Stonehenge dewooified

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.


~ by Planetologist on January 3, 2009.

9 Responses to “Stonehenge dewooified”

  1. Quote: “No, the unfortunate glacial theory comes from someone who is unwilling to accept that neolithic people were not ‘howling savages and barbarians’ but highly motivated and intelligent people – just like us … except for their economic principles”.
    Alex — I never said they were howling savages. The more intelligent they were, the more likely they were to use stones collected up from the vicinity or from a train to the west that could easily be followed. To do otherwise would have been plain stupid. neolithic people were scavengers and opportunists, as well as being smart. And the Ferriby Boat? Far too late — the bluestones were on Salisbury Plain 5.500 years ago, as we know from the Boles barrow bluestone boulder. And the bluestones have come from at least 20 different locations. They have to be a glacial assemblage. Finally, you are wrong, Alex, in assuming that there has to be a scatter of erratics all over the place as a sign of glaciation. I have been to many areas that have been heavily glaciated where there are no erratics at all. Forget about the long-distance human transport idea — either by land or sea. Fantasy from top to bottom — and not a shred of evidence in favour of it. Find me some evidence and I might believe it.

    • I don’t know enough to form an opinion on this, per se… The Ferriby boats date to around the same period, roughly, according to the National Trust website (or whatever it was)…. and those boats surely didn’t appear without precursors. Earlier boats might also have been capable of the task, for all I know. If boats could have hauled the tonnage, people at the time would have most likely weighed their options and picked the best available method. If boats weren’t a viable option, we’re left with overland travel versus picking up nearby erratics. Knowing that people have lived there and used the local rocks for over six millennia, I’m actually not surprised any original erratics are now gone. So… that leaves two likely options, boat delivery or exploitation of local resources, with distant overland travel still the inferior and most laborious of the three options.

      In the end, until some truly unequivocal evidence comes forward it’s probably not possible to plant the flag on either scenario… another instance of accepting ambiguity, at least for now. But that’s okay, it means there’s still more to discover.

  2. The overland transport theory has had equal weight with rafting, but the Ferriby boats of only a few hundred years later, and the result of a very long tradition, are far more capable than rafts. Take a look at the very good website ( and marvel at what our ancestors were capable of. Any social groups that could build Stonehenge were capable of amazing feats, and were probably far too intelligent to transport heavy, unwieldy stones over hundreds of kilometers overland.

    And it would have been hundreds of kilometers, because there are no clues in the landscape supporting glacial erratics. If they’d existed, they’d have been dropped on Salisbury Plain, to the west of Stonehenge, according to the theory, but the Plain is a mini-desert – no fields (and certainly no field walls) and no houses made from recycled erratics. (I live close by.) The economics of breaking and moving the stones would make little sense in historical times. The nearest stone walling in Britain is at least 150 kilometers away, and is built from stones cleared from the enclosed ground.

    No, the unfortunate glacial theory comes from someone who is unwilling to accept that neolithic people were not ‘howling savages and barbarians’ but highly motivated and intelligent people – just like us … except for their economic principles. We must attribute to them the same sort of motives and inspiration as the people who built the magnificent medieval cathedrals: quite uneconomic, but driven by deeply spiritual feelings. But perhaps sentiments like that have no place in an atheist’s blog?

    • Well said and well argued. I was completely unaware that boats of such relative sophistication were being built in Britain in the Early Bronze Age. The Ferriby boat design is pretty advanced and must have served as a reliable trading vessel, based on the appearance of mainland European goods in Britain around those times and the physical capacity of the Ferriby design to carry several tons of cargo, according to the information at The Ferriby boats could apparently carry up to ~4.5 tons safely… and the bluestones of Stonehenge are around 2 to 4 tons each. That all seems pretty plausible.

