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

The Stonehenge News Blog
Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for all the latest Stonehenge News
http://www.Stonehenge.News





Walking the Dead: Exploring the Stonehenge Ceremonial Landscape

20 02 2016

A guided tour of the amazing collections of the Wiltshire Museum, followed by a guided walk from Durrington Walls to Stonehenge. This full day tour will be led by Museum Director, David Dawson.

10:30 am, Saturday, 21st May, 2016

walking-deadThe morning visit to the Museum starts at 10.30am and the walk begins at 2pm. We should reach the Stonehenge Visitor Centre at about 5.30pm.

The day begins with coffee and a guided tour of the Wiltshire Museum. The early story of Wiltshire is told in new galleries featuring high quality graphics and leading-edge reconstructions. On display are dozens of spectacular treasures dating to the time of Stonehenge and worn by people who worshiped inside the stone circle.

The tour is followed by a light lunch,

The walk will take approximately 3.5 hours, and starts at Durrington Walls and Woodhenge, close to the River Avon. The route passes the Cuckoo Stone, a megalithic standing stone, before following the Apple Track – a WW1 light railway. The route then passes the prehistoric Cursus, before passing the Bronze Age barrows of Kings Barrow ridge.

The route then follows the Avenue – the Neolithic ceremonial route that leads to Stonehenge following the line of the solstice.

At Stonehenge, you have three options:

1. Visit Stonehenge. This is free for English Heritage and National Trust members, but is not included in the cost. If you are not a member, then you should book your visit online from the English Heritage and you should choose a timed ticket for about 4.30 pm. You can then take the English Heritage shuttle bus to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre.
2. Continue to the Cursus barrows and the Western end of the cursus, before continuing to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre.
3. Take the English Heritage shuttle bus to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre and purchase a well-earned snack and cup of tea.

At about 5.30pm, at the end of the walk, there will be car-share transport back to your car at the start of the walk, or back to the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.

Cost: £35 (WANHS member), £40 (non-member)

Booking: Visit Wiltshire Museum Website

The Stonehenge News Blog

Essential.
Please note that the cost does not include entrance to Stonehenge.





Moving on from Stonehenge: Researchers make the case for archaeoastronomy

16 08 2014

The field of archaeoastronomy is evolving say researchers seeking a closer relationship between astronomy and merging of astronomical techniques and archaeology.

Summer Solstice Sunrise over Stonehenge 2005. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Summer Solstice Sunrise over Stonehenge 2005. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The merging of astronomical techniques with the archaeological study of ancient man-made features in the landscape could prove Neolithic and Bronze Age people were acute astronomical observers, according to researchers. 

Dubbed archaeoastronomy, the developing and sometimes maligned field takes a multi-disciplinary approach to exploring a range of theories about the astronomical alignment of standing stones and megalithic structures.

Some of these theories were highlighted recently at the 2014 National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth.

Archaeoastronomy expert Dr Fabio Silva of University College London has been studying 6000-year-old winter occupation sites and megalithic structures in the Mondego valley in central Portugal.

He said recent research shows that all the entrance corridors of passage graves in a necropolis in the valley aligned “with the seasonal rising over nearby mountains of the star Aldebaran, the brightest star of Taurus”.

Dr Silva believes this link between the appearance of the star in springtime and the mountains where the dolmen builders would have spent their summers “has echoes in local folklore” which recounts how the Serra da Estrela or ‘Mountain Range of the Star’ received its name from a shepherd and his dog following a star.

Some of the most debated claims about archeological alignment continue to be those relating to Stonehenge, which remains subject to a range of theories about solar and lunar alignments. Some archaeoastronomers are however keen to move the debate beyond the famous standing stones of Salisbury Plain.

Dr Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University, who presented updates on his work on the 4000-year-old Gardom’s Edge in the UK’s Peak District, which he believes to be astronomically aligned, said: “there’s more to archaeoastronomy than Stonehenge.

“Modern archaeoastronomy encompasses many other research areas such as anthropology, ethnoastronomy and even educational research.”

“It has stepped away from its speculative beginnings and placed itself solidly onto the foundation of statistical methods,” he added.

“However, this pure scientific approach has its own challenges that need to be overcome by embracing humanistic influences and putting the research into context with local cultures and landscape.”

Dr Silva, who is co-editor of the Journal for Skyscape Archaeology, which promotes the role and importance of the sky in archaeological interpretation, added: “We have much to gain if the fields of astronomy and archaeology come together to a fuller and more balanced understanding of European megaliths and the societies that built them.”

Article source: http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/archaeology/art495449 (By Richard Moss)

Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge News Blog

 








%d bloggers like this: