Forest of the Sarsens: birthplace of Stonehenge

29 10 2020

An amazing archaeological survey confirms West Woods as ‘the most likely source area for the sarsens at Stonehenge’, a connection long anticipated by 16th Century antiquaries and more recent megalithic investigators.

West Woods, a handsome sweep of beech woods sweeping off of the Marlborough Downs, were originally part of the Royal Hunting Forest of Savernake, until the bounds were altered in 1330. It is bisected by the mysterious Wansdyke earthwork – a ditch which runs to the edge of Bristol and was possibly a demarcation of the southern extremity of the Danelaw. This runs the length of the woods – half hidden beneath the stately canopy of beech trees like Kipling’s ‘Way Through the Woods’. On the southern edge, near Clatford Farm, there stands a long barrow. Bronze Age microliths have been found, and the woods have long been a source of charcoal. These days it is popular with walkers, cyclists, and runners – with two trails: the Wansdyke Path and the White Horse Trail, wending their way through it.

          It was in the midst of the summer lockdown this year that a remarkable discovery occurred – one that had long been intuited (as early as the 16th Century by the antiquarian, William Lambarde) and investigated by modern antiquarians like Hugh Newman, Nicholas Cope and Andrew Collins, for it is common knowledge that the area north of West Woods – up Clatford Bottom to the Downs, is festooned with sarsens, or ‘grey wethers’ (as they were referred to locally, due to their resemblances to grazing sheep – especially on a misty day). The remarkable clustering of glacial erratic that line the dry valley below the Ridgeway, Julian Cope named the ‘Mother’s Jam’. To behold it is to see the workshop of Avebury – Stonehenge’s sister site. To wander amongst them is to wonder what vision inspired the stone circle builders to attempt to move and fashion them with such colossal skill and effort.

          From a sample of 20 potential sites ranging from Norfolk to Devon, the team (Nash, Ciborowski, Ullyott, Parker Pearson, Darvill, Greaney, Maniatis, Whitaker) discovered that the stones of West Woods matched most closely the core sample originally taken from Stonehenge in 1958 and lost until 2018. Five other sites covering the sarsen fields were also surveyed all the way up the ‘valley of the stones’ (as I call it), but at West Woods the team struck gold.

          During a recent visit to the woods – one after heavy rain – the extreme slipperiness of the soil was noted. This seems to be an especial quality of the chalk – as anyone who has walked the Ridgeway would know – and it is tempting to speculate that it lended itself to the transportation of the massive sarsens (some weighing up to 30 tonnes). Although a huge amount of man power would have been required to pull the sarsens along, once traction was achieved, the slipperiness of the chalk (kept wet if not by nature, then by much ‘donkey work’) would have done the rest. Sliding the sarsens along a smooth muddy channel – whether on a raft, rollers, or rushes – would be a lot easier than trying to move their dead-weight over rough ground. As with the theory of a hovertrain – do away with friction and you can go so much faster.

          One also needs to consider the hollow way that descends from West Woods, then over the Wansdyke past Knap Hill down into the Vale of Pewsey – and, pre-canal, days, all the way to Salisbury Plain… straight to Durrington, with its workers’ camp, where the sarsens were dressed before floating up the Avon to the Avenue. This is the most direct route still.

          A distance of 25 km as the crow flies is still considerable, but not impossible – and you don’t need Merlin’s magic to move the sarsens either!

          So, West Woods becomes part of the Stonehenge landscape and legendarium – and is worth a visit any time of the year, as a place of sylvan beauty and a special atmosphere all of its own. The stones would pre-date the existence of such a forest (although wildwood existed, it would have been more likely scrubby heathland, especially when humans started to settle down in the area, requiring timber for firewood, fencing, building materials, and wood-henges, like the one at the Sanctuary, near Avebury, and the other at Durrington), but something of the Neolithic mystery of the place has been absorbed by the beeches. In the Celtic ogham tree-alphabet, Phagos, relates to learning – and etymologically ‘beech’ and ‘book’ are connected. Beech bark was used as an early form of parchment. And so, in a way, a beech wood is a kind of library. Who knows what other secret knowledge it stores, awaiting the curious?

