PUBLISHED: 15:31 30 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:13 20 February 2013
When was the first stone structure at Stonehenge built? Recent excavations hope to find that out and we give you privileged access to the dig. <br/><br/>The Preseli Bluestones Project, the first excavations at Stonehenge for forty years, hopes to find out...
On 21 June, Stonehenge will once again be the focus of world attention even more than it is usually as people gather to celebrate the Summer Solstice, none more enthusiastic ally that one group of people popularly associated with the celebrations - the Druids. Druid Priestess Emma Orr explained that Druidry is "an attitude and understanding, an exquisitely simple and natural philosophy of living. For many it is a rich and ancient religion, a mystical spirituality. For others, it's simply a guiding way of life. It is absolutely open and free for anyone to discover". Druids have always had an affinity for stone circles, and Druid groups have been building them and celebrating in them for 200 years. There is a recent structure at the Glastonbury Festival site and others are built for the annual Eisteddfods.
When 17th-century scholars began studying ancient stone monuments around Britain, they concluded that Druids had built many of the dolmens, standing stones and stone circles. This belief was commonly accepted but, until recently, most serious academics dismissed the idea. They thought that the Celts and their Druid priests hadn't arrived in Britain before 500BC. However, more recent studies suggest that Druidry can be traced back to earlier Celtic tribes who were probably here by 2000BC. Stonehenge's first stone structure appears to date back to 2600BC. This is tantalisingly close, so could Druids even have been involved in its construction? And is, as has been believed to date, the summer solstice the most important occasion in the life of Stonehenge? A new excavation at the monument has just concluded and to which Wiltshire magazine had access - the Preseli Project - may clear up a few questions, including the construction dates, but one thing is already clear - Druids are popularly indivisible from the Stonehenge Solstices, and long may this continue.
Being a World Heritage Site, together with exotic places like Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal, the name of Stonehenge is quite familiar to our American cousins - even those who believe that England is part of landlocked Europe. For the rest, Stonehenge is as vital to the UK Grand Tour as Buckingham Palace and Stratford-upon-Avon, and on an average day at this mysterious site, American accents compete with countless languages from all around the world. Probably most people know that the massive stone circle's largest sarsen stones came from near Marlborough, and the smaller bluestones in the central ring came from the Preseli Hills in Wales, but who knows when and why? But we know a man who is, as they say, 'on the case' with the Preseli Bluestone Project.
Such is the international reputation of Bournemouth University's School of Conservation Sciences, that when Timothy Darvill, Professor of Archaeology at the University, and his colleague, Professor Geoff Wainwright, President of the Society of Antiquaries, approached English Heritage with a proposal for a definitive excavation at Stonehenge, English Heritage couldn't have been more enthusiastic. Two years ago, Timothy Darvill published his theory that Stonehenge was a source and centre for healing and not a place for the dead as suggested by previous scholars. In his book, The Biography of a Landscape, Professor Darvill also stated his belief that revellers should be allowed access to the circle for the winter solstice when the healing stones are most potent.
Before the 12-day excavation was closed down on 11 April this year, the site was absolutely bursting with academics. Professor Wainwright was directing operations and Professor Darvill himself was working alongside Dr Miles Russell at the bottom of the only excavation pit. Phil Harding, stalwart of the Time Team and a willing volunteer, was sieving and collating finds.
For those more used to Time Team, one pit might seem a trifle miserly, but Tim Darvill explained that ground-probing radar had located the perfect spot for his exacting requirements. "We aren't looking for occupation evidence," he said. "We want dating evidence for the earliest stone structure."
The new pit was positioned to reveal some of Atkinson's 1964 excavation and extended to include part of a huge outer sarsen stone's original hole, complete with backfill material. The new excavation also exposed the full depth of an original pit called a 'Q-hole', where one of Stonehenge's first-stage bluestones had been dug up and moved to a new position during an as yet undated rebuilding. Sight of this 'Q-hole' perfectly illustrated the amount of sheer hard labour involved in building Stonehenge. The holes were dug in the flinty chalk with antler picks and stone tools barely harder than the henge stones themselves. Each hole could have taken many days to complete, involving huge numbers of people and countless tools.
