Tag Archives: Stonehenge

Stonehenge may be a giant solar calendar whose roots may extend all the way to ancient Egypt

Credit: Antiquity Journal.

Over the years, archaeologists have put forward a number of theories attempting to explain why Stonehenge was built. Now, new research posits that the Stonehenge circles served as a calendar that tracks the solar year of 365.25 days, calibrated by the alignment of the solstices.

However, if that is indeed the case, it’s an odd one with 12 months of 30 days, divided into 10 day weeks. Such calendar designs were previously seen in ancient Egypt, which could mean the Stonehenge timekeeping system may have had its roots elsewhere.

What was Stonehenge used for?

Stonehenge is the world’s most famous Neolithic site but also one of the most enigmatic ancient monuments, whose precise purpose is still a mystery. Much of that mystery comes down to the fact that writing didn’t exist in England until the Romans arrived 2,500 years after the iconic circular stone pillars were raised. In this vacuum, various more or less evidenced-based theories have been proposed.

Some believe Stonehenge is an astronomical calculator, a religious site, or an important community gathering place like a sort of town hall. But whenever there’s a good mystery, fringe communities and their outlandish theories aren’t too far behind.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Stonehenge was a hot spot for hippies and the New Age counterculture, with millions flocking to the Salisbury Plain, a site thought to be imbued with magical and mystical powers. One Canadian gynecologist proposed in 2003 in an essay published in a medical journal that Stonehenge is a metaphorical vulva — the opening by which Earth Mother gave birth to her plants and animals. The article employed side-by-side illustrations of Stonehenge seen from above and female genitalia. Others think that, like the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge couldn’t have been possibly built by prehistoric humans. Instead, it was obviously made by aliens who used the stone pillars as a landing pad for their spacecraft. Yeah…

But ancient alien-origin enthusiasts may have gotten one thing right: Stonehenge most likely had a strong connection to the cosmos and the stars, specifically the hot glowing giant ball of helium and hydrogen close by, the Sun.

Small-sized sarsen stone S21 (left) in the Sarsen Circle, with the normal-sized S22 to the right. View looking outwards from inside the circle. Credit: Antiquity Journal, Timothy Darvill.

In a new study published today in the journal Antiquity, Professor Timothy Darvill from Bournemouth University in England takes a fresh look at the most recent evidence from the Salisbury archaeological site, concluding Stonehenge’s sarsen elements represent a calendar based on a tropical solar year of 365.25 days. But this calendar is just a tool. Its grander purpose, according to the researchers, was to facilitate festivals and ceremonies.

“I’ve been working on Stonehenge for more than 30 years and in 2008 undertook excavations inside the stone settings at the centre of the site. That led us to start looking at the individual components of the monument and wondering how they all fitted together. Instead of seeing it as one big structure we now see it as several pieces that fit together, rather like in modern times one might see a church or temple as having different elements each of which is connected with different aspects of the working of the site,” Darvill told ZME Science.

The solar origin of one of the most mysterious places on Earth

Most archaeologists agree that the current still standing Stonehenge structure was preceded by an earthwork circle built on the same spot, which seems to have been a cemetery for cremated bodies. Some 500 years later, between 2600 and 2500 BC, Stonehenge as we know it was built once it entered “Stage 2” with the constructions of the three sarsen structures –the Trilithons, Sarsen Circle, and the Station Stone Rectangle. Sarsen stones refer to the vertical pillars, which were capped by horizontal lintels.

Building Stonehenge with Neolithic technology is literally a monumental task. Each sarsen weighs 25 tons on average and could have required at least 1,000 people each to transport it over a distance of 24 km (15 miles). As such, it must have taken multiple generations to complete the project. But once in place, these components weren’t altered or moved ever again, a fact supported by analyses showing that most of the stones were quarried from a single source on the Marlborough Downs.

Summary of the way in which the numerology of sarsen elements at Stonehenge combine to create a perpetual solar calendar. Non-sarsen elements have been omitted for clarity. Drawing by V. Constant/Antiquity Journal.

It is under this guise of a unified group that the sarsen elements need to be understood, Darvill argues. This way, their “numerical significance” opens up the possibility that they represent building blocks for a calendar based on the 365.25 solar days in the mean tropical year. Each of the 30 stones in the sarsen circle represents a day within a month. One month is divided into three weeks each of 10 days, with distinctive stones in the circle marking the start of each week.

“The recognition that the sarsen stone elements have an integrity because the stones are almost all from the same source and were put up at the site at the same time. Given these observations, it seems likely that they also have an integrity of structure. What makes it novel is that while many people have tried to find a calendar in the arrangement of stones, non-one has previously shown how one might actually work. The perpetual solar calendar is very easy to use,” Darvill said.

Under this logic, every stone has its place and purpose. The five Trilithons in the center of the site represent the intercalary month, while the four Station Stones outside the Sarsen Circle serve as markers to notch up until a leap day. In doing so, the ancient people of Stonehenge managed to frame the winter and summer solstices by the same pair of stones every year. One of the trilithons also frames the winter solstice, perhaps marking the new year.

A 10-day week calendar seems odd, but the researchers claim that these were more common during this period. A very similar solar calendar was developed in the eastern Mediterranean around 3000 BC and was adopted in ancient Egypt as the Civil Calendar, still widely used in the Old Kingdom at about 2600 BC. This raises the genuine possibility that the calendar was imported from the continent, with archaeological evidence supporting the existence of trade and cultural networks that could have facilitated this knowledge transfer. The study mentions the nearby “Amesbury Archer”, who was buried nearby around the same period Stage 2 was erected, but was actually born thousands of miles away in the Alps and moved to Britain as a teenager.

However, there’s more to Stonehenge than just an oversized time-keeping device. The huge efforts undertaken at Stonehenge hint that the ancient site served a very important purpose. The researchers believe the calendar helped local communities synchronize conceptual cosmologies with the solar cycle, “so that the received narratives could be understood in ways that structured behaviors and relationships.”As such, the stone circles were essential for timing celebrations and other crucial rituals. Secondly, the calendar allowed elites to acquire and legitimize power, since they were the ones who now control the timing of important communal events and the interpretation of cosmologies as signs and messages from the gods.

