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.  

STONEHENGE SARSEN RELAVANT LINKS:
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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29 10 2020

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