Digging for the Secret Origins of Stonehenge

The mystery of Stonehenge used to be a "how" thing. Visitors and scientists wondered how people 4500 years ago dragged extremely heavy rocks over 200 miles from their Welsh quarry to the legendary pagan holy place. But now it's been established that there were many ways that locals might have gotten the rocks into place using relatively primitive tools. The question now is "why." Why this spot? And also, when exactly was the spot established? A new archaeological dig at Stonehenge — the first in half a century — is already providing hints.

Mostly, the dig will allow researchers to get more rock fragments that they hope to carbon date. According to the Independent:

The two-week project will try to establish the precise dating of the "Double Bluestone Circle", the first stone structure to have been erected at the site thousands of years ago . . . "The bluestones hold the key to understanding the purpose and meaning of Stonehenge," said Dr Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage. "Their arrival marked a turningpoint in the history of Stonehenge, changing the site from being a fairly standard formative henge with timber structures and occasional use for burial, to the complex stone structure whose remains dominate the site today."

The bluestones are natural columns of white-spotted dolerite, found only in the Carn Menyn region of the Preseli Hills, in north Pembrokeshire, and it was from there, about 4,500 years ago, that Stonehenge's neolithic builders brought 80 of the stones the 160-mile journey from south-west Wales to Salisbury Plain. The reasons why they did so, archaeologists argue, hold the key to Stonehenge's existence.

A current and popular theory today is that the Preseli Hills were pocked with streams and pools that many believed to have healing properties. Hence its rocks would have been deemed particularly sacred. It's also possible that Stonehenge was originally built near a spring that has since changed course.

Researchers now also believe that Stonehenge may have been a popular destination among Romans as well as local tribes. Again from the Independent:

A classical legend associated with the Greek Oracle of Delphi may also be relevant to Stonehenge's past. The legend states that the oracle at Delphi functioned for only part of the year because, for three months around the winter solstice, the site's oracular deity (the sun god Apollo) went to the "land of the hyperboreans" (literally "the land of the people beyond the north wind!"), which is generally believed to be Britain. Significantly, Stonehenge is aligned with the winter as well as the summer solstice.
It's unlikely that carbon dating the bluestones will help solve this riddle, but it will give scientists a better sense of when the first rocks were placed at Stonehenge. And, quite possibly, closer study of the rocks will reveal something special about them that until now had remained hidden. Image by Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP .


The Secret of Stonehenge
[Independent]