

Unfortunately, this simply does not fit the geological evidence.

My work includes extensive research into the bluestones at Stonehenge which started in 1987 when I and a small group of OU colleagues were granted the unique privilege of drilling some tiny samples from the bluestones for modern geochemical investigation. Since that time, I've carried out hundreds of analyses of bluestones from both Stonehenge and Preseli.

As a result it is clear to me that the bluestones actually come from all over South Wales. They are a rag-bag mix of many rock types; there are dolerites from Preseli, rhyolites from the north Pembrokeshire coast, sandstones from the Senni Beds many miles from Preseli.

Even those stones that do originate in Preseli are from at least three different outcrops – Carn Ddafad las, Carn Breseb, and either Carn Menyn or the geochemically similar Carn Goedog. It is by no means certain that any of them came from Carn Menyn itself.

Stonehenge Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Photos.com
Stonehenge.

 

The large ‘Altar Stone’, a key feature of the bluestone settings at Stonehenge, certainly does not come from anywhere near Preseli. Its petrographic characteristics mean that it cannot come from that area; it must be from far further east, perhaps the Brecon Beacons.

So one has to wonder, are there supposed to be magic springs at all these outcrops? Why, if Carn Menyn was the important one, did these ancient stone collectors take some monoliths from entirely separate outcrops? And how on earth does the Altar Stone, with its very different source, fit into the picture? It just does not stack up with the ‘special Carn Menyn area’ theory.

The program also made the total, unquestioning assumption that people transported the bluestones to Salisbury Plain. This remains a hotly debated subject, but there is another view on it. There is growing evidence that an ancient ice sheet moved the bluestones across Wales and into southern England as glacial erratics, to be found on or near to Salisbury Plain thousands of years later by the builders of Stonehenge. The widely dispersed and very diverse nature of the bluestone sources (more than a dozen sources, up to 100 km apart) suggests random transport by ice, not human selection at a carefully chosen quarry.

One might take issue with quite a few other aspects of the story we were told: the ‘bluestone’ dates, the skeletal evidence, the quite extraordinary claims about ‘Neolithic inscriptions’…..as with the geology, the facts are at variance with the ‘healing’ thesis.

Of course we must to try to understand the significance of Stonehenge. But the theorizing should be based on all the facts, not just a selection.

Further reading

Brian John. 2008. The Bluestone Enigma. Publication date 3rd November. Greencroft Books, Newport.  ISBN 9780905559896.

Thorpe, R.S., Williams-Thorpe, O., Jenkins, G. and Watson, J.S., with contributions by R.A. Ixer and R.G. Thomas, 1991. The geological sources and transport of the bluestones of Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK.  Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 57, 103-157.

Williams-Thorpe, O., Potts, P. J., Jones, M. C. and Webb, P. C. 2006. Preseli spotted dolerite bluestones: axe-heads, Stonehenge monoliths and outcrop sources. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 25, 29-64.

Ixer R. A. and Turner P., 2006. A detailed re-examination of the petrography of the Altar Stone and other non-sarsen sandstones from Stonehenge as a guide to their provenance. Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine, 99.

 

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