In the first of this duo of pieces on Stonehenge we discussed why the famous Bluestones held such great spiritual significance they were transported just short of 200 miles from the Preseli Mountains of Wales to Salisbury Plain.
Now we’ll talk about the other question thrown up in this great debate about events that unfolded 4000 years ago…how were they transported such a distance?
The question breaks in two directions so to speak, a journey or a voyage? In other words, were the Bluestones taken by land or sea from unyielding moorlands of Wales to the softer chalk uplands of Southern England?
At Bohemianmojo we favour the idea the Bluestones were carried by boat along the coast of the Bristol Channel (Mor Hafren in Welsh) and here we make our case in….
MIGHTY TIDES & SIGNPOSTS IN THE SEA
That the Bluestones were sacred there can be no doubt, indeed millions of people hold them to be so to this very day and moving these two-ton slabs of rock such a distance, with the technology available at the time, was doubtless an epic labour of total devotion.
In the first of this pair of blogs, we outlined the reasons why the Bluestones were held in such high reverence by our ancestors. They have a bell like resonance and could be ‘played’ like some giant, stone xylophone at ritual ceremonies and just as compelling, when their outer layer of grey, oxidised rock is picked-off and polished, they shine a deep blue or green with stars and galaxies represented by a speckling of mica minerals. Doubtless, they represented the heavens recreated in the mountains of Preseli.
As to HOW the stones were moved from Pembrokeshire to Salisbury Plain two routes are mooted, one by sea the other by land with the landward route, the theory currently in vogue. But here at Bohemianmojo, we believe archaeologists and theorists have missed one crucial factor that would have made a sea conveyance of the stones a no brainer to our ingenious ancestors. That X Factor ignored in the story of the Bluestones is the mighty tide of the Bristol Channel, which our forebears knew could carry those sacred objects effortlessly on a natural escalator.
The favourite speculation at present, is that the stones were moved overland, from an original circle recently identified at Maen Waum in Preseli, through a series of valley bottoms skirting the northern edge of the mass of the Brecon Beacons. Basically, along the route of the modern A40 trunk road.
From Brecon, they would have traversed along the Wye Valley to the area of Crickhowell and then to Ross-on-Wye before carriage through the Forest of Dean to Longford north of Gloucester where the River Severn could be forded. Onward then across the Cotswolds and straight across Salisbury Plain to Amesbury.
A painfully difficult and long process indeed when compared to a sea passage, hugging the Welsh coast up to the Severn Estuary then into the mouth of the River Avon near Bristol. So, unless and until some concrete evidence supporting the ‘A40 Route’ is found we favour the idea the Bluestones were loaded onto boats at Milford Haven then sailed round the Gower Peninsula at Worm’s Head when they would have hitched a lift on the awesome power of the Bristol Channel tide.
We have looked carefully for mention of this crucial component of the tide’s capabilities, but it doesn’t seem to have been considered by any of the archaeological theorists. However, the fact is the Bristol Channel has a monumental tidal range of fifty-two feet, making it the second-highest in the world. Even modern vessels choose to travel with the tide, simply to save on the fuel they’d have to use just to stand still against its speed of four to six knots.
Our ancient mariners who would have been carried on its flow up the narrowing channel at those same speeds. Then, when the tide turned to ebb out of the channel, they would have beached their vessels to avoid being swept back to where they’d started from or worse. Once beached they’d simply eat and rest while waiting for the tide to turn and rise again to take the next lift further up the channel and so on, all the while keeping one eye on the weather.
I first realised the compelling simplicity of the sea route whilst chatting to one of my oldest friends Peter Binding, a master mariner, whose business is to maintain the navigation buoys of the Bristol Channel and to chart its shifting sandbanks for the UK navigational authority, Trinity House. I can confidently say that no-one knows the Bristol Channel better than Pete.
We were brought up at the seaport of Barry together and one day recently Pete was talking about the discovery of sophisticated Roman harbour complex on the town’s shores. Pete had done a lot of research into it and I posed the question. “Why did the Romans invest all those resources at Barry?”
“Simple,” he replied, “The Romans had a large military fort and administrative centre at Caerleon a couple of miles upstream on the River Usk. Barry is one rising tide away from the mouth of the River Usk, so Roman supply vessels that had sailed around Cornwall would tie up at Barry to wait for the tide to carry them up. They knew what they were doing.”
When I asked him if this could also have been the case for the Bluestones Pete said, “Well, if they had suitable vessels then of course, but I’ve been led to believe they may not have, then four tides would have taken them from the Gower to the mouth of the Avon. That’s just two days voyage and I’ve no doubt that if they had suitable vessels, they would have no trouble loading a Bluestone on board as they possessed bewilderingly good engineering skills.”
