Stonehenge bluestones, new discoveries, and by-pass injunction

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WILTSHIRE, England – The Wild Hunt has featured Stonehenge repeatedly over the past few months with the news of a new road tunnel beneath the site being greenlit for 2021 to take the strain of the A303 traffic. Since then, there have been a number of developments, relating both to the history of the site and the new road itself.

The Welsh connection

The origins of Stonehenge being in Pembrokeshire in Wales is not a new theory and was first suggested a century ago by geologist Herbert Thomas, who suggested that the Preseli hills had been home to a “venerated stone circle” which had been taken to Wiltshire. He also proposed that the community itself had migrated. Some archaeologists have adopted this as a working theory ever since, but the actual site of Thomas’s hypothetical stone circle remained unknown – until now. Perhaps.

Standing stone and lying stone near Cnwc yr Hydd. Image credit: Hansjoerg Lipp, CC BY-SA 2.0

A “proto Stonehenge,” which has been regarded for some time as an earlier sister site to Stonehenge, is now being claimed to have been the source of some of the bluestones which constitute part of the henge itself. Waun Mawn (‘peat moor’) has been said by Professor Mike Parker Pearson’s team to be one of the oldest stone circles in the UK, dating from 3400 BCE, as well as one of the largest, featuring some 30 – 50 stones.

The site appears to have been dismantled, but the 4 stones that remain are, archaeologists say, very similar to those found in the Wiltshire henge, and match several of them in that they are the same type of stone (known as spotted dolerite). One of the Stonehenge stones has a cross-section which indicates that it may previously have fitted into a hole at Waun Mawn, of the same size. Sediment and charcoal deposits have also been indicative.

Parker Pearson, of University College London, says that the Preseli region was densely settled in Neolithic times but that activity in the thousand years after 3000 BCE was “almost non-existent.” He suggests that the original circle was built c. 3400–3200 BCE and then dismantled and moved before 2120 BCE.

“Maybe most of the people migrated, taking their stones — their ancestral identities — with them.”

We should make it clear that the stones that were moved are not the large sarsens, which are of sandstone and mined locally to the henge, probably at West Woods on the Marlborough Downs, but the relatively smaller “bluestones.” The big altar stone, also sandstone, possibly comes from east Wales.

Stonehenge [Photo Credit: garethwiscombe/Flickr]

Investigation of Waun Mawn is ongoing and there are competing hypotheses. Some academics regard Parker Pearson’s claims as controversial. Geologist Brian John has taken an alternative view of the site and does not believe that the bluestones came from Waun Mawn, saying that the field evidence is ‘scanty’ and that Parker Pearson and his team have made deductions which aren’t based on the geological evidence. He takes issue with the hypothesis that there was a dolerite circle at the site and finds the ‘socket’ suggestion unconvincing.

John says in a recent paper, “The essential problem is that there are only four stones that might be interpreted as part of an arc, and they are irregularly spaced and hard to place on any circumference at all.”

What is evident is that the origins of Stonehenge are unfolding and further excavation and analysis should answer some of these questions. The Pagan community in the U.K. continues to watch this unfolding investigation with interest, with some Pagans leaning towards the Waun Mawn origins hypothesis, and others counselling caution due to other academic claims.

New discoveries at the henge

Meanwhile, excavations are continuing apace at the Stonehenge site itself, via the dig ahead of the new road tunnel, with commercial archaeologists Wessex Archaeology reporting finds from the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age including pottery, tools, and human burials, plus a curious C-shaped area which may have been a prehistoric industrial area.

There is evidence of “debitage” (which is defined as the debris left from lithic reduction) elsewhere from the production of flint tools, but Wessex Archaeology says that the C-shaped site could also have been the result of pottery manufacture or metal working. Two burials of Beaker people have been found, one of whom was a child.

Matt Leivers, A303 Stonehenge project consultant archaeologist with Wessex Archaeology told The Guardian, “Every detail lets us work out what was happening in that landscape before during and after the building of Stonehenge. Every piece brings that picture into a little more focus.” 

The next phase of the excavation will start later this year and will run for approximately 18 months, involving around 150 archaeologists. Construction work on the tunnel itself is due to start in 2023 – if it is allowed to go ahead.

High court injunction

In November 2018, we noted that the A303 is scheduled for redevelopment along its length, including the section that goes past Stonehenge. Plans, as above, suggested that the road should be diverted through a 1.8-mile tunnel under part of Salisbury Plain, hidden beneath a grassy mound, and this development was originally intended to start in the early 2020s.

Map showing A303 – Image credit: OpenStreetMap contributorsCC BY 2.0

Transport Secretary at the time Chris Grayling stated at the time that it would result in, “Quicker journey times, reduced congestion and cleaner air [which] will benefit people locally and unlock growth in the tourism industry.”

However, Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site is seeking permission for a judicial review of the £1.7bn (~us$2.4bn) project and a preliminary high court hearing to decide whether a review should be granted will now be held, in the next week or so.

This will start the process of deciding if current Transport Secretary Grant Shapps acted unlawfully in giving the tunnel the go-ahead. Permission for the scheme was granted against the advice of the Examining Authority (ExA), a five-person panel of expert inspectors.

The Stonehenge Alliance, who are campaigning to stop the Government’s proposal to widen the A303, has welcomed the news of the hearing.

A representative for Leigh Day, acting solicitors, said: “There is clearly a huge level of public outrage against, what is in effect, an existential threat to one of the most treasured symbols of British history. However, this legal case must proceed on points of procedural error. Today’s decision means that our client’s case and the Government’s decision-making process will now be fully scrutinised by the Courts.”