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Sunday 17 January 2016

Bluestone shapes: the Stonehenge builders did NOT hunt for elongated pillars

 "Typical" bluestones at Stonehenge -- the most common stone shapes are (1) boulders, (2) slabs, and (3) stumpy pillars.  The "ideal" elongated pillars are actually very rare at Stonehenge, possibly because not many stones of this shape were able to survive glacial transport..

Following on from yet another statement (in the latest edition of "Current Archaeology") that the builders of Neolithic stone monuments such as Stonehenge (and the putative "proto-Stonehenge" which will no doubt be traced to Bedd Arthur) actually had a preference for elongated pillars of dolerite, it's worth pointing out that this is nonsense.  In the "Current Archaeology" article, Mike Parker Pearson suggests that his imaginary bluestone quarrymen were targetting "tall, thin, natural pillars" at Carn Goedog in particular, which were "perfect raw material for standing stones".  He even suggests that a tall pillar of foliated rhyolite was extracted from  a wondrous recess near the tip of the Rhosyfelin "quarry" as well. 

However, out of 43 known bluestones at Stonehenge, there are only six elongated pillars -- all in the remnants of the bluestone horseshoe.  They are numbered 150, 61, 62, 63, 69 and 70.  There are a couple of other bluestones in the bluestone circle that might optimistically be referred to as "stumpy pillars" -- but the rest are simply boulders or slabs of various shapes and sizes. 

I have done a lot on this blog already on the subject of bluestone shapes.  Just type in "bluestone shapes" or "bluestone erratics"  to pick up on some of the posts.  See also this:

and the "Stones of Stonehenge" website:

On the latter site you can see many illustrations of the stones, from all sorts of different angles. It is often assumed that the bluestone stumps found in both the bluestone circle and bluestone horseshoe settings were elongated pillars; but there is no logic in this thinking, and they are more likely to have been slabs or boulders like most of the remaining standing and fallen stones.

Clearly there was a degree of selection of "elongated" bluestones for the final stone setting at Stonehenge -- but that is best interpreted as a "design" decision made by the builders at the time, based on an assessment of the resources that they had available.  And those resources -- as we have said many times before -- were really rather limited:  namely a mottley collection of glacial erratics of all shapes and sizes, collected up from somewhere in the Salisbury Plain landscape.  They gathered up as many stones as they could find, and then gave up on the enterprise, and had to make the best use of what they had,

The idea that the Neolithic builders of Stonehenge actually went to West Wales with a view to finding splendid elongated pillars  -- or that they or some subordinate or superior tribe brought in such pillars from a preexisting stone monument in Wales -- is pure fantasy, and is best forgotten about.


ND Wiseman said...

Hi Brian

While it's true that the bluestones in the outer Circle are generally of less quality than their counterparts in the Oval (Horseshoe), there are some exceptions. BS-33, over on the east side, is an example, as is -34 and -35. There is good evidence that the last two were originally taller, but have been chipped away over the years.

BS-150 and -36 were lintels for something, so have been heavily worked. There are several stumps and holes beneath the surface of course, and a couple of these infer taller Stones, but the method used to determine this is, to my mind at least, a best-guess.

Many of the others are so worn it's difficult to tell if they've been shaped, but at least several do appear to have been simply dropped into place with no working at all.

The inner stones are of a completely different nature, as you mention - though you've omitted grooved and elegant BS-68. At least two have remnants of tenons which suggest a previous setting.

Shying away from the transport arena, I will mention that the two sets were clearly established at different times to a different purpose, while the various chemistry's certainly infer different sources.

Whether or not the Stones were used in an older, previous setting is moot at this point, while I agree that the search for some kind of a 'Proto-Stonehenge' will prove fruitless. Stonehenge is unique to its location, while its shape and design cannot have been relevant anywhere else. If they find stoneholes somewhere in Wales, more power to them - but this doesn't prove a source for the Wiltshire monument.

Personally, I say: Let the investigators work their theories. It is, after all, how we find things out, and this includes finding nothing at all.

Best wishes,

BRIAN JOHN said...

