A procession of Druids marches across pastoral Neolithic moors chanting animistic dirges, as an army of woad-painted warriors pushes a grey boulder uphill. Creeping incrementally on sturdy oaken logs, their charge – a massive bluestone boulder – inches toward Salisbury Plain nearly 200 kilometers away. Brawny Picts with straining thews heft each log as it rolls behind the block, then carry it around front and drop the log across the stone’s path. A train of logs roll beneath as the stone is pulled forward, forming a moving conveyor. One hundred men pull the stone by twisted leathern straps, heaving and straining to the foreman’s shouted commands. The stone is painted with blue whorls and totemic sigils to ward off evil. Women from nearby villages bring tribute to the holy laborers, touching the mystic ley stone as they pass by. The stone will end its mighty journey at Stonehenge, upon the Hill of the High King, within a ring of barrows where honored rulers sleep through the ages.
That is the woo version of Stonehenge, and probably the one most familiar to the majority of people. In reality the Druids had nothing to do with either the construction or the original use of Stonehenge, nor did the Picts (if the Picts even existed)… they postdate the ancient monument by millennia. Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age Britons built the famous ring of stones, and did so in several stages of reconstruction and modified design across several centuries, roughly around the time the Pyramids were being assembled in Egypt… about 4,500 years ago.
Stonehenge is made up of two major types of rock; gigantic shaped blocks of local sandstone called sarsen stones, and smaller but denser blocks of volcanic bluestone that appear to hail from over 200 km away in present-day Wales. The most widespread view of Stonehenge’s construction imagines that the bluestones were carried from Wales to their present location by teams of dedicated and highly organized Britons, most likely by rolling the stones on logs. Each stone would have required a prodigious outlay of human effort. Hundreds of people, working at task for months at a time, crossing hill and dale and various tribal territories, would have been necessary for each bluestone to become part of Stonehenge. Today there are 43 bluestones forming a lesser ring around the inner sarsen ring at Stonehenge, but originally there were probably more. Why did the ancient Britons go to such effort, when plenty of local sandstone was available to complete the edifice? Are the bluestones magical? Do they veritably fizz with concealed ley energy? Are they a laborious form of tribute from some client king in ancient Wales?
Or are they none of the above? An alternate view – one often overlooked in the search for “ancient mysteries” – is that the bluestones were brought to Salisbury Plain by more elemental forces…. by glaciers. In the latest issue of Earth magazine Brian S. John and Lionel E. Jackson Jr. discuss a long standing debate between archaeologists and geologists about the bluestones’ origins. Archaeologists have long held to the human-transport view, while a minority chorus of geologists have pointed to evidence from the landscape of glacial coverage in southern Britain. Glaciers carry rocks as the grind across the land, and when glaciers melt they simply drop their rocky burdens on the spot. In New England and the Great Lakes states it is common to find glacial erratics, or boulders of rock types found nowhere near their current position. One can find a granite boulder sitting on limestone, say, where the closest granite is three hundred miles away. Ice gouged out that granite block, then carried it along until a warming climate melted the ice away. Why couldn’t the bluestones of Stonehenge simply be glacial erratics that were found nearby, where they were dumped by glaciers in the dim past?
Many geologists argue just that. New evidence from the Canadian Rockies lends new support to this model. By examining erratics in relation to their source locations in Canada, geologists have found that channeling of glacial grind-paths by regional topography can create a trail of bread crumbs – or rather, rock crumbs – taking lots of individual stones from a particular location. A similar process may have operated in southern England during the last major glaciation event there, about 400,000 years ago, when ice grinding down from southern Wales could have easily deposited a bunch of bluestone bits all over the Salisbury area. All locals needed to do was find the stones, be impressed that they looked cool, and spent only a few days or weeks – instead of months or years – moving the dense volcanic rocks into place at Stonehenge proper. Not an easy feat, but quite easy in comparison to the laborious alternative.
Does this take away any of the real mystery of Stonehenge. Not a bit. Exactly who among the Briton peoples of the Late Neolithic actually built the thing is still up in the air, as is exactly why they went to all the effort, and why they kept rebuilding the bloody place for 700 years. Was it religious – a site of potent animistic power – or was it simply a political capitol, an impressive statement of influence focused on an ancient Briton kingdom? Its builders didn’t have written language, so perhaps we’ll never know. Those are real mysteries, and are interesting enough without adding woo – or non-magical but unnecessarily complex hypotheses – to the mix.