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Saturday 1 December 2012

New Stonehenge chronology not all that new....

 I have had a quick look through the new ANTIQUITY article about the revised radiocarbon chronology for Stonehenge.  First of all, credit where credit is due -- the authors have had a pretty noble crack at sorting out a horizontal and vertical nightmare scenario at Stonehenge, trying to fit radiocarbon dates into some sort of context that makes sense.  And the chronology that they come up with does seem tom me to be sensible, on the whole.  However (there always is a "however") the evidence does not always match up with the assumptions of conclusions reached, and I cannot help thinking that there is a degree of "fitting evidence into assumptions" which does not make for good science.  But then, fantasy always was a part of archaeology, and probably always will be......

What is a bit more worrying is the apparent mismatch between what the article shows and what has been put out in the press release by the learned professors.

1.  The idea that  the bluestones were brought to the site late -- ie after the building of the sarsen trilithons -- is not supported by either the evidence on the ground or by anything in this article.

2.  The Darvill idea that the bluestones were the preserve of sheep and cow farming Beaker People whereas the sarsens were the preserve of earlier pig farming Neolithic tribes is entirely unsupported by any evidence, either in this paper or anywhere else, so far as I can see.

3.  There is nothing here to support the Darvill idea that the sarsens came from nearby "quarries" around 2,600 BC.

4.  There is nothing here in support of the idea that the bluestones "were probably imported from Wales."

5.   Are they now suggesting that there were far more than 80 bluestones on site -- ie an original shipment of c 80 and another batch of 25 from Bluestonehenge?  That's over 100 bluestones........... this idea is fantastical in the extreme, and there is nothing to support it.

6.  I don't understand what Darvill is on about re the late arrival of the bluestones, since in the text of the article (he is after all one of the authors) there are quite frequent references to bluestones in the earlier Aubrey Holes and also at Bluestonehenge.  (Regarding Bluestonehenge, there is no evidence that there ever were bluestones there, but let that pass.....)

7.  I don't see any evidence in this article for any gap between the erection of the sarsen trilithons and the first setting of bluestones.  But I do understand that from a purely practical standpoint, if you are putting up a stone monument you would put up the big stones in the centre first, while there were no smaller stones getting in the way.  Once you have got those up, you put the smaller orthostats into the ground around the trilithons.

The radiocarbon chronology doesn't seem to be all that different from chronologies published before, except for the thesis that the big sarsens went into ground earlier than previously supposed.  Nothing new and affecting the numbers or origins of bluestones is published here -- and certainly there is nothing here to dent my long-standing beliefs that the bluestones are glacial erratics, that they were in this area long before Stonehenge was ever thought of, that Stonehenge was never finished, and that there never were enough stones available to fulfill the ambitions of the builders.

Please read the complete article.  There is a great deal of interesting info about phases and dating results, and about sarsen settings and earthworks etc.  Leaving those to one side for the moment, let's concentrate on the bluestones.  Right then.  Very selective extracts:

"........within the enclosure, a circle of Aubrey holes, which may have held stones
and/or posts; four Station stones; two roughly concentric rings of pits known as the Y and
Z holes (barely visible on the surface); the sarsen circle; the double bluestone circle set in the
Q and R holes (not visible on the surface); the outer bluestone circle; the trilithon horseshoe;
the bluestone oval now visible as a bluestone horseshoe; a central bluestone circle (not visible on
the surface); and, lying in the centre, the ‘Altar’ stone. ‘Bluestone’ is an archaeological term
popularised in the early twentieth century to refer to what had previously been called the
‘foreign’ stones (i.e. any stones that are not locally derived sarsens). The portmanteau term
‘bluestone’ thus embraces a range of dolerites (including the well-known spotted dolerites),
tuffs, rhyolites and sandstones. Except for the sandstones (Ixer & Turner 2006), the other
bluestones derive from the Preseli hills of north Pembrokeshire (Thomas 1923; Thorpe
et al. 1991; Darvill et al. 2009; Ixer & Bevins 2010)."

[[My comments:  Cleal et al said bluestones were brought from Wales at end of Phase 2 -- ie about 2600 BC?  Double bluestone circle then built (Phase 3i) using Q and R holes.  Sarsens came later, and used in Phase 3ii
 From an examination of the intersecting sockets etc in the 2008 dig, "other possible relationships cited in support of the double bluestone circle pre-dating the sarsen circle and trilithon horseshoe can also be disputed."
Pitts and MPP think (like Hawley) that the Aubrey Holes once held pillars -- presumably bluestones.  The authors seem to be supporting that.....]]