“Time-reckoning systems bring communities closer to their gods by ensuring that events occur at propitious moments. Astrology was an important, though controversial, tool in ancient medicine and healing rites. An accurate calendar was required to maximise effects that depended on people being in the right place at the right time,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Although plausible, not everyone is convinced by this conclusion. Speaking to ZME Science, archaeologist Mike Pitts described the new proposal as “ingenious” but adds that it would be equally possible to come up with other explanations.

“For example, there could have been a “Fellowship of the Ring” with five or 10 members. The largest and most prominent stones are the five trilithons (each two uprights and one lintel). These could represent five different societies that had formed an alliance, which they marked by building Stonehenge. If the trilithons were heads (a male and female leader, say, united by a lintel) each of the five could then be represented by six descendant families, symbolised by stones in the circle (giving 30) united by the ring of lintels that joins them,” said Pitts, who is the editor of the publication British Archaeology and the author of a number of notable books on Stonehenge.

“Entirely fanciful, but no more or less supported by evidence than a calendar.”

Pitts added that it would be odd for Stonehenge society not to use the lunar cycle, especially since the lunar month could be neatly represented by the 30 stones in the circle.

“Almost all recorded human societies, at any time or place, have used the sun and moon to mark time. That there are roughly 365 days in a year is a fact of living on Earth. The people who built Stonehenge almost certainly had a calendar and it is very likely it was based on observations of the sky. There is no need to invoke connections with societies on the other side of Europe to explain this,” Pitts said.

Whatever may be the case, the origin and meaning of Stonehenge are still far from settled.

“There is still so much more to know about Stonehenge,” Darvill concludes.

British archeologists uncover 5,000-year-old stone drum in the grave of three children

One of the “most significant ancient objects ever found in the British Isles”, a stone-carved drum, will be put on display at the British Museum starting next week.

The 5,000-year-old drum, carved from chalk. Image credits The British Museum.

Art is hard to define, but it can be very easy to recognize. A 5,000-year-old drum, carved from a block of chalk uncovered near Yorkshire in northern England in 2015, definitely seems to fit the bill. According to Neil Wilkin, the curator of the exhibition “The World of Stonehenge” at the British Museum, this is one of the most remarkable archeological discoveries ever made in Britain.

The piece will go on display at the exhibition, which opens February 17, for the public to enjoy and discuss.

Stone and roll

“This is a truly remarkable discovery, and is the most important piece of prehistoric art to be found in Britain in the last 100 years,” said Neil Wilkin.

According to the Museum, this drum is one of the most significant objects ever discovered on the British Isles. By all indication, it is not a functional musical instrument — as it is carved from a single piece of chalk and has no internal resonance cavity — but was, rather, created as a talisman or artistic sculpture.

The drum was discovered in the grave of three children that were buried close together, either touching or holding hands. It was placed above the head of the eldest child, together with a chalk ball and a pin made from polished bone. The burial site lies around 240 miles (380 kilometers) from Stonehenge near the village of Burton Agnes.

It is one of only four known examples of its kind. Known as the Folkton Drums, all three are part of the British Museum’s collections. The other three were discovered in 1889 at the burial site of a single child around 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the site ar Burton Agnes. They are currently on loan to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre.

These drums are “some of the most famous and enigmatic ancient objects ever unearthed in Britain”, according to the Museum, with the most recent one “of the most elaborately decorated objects of this period found anywhere in Britain and Ireland”.

Radiocarbon dating places the creation of the drum between 3005 and 2890 BC, the same time as the first construction phase of Stonehenge. As such, it provides invaluable cultural context regarding that time.

“Analysis of its carvings will help to decipher the symbolism and beliefs of the era in which Stonehenge was constructed,” said Wilkin.

These drums showcase the fact that communities across Britain and Ireland maintained quite significant levels of contact and communications, as they shared artistic styles of expressions and, as suggested by the discovery of these objects in burial sites, spiritual beliefs.

The drums are all sculpted out of local chalk and adorned with stylized human faces and geometric patterns. A pair of concentric circles with pairs of eyes on each drum resembles a human face.

While it is still unclear what the purpose of these drums were — ritual purposes are definitely involved here — archaeologist Anne Teather notes that they may have been teaching aides or items meant to maintain standardization of measurement. She notes that the circumferences of each of the drums form whole-number divisions of ten long feet (ten, nine, and eight times, respectively), which was a unit of measuring distance in wide use in stone-age Britain.

While it’s very likely that other such drums were fashioned from more accessible and more easily processed materials such as wood, these examples were carved out of stone (likely for ceremonial purposes), which helped them survive through the ages.

Why Stonehenge megaliths stay up after 5,000 years — it’s all geology

The famous prehistoric landmark of Stonehenge in the United Kingdom has always been shrouded in a layer of mystery. But one step at a time, scientists are starting to answer some of the questions behind the monument. Now, a new study has revealed how the monument is still standing after all this time. 

Image credit: Flickr / Stanley Simny.

Built some 4,600 years ago, Stonehenge has fascinated historians, geologists, travelers, and artists for centuries. We know that it was a bustling spiritual center and that it must have held a huge significance for the society that built it, based on previous studies. We also have a pretty good idea of where the rocks that make it come from (about 180 miles). But Stonehenge is still keen on keeping some of its secrets.

An old drill

In 1958, Robert Phillips, a representative of a drilling company performing restoration work on the monument, took a cylindrical core after it was drilled from one of Stonehenge’s pillars — Stone 58. Philipps emigrated to the US and took the core with him. The piece then returned to the UK in 2018 and was handed over to a group of researchers.

Because of its protected status, it’s no longer possible to extract samples from the stones, which makes Philipps’ core quite unique. That’s why the core’s return presented a big opportunity, allowing the researchers to do unprecedented geochemical analyses of the Stonehenge pillar, which they described in the new study. It’s the first comprehensive scientific analysis of the megalith.

