Origin of Stonehenge's famous 'sarsen' stones revealed

·3 min read
A picture shows the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, in central southern England, on July 12, 2012. The site of Stonehenge is situated on Salisbury plain in an area of dense prehistoric activity dating back as early as 8,000 BC. The large sarsen stones for which the site is famous were erected during the Bronze Age between 2600 and 2400 BC within and amid earlier earthworks, postholes and smaller stones. in 1986 the site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it remains the most wellknown prehistoric monument in Britain. AFP PHOTO / ANDREW COWIE        (Photo credit should read ANDREW COWIE/AFP via Getty Images)
The prehistoric monument of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. (Getty)

The origins of Stonehenge’s huge “sarsen” stones have been revealed.

Tests done on the core of one of the stones, which was drilled during repair work at the Neolithic site in the 1950s, indicates the 20-tonne, seven-metre high megaliths were brought from West Woods, near Marlborough, Wiltshire.

The core was removed by a Basingstoke diamond-cutting business as part of measures to use metal rods to reinforce one of the upright stones in 1958.

Company employee Robert Phillips kept it in pride of place in his office.

He later took it with him when he emigrated to the US and its existence remained largely unknown for six decades until he expressed a wish for it to be returned on the eve of his 90th birthday.

His sons brought it over and presented it in 2018 to English Heritage, which cares for the World Heritage site in Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire.

Stonehenge. View from north towards sarsen circle bluestones and one trilithon. (Photo by Arcaid/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
View from north towards sarsen circle bluestones and one trilithon (Picture: Getty)

It has helped solve the question of where the enormous stones of the world-famous monument are from.

Research has shown the monument’s smaller bluestones come from specific spots in the Preseli Hills in Wales, but where the ancient people who constructed Stonehenge quarried the sarsens from was unknown.

It has long been assumed they came from Marlborough Downs, but that has never been rigorously tested, according to a study by a team of researchers published in the journal Science Advances.

The team used a non-destructive X-ray technique to assess the make-up of all the remaining sarsen upright and lintel stones, which established that 50 of the 52 remaining megaliths shared consistent chemistry.

This led them to conclude they were sourced from a common area.

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.

The sun rises through the stones at Stonehenge as crowds of people gather to celebrate the dawn of the longest day in the UK, in Wiltshire, England, Thursday June 21, 2018. The neolithic Wiltshire monument is built along the solstice alignment of the summer sunrise and the winter sunset. (Ben Birchall/PA via AP)
Crowds of people gather at Stonehenge to celebrate the dawn of the longest day in the UK in 2018. (Getty)

The analysis concludes that stone 58 – which the core was taken from – and therefore the majority of the sarsens were mostly likely from West Woods, around 15 miles north of the stone circle on the edge of the downs.

The experts said archaeological investigations and further detailed sampling of sarsens from West Woods and the surrounding areas are needed to more closely pinpoint the stone’s source and identify the prehistoric quarries.

English Heritage senior properties historian Susan Greaney and one of the authors of the paper said it was a “real thrill” to track down the area that the builders of Stonehenge sourced their materials in 2500 BC.

Professor David Nash, from the University of Brighton, who led the research, added: “It has been really exciting to harness 21st-century science to understand the Neolithic past, and finally answer a question that archaeologists have been debating for centuries.”

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