THE BLUESTONE ENIGMA
THE MILLENNIUM STONE FIASCO
(How not to take a bluestone from Preseli to Stonehenge)
An extract from Chapter 3
In the year 2000 at least £100,000 was spent on the Millennium Stone Project in Pembrokeshire, in which it was planned to transport a single block of bluestone from near Mynachlogddu (the closest village to Carn Meini) to Stonehenge, using the techniques on land and over water that might have been familiar to Neolithic tribal groups. The organizers (a community development initiative called Menter Preseli) claimed that the objectives were to celebrate the millennium, to focus on community engagement and to raise the profile of Pembrokeshire. However, it was inevitable that the media, and Stonehenge watchers generally, saw it as a fascinating archaeological experiment.
In April 2000, project organizer Philip Bowen and geologist Sid Howells found a “perfect bluestone” lying conveniently in a farmer's field near Mynachlog-ddu, close to the road and some distance from its natural outcrop in the Preseli Hills. It was about the right size, and was long, slender and slightly bulbous at one end. Its estimated weight was 3 tonnes. The initial plan was to move the stone on wooden rollers --- but as the project relied on using volunteers that was vetoed for health and safety reasons. It was a London engineer, Nick Price, who came up with the idea of using a large wooden sled with ropes and two 20ft long poles to use as levers. The stone would be attached to the sled with heavy duty nylon rope, and the pullers would work in pairs, using wooden bars and connecting ropes. They would not pull, but push on the crossbars at chest height, always facing forward, with the sled sliding smoothly along behind. The levers would be used to help the stone. It was estimated that 25 pullers would be adequate for most of the time, but with more drafted in for steep hill-climbs. Following a trial, it was calculated that the stone could be dragged in this fashion for about three miles in a day. The plan was to reach the Eastern Cleddau River in a week or so, using around 30 volunteers. That was changed when it was realized that volunteers in sufficient quantity would only be available during weekends. So the pulling would be done for the most part on Saturdays and Sundays. The stone would be “parked up” and guarded during the other days of each working week. Nonetheless, the ambition was to cover the whole 240-mile journey (including the river and sea stretches) to Stonehenge in about six months, allowing for spells of bad weather and inactivity.
The plan, as it evolved, was based quite closely on the suggestions of Richard Atkinson many years earlier. There would be three segments to the bluestone journey. First, an overland pull of about 17 miles. Second, a down-river journey to Milford Haven and a coastal voyage (with stopping-off points in Carmarthen, Swansea and Cardiff) up the Bristol Channel and across to Avonmouth, near Bristol.
From there the huge stone was to be carried in a Third Stage, by barge along the River Avon and the Kennet and Avon canal before being dragged the final 26 miles to Stonehenge. On arrival it would be blessed by Druids at the autumn solstice in September.
Things started to go wrong almost immediately. At 4pm on the first day of pulling the organizers stopped and realised that the distance travelled had been only one mile. “Now that was a sobering moment,” said Philip Bowen. “The major problem was that the sled didn't move on the modern road surfaces, so we had to lay green plastic sheeting down first, which was a laborious process.” Later on a low-friction nylon net was found to be more effective, but almost all of the pulling route had to be on 17 miles of roads and public access lanes. There was no genuine cross-country transport at all. But there was gradual progress, and great cameraderie among the pullers. The stone was affectionally christened “Elvis Preseli.”
All of the volunteers had to be listed, checked in and out, and allocated pulling days. The insurers insisted that the pullers should not dress up in their Neolithic outfits, and that they should wear gloves when pulling and pushing. Moving the stone also meant that the organizers needed back-up facilities provided by the police, fire service, council workmen, St John's Ambulance staff, local transport companies, safety experts, divers and the armed forces. Then there were portaloos, quad bikes, lorries and catering supplies. That all cost money. A massive logistical exercise was made even more difficult by terrible weather conditions. Although things got tough and the project fell further and further behind schedule, the enthusiasm of most the pullers (myself included!) never faltered. But pulling was very hard work. Along with the volunteers from all over the UK, people turned up to help from Europe and even from Australia. A magician called Mystic Merlin, dressed in full regalia, was in attendance for most of the pull, and did more than his fair share of strenuous pulling. But some pullers did go missing after a few days of working in the rain, and as exhaustion set in. Philip and his team found it difficult to find the numbers needed to keep the act on the road.