“Getting access to the core drilled from Stone 58 was very much the Holy Grail for our research. All the previous work on sarsens at Stonehenge involved samples either excavated from the site or knocked off from random stones,” David Nash, who led the study, said in a statement. “This small sample is now probably the most analyzed piece of stone other than moon rock.”

A comprehensive analysis

The megalith is made of stone called silcrete that formed gradually within a few meters of the ground surface as a result of groundwater washing through buried sediment. Using X-rays and microscopes, the researchers found the silcrete is made of sand-sized quartz grains joined together by an interlocking mosaic of quartz crystals.

Quartz is extremely durable and doesn’t easily crumble or erode even when exposed to eons of wind and weather. This may have been why the builders chose to use it for their massive monument thousands of years ago. Instead of using the closest and biggest boulders, they went for the ones that could stand the longest time, Nash said.

The sample of the core analyzed in the study. Image credit: The researchers.

The study also showed that the sediments within which the stone developed were deposited during the Paleogene period, from 66 million to 23 million years ago. This means that the megalith can’t be older than this. However, when comparing the isotopes in the samples, they found certain sediments were even more ancient, which raises an interesting question.

“Some of the grains were likely eroded from rocks dating to the Mesozoic era, from 252 million to 66 million years ago, when they may have been trodden upon by dinosaurs. And some of the sand grains formed as long ago as 1 billion to 1.6 billion years ago,” Nash said in a statement.

While the study answered some questions about the monument, other unresolved puzzles remain – including the location of the other two cores that were drilled from Stone 58 during the 1958 restoration that vanished from the record. Curators from the Salisbury Museum in England discovered part of one of those cores in their collection in 2019. 

The study was published in the journal Plos One. 

Stonehenge? It’s probably built from second-hand materials

You’re a prehistoric builder. You look at these magnificent rocks used to build Stonehenge and you think “You know what would be even cooler? If we moved them a few hundred miles away”. While we can’t say exactly what went through the mind of these ancient builders, but modern research has revealed convincing evidence that parts of Stonehenge were constructed using rocks dragged from a different monument in modern day Wales.

Researchers believe some stones used at Stonehenge, near Salisbury in southwest England, were used in an earlier monument 175 miles (280 kilometres) away in southwest Wales. Image credits: Parker Pearson.

Built some 4,600 years ago, Stonehenge has fascinated historians and artists alike for centuries. We know, from previous research, that it was a bustling spiritual center, and must have held a huge significance for the society that built it. But scientists are also learning more things about it every year, including where it originally came from.

The first clue about Stonehenge’s origin comes from geology. The monument is constructed from a type of bluestone — a specific type of rock that is only found in Wales, not where Stonehenge currently lies. This has been suggested by researchers several times but it was conclusively demonstrated by several recent studies. In 2015, one such study revealed that the bluestones were extracted from quarries in the Preseli hills, some 280 kilometres (180 miles) away in west Wales. In 2019, researchers zoomed in even more, finding two specific quarries where the bluestones would have been extracted from.

Now, researchers have found another tantalizing piece of evidence suggesting that not only were the 43 giant bluestones moved over a whopping 150 miles — but they were removed from another dismantled monument. In other words, what’s possibly the most iconic monument in the world may be a second-hand creation.

A needle in a bluestone haystack

The discovery came when researchers analyzed the remains of another stone circle called Waun Mawn. Waun Mawn is one of the oldest stone circles in Britain and the country’s third largest. It has a diameter of 360 feet (110 metres) — the same as the ditch that encloses Stonehenge — and, like Stonehenge, is aligned to the midsummer solstice sunrise. It’s also a stone’s throw away from the bluestone quarries.

The Waun Mawn stone circle in the Preseli Hills in north Pembrokeshire, west Wales, during excavation in 2018, viewed from the north. Image credits: Adam Stanford/Parker Pearson et al./Antiquity Publications Ltd.

Archaeologists had been looking for this type of sister site to Stonehenge for a few years, but they discarded Waun Mawn because the preliminary surveys didn’t really show anything of interest.

In modern archaeology, researchers deploy remote surveys to “see” beneath the ground. These geophysical methods aren’t perfect, but they usually offer a good indication of where archaeologists should dig to find the most interesting things. For some unclear reason, the geophysical surveys at Waun Mawn didn’t find anything. But after ruling out other possible candidate sites, the archaeologists decided to dig anyway.

It was a grueling task that involved many days spent in cold, wind, and rain — but it was worth it.

“It was hard work over eight years with a big team and we hit many dead ends,” said study author Parker Pearson for ABC. “We had to start by excavating the bluestone quarries, then doing geophysical surveys across rough terrain, excavating possible sites, finding out that none of these were what we were searching for, and finally going back to a site we had discounted.”

“So, going back to it and finding out we should have stuck with it from the very beginning was certainly a surprise,” he added. “But the years in between weren’t wasted because we really get to know the landscape and to cross off all the other likely possibilities.”

Although they haven’t found completely irrefutable evidence, everything about what archaeologists found at Waun Mawn seems to suggest a connection to Stonehenge. It’s not just the size and geometry of the site that fits, it’s also the time: Waun Mawn stone circle was created somewhere after 3600 BC, a few hundred years before the first stages of construction at Stonehenge. The type of rocks also fits — it’s the same type of bluestone in the two monuments. Furthermore, one of the rocks at the site has an unusual pentagonal shape, just like the rocks seen in Stonehenge, and the rock chippings are also similar.

This stone hole was uncovered at Waun Mawn, with the stone packing used to secure the missing monolith still present. Image credits: Parker Pearson.

Building (and moving) the first Stonehenge

So why did they do it? Why did they go through this gargantuan task of carrying dozens of giant megaliths across the country? We’re not exactly sure.

The area around Waun Mawn thrived until some 5,000 years, when activity in the area seems to have completely stopped.

This begs two questions: first, what happened to these people, why did they migrate to different areas — and perhaps more importantly, why did they take the huge stones with them?

“It’s as if they just vanished. Maybe most of the people migrated, taking their stones—their ancestral identities—with them,” archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson, from UCL, said.

Moving three-ton bluestones 180 miles to Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge currently lies, must have been a mammoth task, so why did they do it? At this point in the research, it’s not clear why they did it, but the rocks themselves must have been extremely important, “considered as not just valuables, but the very essence of who they were,” notes Pearson.