Proposed new chronology:  

Stage 1 (3000-2620 BC)

"Digging of 56 Aubrey holes around the inner edge of bank, possibly to hold bluestones and/or posts."
"Stones were probably present at the site from its inception. Re-excavation in 2008 of
Aubrey hole 7 suggested that this hole may have held a standing stone (Pitts 2008a),
supporting Hawley’s original proposal (1921: 30–31). The stone that stood in stonehole 97
outside the north-east entrance, together with the stones that occupied stoneholes B and C,
all presumably sarsens, may also tentatively be assigned to Stage 1. The stone in stonehole
97 sat within a filled linear depression which might have been a solution hollow formed
beneath a recumbent sarsen (Pitts 1982, 2008b: 15)."
"Some of the Aubrey holes had cremations inserted into their upper fills perhaps after the removal of stones or posts. Culturally, these activities are associated with the users of Grooved Ware pottery. The ring of about 25 monoliths popularly known as ‘Bluestonehenge’ beside the River Avon at
West Amesbury was probably constructed during this stage although a robust date for its
construction has not yet been obtained (Parker Pearson et al. 2010)."

Stage 2 (2620 - 2480 BC)

At the outset:  "Trilithon horseshoe comprising five sarsen trilithons set up in the centre of
the site with SW–NE solstitial axis (midwinter sunset/midsummer
sunrise). Double bluestone circle of between 50 and 80 bluestones set up
outside the trilithon horseshoe with a shared SW–NE axis. Sarsen circle
comprising 30 shaped uprights linked by 30 lintels built outside the
double bluestone circle. Altar stone perhaps placed within the trilithon
"Outside the trilithon horseshoe, the double bluestone circle was created, marked by the Q
and R holes. The axis of this arrangement is the same as the trilithon horseshoe, with an
entrance passage on the north-east side (Cleal et al. 1995: figs. 81 and 82). Around the east
side of the double bluestone circle, the bluestones were set within dumbbell-shaped sockets
as radially set, paired stones. Q hole 13 was examined in 2008 (Darvill &Wainwright 2009:
12) but found to have been heavily disturbed by later cuts. On the south and west sides,
only a single line of stoneholes was detected by Atkinson, leading him to suggest that the
structure was perhaps never completed (1979: 204). It is possible that some of the Q and R
holes on these sides were eroded away by later activities (Darvill’s preference). Alternatively,
there was never more than a single circuit in this area (Parker Pearson’s preference).
Some or all of the Q and R holes might once have held the bluestone pillars formerly
standing in the Aubrey holes and moved into the centre of the monument in Stage 2. It is
further assumed that the bluestones used for the double bluestone circle were later reused
in Stage 4 to form the structures known as the bluestone oval and the outer bluestone circle.
This could explain why at least three of the bluestones at Stonehenge are topped with tenon
projections, why two have pairs of mortise holes (and were therefore formerly lintels), and
why two have tongue-and-groove joining. From the positions of the two bluestone lintels in
later arrangements, they may have been used to frame entrances into the double bluestone
circle on the north-east and south sides, echoing the two entrances through the enclosure
ditch. How many of the other bluestones in the double bluestone circle were dressed is not
known. There are no dated samples associated with the construction of the double bluestone
circle, although a sample from the backfill of an unidentified Q hole provides a terminus post
quem for its slighting in Stage 3 of 2465–2220 cal BC (OxA-4901:Marshall et al. 2012: fig.
22), suggesting that it was built in Stage 2."
"The Altar stone, a former standing stone lying prone, is traditionally associated with the trilithon horseshoe because of its position and is therefore tentatively included in the Stage 2 structure though it could date to any point before the collapse of the great trilithon on top of it. The great trilithon collapsed after the building of the Stage 4 bluestone oval (2205–1925 cal BC: Last bluestone horseshoe:Marshall et al. 2012: fig. 22) but before the earliest plans were made of Stonehenge in the seventeenth century AD. Thus the Altar stone could have been laid in its current position at any point between the Neolithic and the early modern era."

Stage 3 (2480 - 2280 BC)

"Bluestones (perhaps from Bluestonehenge) arranged as the central bluestone
circle within the trilithon horseshoe."
"The stone circle at West Amesbury known as Bluestonehenge was
dismantled and a classic henge with bank and internal ditch about 35m in diameter was
constructed there around the area in which the circle had previously stood. It is possible, but
unproven, that the 25 or so pillars (interpreted as bluestones on the basis of their imprints)
were taken to Stonehenge for use in Stage 3. The positioning of an arc of five stoneholes
(WA3285, 3286, 3700, 3702 and 3402) imply a central bluestone circle (Phase 3iii in Cleal
et al. 1995: 206–209, fig. 109), which has the appropriate radius and spacing for a circle
transplanted from Bluestonehenge beside the Avon."
"Culturally, some at least of the changes during Stage 3 may be associated with people
who used Beaker pottery. As well as the distinctive Beaker-style burial in the ditch already
referred to, more than 200 sherds of Beaker pottery have been recorded at the site but only
rarely in stratified contexts."