GUEST BLOGGER: Dr Kevan Manwaring is an author, lecturer, and specialist tour-guide. His books include The Long Woman (a novel which features Stonehenge and Avebury), Lost Islands, Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels, Desiring Dragons, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, and more. He is a keen walker and loves exploring the ancient landscape of Wiltshire, where he lives with his archaeologist partner.  

Origins of the sarsen megaliths at Stonehenge – SCIENCE ADVANCES
The Stonehenge sarsens — did they come from Overton Down / West Woods? On this evidence, probably they did. THE SARSEN
The Sarsens of the West Woods – STONEHENGE MONUMENT BLOG
Megalithic Specialist Tour Operator. STONEHENGE GUIDED TOURS
Stonehenge: The Sarsens Originated from West Woods, Wiltshire – SCIENTIFIC EUROPEAN
Archaeologists discover likely source of Stonehenge’s giant sarsen stones – THE GUARDIAN
Stonehenge: Mystery of where giant rocks came from SOLVED as scientists pinpoint exact Wiltshire wood – THE SUN
Visit Stonehenge, Durrington Walls, Woodhenge and West Woods with a private guided tour from Salisbury – THE STONEHENGE TRAVEL COMPANY

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Stonehenge Myths: Aliens

20 10 2020

One of the more out-of-this-world theories that coalesce around Stonehenge is that it was built by aliens, or is in some way connected with extra-terrestrial intelligence. 

Does this look like an alien ship? ‘Flying saucer’ UFO is captured hovering over Stonehenge, claim conspiracy theorists

Although easy for most of a critical persuasion to dismiss or even to scoff at as an example of the credulity of some people on a par with the Flat Earth Society, the association is worthy of discussion for the very fact it exists as one star in a whole constellation of theories which the world-famous site has attracted. The alien theory has arisen through a combination of factors:

  • The paucity of written records about the purpose of Stonehenge, originating as it did in 3 phases over a 1500 year period from 3100-1600 BCE in the Neolithic.
  • The association of monoliths and stone circles with extra-terrestrial life in popular culture (e.g. Captain Kirk and co. leaping through a supersized Men-an-Tol in the 1967 Star Trek episode, ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’;  the mysterious monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s film of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which turns out to be a galactic portal; the stone circle of ‘Milbury’ – filmed in and based on Stonehenge’s sister site of Avebury – in the 70s childrens’ classic TV serial, Children of the Stones, which turns out to be conduit for sinister alien intelligences from beyond a black hole).
  • The ‘ancient astronaut’ theory perpetuated by Eric Von Daniken in his 1968 cult classic book, Chariot of the Gods, and by ‘alternative history’ authors such as Graham Hancock since. In a nutshell, Von Daniken’s hypothesis is based upon misinterpretations of Mayan iconography, and selective ‘mysterious’ landmarks around the world (e.g. Nazca lines) in a classic example of confirmation bias.
The phenomenon of strange lights witnessed at Stonehenge and ancient sites

Augmenting this already potent stew we have also factor in the historical fact that Salisbury Plain has had over a century of early, experimental aviation – with some of the first test flights taking place (sometimes with catastrophic consequences, as the memorial to two tragically killed early airmen by the Stonehenge Visitor Centre attest). A squadron of the embryonic Royal Air Force, the Royal Flying Corps, was based close to Stonehenge – indeed so close, that at one point the pulling down of the iconic stones was proposed because they were considered a flying hazard to the low-flying, low-powered aircraft. Much of Salisbury Plain is owned by the Ministry of Defence. It is crisscrossed by a network of tank tracks, and sections of it are still occasionally closed off for firing practice. Not far from Stonehenge is Porton Down, home of a biological testing centre. The deserted village of Imber, evacuated by the MOD for use in preparation for D-Day, became an Urban Warfare Unit – access is allowed only once a year for a special service in the church, but the villagers were never allowed back. So it is not surprising that with covert military operations, ghost villages, and frequent reports of unexplained lights in the sky, that the area around Stonehenge is in effect a British ‘Area 51’.

