29 September 2008
Dig pinpoints Stonehenge origins
Archaeologists have discovered Stonehenge's birthdate, solving one of the historic site's longstanding mysteries. The monument's original stones were erected in about 2300 BCE, it has been discovered - 300 years later than had previously been thought. The finding came in an ambitious project, involving the first dig inside the historic stone circle for 44 years.
A trench was excavated in March as part of a bid to establish the precise dating of the Double Bluestone Circle, the first stone structure built there thousands of years ago. The hole, which measured 3.5 metres wide and 1.5 metres deep, was dug by hand in a previously excavated area on the south-eastern quadrant of the Double Stone Circle. Professors Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, the project leaders, are set to disclose other early findings. Prof Darvill, of Bournemouth University, and Prof Wainwright, President of the Society of Antiquaries, compared samples from the dig with research in the Preseli hills in south west Wales, from where 80 such stones were carried an estimated 4,500 years ago. The dig unearthed about 100 pieces of organic material from the original bluestone sockets, now buried under the monument. Of these, 14 were selected to be sent for modern carbon dating, at Oxford University.
Discovering the site's birthdate was described as a 'dream come true' by Prof Wainwright. "It's an incredible feeling," he added. Before the project it was believed the first stone circle dated from between 2600 BCE and 2400 BCE. The new testing has rounded this down to between 2400 BCE and 2200 BCE - and a more precise date is expected by the end of the project. "We told the world we were going to date Stonehenge. That was a risk, but I was always confident," said Prof Darvill.
Intriguingly, the date range ties in closely with the date for the burial of the so-called "Amesbury Archer", whose tomb was discovered three miles from Stonehenge. Some archaeologists believe the Archer is the key to understanding why Stonehenge was built. Analyses of his corpse and artefacts from his grave indicate he was a wealthy and powerful man, with knowledge of metal working, who had travelled to Salisbury from Alpine Europe, for reasons unknown. Post mortem examinations show that he suffered from both a serious knee injury and a potentially fatal dental problem, leading Darvill and Wainwright to conclude that the Archer came to Stonehenge to be healed. But without an accurate date for Stonehenge, it was not even clear whether the temple existed while the Archer was alive. His remains have been dated between 2500 BCE and 2300 BCE - within the same period that the first stone circle was erected.
"It's quite extraordinary that the date of the Amesbury Archer is identical with our new date for the bluestones of Stonehenge," said Professor Darvill. "These two things happening within living memory of each other for sure is something very, very important." Professor Wainwright added: "Was the Amesbury Archer, as some have suggested, the person responsible for the building of Stonehenge? I think the answer to that is almost certainly 'no'. But did he travel there to be healed? Did he limp, or was he carried, all the way from Switzerland to Wiltshire, because he had heard of the miraculous healing properties of Stonehenge? 'Yes, absolutely'. Tim and I are quite convinced that people went to Stonehenge to get well. But Stonehenge probably had more than one purpose, so I have no problem with other people's interpretations."
Among other key finds, the team uncovered organic material that indicates people inhabited the Stonehenge site as long ago as 7200 BCE - more than 3,500 years earlier than anything previously known. They also found that bluestone chippings outnumbered sarsen stone chippings by three to one - which Wainwright takes to be a sign of their value. "It could be that people were flaking off pieces of bluestone, in order to create little bits to take away... as lucky amulets," he said.
Dr Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage - which maintains Stonehenge - described the recent dig as 'tremendously exciting'. He said: "The bluestones hold the key to understanding the purpose and meaning of Stonehenge. Their arrival marked a turning point in the history of Stonehenge, changing the site from being a fairly standard formative henge with timber structures and occasional use for burial, to the complex stone structure whose remains dominate the site today."
Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick, of Wessex Archaeology, said: "This is a great result - a very important one. The date of Stonehenge had been blowing in the wind. But this anchors it. It helps us to be secure about the chronology of events." The last time an excavation was allowed inside the sarsen stone pillars was in 1964. A documentary following the progress of the recent dig has been recorded by the BBC Timewatch series.
Sources: BBC News (21 September 2008), 24Dash.com (22 September 2008), Telegraph.co.uk (23 September 2008)