The Great Stones Way is one of those ideas so obvious it seems amazing that no one has thought of it before: a 38-mile walking trail to link England's two greatest prehistoric sites, Avebury and Stonehenge, crossing a landscape covered with Neolithic monuments.
But like any project involving the English countryside, it's not as straightforward as it might seem. The steering group has had to secure permission from landowners and the MoD, who use much of Salisbury Plain for training. They hope to have the whole trail open within a year, but for now are trialling a 14-mile southern stretch, having secured agreement from the MoD and parish councils. The "Plain & Avon" section leads from the iron age hill fort of Casterley Camp on Salisbury Plain down the Avon valley to Stonehenge. Walkers are being encouraged to test the route, and detailed directions can be found on the Friends of the Ridgeway website.
It's an area all but the boldest have avoided: negotiating the MoD areas needed careful planning. Few walkers come here and not a single garage or shop along the Avon valley sells local maps. The Great Stones Way should change that.
What makes the prospect of the Great Stones Way so exciting is the sense that for more than a millennium, between around 3000 and 2000BC, the area it crosses was the scene of frenzied Neolithic building activity, with henges, burial barrows and processional avenues criss-crossing the route.
Artificial islets, or crannogs, are widespread across Scotland. Traditionally considered to date to no earlier than the Iron Age, recent research has now identified several Outer Hebridean Neolithic crannogs. Survey and excavation of these sites has demonstrated—for the first time—that crannogs were a widespread feature of the Neolithic and that they may have been special locations, as evidenced by the deposition of material culture into the surrounding water. These findings challenge current conceptualisations of Neolithic settlement, monumentality and depositional practice, while suggesting that other ‘undated’ crannogs across Scotland and Ireland could potentially have Neolithic origins.
Summer solstice is launch date for live feed from camera close to the stones
For thousands of years people have made the pilgrimage to Stonehenge to gaze in wonder at the interplay with the monument of the sun, moon and stars, but from Friday a virtual version of the looming sky above the circle will be available to people from around the world.
A live feed from a camera set up close to the stones is being set up – appropriately enough on the summer solstice – to allow people to tune in to the monument whenever they want.
After dark, the live feed is replaced by a computer-generated image of the night sky as it would be at the moment a viewer clicks on the link to the website.
English Heritage hopes that the feed will allow those who cannot make the trip in person to experience sunrise, sunset and the ever-changing night sky, and even make them feel closer to the ancient people who created the stone circle.
The Stonehenge Skyscape project may also be used as a method of worship for those who believe that the stone circle and landscape is a deeply spiritual place.
Susan Greaney, a senior historian at English Heritage, said: “Stonehenge was built to align with the sun, and to neolithic people the skies were arguably as important as the surrounding landscape.
“At solstice we remember the changing daylight hours, but the changing seasons, cycles of the moon and movements of the sun are likely to have underpinned many practical and spiritual aspects of neolithic life.
“Stonehenge’s connection with the skies is a crucial part of understanding the monument today and we are really excited to share this view online with people all over the world. If someone can’t travel to Stonehenge, they will still be able to witness what is happening there from wherever they are. People on the other side of the world will be able to see sunrise at Stonehenge.”
As part of the project, English Heritage has joined forces with the space scientist and science educator Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who will host a star and moon-gazing event next month.
She said: “Imagine our neolithic ancestors sitting around a fire looking up at the heavens and telling stories inspired by the movement of the planets, the patterns of the stars and of course the sun and the moon.
“Stonehenge Skyscape offers a mesmerising insight into our ancestors’ lives and hopefully, beyond visiting the website, it will inspire people all over the world to go outside and look up.”
Aderin-Pocock said the project could help people who were were losing their connection with the night sky because of light pollution. “People who are aware of Stonehenge but not able to make the trip can see the sunrise, the sunset and the stars there. It gives global access to something really amazing. It could also help people who are stressed. There’s something very peaceful about gazing at the sky.”
Stonehenge Skyscape is a composite representation of the sky above the stones accurate to within a window of approximately five minutes. After dark it switches from a photographic depiction to a computer-generated one, which accurately displays the live location of the stars and visible planets.
Neptune, Uranus and Pluto are consciously not included because, being invisible to the naked eye, they were undiscovered until the 18th century or later.
Exclusive: prehistoric structure spanning 1.2 miles in diameter is masterpiece of engineering, say archaeologists
A circle of deep shafts has been discovered near the world heritage site of Stonehenge, to the astonishment of archaeologists, who have described it as the largest prehistoric structure ever found in Britain.
