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Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Pitts and the very ancient sarsens

Source:  Mike Pitts in "Digging Deeper"

Spring has sprung, and it appears that common sense is breaking out all over.  The latest media feeding frenzy, accompanied by the usual headlines about our knowledge of Stonehenge being transformed etc etc, arises from a small section in Mike Pitts's latest (very long) article on Stonehenge in "British Archaeology" for May/June 2018.  The Times kicked it all off, followed by the Mail online and lots of other news outlets.  No doubt some rather breathless press releases have been put out by the magazine, keen as ever to get more sales.  Well, that's what they are there for....... so I don't criticise them for that.

I have copied and pasted the Mail piece below, excluding lots of pictures.  Take it as typical.

So what's the fuss all about?  Really very little.  What Mike is saying is that the Heelstone and one other large sarsen (stone 16) appear to have been at Stonehenge for a very long time, and that because they were lined up along the summer solstice axis (more or less) that may explain why Stonehenge is where it is.  Forget about all those periglacial stripes etc etc........  he claims that when the Heelstone was investigated in 1979 a large pit was found alongside it, suggesting that was its original position embedded in the ground -- and that somebody chose, at an early stage, to put it into a socket and make it upright.  Stone 16 might also relate to a large pit nearer the centre of the stone settings, looked at and commented upon by Mike Parker Pearson as well.   That pit also looks like an impression of a big sarsen stone when it was recumbent.  Sarsen number 56, which is very close by, or sarsen 16, which Mike Pitts favours because it has an unusual shape?

Here is an extract from Mike Pitts's blog called "Digging Deeper."

The idea is that there are two great pits at Stonehenge, larger than any other and both difficult to explain. One of these I partly excavated in 1979, where we found the impression of a standing stone on the bottom, and Atkinson excavated part of it in 1956 (thinking at the time it was the erection ramp for the Heelstone).

The other is near the centre of Stonehenge. It was written about by Mike Parker Pearson and colleagues in Antiquity 2007, as part of their study of the site’s phasing. It’s a problematic thing, as Parker Pearson argues, excavated partly by Gowland in 1901 and partly by Atkinson on two occasions, in 1956 and 1958. There are two radiocarbon dates from samples that appear to be from the pit, but context details are missing and we can’t be sure exactly where they came from, and whether or not they were in pits dug into the filled larger pit; I don’t think we can trust these to age the big pit, which like that by the Heelstone, remains undated.

Both of these could be explained as filled natural hollows that once contained larger local sarsens. To the north-east, we may be looking at the stone that was dug out and raised, the Heelstone. To the south-west, we can only guess. It’s such a large pit, it might have held the tallest stone, trilithon Stone 56 which now stands at the end of the pit. I suggested Stone 16 as a possible candidate (my second photo below), because of its odd shape.


Mike admits in his blog that he once thought there were TWO Heelstones, one of which was once bedded into that northern pit and later either destroyed or moved to another position.  He now thinks that on balance there was only one, now standing and once recumbent in the adjacent pit.  He's differentiating here between a pit that once held a recumbent stone in its "natural position" and a socket which might once have held a standing stone. He says " the 1970s few of us took seriously the idea that there might have been any significant natural sarsen stones on Salisbury Plain."  That's rather weird -- I should have thought it perfectly obvious that Salisbury Plain was home to abundant scattered sarsens, as pointed out by many people (including Summerfierld and Goudie in 1980).

So if Mike is now coming to the view that there WERE sarsens dotted around and at the location of Stonehenge long before any Mesolithic of Neolithic fellows were building banks, digging holes or putting up posts and stones, what has caused the change of mind?  He explains things thus:  "Since then there has been intensive archaeological survey which suggests that there were indeed some – if not (to my mind) anything like enough to build an entire Stonehenge with. Also significant are two excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project, led by Colin Richards at the Cuckoo Stone (above) and the Torstone, which investigated natural-looking sarsen boulders a few km north-east of Stonehenge. In both cases, they seem once to have been standing, and had beside them hollows that looked like the natural sources of the stones. There do seem to have been at least a few large, natural sarsens half buried on the Plain."  

So he is coming to see the sound common sense in those big papers by David Field and others in 2015, who were not very enthusiastic at all about the transport of sarsens from far away.  In the Avebury area there appear to be a number of hollows that might be stone extraction pits and also cropmarks showing places from which stones have been taken or places where stones still lie embedded.

