Moment that mattered: Evidence is published that Stonehenge first stood in Wales
We spoke to archaeologist Dave Shaw, the lead dig supervisor on a project that would revolutionise our understanding of Britain's most iconic historical site
12th February 2021 (Taken from: #42)
On 12th February a remarkable discovery was unveiled in the journal Antiquity: evidence that Stonehenge originally stood in Wales. The dramatic findings represented a kind of vindication for a group of archaeologists who had been pursuing an investigation that at times seemed like a long shot.
Four years earlier one member of the group, Dave Shaw, had been on his knees on a marshy patch of the Preseli Hills in Wales, tapping the earth and listening for a sound only he would recognise. It wasn’t that he was looking for something solid in the ground, which would have been fairly straightforward for a seasoned archaeologist. He was looking for the absence of something: ancient holes, long since filled with earth, where he believed the famous bluestones of Stonehenge once stood.
Shaw knew that finding filled-in, 5,000-year-old holes in the ground that would revolutionise our understanding of Stonehenge and Britain’s Neolithic people was an almost impossible quest. Undaunted, he followed a trail that led him to the peat moor of Waun Mawn. Shaw believed he could tell where the holes once were by tapping the earth and listening to the sound it made. “The soil in one of the stone holes should be looser, so there’s more resonance when we tap it,” he says. “You can hear it. You get a vague impression of a shape. You know those Magic Eye pictures? It’s like that. I can’t see it, you can’t see it. Then, suddenly, it’s there.”
For almost a decade Shaw had been the lead dig supervisor on ‘Stones of Stonehenge’, a project to discover the origins of Britain’s most iconic historical site, led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson from University College London’s Institute of Archaeology. Although British geologist Herbert Henry Thomas had first established that Stonehenge’s bluestones must have originated in the Preseli Hills back in the 1920s, it was Professor Parker Pearson’s project that discovered the exact location where they had been hewn from the earth around 3200 BC, the nearby megalith quarries at Craig Rhos-y-felin and Carn Goedog.
But a new mystery had also been uncovered. Carbon dating and soil analysis seemed to show that there was a 300-year gap between the quarrying of the stones in Wales and the first stage of construction of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. So where had the stones been for those three centuries? Parker Pearson believed the most likely hypothesis was that the stones had been part of an older stone circle in west Wales, before being deconstructed and moved to what is now Wiltshire. The problem was he couldn’t find any evidence of where that original stone circle might have stood. “Mike [Parker Pearson] was absolutely the driving force behind it,” says Shaw. “I thought his theory was a bit wild myself.”
The stone circle has a special place in the British psyche. Most people will recognise Stonehenge’s iconic outer ring of large lintel-topped sarsen stones. It has long been known that these were quarried nearby and that an older inner circle of bluestones was quarried in Wales. Yet what Stonehenge was actually built for remains contested. Was it an ancient calendar? Was it a place of worship? Of memorial? Of Druid sacrifice? Or was it, as some on the more imaginative fringes believe, built by aliens? The oldest history of Stonehenge was written in the 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the first to popularise the myth of King Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain. Monmouth wrote that Stonehenge was built with the spoils of war against the Irish: sacred stones taken from Ireland by Merlin using 15,000 men.
You know those Magic Eye pictures? It’s like that. You can’t see it. Then, suddenly, it’s there”
Shaw was always interested in history, but started his working life as a dairy farmer. “When my father retired me and my brother were [working] on the farm,” he says. “We looked at it and it wouldn’t have supported the both of us.” So Shaw signed over his half to his brother and became a mature student at the University of Manchester, studying archeology. It was there, in 2002, that he met Professor Parker Pearson and began focusing on Britain’s ancient past. “There’s no writing from pre-history,” he says. “The only things that we know about it are basically from the things we’ve found. We reconstruct a narrative of what occurred. It’s like a jigsaw, but you don’t know how big the jigsaw is, or how many pieces there are or even how the bits fit together.”
Shaw became part of the ‘Stones of Stonehenge’ project and was part of the team that uncovered the location in the Preseli Hills where the bluestones were first quarried. The team began hunting for the holes in the ground where they believed the vast stones would have previously stood. Initially, the search did not go well. They identified several potential sites, but successive digs led them down dead ends. There was just one last potential site to be explored, at Waun Mawn. Despite the fact that a few larger bluestones still stand here, they appear to be arranged in a line rather than a circle. Extensive earlier sonar and soil analysis by archaeology teams had also led to Waun Mawn being dismissed as an unpromising option. But, out of leads, Professor Parker Pearson sent Shaw and a team of students to check it out anyway.
Shaw decided he would start with the few standing stones that were there and, based on the gap between two of them, estimated where the next hole might be if they were in a huge circle rather than a line. He bent down and tapped the ground, listening for the tell-tale sound of loosely compacted earth. “And just by where I predicted a stone hole would be, I found a stone hole.” He was elated. By the end of the day Parker Pearson confirmed Shaw was right. Later they would discover that Waun Mawn was once the site of a vast ancient stone circle that measured 110m in diameter. The team even discovered the snapped-off tip of a bluestone still stuck in one of the holes which perfectly matched a stone standing at Stonehenge today. Previous teams had missed Waun Mawn’s potential because they hadn’t considered that a stone circle that vast might have once stood there. Parker Pearson’s theory had been proven correct, and Shaw had found the evidence. It was the most consequential discovery about Stonehenge in decades.
The ups and downs of their journey was captured in the BBC’s Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed, presented by Professor Alice Roberts. And the discovery has led to a re-evaluation of theories which had previously been dismissed. Among them is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century tale of Merlin taking the stones from Ireland, which Wales had been considered part of when his History of the Kings of Britain was written. Merlin was a fictional character, but there was perhaps a grain of truth in some of the rest of the story. “Many of our folk stories have a root in really ancient tales that have been passed down,” says Shaw. “In the Neolithic period, there were two distinct cultures in Britain. You’ve got the western culture, and the eastern culture. Were the stones stolen from Waun Mawn, taken by force, by invasion? Or was it a sort of coalition, a kind of peace offering? A gift between these two cultures?”
Professor Parker Pearson has his own theory, that Stonehenge is a symbol of unity built after a war between eastern and western tribes, as well as a memorial to the dead, to a culture’s ancestors. For a migrating tribe, transporting the stones would be akin to transporting their people’s history.
Shaw’s main job these days is in commercial archeology; working with construction companies to quickly identify and remove objects that might be of historical importance when a new bridge or shopping centre is built. But Stonehenge won’t leave him. He’ll spend some time this summer on a dig back in Wales to try and answer some of the many questions that the discovery on Waun Mawn raised. “Waun Mawn isn’t big enough to produce all the stones in Stonehenge,” he says. “So there is another dismantled stone circle somewhere.” And then there’s one of the biggest mysteries of all. Just how did the Neolithic people of west Wales move these huge stones – some of which weighed five tonnes, about the same as an adult male elephant – nearly 200 miles away? One experiment in the BBC documentary using tools and materials available to Neolithic people proved that an object the size and weight of a Stonehenge bluestone could be dragged using a wooden sled. “They had domesticated animals at the time and a couple of big oxen could easily pull stones on a sled,” says Shaw. “I think it’s going to be difficult because of the ephemeral nature of a lot of Neolithic archaeology, but wouldn’t it be grand to find the route they took?” Stonehenge has plenty more secrets to give up yet.
We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #42 of Delayed Gratification
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