Neil -- thanks for all this. Yes, of course some of the bluestones are shaped -- I've done previous posts on these. So there was both selection (on grounds of hardness rather than spottiness?) and working of some stones, some of which must have been used, or at least intended for, other earlier stone settings. That much is agreed. The setting into the circle and the horseshoe implies a final use, after much dithering, of stones previously used in other settings. We cannot assume that there were two separate phases of quarrying, transport and importation to the Stonehenge site, and it's far more sensible to assume, from the nature of the assemblage as a whole, that there was a limited "pool" of bluestones that were simply used and re-used over and again.

ND Wiseman said...

There's no question in my mind about the re-use of them, time and again, before settling on the elegant Keep It Simple motif.

If my guess is correct, based on the average spacing between the survivors, there were 56 stones in the outer setting and perhaps as many as 28 in the original Inner Oval.

That's a lot of rocks.

Though they put the less eye-pleasing stones in the outer ring, there still appears to be a pattern, in that the taller of them straddle the Axis before fading in size, back around to the rear. The tall and slender ones were placed inside the Trilithon set, and this corresponds to the time of the Henge-digging at West Amesbury, so I'm on board with bringing them up to the big site from there. (Where they were probably intended in the first place, that is: never having been at Stonehenge before).

So then, rather than going out with big gangs on some Hallowed Mission to retrieve the Blessed Stones, they probably just sent a few of the boys out with instructions to keep 'em coming till we tell you to stop.


TonyH said...


How do you explain the logic of bringing the tall and slender bluestones up to Stonehenge from the simultaneously - created Henge at West Amesbury?

Surely the West Amesbury Henge would have still required the bluestones at this time?


ND Wiseman said...

Hi Tony!

The way I see it, the elegant Blues would have been fine and dandy if they'd remained down there at the River's edge forever.

But let's look at the time-line a moment ...

The cremation facility at West Amesbury had been doing quite a brisk business for quite a few years - really from time out of mind. This was all taking place long before there were any Sarsens at the big site, up over the ridge.

Then things changed. They started bringing in these enormous blocks of Sarsen and erecting them in big three-stone arches which pointed to the Solstice sunrise.

This is because the emphasis had shifted away from the Moon and over to the Sun. Death no longer played the premiere role at the hallowed cemetery - which was now no longer a cemetery. (I blame the Beakers for this - but that's another story!)

West Amesbury was still used (and this evidence appears when we date remains in the Aubreys) but single Barrows had begun to take the place of cremation, so, for the most part, those folks who played only semi-important roles were 'done' there. The Big-Wigs got a Barrow.

The influence (or demonstration) of the Sun and Earth now demanded all attention, so by the time the Circle was erected, Moon was relegated to a merely ceremonial role. This we see in the Outer Bluestone Circle. But these stones had been culled from the remnants of those that had been used over again in different settings, so this is why they look so shabby.

Now we need to emphasize the importance of Mother Earth within the Horseshoe, and what better way to do that than by illustrating a female's monthly cycle? (This becomes self-explanatory if we happen to notice what the Trilithons actually represent.) So they fish around but there's not many Blues left over that will exemplify Mother's dignity and importance.

Oh wait! There's those 28 beautiful Stones at the River! So they trot down there, scoop 'em up and trundle them back to the big site. As a conciliatory afterthought, they dig a little henge to separate the now marginally used cremation facility from the rest of the 'World'. (The little henge is contemporary with the placement of the Inner Oval, but the West Amesbury site itself is vastly older, and in fact remained important enough to connect it to Stonehenge by the Avenue, 7- or 800 years later.)

So now we have an outer Circle of 56 Stones representing Moon, and an inner set of 28 Stones in the shape of an oval ... or egg ... representing the fertility of Mother Earth.

This is another reason why the two sets of Blues appear in such stark contrast to each other. Life was now being emphasized - not Death.

The nearly 500-year timeline for these events all seem to support this rather colorful story, but there's a lot of other evidence to support it as well, not the least of which is the Inner Bluestones themselves.

Best wishes,

TonyH said...


How, Neil, do you arrive at there being "28 beautiful Stones down at the River"? Do you have access to any, SAY Canadian, report or talk by Guru MPP to substantiate this notion? I seem to recall news that MPP had given a talk in Canada at some point.

