Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- due for publication on June 1st 2018. After that, it will be available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

More about the Cuckoo Stone

Thanks to Tony for drawing attention to some new work relating to the Cuckoo Stone and its environs.  Some info is here:

It appears that the stone is a large lump of sarsen stone which originally lay in a solution hollow as a recumbent srone.  It was later extracted from its hollow and erected nearby -- and later fell over again, to remain in position where it can be seen today.  In other words, there is no long distance -- or even short distance -- transport involved.

I was interested to read this from the Stonehenge Riverside Project Report for 2007:

The Cuckoo Stone compares well with the Tor Stone at Bulford, about a mile east of the River Avon. In 2005 excavations demonstrated that this stone was similarly associated with an Early Bronze Age cremation burial – in this case a double Food Vessel burial. It too had been raised from its natural recumbent position which was visible as a solution hollow.

There is another mention of the Cuckoo Stone on Dr Nick Snashall's web site here:

Nick mentions that this is the only standing (ie recumbent!) sarsen stone left in the Stonehenge landscape, which of course begs the question "How many might there have been originally, before people started collecting them up and putting them into assorted stone settings or arrangements, at Stonehenge, Avebury and Durrington?  How many solution hollows are there that might once have held sarsens?  We have touched on this now and then, and of course I have expressed the view many times that the builders of Stonehenge collected up their stones (all of them -- bluestones and sarsens) from within striking distance of Stonehenge, and had to give up on the later stages of the project when the supply of stones ran out.  The stones were rearranged many times, but the "grand design" was never completed.

Why was the Cuckoo Stone never collected up and used?  Maybe it was just too much of a shapeless lump, and was rejected as not worth the bother?

As it happens, this very day Nick Snashall is giving a guided tour of the Avebury landscape, including West Kennet long barrow.  Hope it's not as unbearably hot as it was yesterday......


TonyH said...

Perhaps, in answer to Brian's question, the Cuckoo Stone was never carted off to be used [at the Stonehenge prehistoric project], because it already was invested with a great deal of significance to our predecessors in its original landscape position. Of the top of my head, I think it lies in a significant spot in relation to Early Neolithic Greater Cursus to its west; and also possibly in relation to the distant horizon beyond modern Bulford to the east.

Some have made much of the wider geography extendin beyond the Greater Cursus right across to the River Avon adjacent to Durrington Walls, claimimg, for example, that Mesolithic folk may have hunted auroch from the river Till towards the Avon.They made this claim long before David Jacques and those Open University Boys discovered that site naer Vespasian's Camp, towards Amesbury, with its auroch finds and hunting use over thousands of years.

Neil Wiseman said...

Hi Tony.
I agree with your take.

There was certainly lots more sarsen in the area originally, fer sher. The Heelstone is thought to be indigenous in fact. Probably at least one of the Station Stones too.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Do we know when the Cuckoo Stone was put up and when it fell down again? It looks more like a boulder than a pillar or a slab -- not the most elegant monolith in the world.....

Neil Wiseman said...

According to the RSP (if memory serves) there's evidence that the solutional hole had shards of grooved ware in it, which is Neolithic, while the (re?)erection hole had evidence from the Iron Age. The immediate vicinity around the stone is certainly Roman.

Just as Tony suggests, personally I think it was originally related to the Cursus, and a wild stab in the dark says that later, emphasis was shifted to the Durrington Walls complex, then (or and) Woodhenge.

There's no evidence that the stone was worked. Both Adam Stanford and Pete Glastonbury have exhaustive series' of excellent photographs of its excavation in 07.

The so-called "Ritual Landscape" and its emphasis on the treatment of death is found to be more extensive than was once believed - even very recently. This might push the original erection time back to the late Mesolithic when things were warming up at nearby Blick Mead. (I'm quick to acknowledge the lack of evidence for this!) And while I don't agree with everything MPP has to say about the whole Wood Life / Stone Death thing, it might be accurate with regard to this rock.

