Other Sarsen Stones near Stonehenge and Woodhenge

5 02 2017

Sarsen boulders lie scattered in substantial “drifts” across the landscape of the Marlborough Downs near Avebury.

By contrast, close to Stonehenge there are almost none. This is one of the reasons why most archaeologists believe that the large sarsens for the monument were not locally sourced.

There are, however, a few examples of substantial sarsens dotted about Salisbury Plain within a couple of miles of Stonehenge. And there are tantalising hints that others used to exist.

The most obvious, and easily accessible, is the Cuckoo Stone. This stone is about 2m long by 1.5m wide by 1.5m thick and lies in the field immediately west of Woodhenge.

Cuckoo Stone

The Stonehenge Riverside Project excavated around the Cuckoo Stone in 2007 and discovered that the stone once had been set upright right next to the hollow in which it had originally formed.

Close by were two neolithic pits containing pottery worked flint, deer antlers and animal bones, dating to between 4000BC and 2000BC. A series of three burials were also found close by, dating to around 2000BC.

The stone remained a focus of activity right down to Romano-British times, and a small square wooden building – most likely a shrine – was built immediately to its southwest. Coins and pottery found in the ploughsoil date this to between 200AD and 400AD.

The other readily accessible sarsen is the Bulford Stone which lies in an arable field east of Bulford Village. It’s rather larger than the Cuckoo Stone at 2.8m long and again the excavation evidence shows that it too was once stood upright next to the hollow in which it formed.

It’s also closely associated with burials from the neolithic, the pottery found here dates to between 2300BC and 1900BC. The grave goods found were remarkable, including a flake of transparent rock crystal from either South Wales or the Alps and a “mini megalith” carved from a piece of limestone.

Bulford Stone.jpg

Lying in the northern ditch of a badly degraded long barrow within the Salisbury Plain military training area (and therefore not accessible to the public) are three more sarsen boulders.

They vary in size and – being half buried in the turf – are difficult to see, but the largest seems to be almost 2m long.

This long barrow was excavated by John Thurnam in 1864 who found an early neolithic burial on the original ground surface and an later Beaker burial just below the top of the mound.

Subsequent digging by the military in the early 20th century has almost obliterated the barrow but its outline can still be made out.

There is some debate about whether the sarsens lying in the ditch were originally part of the structure of the long barrow or if they were dragged there by farmers clearing fields at some later date. The stronger possibility is that they were part of the structure.

long-barrow-sarsens

John Britton in his “Beauties of Wiltshire (1801)” says:

“About two miles north of Amesbury, on the banks of the Avon, is Bulford. Near this village are two large stones of the same kind as those at Stonehenge. One of them is situated in the middle of the river, and, as I am informed, has an iron ring fixed in it; but the waters being very high I could not see it.”

Old OS maps of the area show where this stone in the river once lay, but sadly it has now been removed and its present location is unknown to this author (please get in touch if you have any information about or pictures of it):
location-of-sarsen-in-river-os
“…
an interment which was lately discovered above Durrington Walls, by a shepherd, who in pitching the fold, found his iron bar impeded in the ground : curiosity led him to explore the cause, which proved to be a large sarsen stone, covering the interment of a skeleton”

There are other references to large local sarsens from antiquarian reports – one is mentioned by Sir Richard Colt Hoare in the early 1800s:

… and another by the Rev. Allan Hutchins from about the same time:

“In a field, not far from the road which leads from the Amesbury Turnpike into Bulford, is a Barrow of chalk facing the parish and standing by itself… When I came nearly to the virgin earth in this Barrow, my progress was impeded by an immense oval sand stone, underneath which was a skeleton, a beautiful lance head, and a handsome drinking cup”

Perhaps there are still more to be found. Certainly it seems that sarsen boulders of “large” or even “immense” size are not unknown in this part of Wiltshire so maybe the idea that the sarsens of Stonehenge were brought from the Marlborough Downs shouldn’t be accepted at face value.

Here’s a view from Beacon Hill on the east side of Amesbury:

labelled-view-from-beacon-hill

… and here’s an overhead view from Google Earth:

locations-of-sarsens-around-stonehenge

Curiously the Cuckoo Stone, the Avon Sarsen and the Bulford Stone all lie precisely on a straight line, with the Avon Stone being 1500 yards from the Cuckoo Stone and 1450 yards from the Bulford Stone.