This is from one of my 2016 posts:

Feeding into this discussion is the interesting info from Steve Marshall in his excellent Avebury book, on page 104 -- relating to hollows and crop marks in a field close to North Kennet spring. There are more than a dozen of them, quite prominent, but Steve reports that they have not been excavated. There is a possibility that these "marked sites" still contain buried sarsens -- or they may indeed mark extraction sites from which sarsens have been taken for use in the Avebury stone settings, or more recently for other purposes by the local community.

There has also been speculation about a large "mystery pit" at the centre of Stonehenge, shown up in various excavations. Prof MPP says it is very mysterious, but Tim Daw thinks it is an extraction pit, used for taking away the Lake House meteorite, which he speculates was found here. Why could it not have been an extraction pit once occupied by one of the larger sarsens or even by one or more bluestones?

Mike cannot bring himself at present to accept that many of the pits in the pock-marked or honeycombed surface of the chalk revealed during Stonehenge digs have anything to do with "in situ" or pre-monument sarsen stones.  Why not?  There is no logic in seeking to deny this, but maybe that would be a step too far........

And if there were embedded sarsens on or near the site of Stonehenge prior to the building of the monument, why not bluestones too?

Watch this space.  The archaeologists will get there in the end.  Trust me.

PS.  I'm more and more intrigued by the pronouncements of Susan Greaney,  presumably speaking on behalf of English Heritage.  Her explanations of things  are becoming more and more imaginative;  she is clearly learning a lot from certain senior academics.

Stonehenge's massive pillars were 'in place long before humans arrived' and prehistoric architects simply built monument around the mystery monoliths

• Mike Pitts specialises in British pre-history and has excavated at Stonehenge
• He says the largest and most important sarsen stones site gave it its significance
• Unlike other rocks at Stonehenge they were already in place on Salisbury Plain
• Their coincidental alignment with the sun prompted people to build Stonehenge

By Tim Collins For Mailonline
PUBLISHED: 09:59, 9 April 2018 |


The mystery of why Stonehenge was built on the unremarkable chalk plateau of Salisbury Plain may have finally been solved.

An expert claims two of Stonehenge's largest stones had been in place at the site for millions of years before Neolithic people built the monument.

The coincidental alignment of sarsen stone 16 and the Heel stone with the sunrise and sunset on the longest and shortest days of the year prompted ancient people to construct Stonehenge around them.

Mike Pitts specialises in British pre-history and is one of a small number of scientists who have excavated on the site of the ancient monument.

In a paper published in the journal British Archaeology, the freelance archaeologist describes uncovering a pit, around six metres (20 feet) in diameter, besides the heel stone in 1979.

The heel stone is 75 metres (250 feet) from the centre of the stone circle, weighs around 60 tonnes and has not been shaped or dressed, unlike the other sarsens.

It is the point at which the sun rises and falls below the horizon at midsummer and midwinter, from the perspective of those looking towards it from inside Stonehenge.

Mr Pitts believes the hole, rather than being a socket dug for a missing standing stone, was once home to huge heel stone.

A second undressed stone in the centre of the circle lines up with the heel stone and sun at the winter and summer solstice.

This rock, known as stone 16, also has a pit next to it, suggesting it too originated at the site of Stonehenge.

Speaking to The Times, Mr Pitts said: 'The assumption used to be that all the sarsens at Stonehenge had come from the Marlborough Downs more than 20 miles away.

The heel stone is 75 metres (250 feet) from the centre of the stone circle and weighs around 60 tonnes . It is the point at which the sun rises and falls below the horizon at midsummer and midwinter, from the perspective of those looking towards it from inside Stonehenge

'The idea has since been growing that some may be local and the heel stone came out of that big pit.

'If you are going to move something that large you would dress it before you move it, to get rid of some of the bulk. That suggests it has not been moved very far.

'It makes sense that the heel stone has always been more or less where it is now, half-buried.'

Sarsen is a layer of sandstone that formed millions of years ago above the chalk layer on Salisbury Plain.

During the various ice ages, permafrost repeatedly froze and thawed this chalk layer, shattering the sarsen.

Over millennia, these stones sank below the surface, leaving a few fragmented rocks jutting out.

These stones, of varying sizes, can be found across Salisbury Plain and the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire, as well as in Kent and in smaller quantities in Berkshire, Essex, Oxfordshire, Dorset and Hampshire.

The act of building Stonehenge may have been as important a ceremony to its ancient creators as the use of the finished stone circle, experts claimed in March.

Construction of the 5,000-year-old monument drew people together from all over the country to drink and get to know one another in large ceremonial feasts.

Work on Stonehenge could have been used to show outsiders the power of the small community building it, researchers at English Heritage said.

