Stonehenge, despite being one of the most famous ancient monuments in the world, still holds many secrets, and its origins remain in many ways a mystery to us. The oldest recorded story about the creation of Stonehenge dates from the 12th century ACE – less than 1000 years before our time, but still some 4000 years after the raising of the stones – so can hardly be considered a reliable source.
But new research suggests there may be a hint of truth to the account.
In the History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth says that Stonehenge was a second-hand megalithic site: that it was built using stones from the Giants’ Dance stone circle in Ireland, which Merlin had dismantled and moved to its current location at Amesbury. While the story is mythical, the 20th century discovery that the bluestones of Stonehenge originated in the Preseli Hills of West Wales – which was Irish territory at the time of the origin story – has led some to speculate that there may be a kernel of truth behind the fantastical flourishes of the tale.
Now, in an article in the respected journal Antiquity (“The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales“), a team of archaeologists have reported the finding of a dismantled stone circle close to Stonehenge’s bluestone quarries in Wales, that is the same diameter as the enclosing ditch of Stonehenge (110m), shares the same solstice alignment, and was built shortly before the more famous stone circle.
It’s worth noting, however, that contra to a number of media reports currently circulating about the find, the researchers are not saying that Stonehenge is simply this one circle at Waun Mawn, shifted wholesale. Instead, they believe it could be that Stonehenge – and nearby Bluestonehenge – were created as amalgamations of stones taken from a number of sites:
While we believe a strong case can be made for Waun Mawn as the origin of at least part of Stonehenge, it is unlikely that the former circle ever contained as many as 56 standing stones—the number indicated by the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge. An estimated 80 bluestones are thought to have been brought to Salisbury Plain, the 56 in the Aubrey Holes and around 25 in the nearby circle of Bluestonehenge. During Stonehenge’s stage two (beginning in 2740–2505 cal BC), a double arc of stoneholes (the Q & R holes) held an unknown number of bluestones. In stage three (beginning in 2400–2220 cal BC), the bluestones are thought to have been rearranged into an inner and outer circle using all the extant bluestones as well as those from Bluestonehenge.
The geology of the Waun Mawn stones—all unspotted dolerite, including the flake from stonehole 91—is also at odds with most of the 44 bluestones (43 and the Altar Stone) surviving at Stonehenge today, only three of which are of unspotted dolerite, compared with approximately 27 spotted dolerite stones. That the four unspotted dolerite Waun Mawn stones were left behind may, of course, help to explain why there are so few such pillars at Stonehenge. It seems more likely, however, that Waun Mawn contributed only a small proportion of Stonehenge’s 80 or so bluestones. This raises the question of whether multiple monuments in Wales contributed monoliths to Stonehenge and Bluestonehenge.
It is clear that the Altar Stone (stone 80 at Stonehenge) comes not from Preseli, but most likely from Devonian sandstone of the Senni Formation, about 100km to the east. Similarly, the two other sandstone pillars at Stonehenge are of Lower Palaeozoic sandstone, which is found across a large area to the north and east of Preseli. Both types of sandstone pillars could derive from circles or other megalithic monuments outside of Preseli. It is possible, if not likely, that one or several stone circles were dismantled in the Preseli area to provide Stonehenge and Bluestonehenge with their full number of bluestones
So while the team of archaeologists ultimately reject Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of Merlin stealing Stonehenge from Ireland – as they say, “archaeology and myth make awkward companions” – they do believe the core of the story may be correct, except Stonehenge was perhaps taken from a number of different sites in Wales, with Waun Mawn being of major importance to the construction.
“The shared diameters of Waun Mawn and Stonehenge’s enclosing ditch, as well as their midsummer solstice sunrise orientations, suggest that key aspects of the circle’s architecture were brought by the people of west Wales to Salisbury Plain, to be both transformed and reinstated, rather than taken by force as a trophy by a Neolithic Merlin and his army,” they note. Furthermore, the absence of major stone circle construction in this region in Wales after this time suggests to them that the dismantling was due to a mass migration of these people from Wales to the Salisbury region.
“In conclusion,” they write, “it seems that Stonehenge stage one was built—partly or wholly—by Neolithic migrants from Wales, who brought their monument or monuments as a physical manifestation of their ancestral identities to be re-created in similar form on Salisbury Plain—a locale already holding a long tradition of ceremonial gathering.”