Not all researchers are convinced by this theory, and it’s up to upcoming research to prove whether this proto-Stonehenge was indeed built and dismantled in Wales and then transported to Salisbury. Further excavations are already underway.

Myth meets reality

The study is also notable because it seems to be linked with a piece of myth. In a 12th century book, the Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the story that the mythical wizard Merlin was enlisted to lead an army to Ireland and transport a ring of giganting mystical stones to what is believed to be Salisbury Plain.

We now know this to be nothing more than pseudohistory or myth, but this new find seems to suggest a kernel of truth to this legend — it may have not been Ireland but Wales, and it wasn’t magic that transported the rocks but hard work and clever engineering, but it seems like a kernel of truth nonetheless, and one of the rare instances where myth and reality actually intertwine.

In addition to the monument itself, the large-scale migration also raises some intriguing questions. The people who were buried at Stonehenge also appear to have originated from West Wales, as genetic analyses have shown, so the signs of a mass migration are there — which means there may have been other megalith sites waiting to be discovered.

“My guess is that Waun Mawn was not the only stone circle that contributed to Stonehenge,” said Parker Pearson in a news statement.

Journal Reference: Mike Parker Pearson et al. The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales, Antiquity (2021). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2020.239 , doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.239

Stonehenge might have a secret ingredient: lard

Stonehenge is one of the most iconic and mysterious man-made monuments known to man. The 5,000-year-old structures have baffled historians for centuries. However, it looks like one piece of the puzzle might have come together.

Among many of the enigmas surrounding the rock grouping was how it got moved there in the first place. With each stone weighing between two and 30 tons, and having to be moved as many as 150 miles, head-scratching has abounded as to what technological marvels or sorcery might have helped get the stones to their final resting place. Front-running theories right now include giant wicker baskets, oxen, and wooden sleds.

But a new contender has entered the match.

A new analysis from Newcastle University finds that lard may have played a large part of it. Scientists have discovered fat residue on pottery shards at Durrington Walls, a Neolithic settlement close to the famous prehistoric circle of massive stones.

While researchers initially believed the high concentrations of tallow — a form of animal fat — left in bucket-sized ceramic containers left at the prehistoric village derived from elaborate feasts, it appears that stone movement may have been another. Lisa-Marie Shillito, lead author of the analysis published in the journal Antiquity, said that the size and the shape of the pottery would have actually been more suited for the storage theory than the previous belief.

“Cooking/food has usually been the default assumption in archaeology when analyzing pottery residues,” said Shillito in a Newsweek interview. “It’s the most obvious explanation and often correct, but sometimes things are a bit more complex. In this case it could be a ‘dual purpose’ — cooking and collecting the fat as a by-product. I had the idea as the amount of fat we found in these pots was unusually high, the only comparable examples being in oil lamps.”

The larger boulders in Stonehenge’s collection, called “sarsen,” stand upwards of 25 feet tall and come in at more than 30 tons a piece. These stones were transported approximately 18 miles away to what is now Salisbury, England, The smaller stones, known as “bluestones,” originated at Wales’ Preseli Hills, and had to be moved around 140 miles to get to its present location.

A 2016 study by scientists at University College London discovered that it actually would have been easier than previously thought for ancient builders to move the bluestones using sycamore sleighs and haul them on a track made out of logs.

In the experiment, 10 volunteers managed to drag a one-ton stone at a rate of ten feet every five seconds — more than a mile per hour if pulled at constant speeds. The study determined that it would have been plausible that groups of 20 could have hauled the rocks from Preseli to Salisbury with relatively little effort.

While experts still haven’t completely solved the question of “why”, the insight as to “how” at Durrington Walls is a good start to solving the larger mystery.

The study was published in Antiquity. 

The Dolmen di Sa Coveccada, a megalithic grave found in northeastern Sardinia. Credit: Bettina Schulz Paulsson.

Ancient monoliths like Stonehenge may have spread from northwestern France about 7,000 years ago

The Dolmen di Sa Coveccada, a megalithic grave found in northeastern Sardinia. Credit: Bettina Schulz Paulsson.

The Dolmen di Sa Coveccada, a megalithic grave found in northeastern Sardinia. Credit: Bettina Schulz Paulsson.

Stonehenge is arguably the most famous prehistoric monument in the world. However, not a lot of people know that this megalithic style is far from being unique. There are literally tens of thousands of such ancient sites all across Europe, many of which are thousands of years older than Stonehenge. Now, a new ambitious study took on the massive task of finding the common thread among all these sites. The analysis suggests that a single hunter-gatherer culture founded the megalithic phenomenon in the Brittany region of northwestern France nearly 7,000 years ago.

Standing stones

The debate surrounding the origin of megaliths can be divided into two trains of thought: either they appeared in a single place then spread across Europe through sea routes or they developed independently by different cultures.

Bettina Schulz Paulsson of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden and colleagues combed through a mountain of archaeological data for 35,000 sites, including standing stones as well as tombs and temples. The research team narrowed their analysis down to 2,410 sites across Europe which had human remains buried within them that had been previously radiocarbon dated. To further narrow the dates, the study also took into account the site’s architecture (some pre-megalithic graves involved elaborate structures but not huge stones), tool use, and burial customs. Finally, using statistical methods, the authors were able to paint a clearer picture of where the first monuments were built and in what order.

The Ring of Brodgar in Orkney Islands, UK. Credit: Bettina Schulz Paulsson.

Dolmen de las Ruines, Catalonia. Credit: Bettina Schulz Paulsson.

Dolmen in Goosefeld, Germany. Credit: Bettina Schulz Paulsson.

Paulsson found that the very earliest megaliths were in northwestern France — and not in the Near East as previously suggested — dating to about 4700 B.C.E. The region is also home to gravesites with intricate earthen tombs that date to about 5000 B.C.E, further cementing Brittany as the origin of the megalithic phenomenon. Some standing stones at Brittany sites depict sperm whales and other marine life, suggesting that these hunter-gatherers were also involved with some kind of sea travel. Some of these early standing stone sites — table-like structures that look like the Greek letter Pi called dolmens — were also some of the largest. For instance, the Grand Menhir once rose more than 20 meters high.

