Archaeologists made a new scientific breakthrough after geologists were allowed to pinpoint almost exactly where Stonehenge’s giant stone uprights and lintels came from.
Before the breakthrough, scientists were positive that the unique stones were brought in around 2,500BC by the great temple’s Neolithic builders from the Marlborough Downs.
Scientists from the University of Brighton have recently made the discovery and was able to trace the stones to a small, very specific two square mile part of that range of hills – a patch of woodland just south of the village of Lockeridge, Wiltshire.
During the prehistorical times, that area seemed to have overflown with particularly large sarsen boulders, geochemically identical to those used to build Stonehenge.
Previous research conducted of the West Wood area, which was conducted by Reading University archaeologist, Katy Whitaker, suggested that the builders of Stonehenge probably chose them as their source of stone due to the stones exceptional sizes and relative flatness.
However, recent archaeological research about the site has revealed that even 1,200 years before Stonehenge was built, the West Woods area’s great sarsen slabs were used to construct a massive local prehistoric tomb.
After making the first breakthrough, researchers were still puzzled to discover the precise route used by the monument’s prehistoric builders to move the giant 20-40 ton stones, from West Woods to Stonehenge (a distance of around 15 miles).
Researchers found that there were two options that could have been taken; an eastern route down the Wiltshire Avon Valley and a western route across Salisbury Plain. The western option would have involved a short segment where they would have had to haul the boulders up a 14 per cent gradient for around 300m.
According to the research it’s perhaps more likely that the builders of Stonehenge opted for the western route which would have taken them south from West Woods across the southern part of the Marlborough Downs and down a very steep hill into the Vale of Pewsey.
The path would have led them through a huge prehistoric ritual and ceremonial complex (at Marden) across the river Avon and then up onto Salisbury Plain. Then they would have crossed the relatively flat and unforested plain to Stonehenge itself, which means they would have passed by or through the Marden ritual complex, which is potentially significant.
Sarsen stone, the type of rock used to build Stonehenge and Avebury stone circles, may well have been regarded as profoundly mysterious by prehistoric people due to the fact that they normally only occur as loose or semi-buried boulders, completely unconnected to any bedrock. In geological terms, sarsen is a very hard sandstone that was formed around 50 million years ago when fresh groundwater gradually deposited additional silica while flowing through sand deposits.
Although the bedrock in the Marlborough Downs is chalk, the presence of hundreds of thousands of huge boulders composed of an obviously totally different type of stone would have been seen by prehistoric people as unusual.
Worldwide, anomalous stones have often been regarded by many cultures as spiritually and physically interchangeable with humans, sometimes with the belief that particular stones contained the souls, spirits or even the transformed mortal remains of the dead. This belief was widespread, occurring on virtually every continent.
It is likely therefore that the builders of Stonehenge, Avebury and other stone circles perceived sarsen in both practical construction terms, including in more spiritual ones.
In some places, that silica then acted as a natural "glue" to bind trillions of sand grains together, thus forming solid rock.
The system to solve the puzzle has been developed by University of Brighton geomorphologist and geographer, Professor David Nash, who now used it to solve the mystery of where Stonehenge’s sarsens came from. It’s the first time that sarsen "fingerprinting" has been used to solve a major archaeological puzzle. "It has been really exciting to harness 21st-century science to understand the Neolithic past, and finally answer a question that archaeologists have been debating for centuries," said Professor Nash.
"We can now say, when sourcing the sarsens, the overriding objective was size. The builders of Stonehenge wanted the biggest, most substantial stones they could find," said English Heritage senior properties historian Susan Greaney.
In deploying the same scientific techniques used to pinpoint the source of the Stonehenge sarsens, scientists may ultimately be able to discover where the more than 100 fragments of sarsen stone found at Marden are from. A detailed preliminary examination of those enigmatic fragments will begin later this year.