The theory may explain why some of the Wiltshire site's stones were transported more than a hundred miles (160km) from a quarry in south Wales.

The large standing stones at Stonehenge are made of local sandstone, but the smaller ones, known as 'bluestones', come from a quarry in south Wales

Susan Greaney, a senior historian at English Heritage, said: 'In contemporary Western culture, we are always striving to make things as easy and quick as possible, but we believe that for the builders of Stonehenge this may not have been the case.

'Drawing a large number of people from far and wide to take part in the process of building was potentially a powerful tool in demonstrating the strength of the community to outsiders.

'Being able to welcome and reward these people who had travelled far, perhaps as a kind of pilgrimage, with ceremonial feasts, could be a further expression of the power and position of the community.'

The theory follows English Heritage's recent discovery of feasting at the nearby Neolithic Durrington Walls settlement, also found in Wiltshire.

According to the charity's historians, this attracted people from across the country to help build the Neolithic monument.

The discovery pushed English Heritage to look again at theories of how Stonehenge was built, concluding that building the monument was important ceremonially and cause for celebration.

Ms Greaney said the new theory may explain a mystery surrounding the impressive distances some of Stonehenge's monoliths were carried.

The large standing stones at the monument are made of local sandstone, but the smaller ones, known as 'bluestones', come from a quarry in south Wales.

Stonehenge's architects would have had to shift the huge rocks 140 miles (225km) from what is now Pembrokeshire Coast National Park to the monument's build site.

Ms Greaney said: 'As soon as you abandon modern preconceptions which assume Neolithic people would have sought the most efficient way of building Stonehenge, questions like why the bluestones were brought from so far away - the Preseli Hills of south Wales - don't seem quite so perplexing.'

She added that the idea of 'stone-pulling ceremonies', in which people celebrate moving monoliths by hand, is not a new one.

She said pictures from a 1915 stone-pulling ceremony on Nias, Indonesia, showed people in ceremonial dress 'revelling' in the task and taking part in feasts and dances.

Stonehenge is one of the most prominent prehistoric monuments in Britain.

The monument that can be seen today is the final stage of a project that spanned 1,500 years.

Stonehenge was donated to the nation's heritage collection in 1918 by owners Cecil and Mary Chubb.

Mr Chubb had bought the then-neglected monument on impulse at an auction three years earlier having been sent there by his wife to bid for a set of dining room chairs.

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Stonehenge was built thousands of years before machinery was invented.

The heavy rocks weigh upwards of several tonnes each.

Some of the stones are believed to have originated from a quarry in Wales, some 140 miles (225km) away from the Wiltshire monument.

To do this would have required a high degree of ingenuity, and experts believe the ancient engineers used a pulley system over a shifting conveyor-belt of logs.

Historians now that the ring of stones was built in several different stages, with the first completed around 5,000 years ago by Neolithic Britons who used primitive tools, possibly made from deer antlers.

Modern scientists now widely believe that Stonehenge was created by several different tribes over time.

After the Neolithic Britons - likely natives of the British Isles - started the construction, it was continued centuries later by their descendants.

Over time, the descendants developed a more communal way of life and better tools which helped in the erection of the stones.

Bones, tools and other artefacts found on the site seem to support this hypothesis.



Stonehenge is one of the most prominent prehistoric monuments in Britain. The Stonehenge that can be seen today is the final stage that was completed about 3,500 years ago.
According to the monument's website, Stonehenge was built in four stages:

First stage: The first version of Stonehenge was a large earthwork or Henge, comprising a ditch, bank and the Aubrey holes, all probably built around 3100 BC.
The Aubrey holes are round pits in the chalk, about one metre (3.3 feet) wide and deep, with steep sides and flat bottoms.
They form a circle about 86.6 metres (284 feet) in diameter.
Excavations revealed cremated human bones in some of the chalk filling, but the holes themselves were likely not made to be used as graves, but as part of a religious ceremony.
After this first stage, Stonehenge was abandoned and left untouched for more than 1,000 years.

Second stage: The second and most dramatic stage of Stonehenge started around 2150 years BC, when about 82 bluestones from the Preseli mountains in south-west Wales were transported to the site. It's thought that the stones, some of which weigh four tonnes each, were dragged on rollers and sledges to the waters at Milford Haven, where they were loaded onto rafts.
They were carried on water along the south coast of Wales and up the rivers Avon and Frome, before being dragged overland again near Warminster and Wiltshire.
The final stage of the journey was mainly by water, down the river Wylye to Salisbury, then the Salisbury Avon to west Amesbury.
The journey spanned nearly 240 miles, and once at the site, the stones were set up in the centre to form an incomplete double circle.
During the same period, the original entrance was widened and a pair of Heel Stones were erected. The nearer part of the Avenue, connecting Stonehenge with the River Avon, was built aligned with the midsummer sunrise.

