Among the numerous mysteries of Stonehenge, the 5,000-year-old stone-age monument that still attracts thousands of worshippers to Britain’s Salisbury Plain today, the origin of the ancient site’s bluestones has continued to baffle scientists. How did neolithic humans transport the massive stones to the south of England, from a quarry in Wales where they are believed to have originated, 140 miles to the west?
But a new book by Welsh scientist Brian John dismisses the belief that human beings somehow, and for some reason, carried or dragged the stones over what 5,000 years ago would have been a seemingly insurmountable distance. John calls the popular theory “mythology,” and in his latest book The Stonehenge Bluestones, he writes that the stones were already on the Salisbury Plain, and had been for perhaps half-a-million years, when the inhabitants of stone age Britain arrived there and began building the stone circle.
According to John, evidence supports a scenario in which the bluestones were carried to the site not by human beings 5,000 years ago — but by a glacier, 500,000 years ago. His theory, if correct would also answer the question of why the ancient builders of Stonehenge believed the bluestones to have such significance that they were worth the enormous effort to transport from what is now Pembrokeshire in Wales.
The answer to that question is — they didn’t. Many scientists, as well as mystics, believe that to merit such an extraordinary effort by the tribesmen and women of 5,000 years ago, the bluestones must have had a deeply important spiritual meaning to the ancient Britons. But according to John’s new book, the bluestones had no special significance at all. They were just there.
The Stonehenge monument includes two type of stones. The sarsen trilithons are the gigantic monoliths that make up the outer ring of the Stonehenge circle. The bluestones are the smaller rocks that appear to form an inner circle. As John’s book notes, unlike the sarsens, many of the bluestones are boulders or even flat slabs — not the imposing pillars familiar as the silhouette of Stonehenge.
A native of Pembrokeshire, John long ago became fascinated by the history and folklore of his birthplace. But his research led him to conclude that there were no quarries dating from the region’s Neolithic period at all, and no evidence that ancient Britons mined the bluestones there — much less managed to cart them over 140 miles of rugged terrain.
“Over the past fifty years there has been a drift, in Stonehenge studies, from science towards mythology. This has been driven partly by constant media demands for new and spectacular stories about the monument,” John said in an interview with British media this week.
“So we see an obsession with narrative at the expense of evidence, and a host of newly manufactured myths which are even more wacky than the old ones. It’s time for a cool reassessment.”
Archaeologists from University College London previously said they had discovered evidence that quarry workers deliberately cut the bluestone rocks out of the Welsh mountain range sometime between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago. But John and a team of researchers published a paper in 2015 saying that the UCL archaeologists likely mistook formations in the rock that they had created themselves, over five years of excavation, for evidence of ancient bluestone mining.
Among the other controversial claims included in John’s new book, due to be published on June 1, John says that the ancient builders simply chose to construct the monument at the same place they found the stones already there and stopped building when they had used all of the stones on the plain.