The scarcity of bulk sarsen in the area may also play a role, in that significance was attached to the Cuckoo Stone simply because it was just sitting out there all by itself. To them in that context, there must have been a 'reason' for this. The same may be true of the Heelstone and what's now the Slaughter Stone.

Perhaps Myris, or the sorely missed GeoCur, could shed more light on this. I haven't spent as much time with many of these curiosities as perhaps I should. (Clearly my loss). Solving the age-old puzzle that is Stonehenge took much of my time. Now that this is completed I can turn my attention to some of the less famous sites.


TonyH said...

Yes we do, take a look at MPP's earlier [2012] Stonehenge [more chatty, me and my mates] book. Page 147 - 150. This is his Chapter 9, Mysterious Earthworks.... You Posted yourself rather sheepishly reading said Book at Christmas!

Brian, you must read again paragraph 3 on page 147. MPP here says natural sarsens were probably found as far south as Stonehenge during the Neolithic, thus agreeing with you!

Colin Richards [he of checking out how far stones have moved all over the Earth, from the Orkneys to Easter Island and N. Pembrokeshire] was in charge of an excavation around the Cuckoo Stone in 2007.

Chapter 9 also discusses the Bulford Stone Brian mentions in this Post. T'other side of the river Avon from Durrington etc.

Sorry, unable to do no more just now than point you towards MPP's 2012 book as am away till around Sunday as of now.

Neil, I see in his latest 2015 book, MPP notes that the Heel Stone we see today may well be as it was when first utilised: i.e.. not shaped by any of the Good Ol' Boys at all.

TonyH said...

Folk may easily join up with National Trust - led walks near the Cuckoo Stone, Woodhenge, Cursus, The Avenue up to the Heel Stone etc. Also, WANHS [Wiltshire Museum] does similar events/walks, some combining a tour of the brilliant, spruced - up, Prehistoric Galleries at that Museum, with a minibus trip to "Walk the Dead": recommended by me, a satisfied customer for both aspects, the Museum tour and the Director - led walk. Neil, I did this in May. We had 3 ladies from California on the event.

Neil Wiseman said...

You are correct Tony.
The Heelstone and Cuckoo Stones were never 'worked' by the Good Old Boys, and both were probably utilized at, or very near where they were found. True Dat.

I think I said this ... Yes / No?


BRIAN JOHN said...

Neil -- "the scarcity of bulk sarsen in the area"?? Just now, sarsens are scarce on Salisbury Plain, but that may simply be because they have almost all been removed. Has anybody ever systematically searched for extraction pits or solution hollows that might have held recumbent sarsen residuals? Any clues in parch marks etc?

Neil Wiseman said...

Hi Brian

Yup - sarsen sure is scarce on the Plain these days. Didn't used to be this scarce, but it was never as abundant as it is north of the Vale or further to the south.

Every few years somebody wanders out to find "Once and For All!" the beds from which the Stonehenge sarsens were quarried. Nothing definitive as yet of course, because they came from several different spots, methinks. But few, if any, from the local vicinity. I repeat: The Heelstone, and perhaps the Slaughter Stone are the probable exceptions.

There's been some work done recently on the grain of the sandstone at the Hedge, and if we were to ask "The Experts", they would concur that the grain of stones at the Pile does not match other local-grown examples, but Does match (more or less) that found at Fyfield or Marlborough.
(Some have mentioned points south in Devon as well - but that's another story.)

I recently saw a chart compiled of known sarsen fields or beds in Wilts from 500-odd years ago to the present. There used to be an awful lot of the stuff lying around - but not so much today, of course. What I found interesting is that out on the Plain, while there were some supplies of it, those instances were both far fewer and much smaller than those of the northern areas.

Solutional Holes. Yup - some have been found. There's even some you can see from Avebury's Kennett Avenue looking toward the Sanctuary - and No, they aren't flint mines! Luckily, (or unfortunately) they are found by plowing, and there's a lot of plowing in Wiltshire. But the only solutional hole I know about on the Plain is that of the Cuckoo Stone. I'm sure there are other examples. (I do take pains to stress that this is not my area of expertise.)