From there, megaliths spread across Europe over the next 2,000 years, concentrating around coastal regions of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coasts. Stonehenge, for instance, is thought to have been first erected in 2400 B.C.E., although the oldest such structures in the British Isles date back to about 4000 B.C.E.

“We argue for the transfer of the megalithic concept over sea routes emanating from northwest France, and for advanced maritime technology and seafaring in the megalithic Age,” the authors wrote in the journal PNAS

Map showing dates estimated for the start of megaliths in the different European regions. Credit: PNAS.

Map showing dates estimated for the start of megaliths in the different European regions. Credit: PNAS.

The emergence of the stone monuments around coastal areas suggests that the practice was spread by prehistoric sailors. If this true, then advanced seafaring in Europe could be pushed back by 2,000 years. This is highly plausible: ancient carvings on Brittany megaliths, such as engravings of many boats, are large enough for a crew of 12.

Of course, there are many other megaliths that have been either destroyed or not discovered yet — some of them may be older and found in a different location than Brittany. But right now this looks like our best bet. Further studies that also include DNA analysis and ancient population movements might shed further light on these mysterious structures.  

Researchers analyzed the cremated remains of Neolithic people buried in pits at Stonehenge. Credit: Adam Stanford.

Stonehenge people may have originated from the same place as the stones themselves

Researchers analyzed the cremated remains of Neolithic people buried in pits at Stonehenge. Credit: Adam Stanford.

Researchers have analyzed the cremated remains of Neolithic people buried in pits at Stonehenge. Credit: Adam Stanford.

Most investigations surrounding the mysterious prehistoric Stonehenge site have focused either on how the monolithic structure was constructed or where the raw materials came from. However, the people themselves, those who erected Stonehenge and worshipped at the site are often overlooked.

Now, a new research that used an innovative archaeological technique suggests that the people who were buried at the Wessex site moved with and likely transported the bluestones used in the early stages of the monument’s construction.

The ash that speaks

Many of the human remains unearthed at Stonehenge are cremated, which explains why scientists have found it difficult to learn more about the enigmatic people who developed and maintained the site.

But although all that’s left of these Neolithic people are amorphous carbonized remains, there is still a lot of history encased in them. Researchers at the University of Oxford, partnering with colleagues in France and Belgium, asked for permission from Historic England and English Heritage to analyze the cremated skull bones belonging to 25 individuals. These remains were originally excavated in the 1920s from a network of 56 pits placed around the inner circumference of Stonehenge.

During his doctoral research in the School of Archaeology at Oxford, lead author Cristophe Snoeck developed a new archaeological analysis that can link the strontium isotope composition found in cremated remains to a geographical location.

The technique was applied to the cremated human bones, which showed that 10 out of 25 people did not live near Stonehenge prior to their death.

The Stonehenge site consists of massive, 30-ton sarsen stones, as well as smaller bluestones, so named for their hue when wet or cut. In 2014, researchers found that at least 55 percent of the dolerite bluestones came from a location, known as Carn Goedog, which is 225 km away from Stonehenge, raising even more questions about how they were transported such a long distance. 

Carn Goedog bluestone outcrop. Credit: Adam Stanford.

Carn Goedog bluestone outcrop. Credit: Adam Stanford.

The highest strontium isotope ratios in the remains were characteristic of people living in western Britannia. This region includes west Wales, which is the source of Stonehenge’s famous bluestones.

Seeing how at least some of these people likely came from west Wales, the study suggests that people — not just stones — were also moving between the region and Wessex in the Late Neolithic.

What’s fascinating is that this wealth of information was extracted from the biological remains of individuals who were cremated at up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. Now, with the help of novel science, the researchers are able to glean new insights into the mysterious lives of the people who interacted with Stonehenge. “The recent discovery […] offered us the exciting possibility to finally study the origin of those buried at Stonehenge,” Snoeck said in a statement.

“To me the really remarkable thing about our study is the ability of new developments in archaeological science to extract so much new information ¬from such small and unpromising fragments of burnt bone,” said Rick Schulting, a lead author on the research and Associate Professor in Scientific and Prehistoric Archaeology at Oxford.

“Some of the people’s remains showed strontium isotope signals consistent with west Wales, the source of the bluestones that are now being seen as marking the earliest monumental phase of the site.”

In the future, the technique could be used in other sites around the world, shedding light on how constructors lived and moved around. As for Stonehenge itself, it will no doubt continue to intrigue and inspire researchers for a long time to come.

The findings appeared in the journal Scientific Reports. 

Stonehenge was actually the core of a huge spiritual centre

We tend to think of the Stonehenge as a lone giant, huge blocks of rock towering over the quiet British landscape. But as a new study has revealed, Stonehenge was likely a diverse and vibrant place, a complex of different religious and cultural settings.

 

Source: Ludwig Boltzmann Institute, Birmingham.

Painting Stonehenge in New Light

Using geophysical techniques (mostly Ground Penetrating Radar – GPR – and magnetometry), scientists managed to get an unprecedented view of the underground surrounding Stonehenge. They’ve basically “sliced” the ground up to 4 meters deep, and located buried remains with unprecedented resolution. Most spectacularly, they discovered a 330-metre long line of more than 50 massive stones, buried under part of the bank of Britain’s largest pre-historic henge.

“Up till now, we had absolutely no idea that the stones were there,” said the co-director of the investigation Professor Vince Gaffney of Birmingham University.

The c-shaped enclosure – more than 330 metres wide and over 400 metres long – faced directly towards the River Avon, and even though the rocks are now horizontal, it seems likely that they were initially vertical, standing stones. But this fallen monument isn’t the only surprising thing they found. Archaeologists also report a 33 meter (108 feet)-long timber building dated at about 6,000 years old, likely used for rituals and spiritual practices. It’s possible that the timber building was there before Stonehenge was even built.