      I can imagine how availability of that kind of boat technology would have made shuttling rocks for the Stonehenge project feasible. Boats that can carry tons of bronze, amber, furs, whatever, could also carry a rock… an observation that wouldn’t have been lost on clever folk advising the king of the Stonehenge tribe. Clearly the Stonehenge people had ambition and power. If Ferriby boats were generally used at that time, it actually becomes something of a problem to consider an overland journey at all… given both options, I imagine most people (then or now) would prefer a fast coastal shipping route to committing a sizable chunk of their tribal labor force to dozens of year-long, backbreaking, labor-intensive treks on foot across the countryside.

      I’m really impressed by those boats. That’s very cool. Thank you!

  3. If you’re going to dewooify things, it’s as well to get your facts right: sarsen stone isn’t limestone, it’s an extremely hard sandstone. Brian John’s glacial transport views have been discussed elsewhere at length, but it’s an extremely thin argument for a variety of reasons, including statistical and archaeological. My personal view is that they were transported almost all the way on water, round the coast using earlier equivalents of the highly capable Ferriby boats (dated to the early Bronze Age, with a payload of 4.5 tons, greater than the weight of the bluestones) and then rafted up the river Avon. No woo involved, and a lot easier than searching in dense forest for glacial boulders scattered over hundreds of square miles and helf-buried after hundreds of thousands of years. And then transporting them through the forest for tens of miles at least. If the glacial theory was right, there should be evidence of other erratics that were unsuitable – either too big, too small or of poor quality. And as far as is known, there is no such evidence. It’s hardly likely that the glaciers moved just the right quantity of the right sized stones and left them conveniently lying around.

    • Right you are… and I knew damn well they were sandstone, too. Oh well… must have had limestone on the brain that day. I can’t think about that part of the world without thinking of Bath limestone, apparently. Corrections made.

      Anyway… I’m no Stonehenge expert, nor an archaeologist, so I can’t argue very far either way on the historical details surrounding the place. But from what I’ve read there doesn’t appear to be any real evidence for cross-country overland transport by people… it was just an idea one guy came up with, which got stuck in everyone’s minds. But I’d probably buy overland transport before I accepted boat travel. Maybe it’s easier to move giant rocks by raft than it seems at first blush, but if not then a water transport model would require even greater engineering skills than would overland transport… and is there any evidence of Neolithic giant-boat building, otherwise?

      As for searching for scattered, half-buried boulders… the Neolithics would have been the first people in that part of the world to use big rocks, so obviously they would have gotten first crack at the best pieces lying about. No one had yet built those lovely rustic rock walls bordering every field in sight today. I suspect that’s exactly where all the other erratics went… into peoples’ field borders. It’s thought – from what I’ve read on plaques at surviving sites – that a lot of ancient burial tumuli and chambered cairns in Britain were dismantled totally over the centuries by people needing rock for nearby field walls. It seems likely that any useful erratics left sitting out and unused by the Neolithics would have been fair game for any of the generations of farmers who’ve lived around there over the past four millennia.

  4. Ha! this is what im saying, for real, what do they think was happening for a thousand years? the human mind just went blank on what to do next? it just goes to show that it probably was finished the first time with wooden posts then wiped out by nature later like you say glaciers coming through leaving the rocks they rebuild with what they now have being stronger and better heck maybe another glacier came by taking part of it away thats why they think its incomplete or another form of nature like a tornato whatever you get the picture the question here is did we evolve or were we created? oooppps different topic! no for real what was really going on for a thousand years that everything supposedely just sat there? wasnt somebody with a mind currious? the only true mystery to me is the way my mind works, everything else can and should be proven! angie rae

    • Well, the glaciers didn’t wipe out an earlier Stonehenge structure… the last major glacial event in southern Britain was about 400,000 years ago, which was long before the islands were colonized by modern humans. But 400,000 is fairly recent on a geologic time scale, so plenty of erratics should have been laying about and still apparent at the surface from the last glaciation. When people started building big around there, the local erratics would have been obvious and relatively easy sources of building material.

  5. And now the for the design….

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