Origins of Sarsen Stones at Stonehenge Solved

Clay Curtis
July 31, 2020

The origins of Stonehenge's huge "sarsen" stones have been revealed.

Marlborough Downs has always been presumed to be the site where the stones were taken from, but that has never been rigorously tested according to a study by a team of researchers published in the journal Science Advances.

Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, England, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it dates back to the Neolithic period, around 2500 BC. "It's been actually thrilling to make use of 21st-century science to know the Neolithic previous and resolution a query that archaeologists had been debating for hundreds of years". Preseli Hills in Wales, some 150 miles away, are where the other smaller "bluestones" forming its inner circle are thought to have originated. But the source of the massive blocks known as sarsens was still unknown.

"Our results further help to constrain the most likely route along which the sarsens were transported to Stonehenge", said the study. The sarsens are up to 30 feet tall and can weigh as much as 25 tons. Nash stated that, "Given the size of the stones, they must have either been dragged or moved on rollers to Stonehenge".

However, Marlborough simply was the best match across England for the stone that was tested.

Tests carried out on the core of stones, which were extracted during fix work in the 1950s, indicate the 20-tonne sarsens came from West Woods, near Malborough.

Dr Jake Ciborowski analysing a sarsen lintel stone using a portable x ray fluorescence spectrometer.

All of this changed a year ago, when a missing piece of the stones was returned. It had been removed from a megalith, known as number 58 along, by a firm who were repairing damaged monuments with metal ties in the 1950s.

A missing piece of Stonehenge returned after 60 years helped unlock secrets of the stones.

"Until recently we did not know it was possible to provenance a stone like sarsen", said David Nash, the study's lead author, in a statement.

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The core was cut up and sampled for its chemical composition, and compared with samples of sarsen boulders in 20 areas stretching from Devon to Norfolk, including six in the Marlborough Downs to the north of Stonehenge.

On Wednesday, researchers announced a breakthrough discovery that placed the sarsen stones' likely origin in West Woods - a woodland area just 15 miles away from Stonehenge, close to the town of Marlborough.

An open question remains about the two stones not sourced from West Woods, the origin of which could not be determined.

Now experts are convinced this is where the majority of the stones originated. But the builders wanted the sarsens to be as big as possible and it "made sense" to get them nearby, said English Heritage's Susan Greaney.

A large sarsen stone at West Woods, the probable source of most of the sarsens used to construct Stonehenge.

There is also the lingering question as to why the Neolithic people chose certain stones from certain areas (some of which were quite far away) to make Stonehenge.

Bluebells blooming in West Woods, England, in April 2011.

She added that the return of the core from Florida was crucial, as it allowed the researchers to undertake a "small amount of destructive sampling".

"MYSTERY SOLVED!" tweeted English Heritage, which looks after the site and contributed to the study. That fingerprint matched sandstone still at West Woods and all but two of the Stonehenge sarsens.

"So it must have been an enormous endeavor going on at that time", said Nash. This suggests they have two separate origins.

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