Forty-three stones lie at the heart of the world-renowned ‘temple of the ancients’ at Stonehenge. They are called the Bluestones and they were quarried and ‘dressed’ over 4000 years ago in the Preseli Mountains of West Wales, some 199 miles from Stonehenge.
It’s obvious our Neolithic forbears brought enormous energy and resources to bear on this literally monumental project, and this generates two fundamental questions about the Bluestones today…why were they considered so special as to attract such veneration and geographical commitment, and how indeed did those ancient people move them such a daunting distance?
In this first offering, Bohemian Mojo hopes to reveal the truly awe-inspiring reason why the Bluestones were moved such a distance. It’s an extraordinary story of stones that ring like bells and shine like the heavens, and a story of the unsurpassed devotion and endeavour the Bluestones inspired in our Neolithic ancestors.
In a later blog we will be offering our opinion on how they were moved but first, perhaps it would be a good idea to set the scene at both locations where this drama unfolded in the mists of time.
The Preseli Mountains are a tiny range situated on the western edge of Wales in the county of Pembrokeshire, perfectly beautiful, heather-clad, wind-blown uplands overlooking the sparkling Celtic Sea. When she first saw the jagged, rocky spines littering the slopes of Preseli, Bohemian Mojo’s Dr. Stephanie Shelburne described them as ‘the serrated backs of sleeping dragons.’
A great description and Stephanie is not the first to be entranced by Preseli, as I know several archaeologists who describe them, entirely unscientifically as ‘utterly magical’ and ‘mesmerizing.’ This tiny jewel of a range runs for just 13 miles from the fishing village of Newport on the coast to the old settlement of Crymych inland and quarrying is still an important economic activity on Preseli, 5000 years since the Bluestones were hewn.
Standing stones, prehistoric hill forts, and the tantalizing outlines of giant stone circles with the ‘roots’ of long removed Bluestones, revealed by archaeology, litter the hills, which are crossed on the western edge by an ancient track called the Golden Road believed to be the route chosen to carry Bronze Age gold and golden artifacts that had arrived at Newport by ship from Ireland.
The Preselis are also steeped in legend, many of them are connected to the enigmatic Welsh folklore of the Mabinogion, while others relate to King Arthur with the predominant legend that Merlin magicked the Bluestones to Stonehenge, these days more suitable metaphor than fanciful tale.
Stonehenge, meanwhile, stands proud on a different geographical beast called Salisbury Plain, a great mass of chalk upland with equally grand views as Preseli. The whole area of the Plain, cut by five gin clear, chalk stream rivers is peppered with burial mounds, called barrows, many of which have yielded stunning, gold grave goods and highly significant artifacts.
The area seems to have first had religious significance to Mesolithic hunter-gatherer clans when they began erecting totemic, wooden circles in the area. It’s speculated that long, glacier carved gouges in the chalk near Stonehenge, which line-up with the all-important passage of the setting sun on the Winter Solstice, were interpreted by the ancients as sacred.
From those serendipitous beginnings grew the icon of Stonehenge that we know today but it would have come to nothing without the Bluestones quarried and erected in a great circle at Maen Waum, on the Preseli Mountains some four hundred years before they were transported to Salisbury Plains for erection at the heart of the famous Megalithic temple. Frustratingly, the question that screams out to us down the millennia is why? What were the reasons that drove this monumental effort?
It’s revealing to examine what Stonehenge - Côr y Cewri or Circle of the Giants, to give its ancient Welsh name - had in common with its parent Henge at Maen Waum and the first, and most striking of these similarities is their dimensions, which are precisely the same with a diameter of 33 meters.
Secondly, all the stones at Stonehenge have been catalogued and numbered, as well as having their roots underground surveyed by radar. This has revealed that Stone 62 on Salisbury Plain has a root shape, which corresponds exactly to one of the empty socket holes left at Maen Waum when the Bluestones were relocated some 4500 years ago.
The last significant similarity lies in the orientation of the Maen Waum circle which, like Stonehenge is aligned with the rising sun on the Winter Solstice and was no doubt a lunar observatory too providing those early agriculturalists with vital information for the sowing of their crops and their managing of the seasons.
This astronomical function led to one of the most recent theories for the movement of the Bluestones from Wales to Salisbury Plain and that’s a suggestion that a movement in the earth’s polarity and alignment with the sun put Maen Waum out of sync with those observations. A new location was needed and that led to expeditions and surveys to find the right place and that happened to be Salisbury Plain.
We’re not convinced by this argument because Stonehenge was already an established place of observation and worship, albeit with totemic timber structures. In any event, the 80 or so Bluestones brought to Wiltshire were first erected at West Amesbury on the banks of the River Avon, a site not suitable for astronomy, a couple of miles from their ultimate home on the Plain above.