‘UFO’ snapped hovering over Stonehenge being probed by alien investigators

 The phenomenon of strange lights witnessed at ancient sites – stone circles in particular – is well-documented by the likes of Paul Deveraux, who suggests that these ‘earthlights’ are a result of geomagnetic pressures which the stone monuments of the ancient were expressly designed to somehow channel. Anyone who has photographed such places only to find their shots populated by distinctive orbs would no doubt agree that there is something there. It is tempting to think that these lights may have at one time been the cause of cautionary folklore and folk tales about the so-called ‘little people’ commonly believed to be connected with such liminal places, and with a shift into the technological paradigm of the 20th Century, these were reframed as ‘little green men’ instead, especially after the Post-War advent of Atomic testing and explosion in UFO sightings in the heights of the Cold War paranoia. When one surveys the Stonehenge landscape and beholds ‘saucer’ barrows and enigmatic lines in the land (e.g. the 1.9 mile long Cursus) it is all too easy to get carried away. It is perhaps no coincidence that the heavy usage of psychedelics at Stonehenge, especially during the dozen years of the Stonehenge Free Festival, has helped sear into the consciousness of many a stoned pilgrim the possibility of an alien presence or even purpose behind the immemorial monument.  For these the sarsens became interstellar portals and like a lysergically-influenced astronaut, it would be easy to exclaim with some earnestness: ‘My God, it’s full of stars.’

Whatever the various factors which have led to the myth that ‘aliens built Stonehenge’, or that it is some kind of star gate, and however fanciful such notions might seem, we cannot rule out entirely the possibility the existence of extra-terrestrial life – for in an infinite universe all things are possible. To lockdown the numinous, the magical, and the mysterious with a reductive empiricism is missing the point of such sites – which were surely designed with some wish to instil awe and wonder into their beholders. Nothing that took 1500 years to build is going to be purely practical. It was an act of faith over several generations. And, as Shakespeare said: ‘They are more things in Heaven and Earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

GUEST BLOGGER: Dr Kevan Manwaring is an author, lecturer, and specialist tour-guide. His books include The Long Woman (a novel which features Stonehenge and Avebury), Lost Islands, Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels, Desiring Dragons, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, and more. He is a keen walker and loves exploring the ancient landscape of Wiltshire, where he lives with his archaeologist partner.  

*7 Ancient Sites Some People Think Were Built by Aliens – NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
*’UFO’ snapped hovering over Stonehenge being probed by alien investigators – THE EXPRESS
*Weird Wiltshire Day Trip. U.K Crop Circle Tours – STONEHENGE GUIDED TOURS
*Giant crop circle appears in field next to Stonehenge just before Summer Solstice – SOMERSET LIVE
*Black ‘flying saucer’ UFO is pictured hovering over Stonehenge – THE METRO
*Has UK’s biggest mass UFO sighting case finally been solved? – THE EXPRESS
*Ancient Aliens: The Purpose of Stonehenge – HISTORY.COM
*Stonehenge was ‘alien construction site’ or eerie ‘ancient burial ground’ – most bizarre conspiracy theories revealed – THE SUN
*UFO over Stonehenge? U.K. releases trove of X-files – CBS NEWS
The Mystery of Stonehenge, Ancient Petroglyphs and Crop Circles – ANCIENT ORIGINS

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Storyhenge: Legends and Folk-tales of Stonehenge.

15 10 2020

Stonehenge could be called ‘Storyhenge’, for this Neolithic monument – ancient, mysterious and yet world-famous and one of the most photographed landmarks on the planet – attracts stories like a magnet does iron filings. In the absence of written records left by the original builders a plethora of narratives have accreted around the striking circle of megaliths, which stand taciturn and proud on Salisbury like so many cousins of the Easter Island moai. Long after the original architects had become part of the landscape themselves – cremated remains cooling within grooven earthenware beakers buried in post-holes, or entombed in long barrows – and long after living memory and oral tradition had faded, the stories moved in, claiming the stones for their own, like the resident population of jackdaws who nest in the nook and crannies of the trilithons: each story raucously claiming attention above the rest – Listen to me! I’m the best! Believe in me!

