At an ancient site between the hills of West Wales, investigators suspect they have discovered the remains of a stone circle containing the original Stonehenge blocks.
Excavations at the site are in the early stages, but the stone circle was probably dismantled between 5,400 and 5,200 years ago, say University College London archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson and colleagues. That’s about a few hundred years or less before work began on Stonehenge. Researchers in the antiquity of February propose that the people of the newly excavated site then moved south of England about 280 kilometers, taking with them stones that were used in the first phase of construction of the iconic monument (SN: 9/6/12).
Others, however, warn that more excavations need to be done before checking the case.
The stone circle was found at the place called Waun Mawn, which is in the Preseli region of Wales. The site is close to quarries previously identified as smaller Stonehenge stone springs, known as blue stones. If Parker Pearson’s team is right, then the old population movements outside Wales explain why the blue stones at Stonehenge came from afar. Other Stonehenge stones, such as the iconic and massive stones known as saras stones, came from local sources.
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In line with a migratory scenario, large stone monuments and other signs of human activity in West Wales have largely disappeared between about 5,000 and 4,000 years ago. “Perhaps most people (in the Preseli region) have emigrated, taking with them their stones – their ancestral identities,” says Parker Pearson. Previous analyzes of chemical elements in human remains incinerated at Stonehenge indicated that a substantial number of these individuals came from West Wales (SN: 8/2/18).
The new report raises the possibility that a 900-year-old legend about the construction of Stonehenge from an older, more distant stone circle may contain a core of truth. Twelfth-century English clergyman Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about the mythical wizard Merlin leading an army to Ireland to capture a magical circle of stone that was rebuilt as Stonehenge to commemorate the death of Britons killed by Saxons.
Surveys conducted on the ground at Waun Mawn in 2011 found no evidence of a stone circle. But excavations at Waun Mawn in 2017 and 2018 revealed an arch of four ancient standing stones and six earthen holes from which the standing stones had been removed. The researchers estimated that these findings were part of a circle of between 30 and 50 standing stones. Dating of layers of sediment and burnt wood fragments provided an age estimate for the site.
Scientists claim that several features of Waun Mawn relate it to Stonehenge. First, two adjacent stone holes were arranged in Waun Mawn so that its stones formed an entrance which, seen from the center of the circle, gave on to the dawn of the summer solstice. The same alignment characterizes Stonehenge.
Second, a blue stone in Stonehenge features an unusual five-sided cross section at its base that matches the shape and dimensions of a unearthed stone hole in Waun Mawn. Researchers suggest that this blue stone from Stonehenge came potentially from the Welsh site.
Third, the complete stone circle of Waun Mawn had an estimated diameter of 110 meters, the same as the ditch surrounding Stonehenge.
Waun Mawn could not supply all about 80 blue stones at Stonehenge and at a nearby site called Bluestonehenge. Parker Pearson suspects that other stone circles still discovered in West Wales contributed to the construction of Stonehenge and Bluestonehenge.
There is reason to be skeptical about the new study, says archaeologist Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University in Poole, England. “If Waun Mawn’s discoveries are really the remains of a stone circle it needs more work, including more extensive excavations to test a wider area,” he says.
There are several issues with the new report, Darvill says. Known stone circles usually consist of evenly spaced stones, while the four stones discovered at Waun Mawn are irregularly spaced. Most of the large stone circles in the west of England and Wales have clearly defined entrances, but it is not clear that the proposed entrance at Waun Mawn served that purpose. And some land plugs at the Welsh site could be set up by farmers who have cleared fields.
Although the final verdict on Waun Mawn is still out, previous evidence indicates that the stones used to build massive structures were transported and recycled in many parts of western Europe around the time Stonehenge was assembled (SN: 2/11 / 19), says archaeologist Chris Scarre of Durham University in England.