Well, the fact is they probably did have the suitable vessels Pete talked about. Those people were undoubtedly, skilled seafarers who’d first arrived on the western seaboard of the islands of Britain on ocean going vessels from the Iberian Peninsula of modern-day Spain. Forget ideas of crude rafts and dugout canoes, we’re talking about sturdy vessels constructed by the ‘sewn plank’ method, capable of carrying tonnes of cargo across many nautical miles.
One notable example, where the planks of the boat are tied tight by willow withies then sealed with pitch, is the Ferriby Boat excavated on the banks of the River Humber. A reconstruction has shown it had an eighteen-man crew, capable of paddling at speeds of six knots in bursts, with a cargo load of 4.5 tonnes, twice the weight of a Stonehenge Bluestone.
The Ferriby Boat is dated at around 2000BC, while it’s thought the Bluestones were moved from Preseli around 2100BC, so it follows the ancients had the vessels to sail the stones up the Bristol Channel. They probably loaded the stones when the tide was out at a solid, ramp-like harbour construction known as a ‘hard.’ We can easily imagine such a vessel being tied alongside the ramp and secured until the tide left if high and dry. Then a team of experienced workers would load the stone onto the boat, maybe protecting the vessel’s wooden beams with cushioning bags of wool, while they trimmed the cargo so the vessel wouldn’t list and capsize.
The Cleddau Estuary at the neck of the giant natural harbour of Milford Haven is the logical embarkation point, and indeed at the turn of the millennium a BBC programme featured the story of a local scuba diver who claimed to have found a rectangular, dressed bluestone that had capsized into the estuary. Sadly, he died before the programme was televised and subsequent searches of the seabed have failed to find the elusive stone.
I believe that with their array of boat building, navigational and engineering skills the ancients could have sailed the bluestones from Milford Haven to the mouth of the Avon near Bristol in a week or so, depending on the weather; a journey many weeks shorter that the proposed ‘A40’ route.
From Avonmouth the Bluestones would have continued by boat up the River Avon to Melksham. Above that point the river would no longer be navigable and the Bluestones would have been dragged the final thirty miles or so from Melksham to Amesbury by land.
One of the imponderables of a seaward journey is the danger of sudden storms and squalls, which are common in the channel and that’s where the enigmatic and spine-tingling role of a remote island standing at the outer edge of the Bristol Channel comes into play.
Lundy Island is a granite outcrop, ten miles off the shores of Devon, standing at the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Bristol Channel. Let’s imagine a boat carrying a Bluestone is swept out to sea by a storm. It’s likely that tide and currents would carry the vessel to within sight of Lundy Island, where the crew could make landfall.
On the three-mile-long island, there are nine standing stones from those times, which studies have shown formed a celestial clock, as did so many of these ancient arrays. There’s also a small cairn of rocks 310 meters north of an old lighthouse building on windswept, open ground called Acklands Moor.
This cairn stands at a point forming a right angle between Waun Mawn and Stonehenge and if that’s not the ancient Brythonic Welsh name for Lundy is Ynys Benelin, which translates as ‘island of the elbow, bend or right angle.’ At Bohemianmojo we believe Lundy is a waymark with the Neolithic cairn pointing lost sailors and pilgrims too in the direction of the most important and sacred place of the time… Stonehenge.
We know those Stonehenge people had enough knowledge of geometry and astronomy to have made this complex directional triangle and at Bohemianmojo we believe that, on the balance of probabilities, the ancients understood how the tide could be harnessed to navigate cargoes around the Bristol Channel. Moreover, they had a presence on ‘Elbow Island,’ modern day Lundy, with sacred geometry linking Stonehenge and Preseli, which also acted as a navigational aid.
They undertook this extraordinary, cooperative project at a time when a new social contract had come into being that relied on the fundamental power of the ‘magical’ properties they recognised in the Bluestones, which shone and sparkled like the Milky Way and could be played like huge tubular bells.
Polished and played at sacred ceremonies at Stonehenge, they shone like the night sky and evoked the chiming of the universe. It is a saga deeply etched and powerful story of our ancient heritage, yet we see only glimpses of it revealed like smoke from the fire of history.
Our hope at Bohemianmojo is that archaeologists and researchers will now look seriously at the pivotal and powerful role the huge tides of the Bristol Channel may have played in the Voyage of the Bluestones.
Written by Alun Rees
Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2015 Mike Parker Pearson et al.
Alchetron - free social encyclopedia