As we get ready for the British Museum’s new exhibition on Stonehenge (opens 17th February) we ask: did Stonehenge come from Wales?
Back in 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Stonehenge was built using stone brought from the Giant’s Dance stone circle in Ireland. The magician Merlin dismantled the stone circle and brought it to Amesbury on Salisbury Plain after his formidable army defeated the Irish. Geoffrey’s account is, of course, fantasy, but Wales was part of Ireland at the time.
Recent research led by Mike Parker Pearson and others has shown that the Welsh bluestones were first set up in the so-called Aubrey Holes, a ring of pits that surround the stone circle, dug between 3080 and 2950 BC. In southern Wales, the excavation of ancient bluestone quarries in the Preseli Hills, in use between c. 3400 and 3000 BC, drew attention to four monoliths, of which only one now stands at Waun Mawn, perhaps the remnants of a stone circle.
In 2017-18, remote sensing yielded few results, but excavations followed the projected circumference of the stone circle. Six stone holes found in the dig had once held monoliths, which had been removed. They were part of a circle of 30 to 50 stones 110m across, almost all of which had been removed and the holes filled. By using radiocarbon dating and OSL (optical stimulated luminescence), the erection of the circle was dated to between 3400 and 3200 BC. Two horizontal monoliths were set with their longer sides perpendicular to the circle, forming an entrance on the north-eastern side, an alignment that had the midsummer solstice rising within it. Only a few unspotted dolerite rocks from Waun Mawn ended up at Stonehenge, which may have received stones from several stone circles in the Preseli area.
Isotopic analysis of cremations at Stonehenge show that a quarter of the earliest burials there reflect the local geology in the Preseli mountains. Did people from Wales build the first stage of Stonehenge, perhaps to reflect their ancestral identity on Salisbury Plain? It’s a compelling possibility.
Want more archaeology? To enjoy in-depth features on archaeology, read Archaeology Worldwide magazine.