By Blaeu, J (Atlas van Loon) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here are three of the finest plumage:

Our first story begins with a storyteller – that consummate fabulist of the Middle Ages, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who tells that the stones of Stonehenge were healing stones, which were taken from Africa to Ireland by kleptomaniac giants, who, perhaps realising their stash wasn’t the most convenient of treasures, decided to deposit them on the summit of Mount Killaraus. Aurelius Ambrosius, the 5th Century King of Britain, got wind of this hoard. Three thousand of his men had been slain in a calamitous battle, and buried at Salisbury – but he wished to raise a fitting memorial to their memory on the nearby plain, and so he tasked his resident magician, Merlin; Uther Pendragon (his dux bellorum and soon-to-be father of fate-mantled Arthur), and 15,000 men to go to wild Ireland and ‘relocate’ the hallowed stones. The Irish did not want to give up their treasure easily, and 7,000 of their men were slain in the process. Well, Merlin and Uther claimed possession of the stones – but how to move them back to Salisbury Plain? They tried every engineering trick they knew of, but in the end Merlin’s great magic came to the rescue. The magician raised his arms, uttered his cantrips, and the mighty stones danced in the air above the astonished Uther and their men. Laughing, Merlin transported the gambolling stones all the way to England, where he brought them to rest on Salisbury Plain in an impressive interlocking configuration. Thus Aurelius had his memorial for his men, and when he passed on, he was buried there too. Not to miss out, Uther bagged a spot as well. And there the sorcerous sarsens remain – give or take one or two – to this day, and for many years they were known as the Giant’s Dance after Merlin’s amazing feat.

In a second tale – less magic, more tragic – the invader King Hengist decided to hold a feast. Since invading the damp isle of Logres he had had very little peace – the troublesome natives were always grumbling (or rebelling) against this or that. And so he invited 420 of the Britons to a feast on Salisbury Plain. ‘It is time to make a truce – so let us eat and drink together and raise the meadhorn of peace and fellowship!’ So, the Britons gathered in a circle around the feast fire – which took the bite out of the wind — and partook of Hengist’s hospitality. He was not a niggardly host, and soon all were merry with mead and meat. Just as they were praising the Saxon king, Hengist gave the signal and his warriors slew all the Britons present! The blood of the guests stained the chalky soil dark. The wind howled across the empty plain. Hengist, apparently stricken with remorse, ordered a great monument to be raised in memory of his doomed guests. And so, in the Year 472 AD, Stonehenge was born out of blood and treachery!

“The Grand Conventional Festival of the Britons,” from The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands, by Samuel Meyrick and Charles Smith, 1814

Well! To cheer us all up after that, here is my third tale, which is far lighter in tone!

The Devil, or Old Scrat as he’s known in Wiltshire, went to Ireland, where he bought some unusual stones from an old, old woman. Wrapping them up carefully, like so many loaves, he carried them all the way back to England, to Salisbury Plain – only dropping one in the River Avon. Finding a suitable spot, he dumped them all in a big pile – some landing in interesting configurations. Twirling his splendid moustache, he declaimed: ‘No one will ever guess how these stones got here!’ Well, it just so happened at that precise moment a monk, or Friar rather, was walking by. Overhearing Old Scrat, the Friar called out: ‘That’s what you think!’ The Devil was so enraged he cast one of the large grey stones at the holy man – it struck the Friar on the Heel, and then stuck in the ground – where it remains to this day, an outlier of the stone circle of Stonehenge, known as the ‘Hele Stone’ (although clearly it should be ‘Heel Stone’ but they couldn’t spell back then!). And that is the God’s honest truth!

Written by Guest Blogger: Dr Kevan Manwaring
Dr Kevan Manwaring is an author, lecturer, and specialist tour-guide. His books include The Long Woman (a novel which features Stonehenge and Avebury), Lost Islands, Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels, Desiring Dragons, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, and more. He is a keen walker and loves exploring the ancient landscape of Wiltshire, where he lives with his archaeologist partner.

While these legends are most likely far from the truth, they are an entertaining supplement to academic theories about Stonehenge. Many historical monuments are accompanied by folktales about their origin and purpose, and Stonehenge is no different. These myths are part of the mystique and appeal surrounding great monuments.

Relevant Stonehenge Links:
Where so Myths, Legends and Folktales come from? ENGLISH HERITAGE
Myths and Legends of Stonehenge. ANTHROPLOGY WEBSITE
Solving the Riddle of Stonehenge’s Construction. HISTORY.COM
Megalithic Specialist Tour Operator. STONEHENGE GUIDED TOURS
Stone Monument Legends. Univerity of Pittsburgh

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