“[The building] has three rows of roof-bearing posts. It is around 300 square metres and slightly trapezoidal, which is interesting because in the same period on the continent, about 100 to 200 years earlier, we also find this type of trapezoidal building related to megaliths [giant stones],” noted Wolfgang Neubauer of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute.

Image via BBC.

 

They also report several Neolithic and Bronze Age religious shrines between 10 and 30 meters ( 32 to 100 feet) in diameter and Bronze Age burial mounds as well as four Iron Age shrines or tombs, and a half dozen Bronze Age and Iron Age domestic or livestock enclosures.

 

Archaeological features, as seen with magnetic prospection. Image via BBC.

It took four years of painstaking work and a lot of data integration, processing and analysis before we can finally say Stonehenge wasn’t a lonely desolate place.

“It shows that, in terms of temples and shrines, Stonehenge was far from being alone,” said Professor Gaffney.

Sticks and Stones

Computer rendering of the overall site. Image via Wikipedia.

Located 8 miles (13 km) north of Salisbury in England, Stonehenge represents the remains of a ring of standing stones set within earthworks. It is in the middle of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age, dating anywhere from 3000 to 2000 BC. Radiocarbon dating in 2008 suggested that the first stones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC, whilst another theory suggests that bluestones may have been raised at the site as early as 3000 BC – it’s still a matter of debate in the scientific community, but everyone agrees that the building process was lengthy and took place in several stages.

Stonehenge was used as a burial place. In, 2013 a team of archaeologists, led by Mike Parker Pearson, excavated more than 50,000 cremated bones of 63 individuals buried at Stonehenge. Now, more and more evidence is indicating that there is more to the Stonehenge area than previously believed.

There is little or no direct evidence for the construction techniques used by the Stonehenge builders. Over the years, various authors have suggested some conspiracy theories, claiming that supernatural or futuristic methods were used, usually asserting that the stones were impossible to move otherwise. However, that’s not true. It’s been demonstrated that conventional techniques and Neolithic technology as basic as shear legs can be effective at moving and placing rocks of that size and weight.

Geophysics and Archaeology

It may come as a surprise to most people, but in modern times, archaeological explorations have less to do with digging, and more to do with remote surveying technology – geophysics. In archaeology, geophysical survey is ground-based physical sensing techniques used for archaeological imaging or mapping. Remote sensing and marine surveys are also used in archaeology.

Basically, geophysical surveying creates underground maps of subsurface archaeological features; it measures a parameter of the underground (for example resistivity or magnetic susceptibility) and detects buried features when their physical properties contrast measurably with their surroundings. The most common methods are:

  • magnetic prospection; usually the fastest method, devices called magnetometers measure the total magnetic field strength, or they may use two (or more) separated sensors to measure the gradient of the magnetic field (the difference between the sensors). This method can detect most archaeological features, as every kind of material has unique magnetic properties, even those that we do not think of as being “magnetic.”
  • electrical prospection; at the very basic level, electrometers work as Ohmmeters used to test electrical circuits. In most systems, metal probes are inserted into the ground to obtain a reading of the local electrical resistance. A stone foundation might impede the flow of electricity, while the organic deposits within a midden might conduct electricity more easily than surrounding soils – this usually can detect structures, but not individual artifacts.
  • ground penetrating radar (GPR); perhaps the most well known method, although not the most used. It basically works like the name says – it’s a radar that penetrates the ground and shows you what’s underneath, to some extent. It generally has the best resolution of all methods, but is also susceptible to sources of “noise” – any signal that might block valuable information.

These three methods, as well as a 3D laser scanner was used for this study.

To me, it’s simply spectacular how very different branches of science can work together and achieve such spectacular results. Just think about it for a moment: without having to actually dig anything, we know that there is an intricate social, cultural and religious complex around the Stonehenge, and we know what kind of activities people did there. Isn’t that just mind blowing?

This aerial photograph shows patchmarks whose position suggest there were once laid stones there. Photo: English Heritage

Stonehenge may have once been a complete circle

This aerial photograph shows patchmarks whose position suggest there were once laid stones there. Photo: English Heritage

This aerial photograph shows patchmarks whose position suggest there were once laid stones there. Photo: English Heritage

Stonehenge is one of Britain’s greatest national treasure, but while magic, myth and mystery surrounding the monumental site has been time and time again dispelled by science, there is still much to learn. One major debate regarding Stonehenge is whether or not the site once formed a complete circle. Now, a short hosepipe and a scientist’s keen eye might settle the issue once and for all: the monolithic complex indeed closed a circle.

Going in circles

More than nine hundred stone rings exist in the British Isles, and scholars estimate that twice that number may originally have been built. Scholars usually classify these types of megalithic structures as rings rather than circles, because the rough proportions for the different shapes are 2/3 true circles, 1/6 flattened circles, 1/9 ellipses, and 1/18 eggs. Stonehenge, however, is roughly circular.

The Wiltshire monument was likely built in several stages with “the unique lintelled stone circle being erected in the late Neolithic period around 2500 B.C.,” according to the English Heritage. The site is comprised of massive central trilithons, smaller bluestone settings, sarsen circle capped by lintels, outer bank and ditch. For centuries scientists have investigated Stonehenge, but the passing of many years since it was last used as a site of worship and astrology had left it marks. The debate still ranges on whether part of the site was left intentionally incomplete or whether it was once complete to describe a full circle.

One dry summer in 2013 may have helped shed light on the matter. Tim Daw, an English Heritage steward, observed marks of parched grass in an area that had not been watered (the hosepipe was too short to reach it). Upon closer inspection, Daw found these marks appeared in the sarsen circle exactly where stones were expected to stand.

In places where stone structures or holes used to be, vegetation grows differently than that in its vicinity. That’s because most often than not buried or once-buried structures interfere with soil permeability, so plants growing on top develop in a characteristic manner.

“Plants that may have initially benefited from the easily available rooting and moisture in disturbed ground fail as the soil dries out, whilst the shorter-rooting surrounding plants manage to survive by extracting water directly from the porous chalk,” Daw and colleagues wrote.

The researchers involved immediately launched a survey using Differential Global Positioning System technology, however due to time constraints the equipment couldn’t be deployed during the same conditions when the parched grass marks were first encountered.