So, there was a lot / now there isn't much, but there was never much out on the Plain to begin with.

How it's formed is key to the enigma, in my opinion. The conditions on the Plain were not ideal for this material to form. I believe that much of the constituent sand-element was largely washed away when the landmass rose, leaving only isolated pockets here and there. In the north we still see great drifts and rivers of the stuff because the conditions there were more favorable.

Studies of the vast south England chalk beds tend to indicate that most of the Plain was an outwash over a long period of time, and my view is that this process took a lot of the sand with it. Those conditions did not prevail in the north.

Curiously, examples from the Plain rarely - if ever - exhibit signs of palm, pine or other vegetation rooting, while the large majority of stone at the Pile have root-holes in them - just like the examples in the north.
This of course is because it was, at first, very swampy long before being high and dry. Very conducive to roots digging into the sand. (Interestingly, there's rarely any fossils.)

There's been a lot of question about why there's no sarsen in the Pewsey Vale. Easy answer: There's plenty. But much later glacier melting and the ensuing outwash has buried it under about 20 feet of soil! A quick glance at any decent topo map will show this.

I talk too much.
I'll shut up now.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Thank you Neil -- interesting stuff. On the matter of whether the Stonehenge sarsens came from local sources or from the Marlborough Downs, I thought that the geochemistry suggested that the Stonehenge stones are NOT similar to those from the northern drifts? You seem to be suggesting the opposite. The fact that there are not many sarsens left within striking distance of Stonehenge today does not help to resolve the issue. Either there were not many to start with, so they had to hunt further afield -- or there were enough to start building the monument, but not enough to finish it....... there's a danger of circular reasoning.

Sandy sarsen and plant-rich sarsen? This is something which Steve covers in his Avebury book. In the time that the sarsen beds were being formed, were there really rivers flowing north? That's a bit counter-intuitive. Must look into that.....

Neil Wiseman said...

Hi Brian,

Quoting myself from above:
"In the north we still see great drifts and rivers of the stuff because the conditions there were more favorable."

The 'Rivers' I mention are of sarsen - not water.

Now, I've taken some heat for saying the following: The drifts and rivers of sarsen up there were caused by glacial scouring where, in some examples, we find stone-on-stone. A number of the drifts appear to be slung up against the south side of hills or low ridges, suggesting that they were pushed there.

Upon further research I have amended those remarks only slightly, because it appears that in certain instances this otherwise blanket statement is accurate. There still doesn't seem to be another logical reason for the stone to have behaved in this way, other than having been acted on by ice.
Admittedly, this evidence is circumstantial.

The field sarsen in those areas is probably untouched, as when lifted chalk is found underneath. But in some cases there appears to be glacial scarring on the exposed, upper faces.
Actually, you're the Glacier Guy, so perhaps you might shed some light on, what is to me, a peripheral aspect of the Stonehenge story. As you can see, I haven't really given the matter a lot of thought.

Yes - They probably started the early phase of building with local sarsen. But the number of examples are few and their purpose much different than the later shaping and polishing. The Heelstone, for example, was merely a placeholder for a viewing station, and because it has a natural taper, nothing needed to be done with it. This was either because it didn't require attention, or the Builders didn't yet possess the skill to do so on a large scale. (The thing is 16 tons x 20 feet long!)

This thinking and/or usage with regard to the Heelstone prevailed into the stone stage proper - even after they moved it 4- or 500 years later. Obviously no one knows, but I suspect that the solutional bed for it is most likely somewhere close by within the near confines of the Avenue; under, or just north of the old road bed.
Stones B & C probably became the Slaughter Stone and now-missing Stone-E. But those and Station Stone-93 are almost certainly local.

Later, for some reason it was imperative that the structure resemble wood. But that result required an enormous amount of labor, and in some cases almost half the mass of the original blank had to be removed to achieve the desired shape. See also: Stone-55.
I submit that this size (or quality?) of stone wasn't available nearby, so they went fishing for it. As Avebury shows, they already knew where to get it. Circumstantial evidence of this exists at Marden and Wilsford out in the middle of the Vale. There doesn't seem to be (to me) a good reason for those elaborate sites to be there, so why are they?