Then something happened which caused real frustration and anger. When the team turned up for the day of the penultimate pull near the village of Llawhaden they found that a tribal marauding party had struck! Someone had managed to lift the stone off its sled, presumably using farm machinery. The sled itself had disappeared. The police were called, and the media loved the story. A search party was sent out, and fortunately, one of the volunteers found the sled in a nearby wood. A crane had to be hired to put the stone back on its Neolithic conyeyance. When things had calmed down, the pull continued, and at last the weary warriors reached Blackpool Mill, near the head of navigation on the Eastern Cleddau River, on 29th May 2000. The first stretch of the journey had taken more than a month to complete, with five weekends of pulling. The plan was that there should now be a rendezvous with two magnificent custom-built curraghs made by Ray Rees in Carmarthen. They would be roped together to form a sort of pontoon, and would be moved by ten experienced rowers, five on each side. Instead of mounting the stone on a platform well above the water-line (as in the 1954 Atkinson experiment) it was decided that there would be greater stability if the stone was slung beneath the water line, with the weight supported on beams across the decks of the two vessels.
At Blackpool Mill the stone (still on its sledge) was slid on rollers down into the water. That proved a very difficult task, even on a nicely sloping piece of river bank. The stone was tied up with heavy-duty webbing slings and had floats and buoys attached. The plan was that the curraghs would then come up on the tide, pick up the stone and transport it downstream to Milford Haven. However, it transpired that after heavy rain the tidal currant was too strong for the curraghs to be rowed up-river, even on a rising tide, so they had to be towed by an inflatable safety boat with a powerful outboard engine. At last they were manoevred into position near the shore, and after many failed attempts to pick up the stone, modern technology had to be called in again. A heavy lift crane was hired to lift the stone into deeper water where the curraghs could position themselves directly over it. Then the crane got bogged down and had to be pulled out by a JCB. With the tide now falling, the curraghs had to be tied up overnight. On the next high tide the merry gang of volunteers and safety experts resumed work, and finally (with the intervention of more modern technology) managed to lift the stone off the bottom of the river and sling it between and beneath the two curraghs. On the high tide, to the accompaniment of great cheers, the stone was moved to the centre of the river and carried down-river to Milford Haven on June 3rd.
Then another catastrophe occurred when the voyage from the sheltered waters of Milford Haven commenced, with the prospect of open sea ahead. The bluestone was strapped between the two boats in its sling and seemed perfectly secure. But in awful weather conditions, and with a BBC documentary team in attendance, the rowers found it increasingly difficult to make headway, and there were thoughts of reatreating back into the shelter of the waterway. Then, as the rowers encountered the swell coming in through the “heads” of the waterway a section of heavy nylon strapping snapped. The ill-fated stone slipped out of its sling and and came to rest on the sea bed, in the middle of a major shipping lane. There was more national media coverage, and sections of the media referred gleefully to “the bluestone jinx.”. Divers went down in 60 feet of water and eventually managed to locate the stone. Eleven days later a salvage team, all working for free, raised it to the surface with a floating crane. The stone was placed on the deck of a salvage vessel and returned to dry land in Milford Docks.
Worse was to follow. While the stone was still parked on the quayside ready for the journey out into the Celtic Sea and up the Bristol Channel, the organizers had to confront further problems. The “curragh pontoon and sling technique” was abandoned on the grounds that if it did not work in a slight swell inside Milford haven it would certainly not work in the open sea. A new barge was brought in, but it was found that the stone would not sit safely on its deck. Then the project insurers withdrew their backing and the project ground to a halt. In a welter of recrimination accusations were levelled at the local authority, the organizers and even the National Lottery Heritage Fund for a massive waste of £100,000. There were rumours that the real cost of the exercise was a great deal more than that, and that the Lottery was asking for its money back. In reality they never did pay more than £53,000, and the rest of the funds came (in various convoluted wats) from public funds via the County Council. There was nothing more that could be done. With the funding exhausted, Menter Preseli was wound up. Long-suffering organizer Philip Bowen moved on to other work, and the stone was stranded in its safety enclosure near Milford Docks for more than two years. At long last, in January 2003, the bluestone got a new home in the National Botanic Garden of Wales. There was no Neolithic pantomime this time. Off it went on its flat-bed truck. On arrival it was blessed by a druid, and it is still there to this day.
It would be uncharitable to call the Millennium Stone Project an unmitigated disaster, since it gave people a lot of fun and kept the media gainfully employed. Some people became very angry about the perceived waste of public money -- but there were other Millennium Projects that were much more futile and badly run. On balance, looking at things from a scientific standpoint, I think the money was well spent. Far from proving that the human transport theory was sound, the exercise proved to be far beyond the capacity of the organizers, even with the assistance of willing helpers, asphalted roads, and a vast array of modern machines and bits of technology. It led many people to the conclusion that the transport of one smallish 3-tonne bluestone monolith, let alone 80 or so, would have been incredibly difficult, if not impossible, around 5,000 years ago, no matter what romantic ideas some archaeologists might hold sacred.