Four thousand five hundred years ago, the Neolithic peoples who constructed Stonehenge, a masterpiece of engineering, also dug a series of shafts aligned to form a circle spanning 1.2 miles (2km) in diameter. The structure appears to have been a boundary guiding people to a sacred area because Durrington Walls, one of Britain’s largest henge monuments, is located precisely at its centre. The site is 1.9 miles north-east of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, near Amesbury, Wiltshire.
Prof Vincent Gaffney, a leading archaeologist on the project, said: “This is an unprecedented find of major significance within the UK. Key researchers on Stonehenge and its landscape have been taken aback by the scale of the structure and the fact that it hadn’t been discovered until now so close to Stonehenge.”
The Durrington Shafts discovery, announced on Monday, is all the more extraordinary because it offers the first evidence that the early inhabitants of Britain, mainly farming communities, had developed a way to count. Constructing something of this size with such careful positioning of its features could only have been done by tracking hundreds of paces.
The shafts are vast, each more than 5 metres deep and 10 metres in diameter. Approximately 20 have been found and there may have been more than 30. About 40% of the circle is no longer available for study as a consequence of modern development.
Gaffney said: “The size of the shafts and circuit surrounding Durrington Walls is currently unique. It demonstrates the significance of Durrington Walls Henge, the complexity of the monumental structures within the Stonehenge landscape, and the capacity and desire of Neolithic communities to record their cosmological belief systems in ways, and at a scale, that we had never previously anticipated.”
He added: “I can’t emphasise enough the effort that would have gone in to digging such large shafts with tools of stone, wood and bone.”
But then these are the same people who also built Stonehenge, dragging bluestones to the site from south-west Wales about 150 miles away.
While Stonehenge was positioned in relation to the solstices, or the extreme limits of the sun’s movement, Gaffney said the newly discovered circular shape suggests a “huge cosmological statement and the need to inscribe it into the earth itself”.
He added: “Stonehenge has a clear link to the seasons and the passage of time, through the summer solstice. But with the Durrington Shafts, it’s not the passing of time, but the bounding by a circle of shafts which has cosmological significance.”
The boundary may have guided people towards a sacred site within its centre or warned against entering it.
As the area around Stonehenge is among the world’s most-studied archaeological landscapes, the discovery is all the more unexpected. Having filled naturally over millennia, the shafts – although enormous – had been dismissed as natural sinkholes and dew ponds. The latest technology – including geophysical prospection, ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry – showed them as geophysical anomalies and revealed their true significance.
Gaffney said: “We are starting to see things we could never see through standard archaeology, things we could not imagine.”
Based at the University of Bradford, he is the co-principal investigator of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape project, which has been surveying tens of kilometres of landscape across Salisbury Plain. Archaeologists are now joining the dots and seeing this massive pattern, he said.
Coring of the shafts has provided crucial radiocarbon dates to more than 4,500 years ago, making the boundary contemporary with both Stonehenge and Durrington Walls. The boundary also appears to have been laid out to include an earlier prehistoric monument, the Larkhill causewayed enclosure, built more than 1,500 years before the henge at Durrington.
Struck flint and unidentified bone fragments were recovered from the shafts, but archaeologists can only speculate how those features were once used.
Gaffney said: “What we’re seeing is two massive monuments with their territories. Other archaeologists, including Michael Parker Pearson at University College London, have suggested that, while Stonehenge, with its standing stones, was an area for the dead, Durrington, with its wooden structures, was for the living.”
He added that, while numerous ancient civilisations had counting systems, the evidence lies primarily in texts in various forms that they left behind. The planning involved in contracting a prehistoric structure of this size must have involved a tally or counting system, he believes. Positioning each shaft would have involved pacing more than 800 metres from the henge outwards.
The research has involved a consortium of archaeologists, led by the University of Bradford and including the universities of Birmingham and St Andrews, in an international collaboration with the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology at the University of Vienna.
Henry Chapman, professor of archaeology at Birmingham University, described it as “an incredible new monument”, and Richard Bates, a geoscientist at St Andrews University, said it offered “an insight to the past that shows an even more complex society than we could ever imagine”.
The consortium is publishing a scientific open-access paper in Internet Archaeology.