Because, in my opinion, they were originally way-stations on the journey of stone transportation. They moved the stone from the north beds in winter and got it to Marden in early spring. Then they sat around the campfires smoking, drinking and playing gin rummy until the Avon finished its seasonal flood-rise. Then they forded it and continued the trip south. Remnants of the old sarsen ford are still there.

This practice became traditional over time, and from those humble beginnings Marden eventually morphed into a significant site where there were two henges and a Silbury-like mound. This continued on long after the Stonehenge Circle had been completed and the original purpose forgotten.

I think the research being done at those sites, literally as we speak, will eventually bear me out.

So, in closing I say that its going to take a fundamental shift in the planet's orbit to convince me that the balance of Stonehenge stones came from anywhere other than north of the Pewsey Vale.

Again I wax long and so shall wander back to my shabby garret.

Best Wishes,

BRIAN JOHN said...

More and more interesting, Neil. Thanks for giving of your time here. I'll come back to the glacial issue shortly. On the matter of sarsen extraction localities, if the sarsen stones in the main Stonehenge settings came (as you suggest) from somewhere north of the Vale of Pewsey, one would expect that some sort of physical evidence might confirm that. Similar maybe to the evidence re colours and textures discussed by Steve in his Avebury book...... he talks of clusters or groups of stone with similar "family" characteristics. Do we not have anything similar for Stonehenge?

Steve,if you are out there, what have you got on the sarsens of Stonehenge?

I'm not all that convinced by the need for the Marden and Wilsford sites as "way stations" used by the stone transporting gangs. Winter transport as far as Marden and then summer transport onwards to Stonehenge? Surely the river is small enough never to have been a real obstacle? And could not wet periods and floods have happened at any time of year?

Jon Morris said...

Solving the age-old puzzle that is Stonehenge took much of my time. Now that this is completed I can turn my attention to some of the less famous sites

Which ones are you moving on to Neil?

Perhaps the sites that have no commercial side to them will be more rewarding to work on (in a non-financial way).

Neil Wiseman said...

Hi Brian,

Re: Avon. If the River posed little obstacle, why did they bother building a sarsen ford across it?

The mean rise and fall of river waters in that area is actually quite remarkable. See also: The River Kennet. In summer and autumn they certainly aren't much to write home about. But at spring thaw they are sometimes forces to be reckoned with.

For all the vaunted talk of "Similar Climate", I still think it was a wee bit wetter in them there parts 4500 years ago.

[ Story Time: In beginning my research of the Pile, lo these many years ago, I started looking for the Mighty River Avon, Gateway to the Marvel and Mysteries of Stonehenge!
It's clearly marked on every map, but all I kept finding was this puny little field-drain leeching its way through the countryside.
Where's this famous 'River' everyone talks about!? ]

I cite winter quarrying because, obviously, the ground is harder. Not a lot of mud. Now it may be that the stone was selected and prepped for transport prior to moving it, but it seems to me that winter would have been the best time. Plus, if they got it to the site in late spring they'd have the rest of the summer to finish it off and get it standing.

Maybe I'm just spit-balling here, but they don't seem to have wasted a lot of effort in their projects. Like humans everywhere and every-when, they looked to make a big task easier any way they could. So if they could move a minimum 20+ ton rock over more solid ground, I bet they took advantage of it.

A little shorter this time.
The new medicine must be working ...


Neil Wiseman said...

As usual, Jon - you're a mind-reader.

After I get this mass-market, fantasy/adventure graphic novel put to bed, it's on to less well-known, more significant areas of this crazy Neolithic jig-saw puzzle.


MoA of IoA said...

Neil I thought Dr I had reviewed that novel in Fortean Times.

Pottery found at The Cuckoo Stone and Torstone includes EBA and LBA grogged vessels.

Note this august edition of Antiquity is of note. Bluestonehenge.

Jon Morris said...