At the excavation's inner edge, the below-ground portion of an adjacent bluestone was revealed. This bluestone could even have been the one moved from the very same Q-hole. There was as much of the upright stone below the ground as there was above it, showing that the bluestone is much smaller now than when it was erected. This was rather puzzling, but Tim Darvill was perfectly content that this merely confirmed his suspicions, suggested by the irregular surface hollows in the bluestone, that stone had been hacked off the main block over time.
The very successful 'dig' also produced animal bones, Beaker pottery sherds and, much to Tim Darvill's delight, Roman pottery remains and a Roman coin - the first Roman artefacts ever recovered from Stonehenge. Before the dig ended, Tim Darvill and his finds' assistants were satisfied that they had enough dating material for collation and interpretation to occupy them for the next six months. After this period, the project's findings will be published and, hopefully, the date of the first stone structure at Stonehenge will finally be revealed. The BBC funded the excavation and the post-excavation analysis, and has been filming the project for a special autumn edition of BBC2's Timewatch programme. The date isn't yet settled, so we'll all have to keep an eye open for it. Personally, I'm hoping they'll find a few datable slivers off the first antler pick or minuscule chippings from a stone tool's handle.
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As a site, Stonehenge was developed in three main stages, the earliest of which pre-dated the building of the pyramids by some 200 years. The final phase of Stonehenge, when the new iconic stone structure was erected, itself took place in various phases over a period of 1,000 years. In all, the various stages various stages of Stonehenge span the Middle Neolithic, through the Late Neolithic and well into the early Bronze ages.
Stonehenge Contemporary sites
4000 - 3000 BC Carnac Alignments
3600 - 2500 BC Stone Temples in Malta
3100 BC The Cursus
2900 BC Phase 1 - Earthwork enclosure
2900 - 2400 BC Phase 2 - Wooden structure
2900 - 2500 BC Avebury Stone Circle
2600 - 1700 BC The Avenue
2800 - 2000 BC Silbury Hill
2700 BC First Pyramids in Egypt
2600 - 1600 BC Phase 3 - Stone Circle
2300 - 2000 BC Woodhenge
1824 AD Stonehenge in the
Ownership of the Antrobus
1915 AD Stonehenge bought by
Cecil Chubb, an asylum
owner and livestock
breeder as a present for his
1918 AD Stonehenge donated to the
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Events at Stonehenge
National Trust: Regular Saturday guided walks visit the Stonehenge landscape, but to 'explore the diversity of the site's chalk grassland flora', join the National Trust walk on 29 June, 3pm-5.30pm, probably meeting at Woodhenge A345 car park two miles east of Stonehenge. To book (and check the starting point) (01980 664782. Also enquire about Riverside Project archaeological walks.
English Heritage: As Stonehenge is a religious site, no events are held here except for the Summer Solstice, which will probably affect opening times between 20 and 22 June. Check with English Heritage if you intend to visit during this period on (0870 333 1181.
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A Career in Archaeology
If the Timewatch excavation has inspired you to consider a career in archaeology, anthropology or heritage, Bournemouth University's School of Conservation Sciences offers exciting opportunities in these specialist fields. With taught MA and MSc courses or Postgraduate MPhil and PhD training in research methods, you could find yourself leading your own investigative team in the not-too-distant future.
Further details: for MA and MSc courses (01202 965176 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org For MPhil and PhD courses (01202 965415 or e-mail email@example.com.
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English Heritage for Stonehenge: (01722 343834 and www.english-heritage.org.uk/stonehenge
National Trust for Stonehenge Landscape: (01980 664780 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Tourist Information: Amesbury (01980 622833 and Salisbury (01722 334956