“Ideally the survey would have differentiated between marks caused by parching –- the majority -– and those caused by lusher growth,” Daw and colleagues wrote.

“It would have also have graded the marks into ‘definitive’, ‘probable’ and ‘possible’ categories. This was not possible, and the result must therefore be treated with caution,” they added.

The English Heritage hopes to access historical aerial photography from summer seasons and schedule surveys when the weather is right. Where digs and geophysical methods failed to miss this highly important Stonehenge piece, the growth of a simple parched grass may have helped reveal what was under debate for centuries. You just have to keep your eyes opened.

Findings appeared in the journal Antiquity.

Stonehenge was built on solstice axis, dig confirms

Excavations conducted by the English Heritage have shown that Stonehenge has nothing to do with Sun worsipping and that the circle we see today was once complete.

Stonehenge, Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain

According to them, they discovered an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle in understanding Stonehenge – Englands greatest prehistoric site, and one of the most significant in the world. Excavations along the ancient route to the monument have shown that it was built along an ice age landform that happened to be on the solstice axis.

Beneath the tarmac (short for tarmacadam, or tar-penetration macadam) which paved the processional road, archaeologists found naturally occurring fissures that once lay between ridges against which prehistoric builders dug ditches to create the Avenue. It is believed that the ridges were created by Ice Age meltwater, and they just happen to point directly at the mid-winter sunset in one direction and the mid-summer sunrise in the other.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, a leading expert on Stonehenge, said: “It’s hugely significant because it tells us a lot about why Stonehenge was located where it is and why they [prehistoric people] were so interested in the solstices. It’s not to do with worshipping the sun, some kind of calendar or astronomical observatory; it’s about how this place was special to prehistoric people. This natural landform happens to be on the solstice axis, which brings heaven and earth into one. So the reason that Stonehenge is all about the solstices, we think, is because they actually saw this in the land.”

The dig also uncovered three holes where missing stones would have stood on the outer sarsen circle – evidence that the Stonehenge circle was once complete. Asked why no one noticed these actual holes, Susan Greaney, an English Heritage historian, explained:

“The problem is we’ve not had a decent dry summer in many years. Stonehenge is always regularly watered, and the only reason these have shown up is because – for some reason this year – their hose was too short … So we’re very lucky.”

Stonehenge may have been burial site for stone age elite

The mystery surrounding Stonehenge is still actual, puzzling archaeologists for decades; how was it built, why there, and most interesting, what purpose does it serve? Now, after dating some bone fragments of men, women and children, a team of researchers believe they have the answer.

Stonehenge with a new moon seen through standing stones

Centuries before the imposing monument was raised, the site started its life as a burial ground, according to a recent theory. Professor Mike Parker Pearson, who has been working at the site and on nearby monuments for decades analyzed the site and bones found there, and concluded that the earliest burials predate the monument by over 200 years. The first bluestones, the smaller standing stones, were brought from Wales and served as grave markers 5000 years ago, in 3000 BC.

Initially, it was thought that only men were buried there, but time has shown that in fact, women were also buried at the spot, and so were children, including a newborn baby.

“At the moment the answer is no to extracting DNA, which might tell us more about these individuals and what the relationship was between them – but who knows in the future? Clearly these were special people in some way,” Parker Pearson said.

They also found a mace head, which is about as important as a scepter for that period, as well as a little bowl burnt on one side, which may have held incense, suggesting that the buried were either political or religious leaders.

Now, while this all does make sense and is definitely a distincit possibility, the theory is a little speculative. It must have taken them hundreds of thousands of labor hours to build, so it’s natural that Stonehenge was important to them, but this is not nearly enough evidence to clearly say that it was so. Mike Pitts, an archaeologist, blogger and editor of the British Archaeology journal, who has excavated some of the cremated human remains from Stonehenge, believes more data has to be obtained before a conclusion can be drawn:

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“I have now come to believe that there are hundreds, maybe many times that, of burials at Stonehenge, and that some predate the earliest phase of the monument,” Pitts said. “The whole history of the monument is inseparably linked to death and burial – but I believe that there are hundreds more burials to be found across the site, which will tell us more of the story.”

Indeed, this theory that kings and religious leaders were buried there, while very fitting with current data, would be given a serious blow if more and more contemporary graves were found – this is what archaeologists are focused on now – finding more graves.

“There must be more, in the western quadrant, or buried outside the enclosure ditch. A new excavation could clinch it,” Pitts said.

(c) Wikimedia Commons

Stonehenge’s oldest monoliths origin traced back by geologists

(c) Wikimedia Commons

(c) Wikimedia Commons

The Stonehenge site, 5,000 years old (new discoveries place it far back in history), still remains of the world’s greatest archeological mysteries. One of its biggest question marks revolves around its conception. It’s fairly understood why it was build, as a site of sun worshiping, but how it was actually built remains unknown, considering these slabs of stone weigh around 20-25 tones each and had to be transported from quarries many miles away. Recently, a team of geologists have managed to accurately pinpoint the location from which the stones from Stonehenge’s innermost circle come from, marking the first time a precise source of  any of the monument’s stones could be determined.

Stonehenge’s innercircle and “horse shoe” monoliths are made out of rhyolite debitage stones, which could be found so far only hundreds of miles away from the actual site. Despite being extremely ingenious and expert druids, bringing stones from such long a distance would’ve been practically impossible for the Stonehenge forefathers. Using petrography, the study of mineral content and textural relationships within rocks, the geologists were able to pinpoint the source of the rhyolite stones in outcroppings of rock in Pembrokeshire, Wales – that’s 160 miles away from Stonehenge. There, they found a match with a 215-foot stretch of rock called Craig Rhos-y-Felin.

The stones used in the inner circle weigh around a few tones, which isn’t that much hard if you use a crane and truck to move them around, but when all you have laying around is just wood, string and ingenuity things become difficult. Hopefully, one day archeologists will be able to figure out how the stones were erected, and this study will definitely help them in their quest.