After I get this mass-market, fantasy/adventure graphic novel put to bed, it's on to less well-known, more significant areas of this crazy Neolithic jig-saw puzzle.

Probably a good thing. The economic constraints of that monument make it difficult to contribute in a worthwhile way. There are some that argue that knowledge of the past does have a value in itself; but whatever value is argued for always seems to elude any attempt at definition. I think that it should be possible to put together an economic argument for "knowledge for the sake of knowledge" (going out on a serious wing and prayer here): Stern did it for climate change and there are risks (to humanity) which could be reduced if we knew how we got to where we are.

But on the mainstream side, there is the more defined economic argument that the mystery of Stonehenge, as a tourist attraction, is the only value of any consequence that this sort of asset has to offer. I understand the thinking, but can't say I agree with the idea that we can't afford to be seen to have solved it: It is a risk, but it might work out better than people expect.

The big picture may be worth looking at, but not sure how you would make it convincing without including the monuments that contain the evidence. Blathering on again. We need to chat about this when you get over here.

Neil Wiseman said...

... and blather we shall, Jon.

In terms of economics, how much revenue would English Heritage stand to lose if they were to promote a definitive resolution to the Mystery of the Pile? People would stop dead in their tracks. "Is That all it was for!?"
Then they go to NT's Avebury where they can touch - or even climb on - the Stones.

It's not in the interests of a 'Charity' organization that's mandated to become self-sufficient, with the proviso that it pay for itself within 5 years or face the axe.

Indeed Dr I. reviewed a certain tome of mine in the May FT. I was grateful for the lengthy, if somewhat luke-warm send up. That being said, I like to count the estimable Doctor among my friends.

In my own review of previous comments here, I see I said: 'Iron Age' with regard to certain Cuckoo Stone finds. In fact I meant Bronze Age.


Neil Wiseman said...

LOL @ MoA!
I see what you did there!
(Took a minute)

Jon Morris said...

In terms of economics, how much revenue would English Heritage stand to lose if they were to promote a definitive resolution to the Mystery of the Pile? People would stop dead in their tracks. "Is That all it was for!?"

I get the impression that you've heard this argument too Neil? I have no idea what EH's take on the risk is. It could be a risk to EH because "the answer" could turn out to be something that doesn't attract tourists. On the other hand, it might attract more tourists. If there are other ancillary benefits, there's a major benefit. But people don't like risks even if there is a potential major upside.

MoA of IoA said...

Ingrate thy name is Neil. Did Fortean Times not give you 8 out of 10 stars for the book, hardly luke-warm (many an authored-(sick sic)prof. has sighed for such a benefit from the aconite-dipped pen of Dr I.)
Now for Marshall's Avebury book I guess he would go the full Spinal Tap. (Even dancing in his new post-processualist tee-shirt, many thanks).

TonyH said...

The aforesaid Dr RI recently reviewed MPP's most recent take on Stonehenge and its surroundings, published 2015, in either British Archaeology or Current Archaeology (when you subscibe to both you may get a touch of the super - saturated, giddiness, even without the access to TOUCH the Old Ruin (and I don't mean the mother - in - law).

Well DONE, Dr Ixer!! And.....KEEP reviewing! [as a teenager, I always preferred grandma's Weekly Reveille].

Hello Neil, and everyone in Canada - have you heard James Taylor's recent CD with his song "Snowtime", yet with a Latin/ Brazilian beat?

TonyH said...

Regarding sarsens, their composition, provenance, etc etc, I came across:-

and more particularly, for example:- sarsens

The latter includes detailed discussions, for example, about MPP's notion that sarsens may have been moved from Marlborough Downs Up t'North by our intrepid heroic predecessors. MPP dug at Clatford [where Stuceley et al saw a 'circle'of sarsens already for transport, a bit like MPP's "smoking gun" picnic table at Rhosyfelin], both sides of the A4, including near an alleged prehistoric causeway across the river Kennet in 2012 [see previous Posts]. goudryan, whoever he/she may be, has a lot to say about hypothetical/pathetic route. Myris and Neil in particular may find this Grist For The Mill, lads.