Third stage: The third stage of Stonehenge, which took place about 2000 years BC, saw the arrival of the sarsen stones (a type of sandstone), which were larger than the bluestones.
They were likely brought from the Marlborough Downs (40 kilometres, or 25 miles, north of Stonehenge).
The largest of the sarsen stones transported to Stonehenge weighs 50 tonnes, and transportation by water would not have been possible, so it's suspected that they were transported using sledges and ropes.
Calculations have shown that it would have taken 500 men using leather ropes to pull one stone, with an extra 100 men needed to lay the rollers in front of the sledge.
These stones were arranged in an outer circle with a continuous run of lintels - horizontal supports.
Inside the circle, five trilithons - structures consisting of two upright stones and a third across the top as a lintel - were placed in a horseshoe arrangement, which can still be seen today.

Final stage: The fourth and final stage took place just after 1500 years BC, when the smaller bluestones were rearranged in the horseshoe and circle that can be seen today.
The original number of stones in the bluestone circle was probably around 60, but these have since been removed or broken up. Some remain as stumps below ground level.



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Garry Denke said...

A huge baby step for glacial transport.
Britons are slow moving; like glaciers.
Cheers for erratics on Salisbury plain!
Do you think Heyworth's is after Pitts?
Everyone says, "Parker-Pearson last".
Fascinating turn-around; baby steps!

chris johnson said...

The mystery continues. The difference of opinion regarding chronology is astounding after all the work of recent years and modern scientific method. All would agree that there is a distinct lack of objects for carbon dating and a mountain of hypothesis built on slight foundations.

MPP is reassured by the dates for Durrington walls village, but then he assumes the purpose of the village was to house the stonehenge builders of the second stage around 2500 BC, instead of Pitts 2150. MPP also seems to believe that the henge at Durrington was build after the village was being used, effectively burying parts of it. Again this is strange from my perspective, associating henges as I do with earlier periods - more fourth millennium than third.

Perhaps somebody could write a book and explain it all to simpletons like myself.

Gordon said...

Unfortunately you will not get your answers from archaeologists.EH is not interested in the truth, a mystery is better for business, they are in the tourism business after all.A prime example is Skara Brae a neolithic/bronze age burnt mound complex later adopted and adapted by Pictish christian monks now sold as a neolithic village.

TonyH said...

At last, we have TWO WORDS from a Senior Archaeologist. Mike Pitts no less, on Rhosyfelin and other claimed "quarry sites"........


In his own BIG article in the May/June issue of 'his' British Archaeology.

On page 31, paragraph two, where he talks about the Aubrey Holes and " -admittedly controversial - indications of quarrying at a known bluestone outcrop.....radiocarbon dated to around 3400 B C." He'd just admitted there is no direct dating for the Aubrey Holes, but nevertheless tries to make out a possible link with the 3400 B C date.

Still, we'd better all be hugely grateful to Mike Pitts for putting "admittedly controversial" into his massive article (pages 20 to 35). A bit of a nod, however brief and camoflauged, to the Geomorphologist, i.e. the Elephant in the Archaeologist's Room!!

BRIAN JOHN said...

I was interested today to discover that Tim Daw -- on his blog site -- also appears to be coming round to the view that Stonehenge is where it is because that is where the stones (and maybe some mounds) were. The North Barrow is particularly interesting, as is the other strangle mound described by David Field et al. And I am very interested in the strange lump of clay described by MPP on p 242 of MPP's 2012 book as occurring in "Newall's Mound" --- moraine, anyone?

TonyH said...

Ms Susan Greaney of English Heritage's mention of 1915 stone - pulling ceremonies in Indonesia which were actually shown (photographs) on the BBC News lunchtime feature around the time of all these press releases was all wonderful stuff and no doubt will have encouraged lots an lots of Mr and Mrs Joe Publics (with children) to take a psychedelic trip to Stonehenge and spend, spend, spend as if there was no Yesterday.

BRIAN JOHN said...

It seems that Susan Greaney is fully signed up to the conspiracy -- tell the story with as much vigour as possible, make hay while the sun shines, and hope that nobody looks too hard for the evidence to back it all up. Understandable, since Stonehenge has to earn its keep, but at the same time profoundly depressing.