The sarsens, which are actually the monoliths in the outer circle of the site and are the most recognized, weigh a staggering 25 tons. These were incorporated several centuries after the first circle was masterfully installed, perfectly aligned to the sun’s patterns. It is believed these were brought in from somewhere in the Marlborough Downs, 20 miles north of Stonehenge.

The study was made by  scientists at University of Leicester and the National Museum of Wales, and was published in the journal Archaeology.

via Wired

Stonehenge

New discovery reveals Stonehenge secret

Stonehenge

In a remarkable find, archeologists have uncovered two ancient pits, perfectly aligned with the sun’s natural summer cycle. These suggest that the Stonehenge site was a place for sun worship at least 500 years before the first stone was erected.

Archaeologists  from the universities of Birmingham, Bradford  and Vienna were involved in an on-going survey work around Stonehenge, where they scanned the surroundings using ground-penetrating radar and other geophysical investigative techniques. What they came across was more than any of them could have expected.

Two large pits were unearthed, one faced towards the enclosure’s eastern end, the other nearer its western end, aligned according according to the sunrise and sunset, respectively, of the summer’s longest day – the summer solstice. By no means could had this be considered a coincidence. These pits may have contained stones, posts or fires to mark the rising and setting of the sun, as well as  forming a procession route along the Cursus (the pre-historic enclosure around the site) for ancient rituals celebrating the sun moving across the sky at the midsummer day. A gap at the edge of the site was also found, most likely serving as an entrance or exit to the procession site.

The sun was an important part of the local natives’ culture living more than 5000 years ago, its rising and falling becoming a central part of their lives. The discovery of the Cursus pits, pre-dating the erected stones, shows that the site at Stonehenge was sacred long before than previously thought.

This is a remarkable discovery, but by all accounts, it seems like Stonehedge has a load of other secrets left to reveals, most maybe buried forever. The University of Birmingham  Stonehenge area survey is the largest of its kind so far, and will take another two years to complete. The breakthrough we’ve been waiting for may be at reach, soon enough.

image credit: British Heritage/AP

BBC

The mysterious USO (unidentified sunken object) sonar scan. If you look closer, you'll see some trails leading to it. (c) Ocean Explorer/Peter Lindberg

Swedish explorers stumble across the Millennium Falcon beneath the sea?

The mysterious USO (unidentified sunken object) sonar scan. If you look closer, you'll see some trails leading to it. (c) Ocean Explorer/Peter Lindberg

The mysterious USO (unidentified sunken object) sonar scan. If you look closer, you'll see some trails leading to it. (c) Ocean Explorer/Peter Lindberg

Well, I guess Han Solo should be more careful where he parks his spaceship from now, since Swedish treasure hunters just recently found an unidentified object beneath the Baltic seas which portrays an uncanny resemblance to Star Wars’ most iconic of spaceships.

The whole find occured while the Ocean Explorer team, led by researcher Peter Lindberg, were looking for cases of rare champagne through ship wrecks with their sonar. They eventually found something more that they could bargain for – 60-foot disc sunk in the bottom of the ocean, with what appears to be 985-foot-long impact tracks leading to it.

“You see a lot of weird stuff in this job but during my 18 years as a professional I have never seen anything like this. The shape is completely round… a circle”, Peter Lindberg said.

Of course, the whole discovery left a lot of room for speculation, and before you know it there’s been a myriad of blogs and newspapers hailing the USO (unidentified sunken object) as an alien craft. Other, more reasonable, explanations have it that the sonar scan actually depicts a natural formation,  such as the rim of a small underground volcano. The shape is too perfectly round to be anything but man-made, some believe, however – their explination: a sunken WWII battleship turret.

Lindberg has refrained from hypothesizing on what the object could be, perhaps allowing the tale to grow.

“It’s up to the rest of the world to decide what it is,” he said of the item he theorizes “might be a new Stonehenge.”

A tight budget has been keeping the team of explorers from taking a closer look, but undoubtedly considering the hype that’s been built around it, another better equipped team will be sent to further investigate.

I guess people are still waiting for George Lucas’ take on this. James Cameron could do just fine too.

Stonehenge-like Structure Found Under Lake Michigan

While scanning underneath the waters of Lake Michigan for shipwrecks, archeologists found something a lot more interesting than they bargained for: they discovered a boulder with a prehistoric carving of a mastodon,  as well as a series of stones arranged in a Stonehenge-like manner.

Gazing into the water

Using remote sensing techniques is common in modern archaeology – scientists routinely survey lakes and ground for hidden structures. At a depth of about 40 feet into Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, using sonar techniques to look for shipwrecks, archeologists discovered sunken boats and cars and even a Civil War-era pier, but among all these they found this prehistoric surprise, which a trained eye can guess by looking at the sonar scans photos in this article.

“When you see it in the water, you’re tempted to say this is absolutely real,” said Mark Holley, a professor of underwater archaeology at Northwestern Michigan University College who made the discovery, during a news conference with photos of the boulder on display in 2007. “But that’s what we need the experts to come in and verify.

The boulder with the markings is 3.5 to 4 feet high and about 5 feet long. Photos show a surface with numerous fissures. Some may be natural while others appear of human origin, but those forming what could be the petroglyph stood out, Holley said.

Viewed together, they suggest the outlines of a mastodon-like back, hump, head, trunk, tusk, triangular shaped ear and parts of legs, he said.

“We couldn’t believe what we were looking at,” said Greg MacMaster, president of the underwater preserve council.

Specialists shown pictures of the boulder holding the mastodon markings have asked for more evidence before confirming the markings are an ancient petroglyph, said Holley.

“They want to actually see it,” he said. Unfortunately, he added, “Experts in petroglyphs generally don’t dive, so we’re running into a little bit of a stumbling block there.”

If found to be true, the wannabe petroglyph could be as much as 10,000 years old – coincident with the post-Ice Age presence of both humans and mastodons in the upper midwest. The formation, if authenticated, wouldn’t be completely out of place. Stone circles and other petroglyph sites are located in the area.

The discovery was made back a few years ago, and surprisingly enough the find hasn’t been popularized at all, with little to no information available online, but I’ll be sure to update this post as soon as I can get ahold of more info. So, who’s from Michigan?

via / source