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Scientists unlock the secret of the Stonehenge stones

Scientists have unravelled the centuries old mystery of where the sarsen stones used to build Stonehenge came from.

Scientists unlock the secret of the Stonehenge stones
Stonehenge in the Wiltshire landscape [Credit: Andre Pattenden/English Heritage]
A two-year investigation by academics from the University of Brighton, Bournemouth University, English Heritage, University of Reading and University College London (UCL) has discovered that most of the large stones that make up the iconic main sarsen circle and inner horseshoe of the monument came from West Woods, situated around 15 miles to the north of Stonehenge.

The research, published in the journal Science Advances, used geochemical data to show that 50 of the 52 sarsen stones at Stonehenge share a consistent chemistry and, by inference, originated from a common source area.

They then compared the geochemical signature of small fragments of a core extracted from one of these sarsens – Stone 58 – with equivalent data for sarsens from across southern Britain.

This information was used to identify that most of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge originated from West Woods, located around 15 miles to the north of Stonehenge, on the edge of the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire.

Scientists unlock the secret of the Stonehenge stones
Jake Ciborowski (University of Brighton) analysing the sarsen core extracted from Stone 58 at Stonehenge
using a portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometer [Credit: Sam Frost/English Heritage]
Typically weighing 20 tonnes and standing up to 7 metres tall, sarsens form all fifteen stones of Stonehenge’s central horseshoe, the uprights and lintels of the outer circle, as well as outlying stones such as the Heel Stone, the Slaughter Stone and the Station Stones.

Professor of Archaeology at Bournemouth University Timothy Darvill OBE was one of the research team.

He said: “Pinpointing the source of the iconic sarsens is such an achievement. Knowing that almost all of the uprights and lintels came from the same place in West Woods really takes one closer to the builders of Stonehenge.

“Now we can better appreciate their efforts moving them 30km across the undulating landscape of Salisbury Plain. We can feel their pain, and think again about what the best route might have been and how they managed such a Herculean task.”

Scientists unlock the secret of the Stonehenge stones
Plan of Stonehenge using the numbering system devised by W.M. Flinders Petrie
in the late 19th century [Credit: David Nash/University of Brighton]
The core was drilled from Stone 58 during conservation work at Stonehenge in 1958. The location of the core remained a mystery until last year when Robert Phillips, a representative of the company who did the drilling work, returned it to English Heritage from his home in Florida.

Susan Greaney, Senior Properties Historian for English Heritage, the charity that cares for Stonehenge, said: “This research provides a fantastic leap forward in our knowledge about Stonehenge, as we can finally answer the question of where the iconic sarsen stones were brought from.

“We’re so pleased that the core from Stone 58, which the Phillips family returned to Stonehenge last year, has enabled the team to undertake a small amount of destructive sampling, adding a crucial piece of evidence to the jigsaw.”

The research was led by Professor David Nash, Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Brighton.

Scientists unlock the secret of the Stonehenge stones
Map showing the locations of Stonehenge and West Woods, together with possible
routeways over which sarsen stones might have been transported to
the monument [Credit: David Nash/University of Brighton]
Professor Nash and colleagues Dr Jake Ciborowski and Dr Georgios Maniatis undertook the study as part of a project funded by the British Academy and the grant-making foundation the Leverhulme Trust.

Partners in the project included Susan Greaney (English Heritage), Katy Whitaker (University of Reading/ The South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership) Professor Timothy Darvill (Bournemouth University) and Professor Mike Parker Pearson (University College London).

Professor Nash said: “Archaeologists and geologists have been debating where the sarsen stones used to build Stonehenge came from for more than four centuries. This significant new data will help explain more of how the monument was constructed and, perhaps, offer insights into the routes by which the 20 to 30 tonne stones were transported.”

Source: Bournemouth University [July 30, 2020]


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