The discovery makes up for the cancellation of this year’s summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge – on 20 June – due to the ban on mass gatherings prompted by Covid-19. Archaeologists have another reason to rejoice after the discovery nearby of a giant Neolithic structure.
The consortium is publishing a scientific open-access paper in Internet Archaeology.
Exclusive: Discovery of prehistoric structure is another reason to give up ‘disastrous, white elephant’ scheme
Leading archaeologists say a £1.6bn scheme to build a road tunnel through the historic Stonehenge landscape should be scrapped altogether after the sensational nearby discovery of the largest prehistoric structure ever found in Britain.
Stones in Wiltshire woodland found to be exact match for majority of site’s sarsens
Today West Woods in Wiltshire is a popular spot for hikers, dog walkers and mountain bikers, famed for its bluebells in the springtime. Stick to the footpaths and it is easy to miss the hefty flat stones hidden in the undergrowth.
But groundbreaking scientific research published on Wednesday reveals that, 4,500 years ago, this spot – and in particular those hulking sandstone boulders – drew the ancient architects of Stonehenge.
The research, made possible after a piece of one of the stones taken away as a souvenir 60 years ago was recovered, concludes that 50 of the 52 sarsen stones at Stonehenge were probably sourced from West Woods, on the edge of modern-day Marlborough.
It proposes possible routes along which Stonehenge’s creators may have transported the sarsens to their resting spot on Salisbury Plain 15 miles (24km) to the south, though how they managed to get them there remains a puzzle. Future research will try to pinpoint the specific sarsen extraction pits in the woods, which could yield more discoveries about the people who built Stonehenge.
David Nash, a professor of physical geography at the University of Brighton, who led the research, said the hairs on the back of his neck stood up when he considered the notion of ancient builders working on the spot and the huge effort it took to source the stones and transport them.
“This was a big, concerted, deliberate act,” he said. “It must have been a real undertaking. That brought home to me the scale and focus that was required.”
Typically weighing 20 tonnes and standing up to 7 metres tall, sarsens make up all 15 stones of Stonehenge’s central horseshoe, the uprights and lintels of the outer circle and outlying stones such as the heel stone, the slaughter stone and the station stones.
The monument’s smaller bluestones have been traced to the Preseli Hills in Wales, almost 200 miles (320km) away, but the origin of the sarsens – more homogenous in composition – had until now proved tricky to pin down. Experts had worked on the puzzle for four centuries and concluded they were probably from north Wiltshire but had not found the precise spot.
A breakthrough came after a tube-shaped sample of one of the Stonehenge megaliths taken by a man who worked on a restoration project in 1958 was handed back last year. Nash and his team were allowed to use “destructive” techniques on chips from the sample to create a geochemical “fingerprint” of the monument’s sarsen stones.
They then analysed sarsens from 20 sites across southern England including Mutter’s Moor in Devon and Valley of the Stones in Dorset, comparing their composition with the chemistry of the chips. Nash said they were surprised that stones from West Woods, which in the time of Stonehenge was probably treeless open high ground, turned out to be an exact match.
“We weren’t really setting out to find the source of Stonehenge,” he said. “We picked 20 areas and our goal was to try to eliminate them, to find ones that didn’t match. We didn’t think we’d get a direct match. It was a real ‘Oh my goodness’ moment.”
There are several possible routes that the builders of Stonehenge may have used to move the stones from West Woods. One suggestion favoured by Nash is that they may have moved a few miles west then south through the Vale of Pewsey, possibly passing close to neolithic sites at Marden and Knapp Hill. They may also have gone more directly south and picked up the course of the River Avon. How they did it remains a mystery. Some some speculate that they were moved on sleds or rollers.
Another puzzle is why two of the 52 stones appear not to be from West Woods. One possibility is that they are the work of different builder communities who chose to source their materials from a separate area.
The English Heritage senior properties historian Susan Greaney said she was delighted that one of the most intriguing questions about Stonehenge had been answered.
She said: “To be able to pinpoint the area that Stonehenge’s builders used to source their materials around 2500BC is a real thrill. Now we can start to understand the route they might have travelled and add another piece to the puzzle.”
While it is thought the smaller bluestones were sourced from Pembrokeshire because the builders of Stonehenge had some sort of sacred connection with the landscape there, it may be that the West Woods site was chosen for – relative – convenience.
Greaney said: “When sourcing the sarsens, the overriding objective seems to be size – they wanted the biggest, most substantial stones they could find and it made sense to get them from as nearby as possible.”