But that’s another story……….

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Article by guest blogger and local Stonehenge historian Simon Banton

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20 01 2017

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Why did the builders of Stonehenge choose Salisbury Plain?

23 10 2016

One of the most frequently asked questions about Stonehenge is “Why is it where it is?” and there are several possible explanations for this. They’re described below but it’s important to understand that combinations of these are also possible – there may not be just one single reason.

The location isn’t at all the obvious choice because it’s not at the top of the slope, which rises further towards the west. However, if you analyse the terrain you realise that it’s ideally positioned to give medium to long distance views to the northeast, southeast, southwest and northwest over a horizon that is relatively flat in profile.

In fact, the horizon is less than 1° in elevation in all directions.

Salisbury Plain

Archaeologists believe that there were only isolated stands of trees in the Salisbury Plain landscape at the time Stonehenge was built, far fewer than are evident today, so the far-reaching views that are hidden today by modern plantations wouldn’t have been obscured.

viewshed-and-horizon

In the Google Earth image the areas coloured red are directly visible from Stonehenge while the purple line shows the extent of the visible horizon (without trees in the way).

So why not build it further up the westerly slope and achieve even further-reaching views? To do so would be to lose some of the flatness of the horizon in key directions. As it is, Stonehenge appears to be in the centre of a bowl of visibility where the directions to the important astronomical events of summer and winter solstice sunrise and sunset are clear and level.

The second theory relates to the Station Stone Rectangle. Originally there were four Station Stones situated just inside the henge bank. Only two remain in place, the positions of the others (whose stoneholes have been detected) are known.

The short sides of this rectangle are parallel to the main alignment at Stonehenge – winter solstice sunset to summer solstice sunrise. In 1966, C.A. “Peter” Newham pointed out in an article in

station-stone-rectangle

Nature that the long sides of the rectangle are aligned on the extreme moonrise and moonset positions, in a cycle that takes 18.6 years to complete.

It’s a feature of the astronomical geometry that only at the latitude of Stonehenge (give or take 30 miles) that these solar and lunar alignments occur at right angles to each other. Further north or south than that limit and the Station Stone Rectangle would become a parallelogram.

The third possibility concerns the Heel Stone and the Avenue. The Heel Stone is an unshaped sarsen boulder weighing in at over 35 tons that is positioned to the northeast of Stonehenge at the top of the ceremonial approach way called the Avenue. It is traditionally associated with marking the position of sunrise on the summer solstice as seen from the centre of the circle.

During excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project in the mid-2000s, a series of features were discovered at the top of the Avenue which have been identified as “periglacial stripes”. These cracks and runnels in the underlying chalk where water has repeatedly frozen and thawed happen to run exactly along the main solstice alignment down the slope to the northeast beyond the Heel Stone.

periglacial

The SRP team suggest that these features would have been visible as parallel lines in the grass leading towards the Heel Stone. They go on to suggest that since the Heel Stone is unshaped, it may always have been lying in the landscape very close to where it has been set upright.

They conclude that a series of noticeable stripes in the grass leading up a slope towards a massive rock exactly in the direction of the winter solstice sunset may be the reason why this spot was regarded as a special place, worthy of memorialising.

Fourthly, there’s the theory that the combination of Bluestones from Wales with Sarsens from the more local area represents the symbolic political unification of two different groups of people at this spot on the borderland between their separate spheres of influence.

We do know that the area has been a focus of activity for more than 10,000 years going right back to the end of the last Ice Age in Britain, as shown by the recent discoveries at Blick Mead in Amesbury, and there are the massive Mesolithic post holes in the landscape only a couple of hundred metres northwest of Stonehenge.

Perhaps we’re looking at the continuation of a specialness that was handed down across the generations, with each successive group embellishing the stories and the monumentalisation a little for itself until finally we end up with a Visitor Centre that receives over a million people a year.

Ultimately though, the reasons for the choice of this location will remain one of the more puzzling Stonehenge mysteries.
Article by guest blogger and local Stonehenge historian Simon Banton

Salisbury Plain links:
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