Bluestonehenge: A New Stone Circle Near Stonehenge

First Chance to Hear From the Experts Who Made the Discovery

Archaeologists from Sheffield and other universities have discovered a lost stone circle a mile from Stonehenge, on the west bank of the River Avon.

Excavation in progress. Photo: Aerial-Cam Jim Rylatt (University of Manchester) with a chisel-shaped arrowhead. Photo: Aerial-Cam Ellie Hunt (University of Bristol) excavates an antler pick.  Photo: Aerial-Cam Prof. Andrew Chamberlain (University of Sheffield) uses a laser scanner to record a stonehole. Photo: Aerial-Cam Diggers stand in the stoneholes to mark the positions of the missing stones.  The bank and ditch of the henge curve in front of them. Photo: Aerial-Cam The stones were removed thousands of years ago but the sizes of the holes in which they stood indicate that this was a circle of bluestones, brought from the Preseli mountains of Wales, 150 miles away. Excavations in August–September 2009 by the Stonehenge Riverside Project uncovered nine stone holes, part of a circle of probably 25 standing stones. (Most of the circle remains unexcavated, preserved for future research, whilst the 2009 excavation has been filled back in.)

The new stone circle is 10m (33 ft) in diameter and was surrounded by a henge – a ditch with an external bank. These standing stones marked the end of the Avenue that leads from the River Avon to Stonehenge, a 1¾-mile long (2.8km) processional route constructed at the end of the Stone Age (the Neolithic period). The outer henge around the stones was built around 2400 BC but arrowheads found in the stone circle indicate that the stones were put up as much as 500 years earlier – they were dragged from Wales to Wiltshire 5,000 years ago.

The builders of the stone circle used deer antlers as pickaxes. Within the next few months, radiocarbon dating of these antler picks will provide more precise dates. These dates will reveal whether the circle was built at the same time that another 56 Welsh bluestones were erected at Stonehenge itself (in the decades after 3000 BC). When the newly discovered circle’s stones were removed by Neolithic people, it is possible that they were dragged along the route of the Avenue to Stonehenge, to be incorporated within its major rebuilding around 2500 BC. Archaeologists know that, after this date, Stonehenge consisted of about 80 Welsh stones and 83 local, sarsen stones. Some of the bluestones that once stood at the riverside probably now stand within the centre of Stonehenge.

Only the radiocarbon dating programme can clarify the sequence of events. In the meantime, the discovery of this unknown stone circle may well be exciting confirmation of the Stonehenge Riverside Project’s theory that the River Avon linked a ‘domain of the living’ – marked by timber circles and houses upstream at the Neolithic village of Durrington Walls (discovered by the Project in 2005) – with a ‘domain of the dead’ marked by Stonehenge and this new stone circle.

There is no evidence that the circle had a particular orientation or even an entrance. Soil that fell into the holes when the stones were removed was full of charcoal, showing that plenty of wood was burned here. Yet this was not a place where anyone lived: the pottery, animal bones, food residues and flint tools used in domestic life during the Stone Age were absent.

Prof. Mike Parker Pearson, director of the project, said:

It could be that Bluestonehenge was where the dead began their final journey to Stonehenge. Not many people know that Stonehenge was Britain’s largest burial ground at that time. Maybe the bluestone circle is where people were cremated before their ashes were buried at Stonehenge itself.

Dr Josh Pollard, co-director, explained:

This is an incredible discovery. The newly discovered circle and henge should be considered an integral part of Stonehenge rather than a separate monument, and it offers tremendous insight into the history of its famous neighbour. Its landscape location demonstrates once again the importance of the River Avon in Neolithic funerary rites and ceremonies.

Prof. Julian Thomas, co-director, added:

The implications of this discovery are immense. It is compelling evidence that this stretch of the River Avon was central to the religious lives of the people who built Stonehenge. Old theories about Stonehenge that do not explain the evident significance of the river will have to be re-thought.

Reconstruction drawing of the stone circle on the bank of the River Avon. Image: Peter Dunn The Stonehenge Riverside Project is run by a consortium of university teams. It is directed by Prof. Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University, with co-directors Dr Josh Pollard (Bristol University), Prof. Julian Thomas (Manchester University), Dr Kate Welham (Bournemouth University) and Dr Colin Richards (Manchester University). The 2009 excavation was funded by the National Geographic Society, Google, the Society of Antiquaries of London, and the Society of Northern Antiquaries. The overall project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Royal Archaeological Institute.