[[My comments:  NB.  This directly contradicts what Darvill is saying in the press release about the Beaker People being responsible for the bluestone haulage and use.  If Beaker influence is only seen in Stage 3, what about all the activity involving bluestones in Stages 1 and 2?]]

Stage 4 (2280-2020 BC)

"Central bluestone circle and double bluestone circle dismantled and re-built as bluestone oval of c. 25 monoliths inside the trilithon horseshoe and the outer bluestone circle of between 40 and 60 monoliths in the space between the trilithon horseshoe and the sarsen circle.
Major rearrangements of bluestones in Stage 4.  Quote:  "It is assumed that the 80 or so stones used to construct the bluestone oval and the bluestonecircle represent the reuse of bluestones from earlier structures at or near Stonehenge.  Certainly, these two sources would provide about the right number of stones, although the possibility of further material derived directly from West Wales cannot be ruled out.  Only 43 of them survive on the site as stones or stumps. Some pieces of bluestone were
worked on site into tools of various kinds, as indicated by discarded rough-outs. Other
bluestones were broken up much later, during Roman times and perhaps after (Darvill &
Wainwright 2009). Indeed, it seems highly likely that removal of at least seven pillars at the
northern end of the bluestone oval, to create a bluestone horseshoe (Atkinson 1979: 80–82;
Cleal et al. 1995: 231), was actually carried out in the Roman period. Culturally, users of
Beaker pottery were responsible for the activities represented in Stage 4."

Stage 5 (2020 - 1520 BC)  

"Extensive use of Stonehenge with working of some bluestones into artefacts."
"Bluestones and, to a lesser extent, sarsens were being broken up during Stage 5 as clearly shown by the debris associated with a working floor and small structure just outside the earthwork enclosure west of the Heel stone."

This is awaited:

Stonehenge, Amesbury, Wiltshire: chronological modelling.
English Heritage Research Report 1/2012. Available Not yet) at


chris johnson said...

Thanks for the accurate reporting.

The 15 pounds asked by Antiquity to download the article - not even the whole magazine - is too much.

Now we have the disappointing situation that a misleading piece is being reprinted and redistributed around the world and will not get corrected.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Fifteen quid?! Outrageous ...... but if you ask one or other of the professors nicely, he might even send you a pdf (ancient academic tradition).

Jon Morris said...

Thanks Brian

Summary very much appreciated. Sounds like nothing much new but a bit of conjecture thrown in?

I think I'm with Chris on this one.

chris johnson said...

The Antiquity piece fails on two starting propositions.

For one, as Mike Pitts points out, there is an earlier history than 3000 BC. Mike has a good summary on his blog.

Secondly, the geography is not confined to Durrington Walls, the Cursus, and Stonehenge itself. There is a bigger landscape and however much you want to believe in neolithic jungles it is inconceivable the Avebury people and Stonehenge people did not have a connection.

Mike also highlights that more archaeology should be done at Stonehenge - the assumptions are based or biased towards recent findings which have been constrained.

The clear difference of opinion about when the Bluestones entered the picture does not help.

Matt said...

Interesting stuff. One thing struck me though.

>> But I do understand that from a purely practical standpoint, if you are putting up a stone monument you would put up the big stones in the centre first, while there were no smaller stones getting in the way.

A good point - but I wonder how much practicality has to do with the building of Stonehenge! It seems a most impractical structure :)

Apologies for the digression - Matt

Joan Rankin said...

Thanks for this interesting article, but you've left the Aubrey holes off your diagram. The Aubrey holes are the most important thing about the complex. They and the spaces in between were used to keep a very accurate calendar. I have several articles about Stonehenge entitled Following the White Trail to Stonehenge. They can be found in the March, April and May archives at
This was not the first calendar device at Stonehenge, the three large posts in the current parking lot were. They are aligned E/W and the posibilities are endless depending on what other sorts of markers they used besides these. Portable rocks would do.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Joan -- yes, the assorted holes are left off that diagram. I'm aware that the assorted learned professors now want the Aubrey Holes to have held bluestones. Whether those holes are in mathematically significant positions I leave others to judge...