More likely is some explanation relying on the social, and possibly dynastic shifts occurring in those times across the British Isles, with the arrival of farming people from the continent. Without the aid of a time machine, we will never know but we are entitled to speculate, not least because when you boil it down that’s all the foremost archaeological experts on these Henges can do.
At Bohemian Mojo we suspect the people who’d quarried the Bluestones had reached a position of ascendancy over other tribes and clans, perhaps because of the innate power imbued on them by the Bluestones themselves, and voluntarily decided to move them to a more central situation.
A second possibility is that the Preseli people may have been forced (or perhaps paid in some way) to relinquish their precious Bluestones. But we believe this a less likely scenario simply because of the geographical situation of defendable area of steep hills at the end of a distant peninsula. Then again, perhaps an alliance had been made between the Preseli dwellers and those who inhabited the southern chalklands allowing the Bluestones to be moved to the new centre of religious power on Salisbury Plain. Oh, for that time machine!
We also know that to this day the people of north Pembrokeshire believe the Bluestones hold powers of healing and that may have played into the equation as there is some evidence the ancients considered the stones to have such powers.
As well as these supposed powers the Bluestones have some extraordinary, tangible qualities that raise them far above the mundane and ordinary. The first of these is musicality and we know from the relatively new science of archaeo-acoustics that Bluestones have a bell-like resonance and can be ‘played’ using another rock as a striker. They also emit a harmonic tone when stroked by another stone; a cone shape apparently being best for the purpose.
Thousands of rocks on the Carn Menyn Bluestone outcrops were examined and all of them revealed this quality when tested by researchers from the Royal College of Art. And it’s a remarkable fact that the village overlooked by the three, notable Bluestone quarries on Preseli is called Maenclochog, which in English means Bell or Ringing Rocks. Even more remarkable is that a 4000-year-old tradition of making the rocks ring and sing was carried on in the village church where bluestones were mounted as bells to call worshippers to prayer. A testament to the power of oral tradition and race memory.
This quality of these ringing rocks or lithophones must have seemed miraculous to the ancients and there’s also research-based evidence to show that Stonehenge itself was designed acoustically to resonate and echo sound within the temple.
Could this musical quality alone, be a strong enough motive to move the Bluestones? Hard to say but Stonehenge expert Prof Tim Darville, who has carried out scores of excavations at the monument, thinks it may be part of the story, “We don’t know of course that they moved them because they rang but ringing rocks are a prominent part of many cultures.”
At Bohemian Mojo we are certainly inclined to think this sonic quality played a big part in the Bluestones intrinsic and all-consuming sacred value to the ancients. But we believe there is one more piece to fit into our speculative jigsaw and that was first signposted by the intuition of an early 20th Century geologist.
In June 1903 Prof William Judd had no idea that the Bluestones originated in the Preseli Mountains, that was first proposed two decades later by another geologist Prof Herbert Thomas. But Judd knew the quality of these unique stones, known as dolerites, which are dull grey in colour until, that is, they are chipped or polished when the oxidized, grey surface layer is removed to reveal dark blue or deep green rock, speckled with flashing mineral pins.
To the ancients they would look nothing less than the night sky captured in the rocks of the Preseli Mountains and perhaps only the passage of the sun and the moon would have held more powerful symbolism for them.
Crucially, Prof Judd shared his intuition that the Bluestones had been transported to Stonehenge from ‘a distant locality’ and noted that they had been shaped and polished at Stonehenge, forming the so-called ‘Bluestone layer’ of dust and chippings at the base of the stones.
Writing in The Wiltshire Magazine he had these incisive remarks to make, ‘The old tradition concerning Stonehenge is that it consisted of a circle of ‘bluestones’ which had acquired a certain sanctity in a distant locality and had been transported from the original home of the tribe. If so, the stones, brought from so far away, would have been reduced to something like half their bulk…
Is it conceivable that these skillful builders would have transported such blocks of stone in their rough state over mountains, hills and rivers (and possibly over seas) to shape them at the point of erection?’
Prof Judd posed that question nearly 120 years ago and it was a perfectly reasonable assumption, proposed in an otherwise spectacularly perceptive article, which has been proved pretty much true in recent years.
However, we believe the stones were not ‘shaped’ or dressed at Stonehenge but were instead subjected, many times to a ceremonial process of picking and polishing, with the dual purpose of creating sacred sounds while keeping the Bluestones shining bright to reflect the stars in the firmament, like heaven brought down to earth.
What a banquet for the senses that must have been for our ancient forebears and I can imagine with wonder dozens of men and women ‘playing’ the bells of the universe on Singing Stones that shone like the stars themselves.
Written by Alun Rees
Photo credit: Robinheath.info