Stonehenge - another perspective

Posted on 07/11/08 by Olwen Williams-Thorpe

Open2net -- History / Arts Blog


Timewatch has always had an interest in new areas of research and in examining topics which inspire debate. Stonehenge in particular prompted lively comments on our Timewatch forum. Here Dr. Olwen Williams-Thorpe, an archaeological scientist, presents her own perspective on Darvill and Wainwright's theory as explored by the Timewatch Stonehenge programme.

The central theme of the program was the hypothesis that Stonehenge was a prehistoric ‘healing’ centre. The perceived power of the site, we were told, was due to the ‘bluestones’, which had been quarried in the Carn Menyn area of Preseli (South Wales), an outcrop chosen because of the special ‘healing’ springs found there.

Unfortunately, this simply does not fit the geological evidence.

My work includes extensive research into the bluestones at Stonehenge which started in 1987 when I and a small group of OU colleagues were granted the unique privilege of drilling some tiny samples from the bluestones for modern geochemical investigation. Since that time, I've carried out hundreds of analyses of bluestones from both Stonehenge and Preseli.

As a result it is clear to me that the bluestones actually come from all over South Wales. They are a rag-bag mix of many rock types; there are dolerites from Preseli, rhyolites from the north Pembrokeshire coast, sandstones from the Senni Beds many miles from Preseli.

Even those stones that do originate in Preseli are from at least three different outcrops – Carn Ddafad las, Carn Breseb, and either Carn Menyn or the geochemically similar Carn Goedog. It is by no means certain that any of them came from Carn Menyn itself.

The large ‘Altar Stone’, a key feature of the bluestone settings at Stonehenge, certainly does not come from anywhere near Preseli. Its petrographic characteristics mean that it cannot come from that area; it must be from far further east, perhaps the Brecon Beacons.

So one has to wonder, are there supposed to be magic springs at all these outcrops? Why, if Carn Menyn was the important one, did these ancient stone collectors take some monoliths from entirely separate outcrops? And how on earth does the Altar Stone, with its very different source, fit into the picture? It just does not stack up with the ‘special Carn Menyn area’ theory.

The program also made the total, unquestioning assumption that people transported the bluestones to Salisbury Plain. This remains a hotly debated subject, but there is another view on it. There is growing evidence that an ancient ice sheet moved the bluestones across Wales and into southern England as glacial erratics, to be found on or near to Salisbury Plain thousands of years later by the builders of Stonehenge. The widely dispersed and very diverse nature of the bluestone sources (more than a dozen sources, up to 100 km apart) suggests random transport by ice, not human selection at a carefully chosen quarry.

One might take issue with quite a few other aspects of the story we were told: the ‘bluestone’ dates, the skeletal evidence, the quite extraordinary claims about ‘Neolithic inscriptions’… with the geology, the facts are at variance with the ‘healing’ thesis.

Of course we must to try to understand the significance of Stonehenge. But the theorizing should be based on all the facts, not just a selection.


Further reading

Brian John. 2008. The Bluestone Enigma. Publication date 3rd November. Greencroft Books, Newport. ISBN 9780905559896.

Thorpe, R.S., Williams-Thorpe, O., Jenkins, G. and Watson, J.S., with contributions by R.A. Ixer and R.G. Thomas, 1991. The geological sources and transport of the bluestones of Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 57, 103-157.

Williams-Thorpe, O., Potts, P. J., Jones, M. C. and Webb, P. C. 2006. Preseli spotted dolerite bluestones: axe-heads, Stonehenge monoliths and outcrop sources. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 25, 29-64.

Ixer R. A. and Turner P., 2006. A detailed re-examination of the petrography of the Altar Stone and other non-sarsen sandstones from Stonehenge as a guide to their provenance. Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine, 99.


Olwen Williams-Thorpe

About the author

Olwen Williams-Thorpe is an archaeological scientist who specialises in provenancing ancient stone artefacts - working out what sort of rock they are made from, and where their quarry sources are. Olwen is currently a Visiting Senior Fellow of The Open University.

Review of "The Bluestone Enigma"

on The Modern Antiquarian discussion board


The pursuit of archaeology is crucial as it defines our cultural roots. To understand where we are going it is vital to understand where we've come from and the school of British archaeologists should keep those sources and our belief in them alive. Sadly this top-down world of authoritarian men can only accept change at a very slow rate and retains mythic states far longer than is actually prudent or polite. Such is the case in the study of the origins of Stonehenge. As a site it was probably sacred - if that is an adequate term - for thousands of years before a single stone was set upright and the first temple was probably of earth and wood. This book is about the boulders that created the earliest stone circle on the Stonehenge site and shows that, contrary to received belief, these 'bluestones' were actually gathered from several sources locally, rather than being laboriously transported from Wales. This commonsense approach is shunned by academic archaeologists as it undermines their 'heavy duty' paradigm and their consequent projects' approval and funding.

Dr John's book, The Bluestone Enigma, tells the story of the bluestones in a straightforward and easily read style, which is well illustrated by colour photographs and line drawings. His description of the pitfalls in an experiment to move a single three tonne stone from Preseli, in South Wales, to the vicinity of Stonehenge, should be required study material for every British prehistorian. It's not unlikely that the ancients also recognised the common geology in both the Salisbury Plain bluestones and the Welsh bedrock but provided a legend of them being moved by giants, or fairies, to explain the transport by glacial drift. It is simply the remnant of that myth that is repeated by many eminent professionals today. Brian John demonstrates quite persuasively in this book that the facts no longer support that crazy hypothesis. This book is for everyone that wants to be ahead of the game and in the know. It will be ignored by stuffy archaeologists but should initiate a process of reappraising British early history. I recommend that everyone with an interest in the British stone monuments obtain two copies of this book - one for themselves, and one for a colleague. Just leave the stuffy academics to their fairy stories for now!

from Stone Gloves

Aug 19th 2009


For the last hundred years the bluestones of Stonehenge have been the subject of heated debate.  Where did they come from, and how did they get there?  In this meticulously researched, but very readable, book Brian John looks at the various theories and argues that most are unscientific and sentimental.  Indeed, he takes to task some archaeologists who refuse to let facts get in the way of a good story.

The author asks the reader to consider, among other proposals, that the bluestones came from at least fifteen different localities in West and South Wales and elsewhere, and that there were no Neolithic "stone collecting expeditions."  The bluestones, he suggests, were already on or near Salisbury Plain at least a thousand years before the building of the first stone monument at Stonehenge and they were used simply because they were readily available.  He points out that the term "bluestone" covers rock with widely differing characteristics, including "rubbish stones" made of volcanic ash which would hardly have been selected by the builders for their magical or healing properties.  Nor were the "spotted dolerite" stones, considered sacred by many today, used preferentially in megalithic structures in either Wales or Wiltshire.

The proposal that the stones were transported by the Irish Sea Glacier during the Ice Age is convincingly argued in this book which will certainly fuel debate, and may shatter some fondly held illusions!

Morag Perrott

Walking Wales magazine, 2009 (2). p 72.