Stonehenge actually contains two different kinds of stones, erected thousands of years apart. The sarsens are the larger silica stones in Stonehenge’s outer ring and center, each about 13 feet high and seven feet wide. There are 52 on the site today, but experts believe that there were originally 80.
For a few years now we have known that the smaller stones within the inner circle of Stonehenge (also known as bluestones) were erected around 3,000 BC. Back in 2015, experts found evidence that those stones came from the Preseli Hills, 180 miles away in western Wales. The exact sites, Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin, were identified in 2019, after eight years of research.
The larger stones are known as the Sarcens, are thought to have have been erected around 2,500 BC. They have been known as Sarcens for almost a thousand years and the word origins in the word Saracens which Knights returning from the Holy Land would label pagans and non-Christians and Stonehenge would definitely fall into that category.
However the origins of Stonehenge’s massive stone monoliths have been forever shrouded in mystery but a mystery which is now revealing itself after a thorough investigation. Experts have traced them to boulders in the nearby chalk hills of Marlborough Downs, just 15 miles north of the prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England.
The findings have recently been published by researchers from the University of Brighton in the journal Science Advances and the studies confirm long-held theories that the sandstone slabs are from somewhere in the Marlborough Downs but this time goes a step further to pinpoint the exact location to the West Woods for the first time.
“Until recently, we did not know it was possible to provenance a stone like sarsen,” David Nash, a geomorphologist and the lead author of the study, in a statement. “It has been really exciting to use 21st century science to understand the Neolithic past and answer a question that archaeologists have been debating for centuries.”
Nash believes the ancient builders transported the stones, which weigh up to 30 tonnes, down the Wiltshire Avon Valley to the east or via a western route across Salisbury Plain.
The new research was made possible thanks to a former diamond cutter, Robert Phillips, who was involved in repairs carried out on the prehistoric structure in 1958. To re-erect a fallen trilithon, one of the three-piece standing stones, Phillips and his team drilled holes and inserted metal bolts to reinforce the cracked lintel stone.
Phillips kept one of the three-and-a-half foot cylindrical cores, which was set to be discarded, as a souvenir, hanging it in his office. Sixty years later, Phillips, on the eve of his 90th birthday, returned the core to English Heritage, which oversees Stonehenge. (Half of one was rediscovered last year at the Salisbury Museum, but the whereabout of the remaining one and a half cores are unknown.)
Immediately, archaeologists realised that this was a rare opportunity to investigate the landmark’s origin as drilling the stones at Stonehenge today is prohibited.
Unlike the stones on site, the core doesn’t have any surface weathering, which can affect readings of its chemical composition. More importantly, the team was allowed to use destructive sampling, pulverizing about half the sample for a thorough analysis creating a “geochemical fingerprint.” Then, they used a portable x-ray spectrometer to take non-invasive surface readings of all 52 stones on site.
All but two shared a near-identical chemical makeup with the core sample, suggesting a common origin. The stones are 99 percent silica, with traces of aluminum, carbon, iron, potassium, and magnesium.
Comparing the chemical signature to mass spectroscopy readings on samples from 20 boulder fields across southern and eastern England, the researchers identified the West Woods as a match with nearly 100 percent certainty.
“We weren’t really setting out to find the source of Stonehenge,” Nash told the Irish Times. “We picked 20 areas and our goal was to try to eliminate them, to find ones that didn’t match. We didn’t think we’d get a direct match. It was a real ‘Oh my goodness’ moment.”
The discovery narrows the point of origin from the 75-square-mile Marlborough Downs to just two square miles in the West Woods, but leaves the question of how the builders chose where to get the stones.
“When sourcing the sarsens, the over-riding objective was size—they wanted the biggest, most substantial stones they could find and it made sense to get them from as nearby as possible,” said English Heritage historian Susan Greaney, in a statement. “This is in stark contrast to the source of the bluestones, where something quite different—a sacred connection to these mountains perhaps—was at play.”
Despite centuries of speculation about, only two people are known to have hypothesised that ancient builders sourced the Stonehenge sarsens in the West Woods and one of them was a blogger in 2017. Sadly not myself, I’ve been terribly busy!
Incredibly the other person was a 17th century philosopher named John Aubrey who thoroughly surveyed the site to the best abilities of the time. Back then he suggested the stones came from a quarry pit 14 miles away in what was then “Overton Wood”—likely the West Woods.
It seems that in recent times the West Wood was overlooked because it’s under ancient woodland, and a lot of sarsens were removed in the 19th century for roadstones… but there are apparently still sarsens buried in amongst the trees.
This isn’t the first scientific breakthrough on Stonehenge even this summer and there are plenty of further secrets to unravel and there are still 2 Sarsen stones that have as yet undiscovered origins.
It is thought that the efforts to build Stonehenge back then was an even great achievement and use of national resources than landing on the moon in 1969. Despite that, Britain is covered in prehistoric monuments. My favourite is Castlerigg Stone Circle in the Lake District but they go from the top of Scotland (like this one I visited at A visit to Clava Cairns to the bottom of England and even in London ( Putting the stone into Harrow Wealdstone – London’s Neolithic Standing Stone?).
Just a few miles from Stonehenge though is for my minds a much more interesting and enjoyable experience at Avebury Stone Circle and nearby Silbury Hill, Ridgeway and best of all West Kennet Long Barrow the view from the entrance is just magnificent and it’s impossible not to see why the people countless thousands of years ago chose to construct burial tombs in such a setting.