Remember, we sceptics (or skeptics in North America) recall that NO evidence, other than MPP's verbal claim [unbacked by any substantial photographic evidence of hole shapes] or findings of even ONE bit of bluestone amongst the sieving], has been forthcoming. Aren't we all meant to place a great deal of our faith in MPP's famous vivid imagination? As Brian keeps saying, no peer - reviewed reports have been forthcoming as yet, and the clock is ticking.....isn't it all a bit "quirky Indiana Jones" rather than, say, "systematic thorough Flinders Petrie"?

TonyH said...


FALSE CLAIM on Historic England website of "small bluestone chips" at West Amesbury Henge

If these don't work, try Search Engine: WEST AMESBURY HENGE

ND Wiseman said...

Hi Tony!

Yes, it's 'Skeptic' over here, and I am their King.
In this rarefied Archeo world, a rule of thumb is always: "Fool me once, shame on Me." If you make a firm statement, you'd better be able to back it up with facts and evidence, because it's a bloody shark tank world and you'll be ripped to sheds in a trice if found to be in error. Oh, it's all very polite and would-you-care-for-lemon ─ but I have the bite marks to prove it.

Everyone was So excited when MPP's crew found WA Henge back in 08. I have no idea who told whom about finding Bluestone chips in the stoneholes, but obviously someone did.
I have spoken to, not only all the headliners at that and the other RSP sites, but to the people who dug, the photographers who shot, and several knowledgeable bystanders who gawked at those events, but no one wants to 'fess up ... lol

In the final analysis, there were no chips. I have private access to images that have never been published, by top-end pros as well as the random shutter-bug. There would be many, many pictures of these chips, both in-situ and on a drop-cloth.
There are none.

But there were holes, and these holes did Not contain wood. Their shape, depth and the fact that there's no staining indicate that they were stones. Compression analysis indicates their mass and that these stones sat in place for quite a while ─ but evidence of their removal is also plain to see. The stones were all removed at the same time, and the dating of carbon-rich items found within and beneath the removal tailings show that they were extracted around the same time the Blues were being installed in the Inner Oval at Stonehenge.

Now, just because MPP was running the show for all 43 digs by the RSP, doesn't mean that everyone involved towed that line. Obviously I cannot name names, but there's a few noted professionals who worked along side that didn't (don't) see things the same way.

But all of them believe that the holes at WA Henge contained Blues, and that those stones are now present (more or less) in the Inner Oval. (Stones -62 & -63, plus -69 & -70 eerily match the presumed size and mass of those that were in several holes)

Mike is a personable fellow; clever, glib and savvy. Off the record, he'll say things that very much contrast what you'd expect he'd say in public. Nice guy, but I don't buy all the public stances ─ particularly the whole "Death Separation" and "Unifying Structure" business. Balderdash, if you ask me ...

If one person ─ no matter how learned in their discipline ─ says something, I'm the first to start digging for alternative interpretations. But a diverse array of others say the same thing in this regard.

Is there unimpeachable, court-admissible evidence that the WA Henge stones are one-in-the-same with the Blues in the Oval?
Why, no sir, there isn't.
But the indirect inference is rife.

Best Wishes, my friend,

chris johnson said...

From what I know it does seem possible, likely even, that the "Bluestone Henge" did contain Bluestones. People whose word I trust did actually see the packing in the stone holes and the holes were roughly the size of the bluestones at the big Henge up the road. So I am ok with Neil's narrative as one of the several almost plausible tales.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Would somebody please tell me what the standard size of a bluestone is supposed to be? The myth that the "bluestonehenge" holes were just the right size to fit beautiful bluestones into seems to me to be nothing short of weird, given the vast range of shapes and sizes in the bluestone assemblage. And if there were stones in those holes, is it not vastly more likely that they would have been small sarsens, of which there were many presumably in the neighbourhood, already littering the landscape? The myth-making machine seems to have no bounds, when it comes to bluestones........

ND Wiseman said...


It's thought that the stones at WA were contemporary with those positioned in the Aubrey Holes, though the two sets never 'met' till the Trilithon Oval, so to speak. That's my take, anyway, and the design of flint artifacts found at various levels seems to confirm it, if only in broad terms.

As Chris mentions, the size, shape and packing stones used strongly infer Blues. They wouldn't have been used in this way for wood, and tooled Sarsen doesn't appear anywhere until the work on the Big Stuff was being done up the street.

While they never found Blue chips of course - neither did they find Sarsen.

The stoneholes are not identical, but they average similarly, inferring the shaping process. Examination of the holes was, as you'd imagine, extensive - down to a determination of differences between the individual gangs employed to position them. Some used full flint nodules to pack over a bed of mixed chalk & earth. Some used shattered flint for the bed, while others used a kind of chalk slurry poured around the packing, much as we do with cement, and so on. The pattern repeats within the nine holes excavated.

The erection ramps are also a factor in determining the mass of the stone. The size, depth, and compression analysis of the holes tells us that the contents' mass were much less than that of Sarsen in comparison. The September 2010 edition of BritArch details a first-person account of what they found, and though not 'peer reviewed', offers quite a bit of insight.

If at some point in future this information is found to be wrong, so be it - but I'm really not seeing a pattern of attempting to fit the facts to the theory. They were looking for the end of the Avenue - finding WA was a fluke.

Best wishes,

BRIAN JOHN said...

Neil --- I'm intrigued by this: "The size, depth, and compression analysis of the holes tells us that the contents' mass were much less than that of Sarsen in comparison." Are you telling us that the weight of a bluestone of certain dimensions is less than the weight of a sarsen of an identical size? Evidence please.......

Dave Maynard said...


What is 'compression analysis'?

ND Wiseman said...

Brian - I'm saying the density of Sarsen is greater than that of Bluestone and that this is reflected in a greater weight at the same size. Therefore, if there were Sarsens in those holes, the compression of the chalk would be of a much higher order. Either that or the Bluestones would have been ridiculously outsized.

Dave - It's the process by which the mass of an object is determined by its action on various surfaces. If we place a 10 kg cement block on sand, we can expect the sand to compress to a certain degree. Depending on the properties of the stationary material, it will always 'respond' the same way when a similar mass is placed on it. Chalk, in this case, though particulate, is extremely stable, eg: It doesn't compress too much. Therefore, the density of an object with roughly established dimensions can be determined with some accuracy because the chalk is compressed by a known factor. We already know the density of Bluestone and Sarsen, so we may expect the chalk to 'behave' a certain way with one or the other. In this case it responded to the mass of Bluestone dimensions known to exist at Stonehenge.

I believe the device they use is called a Densitometer.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Neil -- I'm a bit mystified by this density thing. The specific gravity of dolerite and other igneous rocks (maybe with the exception of tuffs) is greater, according to the texts, than the specific gravity of sandstones, quartzites etc. How, therefore, do you conclude that sarsen has a greater density and is "heavier" than bluestones?

I must confess to being more than a little sceptical about this "compression analysis" -- is it really something very scientific, or is it another of the "Bluestonehenge" fantasies?

TonyH said...

Hi Neil

It will be worth watching the BBC4 new Series, Stonehenge: a Timewatch Guide, starting Wednesday, 27th January, Part 1 of 4, 9 p.m. ["repeated tomorrow 8 p.m."]

"Drawing on 70 years of BCC history archive film, Alice Roberts uncovers how Stonehenge has been explained, argued over and debated by some of Britain's leading historians and archeologists, and how geologists and astronomers became involved in the story."

Could be disappointing, of course, as there seems to be no room for glacial geomorphologists, but, hey, we can always tune in and live in hope! We may always catch a glimpse of Myris (or his very good friend, R.A.)........

By the way, how are your letters of dissent to British Archaeology and Current Archaeology magazines on their recent Preseli quarry articles coming along, Brian?

TonyH said...

Neil, thanks for your opinions and information, but still don't understand why ,as far as I know, we've had no PUBLISHED photographic evidence of MPP and Gang's stone holes from that Henge at the bottom of the Avenue Down By The Riverside.

Why would he want to keep it to himself?

So far, it's all talk. No evidence of even bluestone chips from down there by the riverside, yet no - one has corrected the inaccuracies on the various websites etc which claim there are. And that includes the Historic England site I mentioned above [19.24 on 19th January].